Head of Henri IV Returned
Earlier this month the head of France’s king Henri IV, which had been missing since his tomb was vandalized in 1793, was returned
to his descendants. This would be a trivial curiosity, if Henri had been just your run-of-the mill monarch. In fact, he is one of the most important humanists in the past 500 years of western civilization, and the return of his head is one more tiny step toward the tolerant, humane world he tried to foster.
When the Protestant Reformation broke out in Germany in the 16th century, it quickly spread to France. But the French Protestants faced more difficulty than their German counterparts, because France had a stronger central monarchy. Germany was divided into dozens of little principalities, and by winning over individual princes the Protestants could assure themselves safe havens. This was not the case in France, though, and the result was a series of bloody civil wars.
Ultimately, a deal was worked out, involving the marriage of the leading Protestant prince, Henri of Navarre, to the sister of the Catholic king. Everyone who was anyone, on both sides of the divide, attended the lavish wedding amidst hopes for lasting peace. Those hopes were not shared, though, by the Jesuit-inspired “Catholic League,” heavily influenced by the thinking of the Jesuit Father Juan Mariani: “It is a glorious thing to exterminate the whole of this pestilential and pernicious [Protestant] race from the community of mankind. Limbs, too, are cut off when they are corrupt, that they may not infect the remainder of the body.” The Jesuits refused to administer the sacraments to those who would not support the League.
St. Bartholomew’s Day
The plan was simple: with every prominent Protestant leader present in Paris, just kill them all, in one fell swoop, in what became known as the “St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.” The killings of the leaders went so smoothly that King Charles IX then ordered the immediate extermination of every Protestant in France. The Jesuits did their part; in Bordeaux, the slaughter was kicked off by the sermons of the Jesuit Father Auger: “Who executed the divine judgments at Paris? The angel of God. Who in Orleans? The angel of God. Who in a hundred cities of this realm? The angel of God. And who will execute them in Bordeaux? The angel of God, however man may try to resist him.” Though there is no accurate body count, historians put the number of victims in the tens of thousands. The Pope wrote to Charles that “We rejoice with you that with the help of God you have relieved the world of these wretched heretics.”
Charles was succeeded by another staunch Catholic, Henri III, who vigorously enforced laws keeping Protestant survivors out of all positions of preferment. That didn’t satisfy the League, though; a Dominican friar named Jacques Clement assassinated Henri III in 1589. Catholic school grammars thereafter included the theme “Jacques Clement has done a meritorious act inspired by the Holy Spirit.”
The thinking behind this assassination may well have been to reignite a war that could result in a “Final Solution” for French Protestantism – for next in line to the throne was Henri of Navarre, the same Protestant whose wedding had occasioned St. Bartholomew’s Day. Civil war began again in earnest, with the Catholic League desperate to avoid the calamity of a Protestant on the throne of France. Unfortunately for the Pope, the man now known as Henri IV proved to be a capable soldier, and after a bitter war against the Spanish-backed Catholic League was able to bring most of France under his control. Paris, though, proved a tough nut to crack; thousands died of starvation rather than yield to the siege of a heretic. The legend that Henri actually said “Paris is well worth a Mass” may be apocryphal, but he in fact decided to end the bloodshed by publicly converting to Catholicism, thus ushering in a period of peace and prosperity for his devastated country. In fact, Henri simply never cared much about religion, and was endlessly flummoxed by those who did. Instead he devoted his efforts to draining swamps, building roads, bridges, and canals, professionalizing state financial systems, inviting artists and craftsmen to live and work at the Louvre, and keeping internal peace by paying off nobles rather than fighting them. In his spare time, he launched the French Empire in North America and India.
True Catholics (correctly) doubted the sincerity of Henri’s conversion, and feared that he lacked the necessary zeal in persecuting his former Protestant companions. Assassination attempts inspired by the Jesuits occurred at the rate of about one per year. In 1594, a Jesuit pupil managed to stab Henri in the face before being subdued. The recently rediscovered skull reveals a healed bone fracture in the left jaw, corresponding to this wound; this is one of the principal clues that the skull in fact belongs to Henri IV, since no DNA is salvageable. (Thirty other indicators also point in the same direction.)
This caused Henri to expel the Jesuit order from France; a few years later, though, he relented, and even chose a Jesuit for his own personal confessor. But in 1598, Henri confirmed the Catholics’ worst fears by signing the “Edict of Nantes,” granting nearly complete freedom of worship to France’s Protestants in perpetuity. The Church was stunned. “I am the most grieved and disconsolate person in the world,” wrote the Pope. “I see the most the most cursed Edict that I could imagine, … whereby liberty of conscience is granted to everyone, which is the worst thing in the world … I shall become the laughingstock of the world.” Unfortunately, “perpetuity” didn’t last very long. Exactly 400 years ago last May, a former Jesuit named Francois Ravaillac succeeded where so many others had failed, murdering Henri IV by stabbing him in the throat during a procession.
Henri’s son caved in to Catholic pressure by tightening the screws on France’s Protestants wherever he could. One favored technique, called the dragonnade, involved the forced quartering of French soldiers, who were often not nice young men, in the homes of Protestants, until their hosts would agree to convert to Catholicism. Henri’s grandson, Louis XIV, revoked the Edict of Nantes altogether, cheekily announcing that there were no Protestants left in France to protect. The exodus of 200,000 talented, hardworking Protestants that followed crippled France economically for decades. It was left to Voltaire, whose epic poem Henriade celebrated the life of Henri IV, to rescue French Protestantism through his brilliant efforts on behalf of the wrongly executed Jean Calas in 1762.
During the French Revolution, mobs desecrated the graves of many monarchs at the royal chapel of Saint-Denis, and Henri’s head disappeared. It was apparently bought at auction in the early 1900s, and then sold again privately in 1955 for a few hundred dollars. The purchaser, now in his 80s, recently donated the skull to Henri’s descendant the Duke of Anjou, the fellow who would be king of France today had not a few revolutions intervened.
A ceremony will be held sometime next year at which Henri’s head will be restored to its tomb at Saint-Denis. France is a country that still has issues with tolerance, as its recent expulsions of Gypsies and overheated anti-Muslim rhetoric demonstrates. Let’s hope they do this up right, and properly celebrate a leader who put humans, rather than God, at the center of his attention.