Henri II, king of France from 1547 to 1559, is probably best-known for two things: his brazenly open relationship with his beautiful mistress, Diane de Poitiers – to the great chagrin of his wife, Catherine de Médicis – and his gory death when a lance pierced his eye during a joust in what is today the peaceful Place des Vosges in Paris.
Henri (1519-59) was born 500 years ago in the Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye, just outside of Paris. The château is now home to the Musée d’Archéologie Nationale, which is marking the occasion with the exhibition “Henri II: Renaissance à Saint-Germain-en-Laye.”
Apart from the two above-mentioned facts, Henri has remained more or less ignored and disrespected as being a weak and not especially intelligent king, overshadowed by the heritage of François I, his powerful war-mongering and culture-loving father, a giant of a man (he was over 6 feet tall, highly unusual at the time).
Not much is known about Henri’s childhood because, as a second son, he was not expected to reign. That all changed, however, with the death of his older brother in 1536.
Throughout his life, Henri remained attached to the château in Saint-Germain-en-Laye and spent more time there than in Paris or his other châteaux (royal courts at the time regularly moved from one residence to another, and a rare illustration of royal moving day, complete with hunting dogs and a bear, can be seen in the exhibition). Belying his reputation for weakness, he acted decisively when his father died, going straight to his birthplace and replacing many of his father’s councilors with his own favorites.
Henri was apparently rather crafty as well: when a certain dandy at the court, Guy Chabot, Baron de Jarnac, got too big for his fancy britches and seemed to be living beyond his means, Henri, then the Dauphin, started a rumor that the baron was enjoying the favors of his mother-in-law, who subsidized his wardrobe. A duel with the king being impossible, the baron challenged one of the king’s friends. Although he was the underdog, the baron unexpectedly killed his rival. This duel at Saint-Germain-en-Laye went down in history, and a fencing move the baron had learned from an Italian master is still known as the “coup de Jarnac.” A portrait of the handsome baron is on show in the exhibition.
Henri himself was handsome as a young man but became rather less so as he aged, as can be seen in a series of portraits, including this one in which he appears massive in an unusual frontal pose, probably in imitation of Hans Holbein’s portraits of Henry VIII across the Channel.
Today, all of the château’s royal furnishings have disappeared, but the exhibition presents such artifacts as Henri’s ceremonial armor, his royal seals, a curious metal object used for encoding messages and some glassware – manufactured locally thanks to support from the king – that turned up during recent restoration work.
A fascinating fragment of a wall hanging shows Henri and his court, including both Catherine and Diane, engaged in one of their favorite pastimes: watching bears and leopards and dogs rip each other apart. Henri also loved hunting with hounds, playing at jeu de paume (a forerunner of tennis) and jousting, which would, of course, be his undoing. He also regularly hosted lavish balls and other festivities at the château.
Worth a close look are a few lovely drawings of Henri and his siblings as children, sent to their absent parents as a kind of health bulletin, and a nude portrait in enamel, “Vénus et l’Amour” (1550), by Léonard Limosin, that probably represents another of Henri’s mistresses, Lady Fleming, the illegitimate daughter of James IV of Scotland, with whom he had a son.
Unfortunately, the château fell on hard times after the French Revolution, during which it was used as a prison. It became a museum of antiquities in 1862 at the behest of Napoleon III.
As for Diane de Poitiers, who became the king’s lover when he was only 15 and she was 35 (a tradition being carried on by the current president of France, whose wife is 20 years his senior), we learn from the exhibition that her room at Saint-Germain-en-Laye was the most beautiful and almost as big as the queen’s, but we also learn that Catherine had keys to every room, including Diane’s chamber. One can only wonder how she used them.
We do know that Catherine also enjoyed the king’s favors, since she gave birth to 10 children (although the babies didn’t start arriving until 11 years after their marriage). We also know that she refused to let Diane see the king when he was dying and sent her rival into exile as soon as he expired.
The exhibition succeeds in presenting a fuller portrait of this king who has been rather neglected by history, but whose court was memorably represented in La Princesse de Clèves by the 17th-century writer Mme de La Fayette, who begins the book with the line “Grandeur and gallantry never appeared with more luster in France than in the last years of Henri’s reign.”