King Henry IV of France: Biography & History

Instructor: Flint Johnson

Flint has tutored mathematics through precalculus, science, and English and has taught college history. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Glasgow

Learn about Henry IV of France, the first of the Bourbon kings, and the man who brought religious tolerance to France. Then take the quiz and see what you've learned.

An Unhelpful Childhood

Politicians are infamous for changing their opinions as fast as the wind changes directions in order to get ahead. Henry IV of France was that way about religion and power. But, what made Henry different was what he did with his power.

Henry IV was born in the French Kingdom of Navarre in 1553. His father, a member of France's royal house, was Catholic. His mother Jeanne was a Calvinist. Henry IV was baptized a Catholic. Henry's father died in 1562 and his mother raised him as a Huguenot.

Statue of Henry IV at Pont Neuf
Henry IV Statue

Nowadays, whether a person is Catholic, Methodist, Lutheran, or even Greek Orthodox makes no difference. In the sixteenth century, though, which version of Christianity you believed in was more important than almost anything else. The majority of the French people were Catholic, the rulers were Catholic, and Huguenots were the enemy.

Henry IV saw that for himself in 1572, in the year his mother died. As the King of Navarre and a member of the French royal family himself, Henry was married in the Notre Dame Cathedral. Thousands of Huguenots came to Paris to celebrate his marriage. Their presence irritated the Catholic Parisians, who killed many Huguenots during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Henry was almost killed himself, but managed to escape because of his Catholic wife and his promise to become Catholic himself.

King of France

Henry switched back to being a Huguenot in 1576. In 1584, the heir apparent to the French throne died, leaving Henry as the closest heir in the male line and therefore the legal choice to be the next king. Henry wasn't a popular choice because of his religion, and Henry I Duke of Guise soon emerged as the Catholic choice. The King of France had Henry I assassinated in 1589 but got himself killed later that year, leaving Henry IV the king.


The Catholics refused to accept Henry IV as their king, forcing Henry to fight for his country. But in 1590 the Catholic champion, Charles, died, and the Catholics were unable to find someone they all agreed on. Henry IV converted to Catholicism again in 1593, which eliminated a lot of his resistance. He was officially crown king in 1594. Henry had learned how senseless religious wars were, though, so in 1598 he signed the Edict of Nantes; it gave religious toleration for the Huguenots.

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