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Knecht, Robert J., Hero or Tyrant? Henry III, King of France, 1574-89.

Knecht, Robert J., Hero or Tyrant? Henry III, King of France, 1574-89, Farnham, Ashgate, 2014; hardback; pp. xiii, 356; 30 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. 75.00 [pounds sterling]; ISBN 9781472429308.

For anyone, like me, who first learnt their French history from Alexandre Dumas, Henry III of France must remain an intriguing figure because of his appearance in La Dame de Monsoreau and Les Quarante-Cinq. Robert Knechts recent monograph, however, provides a necessary antidote to Dumas. In his own time, Henry was vilified by his opponents, being portrayed as a tyrant whose assassination was justified, while later, as Knecht writes, 'A legend put out mainly in the nineteenth century, notably in the novels of Dumas, has portrayed Henry III as a pleasure-loving monarch, keen on masked balls, small dogs and the game of cup and ball'.

Knecht has already written extensively about this period, including a life of Catherine de' Medici, Henry's formidable mother. He offers a much more complex portrait of Henry than either of the two caricatures above, showing him as intelligent, fond of reading as much as of masques and dancing, and keen to fulfil his (as he saw it) God-given role as king, but possessing also a strong penitential streak and the capacity at times for foolish decisions. Henry's life was certainly eventful enough. The third of four brothers he succeeded to the throne after the successive deaths of his two elder brothers, Francis II and Charles IX. Before this, he had been elected as King of Poland and had travelled there for a short and unsuccessful reign, only to sneak away on the death of Charles IX. Back in France and now king, he sought above all peace for his kingdom, which was beset by religious conflict, and, though a devout Catholic, he was willing to offer limited toleration to the powerful Huguenot faction if it could bring peace. This toleration and his willingness to accept the Protestant Henry of Navarre as his successor brought on the opposition of many Catholics who were determined to extirpate heresy from the kingdom and who formed the Catholic League headed by the duc de Guise. In a disastrous move, Henry ordered the murder of Guise and his brother, a cardinal, thus alienating the pope and ultimately leading to his own murder at the hands of a Jacobin friar.

By Knechts balanced and persuasive account, Henry tried very hard to be a good king in difficult times but 'Though he was both intelligent and conscientious, he lacked both tact and vision'. Fittingly, Knecht ends with the words of the contemporary diarist L'Estoile: 'he would have been a very good prince if only he had encountered a good century.'

GRAHAM TULLOCH, Flinders University

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Author:Tulloch, Graham
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2015
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