by Eleanor Herman
Behind every great man is a great woman. And sometimes, that woman is a mistress. While the adage might not apply to every extramarital affair, for King Henri IV of France, having a mistress just might have been the smartest political move of his reign. While it's no secret that historical heads-of-state often kept a honey (or two or three) on the side, these women shouldn't all be brushed off as bimbos. In 16th- and 17th-century Europe, mistresses were more of a royal fashion statement—a way to reflect the king's good taste. They were intelligent. They were talented. And, in the case of Henri IV's mistress, Gabrielle d'Estrees, powerful enough to lift a nation from the throes of civil war and change the course of European politics.
The Scarlet Ambassador
Gabrielle d'Estrees was just 18 years old in 1591, the year she became Henri IV's official mistress. Not incidentally, it was the same year things were heating up in the ongoing conflict between France's Catholic and Protestant citizens.
Meanwhile, a similar battle was raging within the king's marriage. Despite being an avowed Protestant, Henri had married Catholic-bred Marguerite De Valois on August 18, 1572, in an attempt to create an example of religious harmony for his people. But the plan failed (in rather spectacular fashion) when his bride's family had most of the king's Protestant wedding guests killed. The event touched off the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (which would eventually leave 70,000 people dead throughout France) and probably strained the relationship between Henri and his queen.
Enter Gabrielle. Although she, too, was a Catholic, she was considerably better versed in diplomacy than was Marguerite. For instance, d'Estrees knew Vatican and Spanish forces were massing on French borders. But she also knew that Henri could avoid defeat by converting to Catholicism. Using a heavy dose of pragmatism and persuasion, she convinced the king to make the concession—if only for the peace of his beloved country.
Henri later confessed, "Paris was well worth a Mass." However, he never would have reached this realization were it not for d'Estrees' behind-the-scenes politicking with the Pope and the heads of noble Catholic families. In fact, Henri acknowledged d'Estrees' ambassadorial abilities in 1596 by giving her a seat on his Council of National Policy. In her new role, she helped craft the groundbreaking 1598 Edict of Nantes, which declared France a Catholic nation, but also granted Protestants unprecedented civil rights. The document saved France from civil war and foreign domination, and it made the country a model of tolerance for the rest of the Western world.
Mistress or not, Gabrielle d'Estrees is one of the most influential Frenchwomen in history. Sadly, she's also one of the most tragic. With Queen Marguerite separated physically and emotionally from King Henri, Gabrielle essentially filled the role of queen in the court. And in the early months of 1599, Henri began to move toward making Gabrielle's place official by legitimizing the three children she bore him, giving her his coronation ring, and applying to have his marriage annulled. But, shortly before the ceremony that would have crowned her Queen of France, the five-months-pregnant Gabrielle went into premature labor and died at the age of 26. Two years later, the king married someone else, and Gabrielle all but slipped from historical memory.Eleanor Herman is the author of Sex with Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge (HarperCollins, 2004).