Gabrielle d’Estrées (1570-1599). Mistress of the French King Henry IV.

Gabrielle d’Estrées (1570-1599).

Gabrielle d’Estrées, Duchesse de Beaufort et Verneuil, Marquise de Monceaux was from 1592 to 1599, the mistress of the French King Henry IV.

In 1590, la belle Corisande had been succeeded in the King’s affections by a new mistress, who had gained over her royal lover an ascendency even greater than that which her predecessor had enjoyed. This was the celebrated Gabrielle d’Estrees, the “model mistress,” one of the six daughters of Antoine IV d’Estrées, marquis de Cœuvres, vicomte de Soissons et de Bercy (1529-1609), Grand Master of the Artillery, and of Françoise Babou de La Bourdaisière (1542-1592). Both mother and daughter were notorious for their gallantries; and the girls and their brother were known as the “seven deadly sins.” *

Gabrielle had been presented to Henri by her lover, the Duc de Bellegarde (Roger II de Saint-Lary de Bellegarde 1562-1646), one of the King’s favourites. His Majesty fell violently in love on the spot, and though the fair Gabrielle at first rejected his suit, and told him to his face that “she found him so ugly that she was unable to look at him,” he made her such brilliant promises, including, of course, the customary offer- of marriage, that she eventually relented.

To save appearances, the King married his new enchantress to Nicole d’Amerval, Seigneur de Liancourt, a widower with fourteen children, who, however, was not permitted to be her husband in anything but name. In 1593, she bore the King a son, baptized César (César, Duke of Vendôme (1594–1665)), and, shortly afterwards, at Henri’s instigation, began an action for nullity of marriage before the ecclesiastical courts, “fondée sur l’incapacité conjugale de M. de Liancourt.” Her suit was successful, and the child, who was the cause of these proceedings, was duly acknowledged and legitimated by his royal father, and created César de Bourbon, duc de Vendôme.

* In 1592, Gabrielle’s mother left her husband and went to live with Yves d’Alegre, Governor of Issoire in Auvergne. But her conduct and that of her lover so exasperated the townspeople that, on the following New Year’s Eve, they rose in revolt, stormed the governor’s house, and murdered them both.

Henri IV, sceptre, chapeau, écharpe, armure,mode, baroque, 16ème, siècle, Roi de France
Portrait équestre de Henri IV en 1596 à cheval, âgé de 45 ans. Roi de France.

After her emancipation, Gabrielle was successively created Marquise de Monceaux and Duchesse de Beaufort, and installed triumphantly as maîtresse en titre. She bore the King another son, called Alexandre (Alexandre, Chevalier de Vendôme 1598–1629) and also legitimated, and a daughter, Catherine Henriette (Catherine Henriette de Bourbon 1596–1663), afterwards married to the Charles II, Duke of Elbeuf (1596-1657); and Henri’s attachment to her grew stronger as time went on, though Bellegarde, at any rate, continued to be a not unfavored rival. “Good-bye, sweetheart,” writes the King to her, from Saint-Denis, on the evening before his abjuration; “come in good time to-morrow, for it seems to me a year since I saw you. A thousand kisses for the hands of my angel and the lips of my dear mistress.” And again: “I am writing to you, my dear love, at the foot of your picture, which I worship, because it is meant for you, not because it is like you. I am a competent judge, since you are painted in all perfection in my soul, in my heart, and in my eyes.”

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The portraits of Gabrielle scarcely justify the extravagant terms in which her contemporaries celebrate her beauty; but she was undoubtedly a very pretty woman, with a dazzling complexion, golden hair, and blue eyes shaded by long lashes. Moreover, she was sweet tempered, kind-hearted and affectionate, and probably sincerely attached to the King, notwithstanding her occasional infidelities. She used her influence with moderation and to the advantage of others rather than to their detriment, and conducted herself with such decorum that even austere Calvinists declared that her behavior was “that of a wife rather than of a mistress.”

At last, Henri began to entertain serious thoughts of marrying his Gabrielle, so soon as his inconvenient consort could be got rid of. Sully relates that at the time of the Peace of Vervins (May 2, 1598), the King one day drew him into a garden, and, after carefully closing the door, approached the delicate subject of his divorce and re-marriage. The Pope,’ he was assured by his Ambassador at Rome, and those about the Papal Court, was anxious to serve him in the matter of a divorce, and it therefore behoved him to find a wife without delay. He then proceeded to enumerate all the marriageable foreign princesses and French girls of high rank, to each and all of whom, however, he contrived to discover some fatal objection as a possible Queen.

“Ah well, Sire,” said Sully, “cause all the most beautiful girls in France from seventeen to twenty-five to be brought together; converse with them, study their hearts, study their minds, and finally place yourself in the hands of matrons of experience in such matters.”
The King laughed, and accused his Minister of jesting at his expense. “What would people say of such an assembly of girls?” he remarked. “But be sure that the wife I seek must, above all, be a sweet-tempered woman, of good appearance, and likely to bear me children. Do you know of one who unites all these qualities?” The cautious Sully replied that he had not considered the matter. “Well! what will you say if I name her in whom I’ have found them all?” cried the King. “That could not be, unless in the case of a widow,” rejoined the Minister. “Ah! big fool that you are, confess that all the conditions I desire I find in my mistress!” exclaimed Henri.

Towards the end of 1598, it was generally known that the King, in spite of the strenuous opposition of Sully and Mornay 8Philippe de Mornay, actually Philippe de Mornay (Seigneur du Plessis-Marly, also called Philippe Mornay Du Plessis (1549-1623) was a reformed theologian and statesman from France.), intended to marry the Duchesse de Beaufort. Such a resolution aroused universal alarm. Gabrielle had many friends and few enemies, but not even her most devoted partisans could maintain that her birth and previous life fitted her to be the Queen of France; while it was obvious that the opposing claims of her legitimated sons, and of those who might be born in wedlock, would add another element of discord to those already existing. But it was necessary for Marguerite to sign a new procuration, for the old one was no longer valid. The King, accordingly, despatched to Usson, Martin Langlois, an alderman and a confidant of the Queen, whom she had nominated as one of her procurators in 1594. The favors heaped on the head of Gabrielle, however, had irritated Marguerite, who had already, it appears, hinted that she was but little inclined to make way for a mistress, for Langlois carried with him a letter from Henri IV. “I always believed,” he wrote, “that you would by no means fail me in what you promised, and that you would not alter the resolution at which you had arrived. On my part, I shall not fail in anything which I have promised you.”

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Notwithstanding this letter, Langlois experienced great difficulty’ in persuading Marguerite to do what was required of her. “It is repugnant to me,” said she, “to put in my place a woman of such low extraction and of so impure a life as the one about whom rumour speaks.” * However, on February 7, 1599, she at length consented to sign the procuration, and, by a singular caprice, desired that it should contain a declaration that her marriage had never been consummated; but on this she was, after some difficulty, induced not to insist.

* But she had, nevertheless, condescended to ask favors of “the woman of impure life” and to regard her as a sister. “I speak to you freely,” she writes to Gabrielle, on February 24, 1597, “as to one whom I wish to keep as a sister. I have placed so much confidence in the assurance that you have given me that you love me, that I do not desire to have any protector but you near the King; for nothing that comes from your beautiful mouth can fail to be well received.” She had also, shortly before Langlois’s visit, transferred to Gabrielle her duchy of Étampes,

So soon as the procuration was signed, Henri IV. despatched an envoy to Rome; but Clement VIII. disapproved of his Majesty’s choice, less probably on account of Gabrielle’s obvious unsuitability to share a throne as because she was the intimate friend of the King’s sister Catherine, now Duchesse de Bar, and also of Louise de Coligny (1555-1620), Téligny’s widow, who had married en secondes noces William the Silent, Prince of Orange (1533-1584). These two ladies were among the most stubborn heretics in Europe, and his Holiness did not doubt that, urged by them, Gabrielle would use all her influence with the King in favor of their co-religionists. He, therefore, still refused to dissolve the marriage, sheltering himself behind the difficulties regarding the succession in which such a marriage must involve France.

William I, Prince, Orange, Nassau, Antonio Moro,
William the Silent. Prince of Orange and Nassau (1533–1584). From the painting by Antonio Moro in the picture Gallery Cassel.

This paternal solicitude for his kingdom did not deceive Henri IV., who, impatient at the delay, instructed his representatives at the Vatican to hint that, if the Holy Father continued contumacious, the Eldest Son of the Church might be tempted to behave in an exceedingly unfilial manner, and follow the example of his last·namesake on the throne of England. Whether, with this threat hanging over him, Clement would eventually have yielded is a matter of opinion; but an unexpected event came to relieve the tension.

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At the beginning of April 1599, the Duchesse de Beaufort, who was enceinte for the fourth time, left Fontainebleau, where the Court then was, to spend Easter in Paris. She lodged at the Deanery of Saint Germain l’Auxerrois, with her aunt, Madame de Sourdes, but on the 6th supped at the house of an Italian financier, named Zamet, who had risen from a very humble station to great wealth. The next day, she attended the Tenebrae at the Couvent du Petit Saint-Antoine, then renowned for its fine music. During the service, she ~as taken ill, and was carried to Zamet’s house, which was close to the convent, where she recovered sufficiently to return home. Next day, although still feeling unwell, she attended Mass at Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois. Here, however, she was again taken ill, and on returning to her relative’s house, fell into violent convulsions. On the 9th, she gave birth to a still-born child, after which the surgeons, who attended her, proceeded to bleed the unfortunate woman four times! The consequence was that poor Gabrielle died the following morning (April 10); the only wonder is that she did not die before! The public, learning that she had taken ill shortly after supping with Zamet, persisted in the belief that she had been poisoned -Italians bore a sinister reputation in those days, and, indeed, down to a very much later period – but this theory is now generally discredited.

The King was prostrated with grief at the loss of his mistress. “My affliction,” he wrote to his sister Catherine, “is incomparable, like the subject which is the cause of it. Regrets and tears will accompany me to the tomb. The root of my love is dead, and will never put forth another branch.”. However, as we shall presently see, he was not long in finding consolation.

When with Gabrielle had disappeared the great obstacle to a divorce, petitions poured in from all parts of the kingdom, begging the King to marry again. Deputations from the Parlaments, the municipal bodies, and the religious corporations waited upon his Majesty to present addresses, in which were pointed out the advantages of a new union, which might procure him successors, and thus assure the tranquillity of the realm. While Henri’s representatives at Rome redoubled their efforts to induce Clement VIII. to annul his marriage with Marguerite, his Ministers, undeterred by the many evils of which a Florentine marriage had before been the cause, opened negotiations with the Grand Duke of Tuscany for the hand of his niece, Marie, daughter of his brother and predecessor, Francisco de’ Medici. Marie de’ Medici was twenty-five, with a sufficiency of good looks to satisfy a not too exacting husband, and the prospect of a rich dowry; Moreover, she was the niece of the Pope, a circumstance which would doubtless induce his Holiness to expedite the divorce.

Excerpt from the book: “Queen Margot, wife of Henry of Navarre”, by H. Noel Williams.


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