Yesterday afternoon my sister, her fiancé, and I took a drive out to Nérac, a small town by the river Baïse where Henry of Navarre (1553-1610), future King Henry IV of France, spent some time as a child. Though the nineteenth century re-christened him “Good King Henry” (it is said, for example, that he was so appalled by the poverty of the average French peasant’s diet that he vowed that once a week, every one of his subjects would henceforth have a chicken to put in their cooking-pots), he was not popular during his reign, essentially because he had been raised as a Protestant. In 1572 Henry married Catherine de’ Medici’s daughter, Marguerite, at Notre Dame cathedral in Paris – a political move supposed to reconcile Catholics and Protestants, but which was undermined a mere six days later by the bloody St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, during which thousands of Huguenots were slaughtered. Though Henry was spared, his championing of the Huguenot cause and his plotting against his brother-in-law, the king of France, earned him three years of house arrest.
It was only in 1576 that Henry was able to escape Paris, and he headed at once for the safety of his own lands. It was in Nérac, in the ancestral home of his mother’s family, the d’Albrets, that he established his court. His wife joined him there two years later, and though there was no love between them, the young King and Queen of Navarre led a merry life for a time, hunting, dancing, playing games, and romancing (both Henry and Marguerite were famous for their extra-conjugal affairs). Marguerite was also a renowned woman of letters and she made of Nérac a centre of literary effervescence, drawing to the court many writers, such as the essayist Michel de Montaigne and the poet Agrippa d’Aubigné.
Before long, however, war broke out again between Catholics and Protestants, and Henry was called away to battle. And for reasons that remain unclear, Marguerite did not stay behind in Nérac but returned to Paris, possibly to be closer to her current lover, or else to lend her brother support. Neither Henry nor Marguerite was ever to make Nérac their home again, for he would be kept away on the battlefield or in Paris, consolidating his claim to the throne, and she would travel from castle to castle, fleeing from or waiting to be summoned by either her brother or her husband, according to whichever way the political wind was blowing. When Henry was finally crowned King of France in 1589, it was of course at the Louvre that he and Marguerite held court.
Henry IV is best remembered now as the bearded sage who ended the persecution of the Huguenots, with the 1598 Edict of Nantes; or as the wily politician who, when told that Paris would not open its gates to a Protestant king, allegedly declared “Paris is well worth a Mass” and promptly converted to Catholicism. But all that came later – Nérac bears little or no trace of those aspects of Good King Henry’s personality. With its pretty early Renaissance castle overlooking the winding river, Nérac is very much the home of a youthful king – fittingly, the chief attraction of the tree-lined riverside park is not an equestrian statue of the king, as on the Place des Vosges in Paris, but a mossy grotto with a still, green pool and a white marble statue of a swooning girl called Fleurette, whom it is said Henry courted for a day and then forgot, while she, poor creature, pined away for love of him, returning day after day to the rim of the fountain where they had sat together. The tale, whether real or apocryphal, has at any rate left us a lasting legacy, with the expression conter fleurette, which means “to whisper sweet nothings”…
For those in search of something different to read for French Literature Month, I can recommend Alexandre Dumas’s La reine Margot (1845), which sets the story of Marguerite’s ill-fated love affair with the Protestant count de la Môle against the turbulent backdrop of her recent marriage to Henry and the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
© Florence Berlioz 2012