Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Le Vert Galant


Henry IV, king of France (1589-1610), known as "Le Vert Galant," was born on this day in 1533 in the castle Pau in the Pyrenees.

A direct descendant of Louis IX and a grandson of writer Marguerite of Navarre, Henry was baptized as a Catholic but joined the French Protestants (Huguenots) under his mother's influence, and he fought on their side during the religious civil wars which ravaged France during the 16th century. When his mother died in 1572, Henry became king of Navarre and married Margaret of Valois, the daughter of the powerful Catholic regent of France, Catherine de Medicis.

Catherine had consented to the marriage to placate the Huguenots; nevertheless, it is surmised that she was complicit in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in which thousands of Protestants, including several important Protestant leaders, were rounded up and murdered six days after the "scarlet nuptials"of Henry and Margaret. Henry himself barely escaped the attack by pretending to submit to a forced "conversion" to Catholicism, and the civil wars resumed with even greater fury following the Massacre. When Henry III was assassinated, Henry of Navarre claimed the French throne for himself.

He was, however, a pragmatist. Realizing that he could never hold the French throne as a Protestant (the Huguenots represented only about 10% of the population), Henry converted to Catholicism with a display of earnestness, stating for the record that "Paris is well worth a mass," and thereafter began the arduous process of receiving papal absolution for his sins against the faith from Clement VIII. With the Catholics and the more politically realistic Huguenots supporting him, Henry took the revolutionary step of issuing the Edict of Nantes (1598), granting nobles the right to conduct Protestant services, permitting Protestantism in certain towns (not Paris) and promising that Protestants would enjoy the same civil rights as Catholics. The Edict quelled the Huguenot rebellion, but only after Henry took charge of the wary court system and imposed the Protestant detente upon the countryside.

Having settled the religious wars, Henry paved the way for the rebuilding of the nation through the enforcement of taxes and the initiation of public works projects (a 17th century "New Deal," a la FDR), building canals, roads and bridges.

It was said that Henry's mother sprinkled wine on his tongue when he was born to give him the right spirit. Whether it was the right spirit or not, it certainly seemed to foreshadow Henry's boisterous appreciation for wine, food and beautiful women, hence his nickname ("Le Vert Galant," or the "gay old spark"). Enormously popular by the end of his reign, Henry was assassinated on May 14, 1610 in Paris by a crazed fanatic who believed that he was a menace to the Catholic Church. Henry's killer was fed to wild dogs by Henry's incensed subjects.

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