The Assassination of Henri III of France

On this day in history, 2 August 1589, thirty-seven year old Henri III of France, son of Catherine de’ Medici and Henri II, died from stab wounds sustained in an assassination attempt. A religious fanatic, the perpetrator was a young Dominican friar by the name of Jacques Clément, who had been urged by extremist members of the Catholic League to kill the King due to his opposition to the alliance.

On 1 August, Clément managed to gain access to Henri’s lodgings at the now-demolished Château de Saint-Cloud by presenting falsified documents and claiming to have a confidential message for the monarch. Earlier that month, Henri had taken refuge at the Château with his army and was now strategizing a crucial offensive to recapture Paris, set to take place the next morning. Henri and his supporters had been forced to flee the city amid the Wars of Religion, driven by fervent public opposition to the King’s court extravagances, tyranny, alleged heresy, and virulent accusations of sodomy.

Believing Clément to be in possession of important documents, the King tactfully motioned for his guards to step aside so that the friar could approach him. He then leaned in to whisper into the King’s ear, while stealthily drawing a three-bladed dagger from his cloak and plunging it into Henri’s abdomen.

Portrait of Henri III, then Duke of Anjou, in 1570

The King’s guards swiftly intervened, apprehending Clément and killing him instantly. The assailant was ‘thrown from the windows of the palace’ and posthumously drawn and quartered.

Initially, Henri’s wounds did not appear lethal. The next morning, however, fate dealt a devastating blow to the Valois dynasty. The King was dead, and his proposed siege of Paris postponed.

With Henri’s popularity in the gutter and the French government in tatters, some hailed the King’s assassination as an act of God. He was later interred at the Saint Denis Basilica as the last reigning member of the Valois dynasty, and also the longest-living son of Catherine de’ Medici and Henry II to ascend the throne.

Although Henri had been married to Louise of Lorraine for nearly fifteen years, the couple did not produce any children, further fueling speculations about the King’s sexuality. However, after Henri’s death, Louise fell into a deep depression and began to dress herself in white – the traditional mourning colour of French queens – which earned her the nickname ‘the White Queen’.

With no male heirs or close kin to inherit the throne, the crown passed to the Protestant Henri of Navarre, who ruled as Henri IV and established the House of Bourbon on the French throne.

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