The 31st of March 1519, at the castle of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in the actual department of the Yvelines was born  Henri de Valois, Duke of Orléans. Henri is the son of King François I and Claude de France and is the godson of the English monarch Henry VIII. Such a high birth called him for great deeds but not for reigning as a King of France since he had an older brother, the Dauphin François, Duke of Brittany.

Henri’s childhood was a difficult one. In 1525, ten years after the glorious victory at Marignano, François I’s army is obliterated at the battle of Pavia. The King is made prisoner by his Imperial enemy Charles V. A year later, the King is freed after the payment of a gigantic ransom which not only included money but also his two sons. The Dukes of Brittany and Orléans were sent to Spain in 1526 only to return to France in 1530 after the ransom was fully paid.

The years of captivity left Henri severe aftermaths. Taciturn and suffering from health anxiety, the young Prince buried himself in novels and legends of chivalry with by his side his eternal friend, Diane of Poitiers. The 10th of August 1536, Henri’s destiny took a dramatic turn with the death of the Dauphin François, aged 18. The Duke of Orléans now titled Duke of Brittany and heir presumptive of the Kingdom of France had to prepare himself to rule a Kingdom suffering of wars, threatened by the Holy Roman Empire and soon plunged into religious turmoils.

The 31st of March 1547, the day of Henri’s 28th birthday, François I passed away. Henri de Valois, now Henri II of France became King. The new sovereign’s first actions were to reorganize the royal court according to his own personality. The years of leisure at the court were over and new councillors arrived, replacing to factions who dominated the previous King’s entourage.

The forgotten monarch

Henri II is often a forgotten monarch, more remembered for his death than for his reign which is more positive than we think. Following his father’s steps, Henri brought the second Renaissance in France and this time not only with Italian artists ( painters, sculptors and architects ) but also French ones. Many reforms were made, improving the centralization of the royal power, the judicial system and measurements systems. These reforms, while beneficial for the Kingdom, are expansive and the King resorted to raising higher taxes leading to peasant revolts and the refusal of certain cities like Bordeaux.

Henri II continued the wars of Italy against the Habsburg and won many successes. Like his predecessors, Henri’s Kingdom is threatened by all sides ( the Habsburg empire in Spain and actual German but also England ). He renewed the Auld Alliance with Scotland with the marriage of his son François to Mary Stuart. But the troubles are not only coming from beyond the borders but inside the Kingdom as well. The rise of Protestantism lead the country to the wars of religion between Catholics and Huguenots ( Protestants ) which ravaged France for half a century.

The reign of Henri II cannot be resumed to foreign wars and repression but also to a development of the arts and to colonial adventures in the New World. A genre of artistic movement even wears his name, the Henri-II style.

In 1559, the treaty ( or peace)  of Cateau-Cambrésis were signed between France, England and Spain ( in fact two treaties ). It put an end to the French ” Italian dream “. Queen Elizabeth I of England, eager to establish her power in her domain gave back the city of Calais to France ( after it was taken and retook several times between France and England since the Hundred Years War ). King Felipe II of Spain signed peace with Henri II and started dominating territories such as in Italy or Flanders. Many European nations at the time knew important religious troubles. The Inquisition was growing in Spain, Elizabeth of England made Anglicanism the official religion and France was divided between Protestantism and Catholicism, both within the peasantry and nobility.

To celebrate and seal the treaties of Cateau-Cambrésis, two marriages were organized between France and Spain. Henri II’s sister Marguerite was to marry the Duke Emanuele Filiberto of Savoy known as the Ironhead and Elisabeth of France, firstborn daughter of Henri II was engaged to King Felipe II himself.

Henri II, aged 40 in 1559 decided to organize a huge tournament for the celebrations of these two unions. During the hot day of the 30th of June 1559, the largest street of Paris was transformed into a joust place where population and nobles alike admired the finest knights jousting.

The Young lion will overcome the older one,
On the field of combat in single battle
He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage,
Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death.

( Century 1, Quatrain 35 )

Henri II’s wife, Queen Catherine de’ Medici fervent admirer and protector of the famous prophet Nostradamus had heard the predictions of threats against the royal family and the King in particular. Near the end of the tournament, while the crowd was already leaving, the chivalrous King Henri decided to show his valor by jousting. The Queen, feeling that only misfortune would come out of this urged her royal husband not too put his life at risk. But the monarch who had taken a lion as his emblem heard none of it and decided to joust with the colours of his mistress Diane de Poitiers.

The opponent, Count Gabriel I of Montmorency, the captain of the King’s  Scottish Guard also had a lion as his symbol. The young Count who was not very enchanted to face his sovereign had no choice but to joust. In a hurry, the monarch had not closed the visor of his helmet and de Montmorency’s lance ended in the eye of Henri II. A piece of the lance was even stuck in the King’s head and with him fallen on the ground, a general panic invaded the street. The best royal surgeon, Ambroise Paré ( whose work was a great improvement in surgery and anatomy ) was called to the side of the agonizing King. Soon after, Felipe II’s own doctor Andreas Vesalius arrived from Brussels to Henri’s side. Not knowing how to remove the piece of wood stuck in the head, Paré was authorized to reproduce the wound and train on the head of several men previously sentenced to death and executed for the occasion. Despite the horrible fate of these men and the work of two brilliant doctors, Henri II of France died ten days later the 10th of July 1559 after a long and terrible agony in the Hôtel des Tournelles ( actual Place des Vosges in Paris ).

Before he died, Henri II assured the poor Gabriel of Montmorency that he was not to blame and swore him that nothing would happen to him :

” Have no worries. You need no pardon as you obeyed your King and proved to be a good knight and valiant man of arms. “

But on the morrow of the King’s death, the new monarch François II banished the Count who fled France for a time before coming back in his lands in Normandy.

The sudden death of Henri II let his Kingdom in disarray. New factions hatched around the young François II and soon the wars of religion which were so far tensions between Catholics and Huguenots break out. Three of King Henri II’s and Catherine de’ Medici’s sons were called to the reign of the Kingdom of France. François II ruled for little more than a year before dying of a disease aged 16. His brother Charles-Maximilien became Charles IX in December 1560 and became famous for being the King during the Saint-Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572. The 13 years of Charles IX’s reign ( under the influence of his mother Catherine ) were chaotic. Childless, his other brother Alexandre Edouard came to the throne as Henri III, a mysterious man who ruled during a terrible century and ended stabbed to death by a monk ( ” Bad monk ! You killed me ! “ ).

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