Gabrielle d’Estrées- The almost Queen of France (Part two)

Gabrielle d'Estrees
(public domain)

Read part one here.

Since meeting King Henry IV of France in the early 1590s, Gabrielle d’Estrées had risen through the ranks at court, becoming the King’s official mistress, being named a Duchess, and even earning a place on the King’s council. She was Henry’s romantic partner but also played a very important role in the governance of France as she was involved in many key decisions, policymaking, and negotiations. Gabrielle was a key player in convincing the King to convert to Catholicism to appease his people and in orchestrating peace with the Catholic League.

As time went on, Gabrielle continued to work tirelessly, and with the Catholics now under the King’s control, it was time to look towards the protestants, who were still in uproar due to their King converting to Catholicism and their lack of rights within the kingdom. Over the following years, Henry and Gabrielle entered negotiations, convincing Catholic nobles to agree to an act of religious toleration. The Edict of Nantes was signed in 1598 and assured civil equality and extended rights to France’s Huguenot population, this extremely important treaty brought an end to the religious wars.1

The Edict of Nantes (public domain)

Another role of a royal mistress was to bear children for the King. These children would often be given prominent roles at court, and beneficial marriages would be arranged for them to allow them to mix their illegitimate blood with that of the great houses of Europe. As well as their son César, Gabrielle gave birth to a daughter, Catherine-Henriette de Bourbon, in 1596 and another son, Alexandre de Bourbon, in 1598.2 The King and his wife, the Queen, still had no children, and the King began to put pressure on members of his council to have his marriage annulled with the hope he could marry Gabrielle. As many courtiers thought this was a terrible idea, the councillors dragged this matter out for years.3 Queen Margaret herself opposed the annulment, and she said: “It is repugnant to me to put in my place a woman of such low extraction and of so impure a life as the one about whom rumour speaks.” 4 The Queen may have been separated from the King, but she did not want him to marry Gabrielle.

In the later years of their relationship, Gabrielle acted as if she were Queen of France and was treated as such by many. She had a large household with over two hundred serving staff, and in 1598, she even moved into the Queen’s apartments.5 With Gabrielle pregnant with their fourth child, Henry took matters into his own hands and wrote to the pope to push for the annulment of his marriage. Cardinals and officials were even sent to the Vatican to plead with the papacy.6 Pope Clement VIII agreed that the marriage between Henry and Margaret of Valois had been over for a long time but was very apprehensive about passing the annulment because it was sure to cause a succession crisis in France upon the death of the King. It was unlikely that the French people would be happy about Henry’s bastard children succeeding to the throne, even if they were made legitimate and their parents eventually married. It was a disaster waiting to happen. People began to complain about the costs of Gabrielle’s household and the clergy preached about her openly.

Despite the lack of annulment, Henry gave Gabrielle his coronation ring and promised they would soon be married. Plans were made for the wedding to take place around April 1599.7 Gabrielle was ecstatic after waiting for this moment for ten years and supposedly proclaimed that only God or the King’s death could put an end to her good luck. It seemed she had spoken too soon, as Gabrielle suddenly became unwell.

At five months pregnant, Gabrielle was in Paris preparing for her wedding. With just days to go, she suddenly went into early labour. There were many rumours that she was poisoned at a meal with friends, but the consensus is that the Duchess was suffering from either eclampsia or placenta previa. These conditions are dangerous even today, but in the 16th century, they were almost always a death sentence. After writhing in protracted agony, giving birth to a stillborn son, and losing her senses of sight and hearing, Gabrielle passed away before the King could reach her.8 It is said that Gabrielle’s once beautiful face was so distorted by the convulsions that it became blackened and twisted, causing onlookers to faint at the sight of her.

Rather than marrying his beloved, King Henry IV provided her with a funeral fit for a Queen at Saint-Germain L’Auxerrois. She may not have accended the throne, but she was buried at Maubuisson Abbey following an impressive procession that included the royals and nobles of France.9 In an unprecedented move, the King wore black to signify his grief, something a King of France had never done before. The King even kept a wax effigy of his mistress and visited it for years following her death.

(public domain)

Later, in 1599, Henry received the annulment he had been seeking for so long, releasing him from his marriage. With Gabrielle dead, Margaret no longer opposed the annulment. He wasted no time and was soon wed to Marie de’ Medici, the daughter of the Grand Duke of Tuscany, on 17 December 1600.10 This match made much more sense for France’s future, but people quickly compared the new Queen to Gabrielle, commenting that Marie was nowhere near as beautiful as Gabrielle.11

Marie de’ Medici went on to produce six children for the King, including an heir. However, these children were often overlooked by Henry IV as he preferred his children with Gabrielle. Gabrielle’s three children were raised in the royal nursery alongside the royal children and the children of another mistress, much to the Queen’s dismay.12

Gabrielle’s son, César de Vendôme, had a successful career at the court, becoming an important player in the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV. Her daughter Catherine Henriette de Bourbon married Charles II, Duke of Elbeuf of the House of Guise. Their youngest child, Alexandre de Vendôme, was governor of Caen as well as ambassador to Rome, though he died in prison after taking part in an uprising.13

  1. Adams. T and Adams. C., The Creation of The French Royal Mistress p98
  2. Adams. T and Adams. C., The Creation of The French Royal Mistress p101, p103
  3. Adams. T and Adams. C., The Creation of The French Royal Mistress p100, p103
  4. Williams, H., Queen Margot, wife of Henry of Navarre p354
  5. Desclozeaux. A., Gabrielle d’Estrées p274
  6. Desclozeaux. A., Gabrielle d’Estrées p146
  7. Adams. T and Adams. C., The Creation of The French Royal Mistress p100, p104
  8. Desclozeaux. A., Gabrielle d’Estrées p307-308
  9. Desclozeaux. A., Gabrielle d’Estrées p316
  10. Herman. E., Sex With Kings p214
  11. Herman. E., Sex With Kings p77
  12. Herman. E., Sex With Kings p185
  13. To learn more about this fascinating woman, you could read The Secret Memoirs of Gabrielle d’Estrées. This book was written presumably by a friend of Gabrielle’s after her death and gives a real insight into courtly life.

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