Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Henry IV and Random Thoughts

We learned about Henry IV of France this morning in French Civilization. Henry was born a Huguenot during the Wars of Religion in France shortly after the beginning of the Reformation. He became leader of the French Protestant movement (the political arm anyway) but converted to Catholicism to marry the princess of France. When the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre occurred, he converted back to Protestantism (possibly out of horror at French Catholics?). In 1589 he was invited to become King of France, but the Parisian area objected since he was not Catholic, so he converted once again back to Catholicism saying "Paris is worth a Mass".

As king, Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes suspending violence against Protestants and brought relative peace to the country. He was wildly popular with the French people and ushered in a short time of prosperity for the beleaguered country. As popular as he was, he found enemies on both sides of the religious questions: Catholics distrusted him because of his liberal policies toward the Huguenots while the Huguenots distrusted him because he was Catholic. He eventually overcame most of these problems (partly because of the Edict) and presided over several years of peace. He was assassinated in 1610 by a Catholic extremist. His Catholic wife, Marie de Médicis, reigned as regent until his son Louis XIII was old enough to assume control. Marie squandered the wealth and prosperity of her husband and later caused a civil war between her sons.

Henry IV's grandson, the infamous Louis XIV ("Je suis L'État") later over-turned his grandfather's famous Edict and Protestants were once again murdered in the streets of France and successfully driven from any subsequent influence on that country (they currently make up less than 3% of the population).

While Henry IV is generally accepted as one of the best kings in French history, his reign really seemed to have little permanent affect on his country. Worse, he seems to have been a man of little real conviction, only drive for political power. This caused countless deaths on both sides of the religious fight. In my mind, that really makes him a failure.

I couldn't help but compare him to his contemporary, Elizabeth of England, who found herself in many similar situations. She was born Protestant but later found her life being threatened when Catholicism made its brief return to English politics. While Elizabeth made it clear that she was loyal to her Catholic queen, she refused to compromise her beliefs. For years she lived under house arrest in constant danger of being burned as a heretic or traitor. When she came to the throne, she made it clear to her Catholic subjects that she would most certainly not sacrifice her Protestant beliefs just to have a "successful" reign. But she also made it clear that she wanted peace. She, like Henry, brought peace, tranquility, and general prosperity to her country. She survived dozens of assassination attempts by Catholic extremists and credited God with this protection as well as military victories. When she died, the country had permanently adopted her Protestant beliefs. One could argue that Elizabeth I single-handedly laid the foundations of the Victorian British Empire, both politically and religiously.

How sad that Henry IV missed his opportunity to do the same for his own country.

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