Henry III of France was the last king of the House of Valois, who ruled France from 1574 to 1589. He was also the king of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania from 1573 to 1575. He was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic in 1589, during the Wars of Religion that divided France between Catholics and Protestants.
A Controversial Reign
Henry III was the fourth son of King Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici. He was not expected to inherit the French throne, as he had three older brothers. He was elected as the king of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania in 1573, after the death of the previous ruler, Sigismund II Augustus. He was crowned in 1574, but soon left Poland to claim the French crown, following the death of his brother Charles IX.
Henry III faced many challenges and conflicts during his reign. France was torn by the Wars of Religion, a series of civil wars between the Catholic League, supported by Spain and the Pope, and the Protestant Huguenots, supported by England and the Netherlands. Henry III tried to balance the interests of both parties, as he was a Catholic but also a politique, who favored religious tolerance and a strong monarchy. He also had to deal with the ambitions of his younger brother, Francis, Duke of Anjou, who led a faction of discontented nobles called the Malcontents.
Henry III’s authority was undermined by the rise of the powerful Guise family, who led the Catholic League and opposed his attempts to make peace with the Huguenots. Henry III also faced a succession crisis, as he had no children and his heir was his distant cousin, Henry of Navarre, a Protestant and the leader of the Huguenots. Henry III tried to secure his dynasty by arranging the marriage of his sister, Margaret of Valois, to Henry of Navarre in 1572, but this provoked the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a bloody slaughter of thousands of Huguenots by the Catholics.
Henry III’s popularity declined as he was seen as weak, indecisive, and extravagant. He was accused of being homosexual, of being influenced by his favorites, known as the mignons, and of being involved in black magic and witchcraft. He was also excommunicated by Pope Sixtus V in 1585, for signing the Treaty of Nemours, which granted concessions to the Huguenots.
The Fatal Stabbing
Henry III’s reign came to an end on August 2, 1589, when he was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic, Jacques Clément, a Dominican friar. Clément pretended to be a messenger and gained access to Henry III’s chamber at the Château de Saint-Cloud, near Paris. He stabbed Henry III in the abdomen with a knife, while saying “Remember God and the Holy League”. Clément was immediately killed by Henry III’s guards.
Henry III survived the initial wound, but died the next day. He was 37 years old. He was buried at the Basilica of St Denis, the traditional burial place of the French kings. He was the last king of the House of Valois, which had ruled France since 1328. He was succeeded by Henry of Navarre, who became Henry IV, the first king of the House of Bourbon. Henry IV converted to Catholicism in 1593, ending the Wars of Religion and restoring peace and stability to France.