I am compelled to write something about Henry IV. He is my favorite French king and, in my view, most responsible for the tradition of artistry and luxury that has become emblematic of France.
Most of us are familiar with the extravagant lifestyles of Louis XIV, Louise XVI and Marie Antoinette. But few of us are aware that their grand style of living would not have been possible had it not been for Henry IV.
Henry IV, King of Navarre, ascended to the throne in 1589, during one of the most tumultuous periods in French history. For nearly 30 years, Catholics and Protestants had been at war, massacring each other and wreaking havoc on the countryside.
Henry IV was a Protestant when he took the throne. He won many impressive military victories but he was unable to capture Paris. So, in an absolutely brilliant move, he converted to Catholicism, won over his enemies, and issued an edict of tolerance toward Protestant beliefs and practices. Thus, putting an end to years of civil war and establishing peace.
As King of France, Henry IV introduced his economic recovery program. He reorganized the country’s finances. Taxes were reduced on the peasantry and a debt moratorium alleviated pressure on the nobility. He initiated an infrastructure program to build roads, bridges and irrigation systems. Agriculture, manufacturing and commerce were encouraged. The arts were promoted.
Henry IV and his ministers lured craftsmen from the guilds of neighboring countries, introducing or reestablishing entire industries in France. Under his reign, Dutch settlers drained the marshes and established irrigation systems near Saintonge; Italian weavers established the silk industry and encouraged the manufacture of cloth near Tours and Lyon; Flemish tapestry makers opened factories in and around Paris; he conferred exclusive rights to Italian artisans to produce glass in selected cities; and state aid was provided to manufacturers in Brissambourg and Nevers (near Limoges) for the production of porcelain.
Henry IV improved and beautified Paris as well. He constructed le Pont Neuf, the Hôtel-de-Ville and the Places des Vosges. He restored the Louvre and completed the Tuileries Garden. The Palais and Jardin du Luxembourg were built for Marie de Medicis, Henri's second wife.
Yes, Henri IV is my favorite French king. He was a courageous and innovative leader who united the country and established the foundation for the manufacture of so many of the luxury products the world has come to appreciate as the standard for quality and refinement.