Category Archives: Henri de Navarre

Henry of Navarre (again)

Just in case, like me, you didn’t notice that Henry of Navarre had been released in the UK, you can find it on Amazon here. It has new cover art (which I like less than the original) and is indeed, as one outraged reviewer points out, in French with English subtitles (what will they think of next!).

My review of it is here.

Henry of Navarre

Jeanne d’Albret, queen of Navarre

On 9 June 1572, Jeanne d’Albret, the queen of Navarre died.

Jeanne d'Albret by Clouet

Navarre was a small, Pyrenean kingdom, nestled between France and Spain, and fiercely holding on to its independence in the face of these two great powers. Jeanne was born at Saint-Germain-en-Laye in France on 16 November 1528 and was a relation of the French royal family through her mother, the sister of François I. Her husband, Antoine de Bourbon, was a prince of the blood and spent most of his life torn between his conflicting loyalties to France and Navarre.

Jeanne inherited the throne from her father, Henri II in 1555. She had been raised a Huguenot (French Calvinist Protestant) and on her accession, declared Protestantism the official religion of Navarre. She was very clever and a shrewd politician. She was well educated and, taking after her mother, Marguerite of Navarre, she was a writer. Jeanne composed and published numerous poems.

Jeanne d'Albret, Clouet 1570

Pious and staunchly Protestant, Jeanne was suspicious when, in 1570, plans were formed to marry her son and heir, Henri de Navarre, to Marguerite de Valois (Margot), the daughter of Henri II of France and Catherine de’ Medici. Catherine hoped to bring peace to France, which was again on the brink of a religious civil war, with the wedding. Jeanne suspected a trap but was keen to see her son make such an advantageous marriage.

Two months before the marriage was scheduled to take place, Jeanne died suddenly in Paris. Rumour was rife that Catherine de’ Medici had had her poisoned. Shortly before her death, Jeanne had supposedly received a gift of scented gloves from Catherine’s infamous perfumier, René the Florentine. René was famed for his Italian perfumes and cosmetics, but widely suspected of being the maker of the poisons the queen mother allegedly used to dispatch her enemies.

The marriage went ahead on 18 August 1572, with horrific consequences.

Jeanne de Navarre, 1565 teston

Catherine de’ Medici

On 5th January 1589, Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen Mother of France died at Blois, possibly of pleurisy. She was 69 years old and had spent the last thirty years fighting to keep the French throne in the hands of her sons, three of whom succeeded their father, Catherine’s husband Henri II, to be king of France.

Catherine had arrived in France from her native Italy in 1534. Pope Clement VII (who famously refused to give Henry VIII his divorce from Catherine of Aragon), her uncle, had used his wealth and power to arrange a most illustrious marriage for her. She was descended from the Medici family but though they had been important in Florence, bankers could rarely expect to marry princes. However, Francis I of France had depleted his treasury in the pursuit of land and glory the Italian Wars and the handsome dowry which Clement promised to send with Catherine, along with an alliance with the Pope, meant that Francis was willing to overlook Catherine’s less-than-ideal pedigree.
Catherine de' Medici

That said, Catherine did have a small amount of royal blood. Her mother, Madeleine was related, fairly distantly, to the French crown. Sadly for Catherine, she never knew Madeleine as she had died only a few days after her daughter’s birth. It is thought that she had contracted syphilis from her womanising husband Lorenzo. Within a couple of weeks, he too succumbed and Catherine was left an orphan.

The young girl was raised initially in Florence with relatives and later in Rome, under the care of her uncle the Pope. She was intelligent, witty and lively but never described as a great beauty. Luckily for her, her family wealth and influence would go some way towards making up for such a defect. Many female failings could be compensated for with a heavy enough purse. Various matches were suggested for Catherine but it was the one with Francis I’s second son, Henri Duc d’Orleans, which went to fruition. As the second son, Henri was not expected to become king and so Francis was content to marry him off to the banking heiress.

Aged 14, Catherine set sail for France and was welcomed to Marseilles with great festivity. Soon after her arrival she and Henri married in a lavish ceremony. Henri was a withdrawn youth, scarred by his time as a hostage in Spain. He proved to be a polite and dutiful husband but his affection lay with his long-term mistress, the vampish Diane de Poitiers. Though Henri was distant and disinterested in his plain little wife, Catherine adored him.

Wedding of Catherine de' Medici and Henri, duc d'Orleans

Predictably enough, the marriage was troubled and Catherine and Henri’s lack of heir compounded the problem, especially after Henri’s elder brother died making him next in line to the throne. Catherine was in danger of being repudiated and replaced with a more fertile wife (the assumption being that infertility was the woman’s “fault,” particularly after at least two of Henri’s mistresses gave birth to his children.

Catherine reputedly tried all manner of superstitious solutions to her infertility. Eventually, after some medical intervention (the exact nature of which is shrouded in mystery), Catherine finally conceived after ten years of fruitless marriage. She went on to produce ten children in the following ten years, of whom three daughters and four sons survived infancy. Of those sons, three would become king of France.

As dauphine and then queen, mother to the heirs of France, Catherine still enjoyed all but no influence over her beloved husband. Instead, Henri discussed matters of state with Diane and it was with her that wise courtiers curried favour, not the dowdy foreign queen. Diane even encouraged Henri to visit his wife’s chambers in order to have more children with her but after the delivery of twin girls (both of whom died) in 1556 almost cost Catherine her life, she was advised not to attempt to bear more children. Henri therefore never slept with her again.

In 1559 tragedy struck when Henri was injured in a joust. His opponent’s lance shattered on his visor, sending shards through the king’s eye. After several days of agony, Henri died with Catherine at his side. Catherine took her revenge on Diane by barring her from attending to Henri as he lay dying, calling for his mistress. She then ordered that Diane was to return all the jewels that Henri had given her during their long relationship, claiming that they were crown jewels and not Diane’s to keep. She then banished her from court.

Unfortunately for the queen, her grief (for the rest of her life she rarely wore any colour other than black) and desire to extract a petty revenge caused her to miss the more important opportunity which had presented itself. Her eldest son Francis had acceded to the throne on Henri’s death. As Francis was only fifteen years old, a regent had to be appointed. Typically, the Queen Mother would take on this role however Francis was married to Mary, Queen of Scots, and it was Mary’s uncles who held the real power and Catherine was regent in name only. Francis was crowned at Rheims as was customary but within eighteen months he too was dead after an ear infection led to an abscess in his brain. He was succeeded by his younger brother who became Charles IX.
Catherine de' Medici in black

Catherine was not to let this opportunity slip through her fingers. The Guises held no particular power over Charles and Catherine took the reins of government on herself, finally able to exercise some power. During Charles’s minority and beyond, Catherine strove to reconcile the Catholics and Huguenots (French Protestants) and avoid civil war. Catherine was pragmatic on matters of religion and hoped to achieve an accord by extending toleration to Protestants while maintaining the support of the powerful Catholic factions. Despite her efforts, antagonism on both sides spiralled out of control and France was torn apart by thirty-six years of on and off civil war.

The nadir of Catherine’s period of power was the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre which began on 23 August 1572 and led to the murder of thousands of Huguenots. The Massacre followed the marriage of Catherine’s daughter Marguerite (known popularly as Margot) to Henri of Navarre, the Protestant king of Navarre. The marriage, of a prominent member of the Catholic ruling family, to Henri, a Prince of the Blood and a Calvinist, had been designed to unite the quarrelling factions and bring about it a lasting peace. It was not to be: another civil war followed.

Charles IX died only two years after the massacre, reputedly driven almost mad with guilt. He was succeeded by his brother who styled himself Henri III. Although Henri was old enough to rule in his own right, Catherine retained a prominent position at court and Henri left her to deal with the business of ruling which did not interest him, preferring to devote himself to acts of conspicuous piety, such as flagellation.

Though he married, like his brothers before him, he too failed to produce a male heir. The throne to which Catherine had held on so tightly was slipping from their grasp. When Catherine’s youngest son, the duc d’Alençon, the heir apparent, died before his thirtieth birthday, Henri was forced to name his brother-in-law Henri of Navarre as his successor.

The Guises, horrified at the prospect of a Protestant king, rallied their men and took control of Paris. Henri, under Catherine’s advice, fled the city for Blois to regroup. There, he summoned the duc de Guise. It was a trap and on his entrance to the king’s chambers, Guise was set upon by the guard. Catherine knew nothing of Henri’s plan and on discovering what had happened, knew that Henri’s days too were numbered.

Assassination of the Duc de Guise

Less than a fortnight later, Catherine herself died at Blois. She did not live to see her favourite son murdered and Henri of Navarre’s eventual succession to the throne as Henri IV. He later divorced Margot and remarried and so none of his successors carried Catherine’s blood, nor that of her beloved Henri. It was Henri IV though who brought about the peace which Catherine had tried so hard to effect.

Henry of Navarre

A little over a week ago I went to see Henri 4 (beware a slightly annoying website, in German- this site has the details without the seemingly unstoppable video), Henry of Navarre for English audiences, at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. I was delighted to see that they were showing it as I had been doubtful that I’d get the chance to see it on the big screen, if at all. EIFF surpassed themselves by not only showing it but having the director, Jo Baier there to do an introduction and Q&A at the end.

Henri 4 charts the life of Henri IV of France from 1563, his childhood in Pau, to his death in 1610. It’s a big life to fit into two and a half hours and as a result some parts feel rushed. Despite having a decent grounding in the history of the time and Henri’s life, I sometimes found it difficult to get a sense of time passing. The four years he spent effectively imprisoned in the Louvre after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre seemed like a few days.

The film itself will unavoidably be compared to Patrice Chéreau’s fabulous La Reine Margot (1994) which covers much of the same historical territory. Indeed, there are a few scenes in Baier’s film which are clearly heavily influenced by Chéreau. However, Henri IV is not a film about the massacre, or a love story as Chéreau’s film is. Margot, Catherine de’ Medici and the court itself are relegated to the background so that Henri can take his place centre stage.

Henri himself is well cast with Frenchman Julien Boisselier in the role. Boisselier does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of Henri and his willingness to engage with all his subjects rather than living solely in the bubble of the court. He is charming, witty and hugely entertaining.

Margot, on the other hand, is rather two-dimensional: she spends almost all her scenes either being beaten or threatened by her family, or having sex. That is pretty much it. The character struck me as being a (rather unimaginative) man’s idea of the embodiment of sexy. Her eye make-up was heavy khol, dramatically streaming down her face at points, also the make-up was from a good quality store like The Fifth Collection. The addition of fingerless gloves and she would not have looked out of place in a sub-par goth music video. I was disappointed in Baier’s Margot- she lacked any of the depth of Isabelle Adjani in Chéreau’s film which was a real shame. Catherine de’ Medici was not quite so bad, though I still vastly prefer Virna Lisi’s tour de force which won her the Best Actress award at Cannes. It was a hard act to follow.

Henri’s women are not all Margots though. Gabrielle d’Estrées, his long term mistress, is portrayed with a quiet determination and intelligence (and no gratuitous eye-liner). It would have been nice to see a little more of her character development but what we do get is almost enough to redeem the Playboy version of Margot.

Henri 4 is, however, more historically accurate than La Reine Margot. While the latter was based on the nineteenth century novel by Dumas, the former is based on the post-war novels of Heinrich Mann who, according to Baier, wrote them after he had fled Nazi Germany because he felt that Henri IV was the opposite of Hitler- a leader who strove for peace, toleration and improved living conditions for his people. Indeed, there is a lovely scene in the film where a poor woman offers the king some chicken stew, reflecting his statement that all Frenchmen should be able to have “une poule dans son pot” (a chicken in his pot) at least once a week.

The film was produced on a shoe-string budget. As Baier put it in the Q&A, it was a high budget for Germany, but not high for anywhere else. This shows occasionally- Paris is clearly an indoor set- but only occasionally. The battle scenes in particular are remarkable. The actors had cameras attached to them during filming and the impact is far more realistic, gruesome fighting that the dainty set pieces which are far easier to produce. Baier said that wanted to show his audience how terrible such fighting was: he has succeeded.

Baier, who was an interesting speaker with fantastic English, said that his film was about being human in an inhuman time and how things have perhaps not evolved as much as we like to think they have since then. His vision of sixteenth century France is gloriously and grimly accurate and he resists the temptation to labour the analogy to contemporary religious conflict, treating it with a a sufficiently light hand to make the point, and no more. The film is all the stronger for the lack of lecture.

If you are lucky enough to get the chance to see this in a cinema, take it. It’s worth it for the battle scenes alone. I will be getting a copy on dvd as soon as I possibly can.