Amid these incredible absurdities the King schemed to break the cordon with which the Hapsburgs had imprisoned France—the iron circle of the Spanish Netherlands, Luxembourg, Lorraine, Franche-Comté, Austria, the Valtelline passes, Savoy, Italy, and Spain. Sully, in writing his memoirs, claimed to have proposed to Henry and to James I of England a “Grand Design”: France, England, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, the United Provinces (Holland), Protestant Germany, Switzerland, and Venice were to unite against the Hapsburgs, wrest America from Spain, free Germany from the Emperor, and drive the Spaniards from the Netherlands; then the victors were to divide all Europe except Russia, Turkey, Italy, and Spain into a federated “Christian Republic” of fifteen autonomous states trading with one another without tariffs, and submitting their foreign policies to a federal council armed with supreme military force.39 Henry himself seems never to have entertained this grandiose conception; probably the limit of his hope was to extend France to “natural boundaries” at the Rhine, the Alps, the Pyrenees, and the sea, and to liberate her from fear of Spain and Austria. For these ends he resorted to any available means: he sought alliances with the Protestant powers, he helped the Dutch in their revolt against Spain, he planned to support an uprising of Moriscos in Valencia, he encouraged the Turks to attack Austria.40

A trivial dispute offered to spark this Bourbon-Hapsburg enmity into a European war. On March 25, 1609, there died, without issue, Duke John William of the little triune principality of Jülich-Cleves-Berg, near Cologne. The Emperor Rudolf, as its suzerain, claimed the right to name a Catholic to this petty throne. Henry protested that the further subjection of the duchy to the Hapsburgs would endanger the eastern boundary of France. He joined Brandenburg, the Palatinate, and the United Provinces in determination to appoint a Protestant successor to John William; and when Archduke Leopold of Austria occupied Jülich with Imperial troops Henry prepared for war.

His final romance harmonized fetchingly with this call to Armageddon. Though he was now fifty-six and looked older, he developed in 1609 an uncontrollable longing for Charlotte de Montmorency, then sixteen. She rejected his advances, but consented, at his behest, to marry the new Prince of Condé. “Are you not very wicked,” his mistress Henriette is said to have taunted him, “to want to bed with the wife of your son? For you well know that you have told me that he [the Prince] was your offspring.”41 Condé fled with his bride to Brussels; Henry itched to pursue her, and Malherbe stitched the royal itches into rhyme. Villeroi, Henry’s foreign minister, begged Archduke Albert of the Netherlands to extradite the Princess to Paris; the Archduke, encouraged by Philip III of Spain, refused; Villeroi threatened a war “that may set fire to the four corners of Christendom.”42 It seemed providential to Henry that Brussels was on the way to Jülich: he would conquer the lady—and the Spanish Netherlands—as a prelude to shattering the Empire and humbling Spain. He hired Swiss mercenaries and prepared to raise an army of thirty thousand men. James I of England promised four thousand more.

Catholic France was alarmed. It gave too much credit to the gossip that the charms of the Princess were the real casus belly; it noted with dismay that the King’s allies and generals were mostly Protestants; it wondered what the fate of Catholicism and the papacy would be in a Europe where the Catholic south had been conquered by the Protestant north and a so-recently-Huguenot King. The taxes levied to finance the dreaded war lowered Henry’s always precarious popularity; even the court turned away from him as a man too foolish to realize that he could no longer be Lothario and Alexander in one. Prophecies were bandied about—perhaps as hopeful provocations to the suggestible—that he would soon be killed.

François Ravaillac of Angoulême heard the prophecies. Arrested for a crime that he had not committed, he brooded in his prison, had visions, studied theology, read tracts defending tyrannicide. Strong of arm, weak of mind, he dallied with the idea that God had chosen him to fulfill the prophecies, to save France from Protestant doom. Released, he went to Paris (1609), lodged with Mme. d’Escoman, a friend of Henriette d’Entragues, and confessed to her that he had thoughts of killing the King. A warning was sent to Henry, but he was so accustomed to such alarms that he took no notice of it. As Henry passed through the streets Ravaillac tried to approach him; soldiers stopped him; he said he wished to ask the King if it was true that he was planning war against the Pope, and that the Huguenots were preparing to massacre the Catholics. He tried to enter a monastery and to join the Jesuits; he was rejected. He went back to Angoulême to perform his Easter duty; he received the Sacrament and, from a monk, a little bag containing, he was told, a fragment of the cross on which Christ had died. He bought a knife and returned to Paris. Mme. d’Escoman sent a warning to Sully, who transmitted it to the King.

Henry was preparing to join his army at Châlons. On May 13, 1610, he appointed the Queen as regent during his absence. On the fourteenth the Duke of Vendôme, his natural son, begged him to stay at home, for predictions of his assassination had named this as the fatal day. In the afternoon he decided to take a carriage ride, visit the sick Sully, and get “a breath of air.” To avoid being noticed he dismissed his guards, but he was accompanied by seven members of the court. Ravaillac, who had been watching the Louvre, followed the carriage. At a point in the Rue de la Ferronnerie it was stopped by a traffic tangle. Ravaillac leaped upon the step and struck the King so powerfully that the blade pierced the heart. Henry died almost instantly.

Ravaillac, put to the torture, took full responsibility for his action, denied that he had any abettors or accomplices, mourned the violence of his act, but professed confidence that God would forgive it as in a sacred cause. His limbs were torn from his body by four horses, his trunk was burned in a public square. Many accused the Jesuits of having inflamed the assassin’s mind; it was pointed out that Mariana’s De rege, justifying tyrannicide, had been openly sold in Paris shops. The Jesuits replied that this book had been explicitly condemned by an assembly of Jesuits held in Paris in 1606. The Sorbonne judged the Jesuits guilty of dangerous doctrines and officially burned Mariana’s book.43 Marie de Médicis, as regent, protected the Jesuits from harm, and accepted their guidance in faith and policy.

France was confused and divided by Henry’s final enterprise and sudden death. A minority accepted the assassination as an act of God in defense of the Church. But the great majority, Catholic as well as Protestant, mourned the passing of a king whose labors for his people far outweighed his errors, follies, and sins. Frenchmen had not forgotten the poverty and desolation, the religious turmoil, the official corruption and incompetence that he had inherited with the throne; and they saw now a nation cleansed and orderly, prosperous despite high taxation, and powerful enough to challenge the long ascendancy of Spain. They remembered fondly Henry’s simplicity of dress and conduct and speech, his good humor and kindly nature, his gay courage in war, his tact in friendship and diplomacy; and their own moral laxity condoned those amorous escapades in which he had but shown himself a man after their own desires. He had with warrant called himself “a loyal king, faithful and true”;44 he was also the most human and humane of French kings; and he was the savior of France. His plan to extend France to natural boundaries may have seemed impracticable, but Richelieu, twenty years later, followed it, and Louis XIV carried it through. Soon after his death Europe agreed in calling him Henry the Great. In the French Revolution all the French kings who succeeded him were condemned, but Henry IV remained supreme in the affections of the people.

I. Sully, Memoirs, III, 10–11. We have no way of determining the accuracy of this report of a private conversation.

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