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Saturday 28 September 2013

A 17th Century Assassination

This year sees the 50th anniversary of one of the most notorious political assassinations in history. While JFK was the fourth U.S. President to be assassinated, it’s a less common fate of heads of state on this side of the Atlantic. One of the few examples I’ve come across is King Henri IV of France, who was stabbed to death on a Paris street in 1610, more than 400 years ago. This photo shows his tomb in the cathedral of St Denis, which I visited last week (all the images in this post are from last week’s trip to France).

The 17th century was an age of suspicion and paranoia, just as the 20th century was. But whereas the 20th century was all about Communists versus Capitalists, back in the 1600s it was Protestants versus Catholics. Henri was born in Catholic France, but raised in the small Protestant country of Navarre – of which he became king in 1572. A few months later he was one of the primary targets of the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre – he only escaped with his life after promising to convert back to Catholicism. But he didn’t actually do that until 1593, by which time he stood to be crowned King of France (“Paris is worth a Mass”, he is supposed to have said). Religious commentators see Henri as cynical and duplicitous, while secular commentators see him as logical and pragmatic.

Henri IV survived at least two assassination attempts before the final, successful one. This took place on 14 May 1610 – the day following his second wife’s coronation as Queen of France. The King’s carriage was forced to stop due to a blockage caused by two carts, one carrying wine and the other hay. At this point, the assassin François Ravaillac leapt up and stabbed the King to death.

The official view, of course, is that Ravaillac acted alone. How he knew the road would be blocked at just that point, and why the authorities failed to clear the streets ahead of the King’s carriage, are unanswered questions on a par with the Grassy Knoll and the Magic Bullet. Even under extreme torture Ravaillac swore he had no accomplices, which proves exactly one thing – that the torturers wanted Ravaillac to swear he had no accomplices. Torture isn’t designed to extract the truth, it’s designed to extract whatever message the interrogators want to hear.

Having inherited the throne of France by an indirect route, Henri IV created a new dynasty – the House of Bourbon. On his death, the heir to the throne was his eight-year old son, who became Louis XIII. In turn he was succeeded by his own son, the most famous of all the Bourbon kings – Louis XIV, the Sun King who reigned for 72 years from 1643 to 1715. It was this latter Louis who commissioned the opulent Palace of Versailles, where I spotted this statue of his grandfather Henri IV.

Because Louis XIII was still a child when he inherited the throne of France, the country was ruled over by his mother, Marie de’ Medici. Anyone who believes in the Cui Bono school of conspiracy theories need look no further than her (or someone very close to her) for the instigator of her husband’s murder. It was an odd coincidence, anyway, that the assassination happened to take place the day after she was crowned Queen of France.

Marie wasn’t a shrinking violet. In 1621 she commissioned a series of 21 paintings to commemorate her life and achievements. But she didn’t call on any old hack – she turned to Peter Paul Rubens, one of the greatest artists of the day. And they aren’t small paintings either – they’re four metres (13 feet) high, and if set side by side (ignoring the spaces between them) they amount to a total length of 75 metres (almost 250 feet). As can be seen from the upper of the two photos, the Marie de’ Medici Cycle has a whole gallery to itself in the Musée du Louvre. The detail in the lower photo shows the most famous of the paintings, which is divided into two scenes. On the left, the assassinated King is borne heavenward by Jupiter and Saturn, while his assassin Ravaillac is depicted as a snake. On the right, various real and supernatural figures are imploring Marie to take the crown of France, which she graciously accedes to do.
Because of his inclination toward Protestantism, Henri IV was quite popular (at least some of the time) with Queen Elizabeth I of England. The most famous Elizabethan, William Shakespeare, even used Henri as the model for one of his leading characters – the King of Navarre in Love’s Labour’s Lost. But there is an even stronger connection between Henri IV (and Marie de’ Medici) and British history. Their youngest child, Henrietta Maria, who was only 6 months old when her father was assassinated, went on to marry the ill-fated King Charles I. Two of Henrietta’s sons became Kings of England: Charles II and James II. They were both grandsons of Henri IV, just as Louis XIV was.

James II, as a Catholic, found it as tough to be king in England as the Protestant-leaning Henri IV had in France. James endured the Monmouth Rebellion (which happened in this part of the world, as recounted in my book Bloody British History: Somerset) and was then forced to flee the country when Parliament sided with William of Orange against him. Exiled in France, his cousin Louis XIV gave him the Château of Saint-Germain-en-Laye to live in – you can see the tomb of James II in the nearby church.

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