In the Condé Museum at Chantilly there is a delectable portrait, by Frans Pourbus the Younger, showing Henry in full maturity of power and pride: lithe of build, simply dressed in baggy breeches and black doublet and hose, left arm akimbo, a ruff under his gray beard, a majestic nose, a firm mouth, eyes alert, skeptical, and humane. His many years of campaigning had given him the bearing, morals, and odor of a soldier: strong, active, tireless, too busy to indulge in cleanliness or to duly change his clothes; sometimes, said a friend, “he stank like a corpse.”25 After a day of marching or fighting he would alarm his aides by organizing a hunt. He was a paragon of courage, but he had a tendency to diarrhea when battle neared,26 and in his final seven years he suffered from dysentery, dysuria, and gout. His mind was as mettlesome and resilient as his body. He saw through buncombe readily, seized the essence of matters at once, wrote letters still quick with life, and brightened France and history with his wit. When he named La Vieuville to an office and the grateful recipient said, Biblically, “Lord, I am not worthy,” Henry replied, “I know it quite well, but my nephew asked me to appoint you.”27 Once, on his way to dinner, he was stopped by a petitioner who began pompously, “Sire, Agesilaus, King of Lacedaemon—” “Ventre saint-gris!” moaned Henry. “I have heard of him; but he had dined, and I haven’t.”28 “He was,” says a French historian, “the most intelligent of French kings.”29
He was also the most beloved. Not yet the most popular; half of France still accepted him grudgingly. But those who knew him closely were ready to go to the stake for him, some inclusively. He was the most approachable of rulers, unpretentious, natural, good-natured, not quick to take offense, never tardy to forgive. His court complained of his unwillingness to put on the majesty of a king. He allowed poets and playwrights to make fun of him, though he liked it better when Malherbe made him a god of virtue and charm. He went to see the farces that satirized him, and he dulled their barbs with his laughter. He took no revenge on those who had opposed him by deed or speech—”All the forests in my kingdom would not provide enough gibbets if all who have written or preached against me were to be hanged.”30 He was as sensitive as a poet, and felt the poverty of the people almost as keenly as the beauty of women. He was no stoic; control of his emotions was not among his virtues. He had many faults. He could be thoughtlessly rude and gaily coarse. He had a Rabelais in him—he enjoyed risqué stories and told them beyond compare. He gambled too much at cards, lost heavily, cheated often, but always restored his lawless gains.31 He neglected the pursuit of a retreating enemy to pursue a retreating woman.
We must not list all his loves. Three women in particular marked his road to the throne. To “La Belle Corisande” he wrote burning billets: “I devour your hands … and kiss your feet a million times … It would be a desolate spot indeed where we two would be bored together.”32 By 1589 he was bored, and he discovered Esther Ymbert de Boislambert. A year later, aged thirty-seven, and undeterred by gonorrhea,33 he lost his heart to Gabrielle d’Estrées, then a girl of seventeen, whom a poet endued with “golden hair, starry eyes, lily throat, pearly fingers, and alabaster breasts.”34 Her lover, Bellegarde, recklessly described her beauty to the King; Henry galloped twelve miles, in disguise, through enemy terrain, to see her. She laughed at his long nose; he fell at her feet; Bellegarde withdrew. She yielded to the charms of francs and royalty and bore Henry three children. He took her to court and on his hunts, caressed her in public, thought of marrying her if Margot would give him a divorce. Huguenot and Catholic preachers joined in condemning him as an arrant adulterer, and brave Sully reproached him for wasting state funds on courtesans. He begged forgiveness on the plea that, having labored so arduously in war and government, and having fared so ill in marriage, he was entitled, like a good soldier, to some recreation.35 For eight years he loved Gabrielle as uxoriously as was possible to a spirit so ondoyant et divers. But Gabrielle became fat and acquisitive. She intrigued against Sully, called him “valet”; Henry raged, told her that he valued such a minister above ten such mistresses. He relented and again talked of marrying her, but on April 10, 1599, she died in giving birth to a dead child. He mourned her bitterly and wrote, “The plant of love within me is dead.”36
It revived two months later when he met Henriette d’Entragues, daughter of that Marie Touchet who had served Charles IX. Mother, father, and half-brother forbade her to capitulate except for a wedding ring. Henry wrote her a promise of marriage, conditional on her bearing him a son; Sully tore it up before his face; Henry wrote another and delivered it with twenty thousand crowns. The lady’s conscience cleared, and she became the royal mistress. Some of the King’s diplomats thought it time for him to settle down. They persuaded Margot to consent to a divorce, provided Henry would not marry his mistress. Clement VIII agreed to grant a divorce on the same terms, and offered as a bride Maria de’ Medici, daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany; the Florentine bankers proposed to cancel the huge debt France owed them if Henry made Maria his queen.37 The marriage was celebrated by proxy at Florence (October 5, 1600). Henry tore himself away from a battlefield to go as far as Lyon to greet his wife; he found her tall and fat and imperious, gave her every royal courtesy, begot Louis XIII, and returned to Mlle. d’Entragues. Periodically, however, he performed his marital duties. Marie de Médicis (as France called her) bore him seven children in ten years. Henry brought them up, together with his offspring by Gabrielle and Henriette, at St.-Germain-en-Laye.
Henriette was presented to the Queen and was lodged in a palace near the Louvre; but, having borne a son to the King, she insisted that she, not Marie, was the rightful queen. Her father and half-brother plotted to kidnap her and her son to Spain and to have Philip III acknowledge him as the true dauphin of France (1604). The plot was discovered, the brother was arrested, the father was released on returning Henry’s promise of marriage. Henry continued to pursue Henriette like a famished satyr; she returned his caresses with disgust and hatred, and accepted bribes from Philip III to serve as a spy for Spain.38