Henry of Navarre was now by law Henry IV (r. 15891610), the first king of the house of Bourbon. In the decisive battle of Ivry in March 1590, he defeated the Catholics, who had set up the aged cardinal of Bourbon as “King Charles X.” But Henry’s efforts to besiege Paris were repeatedly frustrated by Spanish troops sent down from Flanders by Philip II.
Philip planned to have the French Estates General put Henry aside and bestow the crown on Isabella, daughter of Philip II and his third wife, Elizabeth of Valois, who was the child of Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici. In the face of this new threat, Henry was persuaded that if he would formally reject his Protestant faith, he could rally the moderate Catholics and secure at least toleration for the Protestants. He turned Catholic in 1593 and Paris surrendered to him, giving rise to the tale that he had remarked, “Paris is well worth a Mass.” Henry thereupon declared war against Spain and brought it to a successful conclusion with the Treaty of Vervins (1598).
Within France the Edict of Nantes, also in 1598, endeavored to achieve a lasting religious settlement. While it did not bring complete religious freedom, it did provide for a large measure of toleration. The Huguenots were granted substantial civil liberties and were allowed to exercise their religion in certain towns and in the households of great Huguenot nobles. Public worship by Huguenots was forbidden in cities that were the seats of bishops, and most particularly in Paris. In the two hundred towns where Huguenots could worship, they were free to fortify and garrison one hundred soldiers at government expense as symbols of their right to their own safeguard.
The intellectual preparation for the Edict of Nantes and for the revival of the French monarchy under Henry IV had been in large part the work of a group of men known as politiques, a term that comes closer to meaning political moralist than politician. The greatest of them was Jean Bodin (1530-1596). He and his colleagues stressed the need for political unity to maintain law and order; yet they were moderates who by no means preached that the king must be obeyed blindly. The politiques were convinced that under the supremacy of the French state, French citizens should be allowed to practice different forms of the Christian religion.
Henry IV was fortunate in arriving on the French scene when the passions of civil war were nearing exhaustion and the nation was ready for peace. The casualty rate in war had become catastrophic; commonly a third of those engaged in battle died. Slowly a general revulsion against the excessive destructiveness of war offset the fanaticism displayed on both sides.
Henry balanced concessions to the Huguenots with generous subsidies to the Catholic League for disbanding its troops, and he declined to summon the Estates General because of its potential for proving troublesome. He was the most human king the French had had for a long time and the best-liked monarch in their history, for he convinced his subjects that he was truly concerned for their welfare.
The range of efforts to improve the economy was extensive and innovative. Henry’s economic advisers reclaimed marshes for farmland, encouraged luxury crafts in Paris, and planted thousands of mulberry trees to foster the manufacture of silk. They extended canals and built roads and bridges that eventually gave France the best highways in Europe. Faced with a heavy deficit when he took office, Henry’s chief minister, the Huguenot Maximilien Sully (1560-1641), systematically lowered it until he balanced government income and expenditure.
His search for new revenues had some unhappy consequences, however. He not only continued the old custom of selling government offices, but permitted the beneficiary to transmit the office to his heir on payment of an annual fee—a lucrative new source of royal income but an even greater source of future difficulty. And the distribution of taxation remained lopsided, with some provinces much more heavily burdened than others, and with the poor paying much more than their share.