HENRY IV, King of France and Navarre, surnamed "The Great," and "The Good," was born in Bearn in 1553. Henry was the third son of Antoine de Bourbon and Jeanne d' Albret, daughter and heiress of Henry, King of Navarre and Bearn. His father's death placed him under the sole control Of his mother and grandfather, at whose court he was trained to the practice of knightly and athletic exercises, and inured to the active habits and rude fare of the Bernals mountaineers. His mother, who was a zealous Calvinist, was careful to select learned men holding her own tenets for his instruction; and having discovered that a plot was brooding to remove him to Spain by force, to train him in the Catholic faith, she conducted him in 1569 to La Rochelle, and presented him to the assembled Huguenot army, with whom he participated in the battle of Jarnac. Henry was now chosen chief of the Protestant party, although on account of his youth the principal command was vested in Coligny. Notwithstanding the defeats which the Huguenots had experienced in this campaign, the peace of St. Germain, which followed, was apparently most advantageous to their cause, and was speedily followed by a contract of marriage betwegn Henry and Margaret of Valois, the sister, of Charles IX. After much opposition on the part of both Catholics and Protestants, the marriage was celebrated with great pomp in 1572, two months after the sudden death of Queen Jeanne, which was probably due to poison, and within less than a week of the massacre of St. Bartholomew. It had been originally intended that Henry should share the fate of his friends and co-religionists; but his life was spared on condition of his professing himself a Catholic. Three years he remained at the French court, virtually a prisoner; but at length, in 1576, Henry contrived to elude the vigilance of the queen-mother, and escaped to the camp of the Huguenots in Alencon, where having revoked his compulsory conversion, he resumed command of the army, and by his address gained several signal advantages, which constrained the King to consent to a peace highly favorable to the cause of the reformers.
The death of the Duke of Anjuo (late Alencon), gave Henry the rank as first prince of the blood royal, of presumptive heir to the crown, while the murder of Henry III in 1589, made him, in right of the Salic law, and as the nearest lineal male descendant of the royal house of France, rightful King of France. As a Protestant, lying under the ban of papal excommunication, he was obnoxious to the greater part of the nation; and finding that the Dukes of Lorraine and Savoy and Philip II of Spain, were preparing, each on his own account, to dispute his claims, he retired to the south until he could collect more troops and obtain reinforcements from England and Germany. His nearly hopeless cause however gradually gained strength through the weakness and internal dissensions of the Linguists, who proclaimed the aged Cardinal Bourbon, King, with the Duke of Mayenne as lieutenant-general of the Kingdom, and thus still further complicated the interests of their party. In 1590, Henry won a splendid victory over Mayenne at Ivry. In 1593, the assembly of the states-general, by rejecting the pretensions of Philip II, and insisting on the integrity of the Salic law; smoothed Henry's way to the succession, although it is probable that he would never have been generally acknowledged had he not, by the advise of his friend and minister, DeRosny, afterwards Duke de Sully, formally professed himself a member of the Church of Rome.
In the year 1598, peace was concluded between Spain and France by the treaty of Vervins, which restored to the latter many important places in Picardy, and was otherwise favorable to the French King; but important as was this event, it was preceded by a still more memorable act, for on the 15th of April, Henry had signed an edict at Nantes, by which he secured to Protestants perfect liberty of conscience, and the administration of impartial justice. Henry was now at liberty to direct his attention to the internal improvement of the Kingdom, which had been thoroughly disorganized by the long continuance of civil war. By making canals and roads; and thus opening all parts of his Kingdom to commerce and traffic, he established new sources of wealth and prosperity for all classes of his subjects. The mainspring of these improvements however, was the reorganization of the finances under Sully, who, in the course of ten years, reduced the national debt from 330 millions to 50 millions of livrea although arrears of taxes to the amount of 20 millions were remitted during that period. On the 14th of May, the day after the coronation of his second wife, Mary de' Medicis, and when about to set out to commence war in Germany, Henry was assassinated by a fanatic named Ravaillac. Nineteen times before attempts had been made on his life, most of which had been traced to the agency of the papal and imperial courts, and hence the people in their grief and consternation, laid Ravaillac's crime to the charge of the same influences. The grief of the Parisians was well nigh delirious, and in their fury they wreaked horrible vengence on the murderer, who, however, had been a mere tool in the hands of the Jesuits, Henry's implacable foes, notwithstanding the many concessions which he had made to that order.
Time has strengthened the high estimate which the lower classes had formed of their favorite King, for although his faults were numerous, they were eclipsed by his great qualities.