HENRY’S grandmother was Marguerite of Angoulême, Valois, and Navarre, the lovable, sensitive, pious sister of the amorous, gallant, dashing Francis I. His mother was the rebellious, unmanageable, heretical Jeanne d’Albret. His father, Antoine de Bourbon, a descendant of St. Louis, was handsome, brave, debonair, vain, with a tendency to fluctuate from creed to creed. When Henry struggled into the world (December 14, 1553) at Pau in Béarn, he may have carried in him all these ancestral qualities except piety. His happy grandfather, sure that it would be a fine omen, persuaded Jeanne, in her pains, to sing a song to the Virgin; and, as a baptism into Béarn, he rubbed the lips of the babe with garlic and made him drink wine. The hero sucked eight nurses dry.
He did not relish education. He disliked writing, fled from grammar, and learned to write a fascinating style. He read Plutarch as his bible of heroism. He was brought up almost wholly out of doors; majored in running, romping, wrestling, riding, pummeling; ate black bread, cheese and onions; enjoyed summer and winter with a relish that laughed pessimism out of face. He was reared as a Huguenot, but he never allowed religion to hobble life. Summoned at the age of nine to live at the court and learn its graces and morals, he readily adopted Catholicism; returning to Béarn at thirteen, he resumed the Huguenot faith as if he were adjusting his clothes to the climate. With greater facility he passed from love to love—La Petite Tignonville, Mlle. de Montagu, Arnaudine, La Garce (the Wench), Catherine de Luc, Anne de Cambefort. He molted creeds and mistresses without distressing his conscience or shifting his aim.
His aim was to be king of France. At nineteen, his father having died, Henry became King of Navarre, but that was only a teasing taste of royalty. When he went to Paris to marry Marguerite of Valois, he was received as next only to the Duke of Anjou and the Duke of Alençon in line for the throne. When massacre followed on marriage, he kept and saved his head by timely apostasy.
His bride, “Margot,” was the most fascinating and accommodating woman in France. No one questioned her beauty; Ronsard sang it; Brantôme intoned ecstasies about her fine cosmetic skin, her waving hair or varied wigs, her eyes darting humor, anger, or deviltry, her figure shapely as a courtesan’s and stately as a queen’s, her lively feet leading the dances of the court, her contagion of vivacity in an age of strife and gloom; all these magnets drew a dozen lovers to her lair, and gossip credited her with tactful, even incestuous, capitulations.1 Henry could hardly complain, having himself a roving eye; but when Margot, who had married him against her will, resumed her fluctuations after a brief obeisance to monogamy, he began to wonder who would be the father of his children. He took a mistress; he fell ill; Margot generously nursed him, though she ascribed his disorder to “excesses with women.” But soon their mutual suspicion so estranged them that she wrote, “Nous ne couchions plus, ni ne parlions plus ensemble” (We neither slept nor spoke with each other any more).2
For three years he remained unwillingly at the court. One night (1575), while hunting, he galloped out of bounds; then he fled in disguise across France, found his way through a dozen perils to Nérac, and governed Béarn and Guienne with justice and wit. He abandoned Catholicism, restored the Protestants to power in Béarn, and protected them in Guienne. Three years later Margot joined him, and the young King, when not following the hunt or fighting Catholics, helped her to make the festivities of her little court outface their infidelities. In 1582, tired of helping his mistresses in their confinements, she returned to Paris; but there her escapades were so flagrant that her brother, Henry III, bade her hurry back to her husband. After two years more in Béarn she retired to Agen. The two kings—now two Henrys—agreed to her practical imprisonment in the Château d’Usson, and allowed her a fair pension (1587–1605). She turned her prison into a salon, entertained poets, artists, scholars, and lovers, and composed her gossipy memoirs. Richelieu commended her style, Montaigne dedicated essays to her, preachers praised her charity. After substantial inducements she consented to an annulment of her marriage, and was allowed to return to Paris and the court (1605). There she resumed her romances and her salon, became fat and penitent, took Vincent de Paul as her chaplain, founded a convent, and died in peace and piety (1615) at the age of sixty-two. So ended, said a contemporary, “Marguerite, sole remains of the race of the Valois, a princess full … of good intentions … who did no harm to anyone but herself.”3