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  • Hero or Tyrant? Henry III, King of France, 1574–89 by Robert J. Knecht
  • Keith Cameron
Hero or Tyrant? Henry III, King of France, 1574–89. By Robert J. Knecht. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014. 370 pp.

When the title of a biography begins with a question such as ‘Hero or Tyrant?’, we know that its subject is enigmatic and can thus be interpreted in diverse ways. This is certainly true of the ill-fated Henry III. Not only has Robert J. Knecht written the first biography of Henry in English since 1858, but he has also made an excellent contribution to international understanding of the king. He takes account both of original sources and of recent scholarship to provide a fair and understanding portrait. As we know, Henry was an object of satirical attack in his own century and the next, and of prejudice in the nineteenth, authors highlighting his effeminate and ambiguous sexual mores to provide a contrast with the virile Henry IV and later to support strong republican feelings. In the twentieth, Jacqueline Boucher and others did much to change the prevalent ‘repellent and grotesque’ caricature by suggesting that Henry was a ‘well-organised sovereign of exceptional intelligence’ (p. 119). By dividing the chronology into thematic chapters and describing events in a factual manner, Knecht leaves it to the reader to draw conclusions before he gives his own, even if it does lead at times to some slight, inevitable repetition. He is right to stress the importance of the contemporary context — for example, if Henry occasionally wore women’s clothes it was not unusual at the time for members of the court to do so. He was criticized harshly for surrounding himself with ‘mignons’, the young nobles whose company he enjoyed, and yet the reasons for doing so were not so much sexual as political: he could trust them whereas the members of the old aristocratic families they replaced represented a constant threat to his security and to the implementation of his policies. Henry emerges as a staunch Catholic, as someone who meant well but was often not allowed, because of political pressures, to achieve his aims. So often, he had to backtrack and give in to opposing parties so as to avoid confrontation and bloodshed. He believed in his divine right to reign, was party to murder when he deemed it important for the general good, and did not consider it necessary to seek advice. Knecht provides us with a valuable insight into how Henry can be considered ‘intelligent and conscientious’ even if he ‘committed enormous blunders’ and lacked ‘tact and vision’ (p. 315). In spite of Henry’s defects, however, this biography shows him to have been a reformer, introducing measures which were to have a lasting influence on court behaviour and that of the monarchy as well as on the development of state organization. The erstwhile king of Poland and the last of the Valois kings, who only came to the French throne after the premature death of his two older brothers, was more maligned than malignant; if his younger brother had not died and if Henry had had a child and heir then he may have avoided assassination — but he didn’t.

Keith Cameron


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