Tag Archives: France

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.

A discovery

Chilperic&FredegundI have been irritated by the sizeable gap in my list of infamous women. From the early Roman Empire (Messalina and Agrippina) there is a huge lacuna, in which Empress Wu floats about friendless, until Empress Matilda in the twelfth century. I couldn’t believe that the thousand between Nero’s mother and Saint Margaret’s granddaughter had produced only one woman whose reputation had been rendered into tatters by angry male historians.

I happened upon my most recent discovery’s name on a generally unremarkable blog. Our sources for her are limited and the information on the blog was brief and passing. Wikipedia, notoriously fallible but often a good first stopping point for the bibliography if nothing else, produced little more other than the name of her only major historian. In a happy coincidence, I found a copy of it in a second hand shop a short while later.

Gregory of Tours wrote his History of the Franks in the sixth century. A churchman (later canonised), he is far from an objective source. Indeed, for centuries there was no notion of objectivity in history. Gregory focused much of his attention on Chilperic I and his nefarious activities (though written safely after the former’s demise at the hand of an assassin). However, Gregory couldn’t resist sharing some of the stories of Chilperic’s wicked wife, Fredegund.

Fredegund was born into a poor family and started her career as a servant. Catching Chilperic’s attention, she became his mistress and watched as her lover made other women his queens. His first wife, Audovera, he tired of and sent to a convent. He then married Galswintha whom, Gregory tells us, he loved dearly because she brought great treasures as her dowry. What a top chap, indeed. Galswintha was noble by birth and did not take kindly to her husband’s public affair with a servant and begged him to allow her to return to her father, the king of Hispania, and offering to leave behind all the valuables she had come with. Chilperic soothed her with kind words, and then had one of his servants strangle her in her bed.

With the path clear, Chilperic married Fredegund. She was as ruthless and ambitious as her husband and Gregory paints a picture of perfect female cruelty. Not only did she send assassins after her husbands half-brothers and rivals but she abandoned her own young son when he was ill, bewitched slaves into murdering their master and attempted to murder her own daughter in a fit of rage.

With only Gregory of Tours as a major source for her life, she remains a shadowy figure. The accusations are levied against her with no means of testing their veracity. She is certainly a person I will be doing more research on but one I am not sure I will be able to find much more about, or at least, not much that is more concrete than Gregory of Tours’ gossip.

As with so many of the women here, we are faced with the quandary of whether or not we believe anyone capable of such crimes, and why we have more trouble believing a woman capable of them.

Lady in Her Bath

Lady in Her Bath by Francois Clouet, 1570

Lady in Her Bath by Francois Clouet, 1570

This portrait by François Clouet (son of François Ier’s court painter, Jean Clouet) is housed in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA. Painted in 1570 or 1571, it was thought to depict Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II. This is mainly due to the painting being dated 1550, during Henri’s reign. In 1550, Diane was at the height of her power. Though Henri had other mistresses, her position was unassailable. The king always returned to her, his other dalliances quickly forgotten.

However, Diane died in 1566 and the later dating of the painting would suggest that she is not the subject. In 1570, the second of Henri’s three sons who would rule France was on the throne. François II, his eldest son had ruled for two and a half years before succumbing to an ear infection. In 1560, Charles-Maximillien acceded to the throne of France as Charles IX. It has therefore been suggested that the sitter for this portrait was the mistress of Charles.

Charles became king at ten years old and until his majority was declared in August 1563, Catherine de’ Medici, his mother, ruled as regent. On reaching his majority, the king and Queen Mother embarked upon a tour of France in order to show the king to his people. It is thought that the young king met his mistress on the return journey of that tour. This would place their meeting in the spring of 1565 when Charles was 15.

Marie Touchet

Marie Touchet

The court stopped at Blois in the Loire Valley and it was there or in nearby Orléans that Charles met Marie Touchet. Marie was the daughter of an Orléannais magistrate and became his lifelong mistress. Reports of Marie at court are universally sympathetic. They describe a beautiful young girl, with blonde hair and white shoulders. She was artless and held no personal ambition and was therefore accepted and indeed supported by the Queen Mother who saw in her no threat to her own hold over the king.

Charles married in 1570. He was dutiful and affectionate to his wife, Elizabeth of Austria but remained devoted to his mistress, with whom he had a son. Clouet also painted Elizabeth and this portrait is considered one of his finest. Elizabeth was said to be distraught when Charles died at only 23 years old. The couple had a daughter who did not long survive her father. Marie and her bastard, though, fared better. She married some years after Charles’s death and had two daughters, dying in Paris in 1638, almost 90 years old. Their son, also called Charles, became duc d’Angoulême and after being pardoned for his involvement in various conspiracies against HenriIV, died in 1650 aged 77.

Elizabeth of Austria by Francois Clouet

Elizabeth of Austria by Francois Clouet


Château de Chenonceau

On coming to the throne in 1547, Henri II of France gave the Château de Chenonceau to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers and it was there in 1551 he made her the Duchess of Valentinois.


Despite being 20 years his senior, Diane was Henri’s favourite mistress throughout his life. It is thought that the two became lovers in 1538, when she was 39 years old and Henri 19. Their affair lasted until his death and Diane became the most influential woman in France.

However, on Henri’s death after a jousting accident in 1558, his wife had her revenge. Catherine de Medicis, the queen who Diane had eclipsed, took the opportunity to take back the beautiful château, along with jewels and other gifts her husband had given to her rival. She also ensured that Diane was prevented from visiting Henri on his deathbed.

While Diane’s star waned, Catherine’s rose. She became not only the most influential woman in France, but a major figure in European politics. Her eldest son acceded to the throne after his father but the new young king died within a year. Following him, two more of Catherine’s sons became king and through them she ruled France.

Catherine’s reputation today remains as that of a sinister, malevolent figure, responsible for the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the Huguenots in Paris during the years of religious turmoil in France which followed the Reformation. Catherine however is a far more interesting and complex figure than the cardboard cut-out villain she is often portrayed as.