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All For One (Chapter Two)

Updated on April 13, 2015

2. May 14, 1610

That same day in Paris, King Henri IV rode in his open-sided Phaeton carriage to visit an ailing friend. Maximilien de Bethune, Duc Sully, was King Henri’s closest advisor, and co-architect of his royal goal to revitalize France. When Henri was crowned, sixteen years before, both France and Paris were in a wretched condition. The years preceding his reign had been dominated by war and violence, and his ride to power had been likewise soaked in blood, much of it he was responsible for.

Called Henri de Navarre, he was not a Parisian by birth; he was a Gascon, from that proud, fierce region in the south of France, and he was a descendant of Louis IX. He was born a Huguenot, a Protestant, and France was a Catholic nation. The Reformation was still in its early years and violence between Catholics and Protestants was commonplace. Queen Catherine sought to mend the rift between the two religious sects by marrying the Protestant Henri to the Catholic Marguerite de Valois of the royal family. Several prominent Catholics and Protestants flooded the city in anticipation of the event. Queen Catherine took this opportunity to eliminate her rival Gaspard Coligny, the Protestant Admiral of France. Shots were fired and Coligny was wounded. King Charles IX, fearing Protestant retaliation, ordered thousands of Protestants to be slaughtered.

“Kill them all,” he said, “so that none shall reproach me for it.” Led by the Duc de Guise, they finished the act they started with Coligny, and killing him. Gangs of boys castrated him and took his remains to the gibbet of Montfaucon. They urged the Catholics of Paris to rise up and murder the city’s Protestants. Thousands died in what would come to be known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Charles IX died soon after, most likely poisoned by Catherine, and his brother Henri III succeeded him. Henri III had no children, and Salic law, long ago established by the Franks, stated that no male heir from a female of the royal blood could claim the throne; therefore the old king’s sisters and all of their offspring could never rule. Henri III had no choice but to recognize Henri de Navarre has his legitimate successor.

Soon afterwards, Henri III was assassinated by a fanatic monk, but Henri de Navarre could not simply assume the throne. After the massacre, Paris was controlled by the Catholic League, and they would not let him become king. Henri laid siege to the city for six long years, and hundreds suffered. Finally the Catholic League agreed to allow Henri to enter the city on the condition that he convert to Catholicism. “Paris is well worth a Mass,” he said, and he was finally crowned as Henri IV in 1594.

The great work had begun. With Sully by his side, Henri undertook many public works, building bridges, canals and a new system of tree-lined highways. They drained swamps and protected forests. He promoted agriculture and education. “God willing,” he had said, “every working man in my kingdom will have a chicken in the pot every Sunday, at the least!” The public loved him for it, but of course they were used to the previous Valois kings, and such concern for the average man was novel. Compared to the old kings, Henri IV seemed to be a compassionate man.

The city of Paris itself was changing under his vision. Years of war had taken a heavy toll on the city, but Henri and Sully wanted to see Paris reborn as the crown jewel of Europe. This was not yet the City of Light. There were no paved streets but dirt roads that became little more than muddy tracks, and the sewage system often flooded. Rats infested the city and many Parisians died of plague and diseases. There was no Champs-Élysées yet nor the Arc de Triomphe. There was neither iconic iron tower nor red windmill. Paris was still a medieval walled city. There was Notre-Dame and Bastille. There was the Seine. There was always the Seine. Sixteen years of construction followed. He extended the Louvre and begun construction of the Place Royale and the Place Dauphine. His greatest lasting legacy would be the completion of the Pont Neuf, a great stone bridge over the Seine. This New Bridge was started years before, but Henri manipulated the tax laws to fund the enormous project. During construction it was considered great sport for young men to leap across the partial ramparts. Henri himself enjoyed indulging in this reckless pastime. When it was pointed out to him that many a young man had drowned in the Seine from such attempts, he simply responded, “This may be so, but none of them were kings.” He was determined to tear down the diseased hovels of Paris and refashion it into the finest city in Europe. They instructed contractors not to use timber, but rather rebuild Paris with brick and stone. They repaired roads and the city was slowly beginning to take shape. Henri wanted Paris to rival the great Italian cities, especially Rome, and their plans for Paris were inspired by the classical lines he loved in Italy. Their goals extended beyond the shores of Europe as well with expeditions to the Americas to establish a Francophone foothold in the New World.

If Henri was lucky in politics, he was unlucky in love. Henri’s first marriage was a failure with no children. He wanted to annul that first union and marry his mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrées, but sadly she died giving birth to a stillborn child, although some say she was poisoned. She had already bore him three children who could never take the throne, even if he legitimized them himself. He annulled his marriage to Marguerite de Valois, and married Marie d’Médicis, related to the mighty Hapsburg dynasty. Marie came from Florence and brought her entourage with her. He did not find her attractive, calling her the “fat banker,” but despite his scorn they had a long and fruitful relationship. She gave him male heirs, but he could never be satisfied. He took another official mistress, Catherine Henriette de Balzac d’Entragues, but he still had eye for other women. Henri’s promiscuity was well known and tolerated by the people of Paris, who had nicknamed him the “Vert Galant”, or the “Gay Blade.” He loved wine, women and song, and somehow managed to pleasure many women despite being usually disheveled and smelling quite like a goat.

His newest obsession was a beautiful girl of fifteen who had caught Henri’s eye. Her name was Charlotte and she was the fiancée of Henri de Bourbon-Condé, the Duc d’Enghien. Before he could act the couple fled to Brussels, and he was willing to invade a country for her. He had fifty thousand soldiers ready and waiting, but invading Flanders was an unpopular notion. The recent death of John William, the Duke of Jülich-Cleves, left this principality in a vacuum of power. Flanders was under control of the Spanish, and Henri didn’t like the idea of Spanish troops stationed both to the North and to the South waiting to invade. The idea of attacking other Catholics, however, was detested by the Catholic majority. Henri went to Mass that morning at the Church of Saint-Roch and then met with an advisor, Marshal de Bassompierre. Bassompierre showed him a new toy from Italy, a heavy coach with glass windows, but Henri didn’t care for it. He felt it made him look elitist. He had also seen Bassompierre the night before and enjoyed a game of chess. For a moment, Henri thought he saw drops of blood on the chess board. He mentioned it to Bassompierre, but a moment later they were gone. Henri assumed he merely imagined them.

Traveling with his friend, Jean Louis de Nogaret de La Valette, the Duc d’Epernon, he was on his way to the Arsenal where his ill friend Sully was convalescing. Sully was the result of Henri’s brilliance, the genius of choosing a gifted advisor. Sully was his financial minister and in a matter of years reduced the country’s debt and had amassed a financial surplus used to sponsor their numerous public works projects. While they disagreed on Henri’s designs for the New World—Sully preferred to spend money on domestic problems rather than foreign speculation—France owed much of its greatness to Sully.

As Henri’s carriage turned down the narrow Rue de la Ferronnerie, further down the road, François Ravaillac wandered the streets of Paris despondent. He was—for lack of a better word—a failure. He was obsessed with religion and had once sought admission to the Feuillants order. They accepted him in a probationary status but soon asked him to leave. He also applied for admission to the Society of Jesus, but was similarly denied. The orders found the young man odd—he was prone to visions.

Clearly, Ravaillac was insane. He believed he had a vision from God ordering him to convince King Henri IV to convert the Huguenots to Catholicism. He had sought three times to visit the king, but was denied each time. With the entire city talking about Henri’s imminent invasion of Flanders, Ravaillac was distressed. He was convinced that Henri was going to start a war with the Pope. His duty was clear. Henri was not going to be swayed. Ravaillac was just going to have to kill him.

Executing such a feat was near impossible. If he was denied each time to see the King, how was he going to even get close enough to make an assassination attempt? He had stolen a short kitchen knife from the inn he was staying at, but without being in the general proximity of the king it was useless. He thought about enlisting with the soldiers traveling to Flanders. If he was traveling with the King, then he may get close to him. He would also be armed and no one would think twice about it.

That entire day, he had followed the King’s entourage. He found himself on the Rue de la Ferronnerie and as he looked up, he saw Henri’s carriage heading down the way. It was as close to the King as he was ever going to get. The King was not alone, of course. As always he had several attendants with him. Ravaillac had to find a way to neutralize their presence. He looked around. The area was crowded. Perhaps he could create a diversion. He spied a hay cart and a plan swiftly formed within his diseased mind.

Springing into action, he dashed to the hay cart. Lifting the handles he rolled it out into the middle of the street. As another wagon loaded with provisions made its way down the Rue de la Ferronnerie, Ravaillac rolled the hay cart right into the wagon’s wheels. The sound of splintering wood was partnered with shattering boxes as the wagon dumped its contents in the road. Ravaillac raced out of the way, blending in with the crowd. Chaos ensued. The entire road was clogged as traffic cane to a standstill. Yet another wagon loaded with barrels broke down, dumping its contents into the street as well.

As chaotic and confusing as the situation became, it was not an uncommon occurrence in the streets of Paris. Ravaillac moved up the way, gliding past concerned citizens, each step taking him closer to his goal. As the King’s carriage came to a stop, Ravaillac waited in a doorway. Impatient, the King’s attendants hurried away to help clear the road, leaving the King unprotected, and, save for the Duc d’Epernon, he was completely alone.

Ravaillac saw his opportunity. He slowly drew his blade and waited. The King drew down the shades and perused a letter, unaware of the danger nearby. When the last man had trotted down the road, Ravaillac rushed from his hiding place and leapt onto the running-board. The King looked up from his letter as Ravaillac drove the knife down into his chest.

The King grimaced. “That’s nothing,” he snarled.

Ravaillac stabbed a second time. This one went through the King’s aorta, killing him instantly. Ravaillac stabbed him one more time for good measure before the Duc d’Epernon finally grabbed him and hauled him out of the carriage. Ravaillac made no attempt to flee. His duty to God was complete. Ravaillac was carted away to the Hôtel de Retz, while Henri was taken to a local apothecary. It was too late. The great King Henri the Fourth was dead.

The Assassination of Henri IV
The Assassination of Henri IV


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