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Henri III: A Poisoned Crown?

Mon 13 Jun 2005 In: Features

Henri III of France Henri III of France (r:1574-1589) hasn't warranted his own cinematic treatment thus far, unlike Britain's Edward II, Christina of Sweden, Ludwig II of Bavaria or other lesbian or gay monarchs. Henri III was the last surviving son of Henri II of France and Catherine de Medici. Queen Catherine was only forty when her husband was killed in a jousting accident, and was left to bring up six surviving children alone. Brought up in the cut-throat Florentine Renaissance court, Catherine proved a capable regent for three of her sons, but had the misfortune to bear a succession of weak and unhealthy male offspring. Henri was her favourite, and she reportedly didn't mind his penchant for attractive young men, but he lacked her formidable administrative and diplomatic expertise. Unfortunately, Henri ascended the French throne at a time of growing religious polarisation within his kingdom. French Calvinist Huguenots and hardline Jesuit Catholics would brook no compromise, and routinely clashed with one another. Moreover, Elizabeth I of England and Philip II of Spain exploited the weaknesses within the rival kingdom, while all three realms pursued constantly shifting alliances with one another. Unsurprisingly, civil unrest had led to famine through agricultural disruption, powerful nobles and aforementioned religious extremism on both sides of the fence. Was Henri III gay as we would understand the term? According to historian Katherine Crawford, it's difficult to tell. He had a succession of male favourites, but he might have merely been an effeminate heterosexual. Given the enduring Italian reputation for fine fashion, he shared his mother's taste for hats, jewel-studded clothes and earrings, but inevitably, religious zealots condemned this ornamentation as a sign of 'luxury,' and indicative of Henri's 'sodomite' tendencies. Henri and his Queen, Louise de Vaudemont-Lorraine, remained childless for the duration of his reign, leading to further malice directed against his inability to bear children, despite his frequent displays of religious devotion and references to vigorous heterosexuality within his marriage bed. However, his male favourites (mignons) alienated more established court families. In 1577, he further outraged sensitive souls through wearing female drag at a carnival masquerade, which led to further accusations of regular transvestism and 'sodomy.' Never mind that medieval carnivals were often situations of temporary inversion of social rules, including those of social gender roles. Crawford states that Henri III did mourn the death of one mignon, Caylus, quite visibly, and was again subjected to homophobic derision for this display of unsurprising human grief, whatever the nature of their relationship. Despite the unfortunate Huguenot St Bartholemew's Day massacre in 1587, Henri and Catherine did their best to maintain a fragile balancing act between religious factions. He used two of his favourites, the Protestant Duke of Epernon and Catholic Baron of Arques, to balance those elements within his realm. Unfortunately, his last surviving brother predeceased him, as did the Catholic Baron of Arques, and the careful compromise began to fall apart. Resultantly, he panicked in December 1588, and ordered the murder of the Duke of Guise, a Catholic powerbroker, as well as the Cardinal of Lorraine. He lost his seventy-year old infirm mother, Catherine, several weeks later. In August 1589, Jacques Clement, a fanatical monk, assassinated Henri, leaving a still-debated, controversial legacy. Recommended Reading: Katherine Crawford: "Love, Sodomy and Scandal: Controlling the Sexual Reputation of Henri III" Journal of the History of Sexuality: 12: 4: (October 2003): 513-542. Leonie Frieda: Catherine de Medici: London: Phoenix Books: 2005. Craig Young - 13th June 2005    

Credit: Craig Young

First published: Monday, 13th June 2005 - 12:00pm

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