Gabrielle d’Estrées – One of the seven deadly sins (Part one)

gabrielle de estrees
(public domain)

By the mid-16th century, the role of the French Royal mistress was well-established at court. Though many disapproved, it came to be expected that the King would take a mistress, and she would hold power, not just over him but over certain factions, and she would elevate her own family to prestigious positions. After the departure of King Henry II’s mistress, Diane de Poitiers, however, there was no official royal mistress for nearly forty years. Following on from Henry II came the three short reigns of his ill-fated sons. Francis II did not take a mistress, and though Charles IX and Henry III did, they had no power as the reigns of the kings were not long enough to allow the power dynamics to evolve.1

In 1589, the Valois dynasty came to an abrupt end after 250 years upon the assassination of King Henry III. His successor was Henry IV, who was already King of Navarre and had a claim to the French throne through his father, Antoine of Bourbon. The new King was also married to Margaret of Valois, the daughter of Henry II and sister of the three previous kings which offered a little continuity in a difficult transition period.

During this time, France was in the midst of a religious war, and as the new King, Henry IV, was a protestant, he was not recognised by the Catholics. Henry IV was not even able to live in Paris during this time and was left without a central royal court. Henry struggled to find anyone he could trust during his early reign and had a non-existent relationship with his wife Margaret of Valois, who had been exiled for siding with the Catholic League against her husband. Seeking emotional support as well as lovers, Henry IV had many mistresses, including his official mistress Gabrielle d’Estrées.

Henry IV (public domain)

Gabrielle d’Estrées was born in 1573 to Antoine d’Estrées, Marquis of Cœuvres and his wife Françoise Babou de La Bourdaisière. Her mother and sisters were known to have taken many lovers throughout their lives and were great beauties. Due to their many sexual liaisons, Françoise and her daughters were mockingly called the “seven capital sins.” 2 In early 1590, Gabrielle was seventeen and in a relationship with the grand equerry of France, Roger de Saint-Lary, Duke of Bellegarde. The Duke was close to the new King, King Henry IV, and it is believed that the womanising King became interested in Gabrielle when he heard about her incredible beauty in tales told by the Duke. We do not know how exactly the pair met, but the King fell head over heels in love with the teenager, who was not initially keen on a relationship with the older King. Gabrielle clearly stood out from the crowd as the King had taken dozens of lovers in the past, yet none were described quite like Gabrielle, who was said to have “exquisite colouring- pale blonde hair and large blue eyes.” 3

In the early years of their relationship, Henry IV was busy travelling around France, trying to subdue revolts by the Catholics who were opposed to a Protestant king. Things were difficult, and rather than being able to show off her dresses and jewels in the King’s palaces as a mistress usually would, Gabrielle was often found by the King’s side on the battlefield. Her quarters were cold, damp tents, and she would regularly cook for the King personally and wash his clothes by hand.4 These conditions and the fact Henry had few trusted advisors led the couple to become close very quickly. Gabrielle and her family rapidly rose to the top, with her relatives being given prominent positions.

During this period, King Henry IV was married to Queen Margaret of Valois, though the couple were living apart, and their marriage was a never-ending series of disasters from the get-go. Gabrielle herself was wed to Nicholas d’Amerval, Seigneur de Liancourt, though both unions were unhappy and it was widely known that Henry and Gabrielle were an item. Letters from everyone from Elizabeth I of England and the Pope mention Gabrielle, showing her importance early on. It was not long before Gabrielle became pregnant, and around this time, her marriage was conveniently annulled. During her pregnancy, Gabrielle stayed by her lover’s side; she provided her own funds for the King’s army, shouted orders on the battlefield, and sheltered from cannon fire. The King was so in awe of Gabrielle that he promised to marry her eventually and make her Queen of France.5

Margaret of Valois (public domain)

After years of fighting, Gabrielle (and everyone else!) knew that if the King was to be accepted by the Catholic majority, he would have to convert to Catholicism, which he eventually agreed to, famously proclaiming, “Paris vaut bien une messe,” or Paris is well worth a mass.

Gabrielle’s influence on this decision cannot be understated, as she played a major role in the King’s conversion. Having recently been recognised as the King’s “Titular Mistress” and elevated to the position of Marquise de Monceaux, Gabrielle dedicated herself further to her diplomatic duties.6 Rather than flaunting her new title and wasting the nation’s taxes on jewels and clothing, Gabrielle dressed modestly and conducted herself in such a way that it was hard to dislike her. She used her skills and charms to write personally to the pope, explaining that it was through her hard work that the King had converted to Catholicism, and if she had not, France could have broken with Rome as England had under King Henry VIII.

Following his conversion, Henry was finally accepted as King of France, and after further negotiations, peace was reached with the Catholic League. Gabrielle also played a key role in these negotiations by arranging talks through the women who were close to the leaders of the Catholic League.

At long last, King Henry IV of France was crowned on 27 February 1594 in Chartres, followed by great celebrations throughout the kingdom.7 Until this point, Henry had been excommunicated by the Catholic Church, this was revoked by Pope Clement VIII, further securing his position.

Once the King had been crowned, he made his triumphal entrance into Paris, and it was Gabrielle, not the Queen, who was proudly at his side. She dazzled in the most beautiful dress covered in pearls and was carried in an open litter for all to see. Here, Henry was showing the importance of his Maîtresse-en-titre.8

In June of that year, Gabrielle gave birth to the couple’s first child together, a son who was boldly given the name César.9 Though born illegitimate, in time, the boy was legitimised by the King and later created the Duke of Vendôme. King Henry had no children with his wife Margaret of Valois and hoped that he could eventually marry Gabrielle and name César as his heir. The child was favoured greatly by the King and giving birth to the King’s son gave Gabrielle even more power at court.

By 1596, Gabrielle and the King’s relationship was going from strength to strength. The pair were openly affectionate in public, and the King declared his love to his mistress in long letters. Diplomats, ambassadors, and even foreign royalty acknowledged Gabrielle in correspondence, with gifts, and by meeting her in person for political discussion.

Everyone knew how essential Gabrielle was to the King’s reign, though she held no real position. In March 1596, Henry IV made the extraordinary decision to make Gabrielle part of his council. To avoid criticism from those who disliked Gabrielle, he also gave his sister Catherine a position on the council. Both women were awarded a small set of gold keys in recognition of their new roles.10 Gabrielle proudly wore these keys on a necklace, displaying her power openly.11

Read part two here.

  1. Adams. T and Adams. C., The Creation of The French Royal Mistress p86
  2. Adams. T and Adams. C., The Creation of The French Royal Mistress p92
  3. Herman. E., Sex With Kings p43
  4. Herman. E., Sex With Kings p42
  5. Herman. E., Sex With Kings p44
  6. Allen. A., The Royal Whore: Barbara Villiers, Countess of Castlemaine p48
  7. Desclozeaux. A., Gabrielle d’Estrées p95
  8. Mémoires-Journaux de Pierre de l’Estoile, vol 6 p 227
  9. Gerber. M., Bastards: Politics, Family, and Law in Early Modern France p80
  10. Wellman, K., Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France p345
  11. Herman. E., Sex With Kings p158

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