In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Henri IV, King of France

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biographies
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Edited Collections
  • Pacification of France
  • Culture and the Arts
  • Assassination
  • Image and Legacy

Renaissance and Reformation Henri IV, King of France
Eric Nelson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0087


Since his death in 1610, interpreters of Henri IV have reinvented him on numerous occasions. Early chroniclers of his reign cast him as the good and pious king; in the 18th century, Enlightenment thinkers focused on his brokering of religious coexistence through the Edict of Nantes to define him as a tolerant and enlightened king; during the 19th century, Third Republic biographers focused on tales of Henri’s bon mots, encounters with common people, and amorous adventures to portray him as the peasant king who shared the values and sensibilities of his subjects. These reinventions have in many ways overshadowed the historical Henri that modern scholars are only now coming to terms with. While interpretations of Henri and his rule have changed dramatically over the years, interest in him has never waned, in part because Henri was an active participant in one of the most complex periods of French history. Henri was born into the high aristocracy of France, became king of Navarre, and then a leader of the Huguenots during the Wars of Religion, before finally reigning as king of France for twenty-one years. Political stability, external peace, and economic recovery during the last decade of his reign contrasted sharply with the previous forty years in France, allowing for relative prosperity to return to his realm (see also the article "France"). After his death, Henri’s reign was widely viewed as a golden age, and his legacy continued to influence ideas of French kingship into the 19th century.

General Overviews

General surveys of France during the Renaissance and the Wars of Religion frequently finish with Henri’s death, while those that survey 17th- and 18th-century France often start with his accession to the throne. Two good recent surveys on Renaissance and religious-war France are the chronological survey of Knecht 1996 and the more thematic Baumgartner 1995. For the 17th century, Bercé 1996 places Henri and his reign in the context of later 17th-century developments. Holt 1995, Holt 2002, le Roux 2009, and Briggs 1977 examine Henri’s reign with reference to developments both before and after it. Greengrass 1995 provides an excellent survey of France focused exclusively on Henri’s reign.

  • Baumgartner, Frederic J. France in the Sixteenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.

    This thematically organized survey examines developments over the course of the long 16th century (1484–1614) through thematic chapters devoted to the monarchy, church, nobility, people, justice, culture, and thought.

  • Bercé, Yves-Marie. The Birth of Absolutism: A History of France, 1598–1661. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1996.

    This survey originally published in French as La naissance dramatique de l’absolutisme, 1598–1661 (1992) examines the emergence of Bourbon France. It focuses primarily on political and governmental developments contextualizing Henri’s contributions to the emergence of a new more “absolutist” 17th-century French state.

  • Briggs, Robin. Early Modern France 1560–1715. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977.

    While older, this survey of France from the opening of the religious wars to the death of Louis XIV provides a useful introduction to the period, placing Henri and his reign in the context of longer-term developments. While covering political history, it also has useful chapters devoted to economy and society, and to belief and culture.

  • Greengrass, Mark. France in the Age of Henri IV. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1995.

    An ideal starting point, this survey provides the best introduction to France during Henri’s reign. More than just a synthesis of other historians, Greengrass also makes his own original contributions to our understanding of critical developments during the period.

  • Holt, Mack P. The French Wars of Religion, 1562–1629. 2d ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

    The best single introduction to the French religious wars. Holt defines the wars as culminating with the political defeat of the Huguenots at the siege of La Rochelle in 1629 rather than the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes in 1598. This longer-term perspective helps to contextualize Henri’s contribution to religious peacemaking.

  • Holt, Mack P., ed. Renaissance and Reformation France: 1500–1648. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

    Comprising eight thematic chapters written by leading scholars in the field, this survey provides an excellent introductory overview for undergraduates. Individual chapters focus on social, economic, religious, and political developments, and its scope contextualizes Henri’s reign in longer-term developments.

  • Knecht, R. J. The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France: 1483–1610. London: Fontana, 1996.

    Offers an accessible introduction to 16th-century France organized largely in a chronological narrative format but punctuated with more thematic chapters. It can also serve as a useful reference work for more specialized studies. It is strongest on political developments.

  • le Roux, Nicholas. Les Guerres de Religion (1559–1629). Paris: Bellin, 2009.

    At over 600 pages, this study offers a more detailed survey of the Wars of Religion in French. Like Holt 1995 it defines the wars as culminating in 1629 with the political defeat of the Huguenots at La Rochelle rather than the more traditional promulgation of the Edict of Nantes in 1598. This longer-term perspective helps to contextualize Henri’s role in bringing the Wars of Religion to a close.

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