Henri III: Elizabeth I’s unlikely ally

She was the defiantly Protestant queen of England, he the Catholic king of France. And yet, against the odds, the two became firm friends. Estelle Paranque reveals how common enemies drove Henri III and Elizabeth I into one another’s affections

Elizabeth I shown in the Darnley portrait of c1575 and (right) the French king Henri III. (Images by Alamy/Getty Images)

Elizabeth I wasn’t the only monarch fighting for her survival in 1588. In May that year, as the Spanish Armada prepared to embark upon an invasion of England, another military force was besieging Paris, forcing the hapless French king, Henri III, into flight.

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Things were looking bleak for Henri as he sheltered in the nearby city of Chartres. His enemies, led by the formidable Guise family, were in the ascendant; backing for his ailing regime was draining away. Yet he wasn’t without support and, when it materialised, it came from an unlikely source. It arrived in the form of a fervent Protestant named Thomas Bodley, dispatched to Chartres by none other than Queen Elizabeth I herself.

Bodley was charged with the delivery of a letter in Elizabeth’s own hand. In it, the queen declared: “You cannot truly believe that I am on any other side but yours.” Henri received Bodley warmly, finding, he revealed, “more kindness in his good sister the queen of England than in all the princes, his friends and allies besides”.

This was a surprising turn of events indeed. Henri was a Catholic, Elizabeth a Protestant. Their nations had been at loggerheads for much of the past 300 years. They might have been expected to have been sworn enemies. But common foes, political necessity and, perhaps, genuine personal warmth, had combined to create one of the most unlikely royal friendships of the 16th century.

Marital woes

Such a friendship appeared to be a distant prospect in 1571, when Henri’s mother, Catherine de Medici, offered her son’s hand in marriage to Queen Elizabeth, hoping to strengthen the alliance between France and England. Henri was aghast at the idea of wedding a woman he openly denounced as “a public whore”. Though she thought the young prince “very handsome”, Elizabeth was equally cool on the idea of an Anglo-French marital union. She refused the proposal on the grounds of religion and age difference – the queen was almost 20 years Henri’s senior – which were her two favourite excuses for rebutting potential suitors.

By the time he became king of France in 1574, Henri’s attitude to the English queen had softened. He now swore to maintain “a good alliance” with her in the hope of establishing a “perfect and indissoluble friendship”. Why the change in attitude? The answer lay in the murky world of international relations. With an increasingly powerful Spain threatening French interests, Henri clearly needed friends – even if those friends were English and Protestant.

But at first, Elizabeth proved a patchy ally. She continued to support the Huguenots (French Protestants) in their fight for their religious rights, despite swearing to Henri that she would not involve herself in the affairs of his realm. She also encouraged English privateers, such as Francis Drake, to attack both Spanish and French ships.

Henri admired Drake, but also complained about his raids on French vessels, insisting that he must “press the queen, my good sister and cousin, for justice”. His demands invariably fell on deaf ears.

Further pressures were exerted on the French and English monarchs’ relationship by the religious turmoil convulsing France in the late 16th century. Around 1580, Thomas Morgan, a Catholic informer and conspirator against the English crown, fled to France. In February, Elizabeth herself wrote to Henri, asking him to send the traitor back to England as a personal favour, as the French king had “vowed to us true affection, friendship and mutual correspondence”.

But Henri’s hands were tied. He had recently thrown his support behind the Catholic League, led by Henri de Guise, in their conflict with the Huguenot leader Henri de Navarre over who should be declared heir to the French throne. In the midst of this civil turmoil, Henri was under immense pressure to be seen to be defending the Catholic faith; sending a Catholic servant back to Protestant England would be viewed as treason to both his faith and his crown. And so Henri refused Elizabeth’s request to return Morgan, leading an enraged English queen to write: “My God, what necromancer has blinded your eyes, that you cannot see your own danger?”

An illustration showing the May 1588 uprising against Henri III that resulted in the French king fleeing Paris and Elizabeth I sending an offer of help. (Image by Alamy)
An illustration showing the May 1588 uprising against Henri III that resulted in the French king fleeing Paris and Elizabeth I sending an offer of help. (Image by Alamy)

A problem family

Elizabeth’s frosty words marked a low point in her and Henri’s friendship. But ironically, the force that had driven the two monarchs apart was about to bring them together. That force was the family that had besieged Henri’s Parisian stronghold: the Guise.

Elizabeth had come to the conclusion that this powerful Catholic family was the true enemy of the French crown. More to the point, with their designs on dominating Europe, she was convinced that their rise would have grave implications for England too. In her mind, it was time for Henri and herself to unite against this existential threat.

Henri refused to believe that a Protestant queen could know better than him. But, by 1588, he realised that “his enemies were hers”

Henri didn’t yet view the Guises in such apocalyptic terms but he still wished to restore the good relations between himself and the English queen. And so, in May 1585, he instructed his ambassador to England, Michel de Castelnau, Seigneur de Mauvissière, to tell Elizabeth that he was her “perfect friend” and that he only desired “a perfect friendship and relationship between our two realms”. The French king even declared that “she has no better friend than me in the whole Christendom”. At that time, given the enemies ranged against her across Europe, Henri may well have had a point.

Elizabeth reciprocated and, in a letter that she wrote with her own hand, assured Henri: “If the kings our predecessors, have, in all times, been accustomed to choose those amongst our own order, who by their heroic virtues and private affections towards them have obliged them to testify to them a like correspondence of good friendship and mutual intelligence: We must confess that hardly any one of them had greater cause than we have to fulfil the obligation demanded by so many proofs and testimonies as we have received of your sincere and perfect friendship and affection toward us.”

Elizabeth continued to write to Henri in far more emollient terms than she had in the wake of the Thomas Morgan affair. In another missive she offered “my very genuine prayers to God, who will inspire you to open your eyes and see clearly your detractors, among whom, I will be in the last place. Your abused good sister.”

It took Henri a full three years to fully realise the peril the Guises posed to his crown. For a long time, he refused to believe that a Protestant queen could know better than him. Yet, by 1588, he had finally come to realise that “his enemies were hers”. In February that year, he had a private audience with Edward Stafford, English ambassador at the French court, in which he beseeched the queen’s support – and also requested that his call for assistance be kept secret.

The lens of history

Elizabeth and Henri had finally come to realise that they needed one another. But did they ultimately like each other? Did their friendship extend from the political to personal? This is difficult to assess through the lens of history.

We know that Henri and Elizabeth had lots in common. They both loved plays, poetry and entertainments at court. They were both well educated. They both mastered the rules of rhetoric and applied these when delivering speeches, which they insisted upon writing themselves. Perhaps, ultimately, they had more similarities than differences.

We know that Henri once declared that he had never met someone “as wise” as Elizabeth – and he appears to have meant this. The word ‘wise’ was crucial, especially at a time where women were rarely described in such terms. Elizabeth had proven to be a trusty ally to Henri – and he clearly appreciated it. But despite Henri’s warm words, he didn’t always follow Elizabeth’s advice – and, in 1588, his decision to ignore the English queen’s counsel cost him dear.

The French king had survived the Guises’ attack on Paris in May that year, and now Henri sought to strike back. Elizabeth advised her French friend to try Henri de Guise as a traitor. But Henri had a more radical solution in mind, and in December that year ordered the duke’s assassination. It was a fatal misstep. Following Guise’s killing, Henri was depicted as a tyrant. His enemies prepared to move against him. And on 1 August 1589, a vengeful Dominican friar, Jacques Clément, attacked the king with a knife. He died the next day.

One of the most surprising of all royal alliances had been brought to an abrupt end by an assassin’s blade. If only Henri had followed the advice of his “perfect friend” on the English throne, that friendship may have blossomed for a few years more.


Vive la difference: How England and France compared in the 16th century

England

Religious turmoil

As a Protestant queen surrounded by Catholic enemies, Elizabeth found her authority threatened by repeated plots, not to mention an attempted invasion of England by Philip II of Spain’s Armada in 1588. Mary, Queen of Scots is believed to have been involved in a number of the conspiracies against Elizabeth but her guilt wasn’t proven until the Babington Plot to assassinate the English queen was uncovered in 1586.

Government

As today, the House of Lords and the House of Commons were the chief legislative chambers of England’s government. Parliamentary sessions usually took place in both houses, where Elizabeth delivered speeches and answered petitions on issues such as marriage and the succession.

Royal favourites

She may have died unmarried, but Elizabeth had a number of favourites – the best-known being Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. During the course of her reign, she also enjoyed warm relations with the lord chancellor Sir Christopher Hatton, the explorer Sir Walter Ralegh and the soldier and noble Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex.

France

Religious turmoil

France experienced eight religious civil wars between the nation’s Protestants and Catholics from 1562–98. The fourth war was triggered by one of the most notorious incidents of the 16th century – the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

Government

In France, there were two main types of parliaments: the Parlement de Paris, which was the highest court of justice; and the Estates General, mainly a legislative and consultative assembly of the different classes of French subjects, which was also in charge of taxation. Henri III delivered speeches in both institutions and answered grievances during the Estates General assembly.

Royal favourites

For centuries rumours have swirled that Henri III was gay. But this appears to have been an unfounded assertion put about by his detractors: Henri married Louise de Lorraine-Vaudémont in 1575, and had female mistresses that he hid to avoid hurting his wife’s feelings.

Henri had a number of favourites – among them Anne, Duke of Joyeuse, and Jean Louis de la Valette, Duke of Epernon – who have disparagingly been called ‘Les Mignons’. There is no evidence, however, that he had sexual relationships with them.


Estelle Paranque is a lecturer in early modern history at New College of the Humanities. Her books include Elizabeth I of England Through Valois Eyes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). She recently discussed Tudor England on the History Extra podcast.

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This article was first published in the October 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine