As the fourth son of King Henry II of France, he was not expected to inherit the French throne and thus was a good candidate for the vacant throne of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, where he was elected King/Grand Duke in 1573. During his brief rule, he signed the Henrician Articles into law, recognizing the Polish nobility's right to freely elect their monarch. Aged 22, Henry abandoned Poland-Lithuania upon inheriting the French throne when his brother, Charles IX, died without issue.
France was at the time plagued by the Wars of Religion, and Henry's authority was undermined by violent political parties funded by foreign powers: the Catholic League (supported by Spain), the Protestant Huguenots (supported by England and the Dutch) and the Malcontents, led by Henry's own brother, the Duke of Alençon, which was a party of Catholic and Protestant aristocrats who jointly opposed the absolutist ambitions of the king. Henry III was himself a politique, arguing that a strong and religiously tolerant monarchy would save France from collapse.
After the death of Henry's younger brother Francis, Duke of Anjou, and when it became apparent that Henry would not produce an heir, the Wars of Religion developed into a succession crisis, the War of the Three Henrys. Henry III's legitimate heir was his distant cousin Henry, King of Navarre, a Protestant. The Catholic League, led by Henry I, Duke of Guise, sought to exclude Protestants from the succession and championed the Catholic Charles, Cardinal of Bourbon, as Henry III's heir.
In 1589, Jacques Clément, a Catholic fanatic, murdered Henry III. He was succeeded by the King of Navarre who, as Henry IV, assumed the throne of France after converting to Catholicism, as the first French king of the House of Bourbon.
Henry was born at the royal Château de Fontainebleau, the fourth son of King Henry II and Catherine de' Medici and grandson of Francis I of France and Claude of France. His older brothers were Francis II of France, Charles IX of France, and Louis of Valois. He was made Duke of Angoulême and Duke of Orléans in 1560, then Duke of Anjou in 1566.
He was his mother's favourite; she called him chers yeux ("precious eyes") and lavished fondness and affection upon him for most of his life. His elder brother, Charles, grew to detest him, partially because he resented his better health.
In his youth, Henry was considered the best of the sons of Catherine de' Medici and Henry II. Unlike his father and elder brothers, he had little interest in the traditional Valois pastimes of hunting and physical exercise. Although he was both fond of fencing and skilled in it, he preferred to indulge his tastes for the arts and reading. These predilections were attributed to his Italian mother.
At one point in his youth he showed a tendency towards Protestantism as a means of rebelling. At the age of nine, calling himself "a little Huguenot," he refused to attend Mass, sang Protestant psalms to his sister Margaret (exhorting her all the while to change her religion and cast her Book of Hours into the fire), and even bit the nose off a statue of Saint Paul. His mother firmly cautioned her children against such behaviour, and he would never again show any Protestant tendencies. Instead, he became nominally Roman Catholic.
Reports that Henry engaged in same sex relations with his court favourites, known as the mignons, date back to his own time. Certainly he enjoyed intense relationships with them. The scholar Louis Crompton takes all of the alleged contemporary facts for granted. Some modern historians dispute this. Jean-Francois Solnon, Nicolas Le Roux, and Jacqueline Boucher have noted that Henry had many famous mistresses, that he was well known for his taste in beautiful women, and that no male sex partners have been identified. They have concluded that the idea he was homosexual was promoted by his political opponents (both Protestant and Catholic) who used his dislike of war and hunting to depict him as effeminate and undermine his reputation with the French people. Certainly his religious enemies plumbed the depths of personal abuse in attributing vices to him, topping the mixture with accusations of what they regarded as the ultimate devilish vice, homosexuality. And the portrait of a self-indulgent sodomite, incapable of fathering an heir to the throne, proved useful in efforts by the Catholic League to secure the succession for Cardinal Charles de Bourbon after 1585.
Gary Ferguson found their interpretations unconvincing. "It is difficult," he writes, "to reconcile the king whose use of favourites is so logically strategic with the man who goes to pieces when one of them dies." Katherine Crawford, by contrast, emphasizes the problems Henry's reputation encountered because of his failure to produce an heir and the presence of his powerful mother at court, combined with his enemies' insistence on conflating patronage with favouritism and luxury with decadence.
In 1570, discussions commenced to arrange for Henry to court Queen Elizabeth I of England. Elizabeth, almost 37, was expected by many parties in her country to marry and produce an heir. However, nothing came of these discussions. In initiating them, Elizabeth is viewed by historians as having intended only to arouse the concern of Spain, rather than contemplate marriage seriously. The chance of marriage was further blighted by differing religious views (Henry was Catholic, Elizabeth Protestant) and his opinion of Elizabeth. Henry tactlessly referred to Elizabeth as a putain publique (public whore) and made stinging remarks about their difference in age. Upon hearing (inaccurately) that she limped because of a varicose vein, he called her an "old creature with a sore leg".
Prior to ascending the French throne in 1574, Henry served as a leader of the royal army in the French Wars of Religion of 1562-1598 against the Huguenots and took part in the victories over them at the Battle of Jarnac (March 1569) and at the Battle of Moncontour (October 1569). While still Duke of Anjou, he also became involved in the plot for the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572. Though Henry did not participate directly, historian Thierry Wanegffelen sees him as the royal-family member most responsible for the massacre, which involved the killing of thousands of Huguenots. Henry III's reign as King of France, like those of his elder brothers Francis II and Charles IX, would see France in constant turmoil over religion.
Henry continued to take an active role in the French Wars of Religion, and in 1572/1573 led the siege of La Rochelle, a massive military assault on the Huguenot-held city of La Rochelle by Catholic troops during the fourth phase of the Wars of Religion. At the end of May 1573 Henry learned that the Polish szlachta had elected him as King of Poland, a country with a large Protestant minority, and political considerations forced him to negotiate an end to the assault. Negotiators reached an agreement on 24 June 1573, and Catholic troops ended the siege on 6 July 1573.
Following the death of the Polish ruler Sigismund II Augustus on 7 July 1572, Jean de Monluc was sent as the French envoy to Poland to negotiate the election of Henry to Polish throne in exchange for military support against Russia, diplomatic assistance in dealing with the Ottoman Empire, and financial subsidies.
On 16 May 1573, Polish nobles chose Henry as the first elected monarch of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Lithuanian nobles boycotted this election, however, and it was left to the Lithuanian ducal council to confirm his election. Thus the Commonwealth elected Henry, rather than Habsburg candidates, partly in order to be more agreeable to the Ottoman Empire (a traditional ally of France through the Franco-Ottoman alliance) and strengthen a Polish-Ottoman alliance that was in effect.
A Polish delegation went to La Rochelle to meet with Henry, who was leading the Siege of La Rochelle. Henry left the siege following their visit. In Paris, on 10 September, the Polish delegation asked Henry to take an oath, at Notre Dame Cathedral, to "respect traditional Polish liberties and the law on religious freedom that had been passed during the interregnum". As a condition of his election, he was compelled to sign the Pacta conventa and the Henrician Articles, pledging religious tolerance in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Henry chafed at the restrictions on monarchic power under the Polish-Lithuanian political system of "Golden Liberty". The Polish-Lithuanian parliament had been urged by Anna Jagiellon, the sister of the recently deceased king Sigismund II Augustus, to elect him based on the understanding that Henry would wed Anna afterward.
At a ceremony before the Parlement of Paris on 13 September, the Polish delegation handed over the "certificate of election to the throne of Poland-Lithuania". Henry also gave up any claims to succession and he "recognized the principle of free election" under the Henrician Articles and the pacta conventa.
It was not until January 1574 that Henry was to reach the borders of Poland. On 21 February, Henry's coronation was held in Kraków. In mid-June 1574, upon learning of the death of his brother Charles IX, Henry left Poland and headed back to France. Henry's absence "provoked a constitutional crisis" that the Parliament attempted to resolve by notifying Henry that his throne would be lost if he did not return from France by 12 May 1575. His failure to return caused Parliament to declare his throne vacant.
The short reign of Henry at Wawel Castle in Poland was marked by a clash of cultures between the Polish and the French. The young king and his followers were astonished by several Polish practices and disappointed by the rural poverty and harsh climate of the country. The Polish, on the other hand, wondered if all Frenchmen were as concerned with their appearance as their new king appeared to be.
In many aspects, Polish culture had a positive influence on France. At Wawel, the French were introduced to new technologies of septic facilities, in which litter (excrement) was taken outside the castle walls. On returning to France, Henry wanted to order the construction of such facilities at the Louvre and other palaces. Other inventions introduced to the French by the Polish included a bath with regulated hot and cold water, as well as forks.
In 1578, Henry created the Order of the Holy Spirit to commemorate his becoming first King of Poland and later King of France on the Feast of Pentecost and gave it precedence over the earlier Order of St. Michael, which had lost much of its original prestige by being awarded too frequently and too readily. The Order would retain its prestige as the premier chivalric order of France until the end of the French monarchy.
Henry was crowned king of France on 13 February 1575 at Reims Cathedral. Although he was expected to produce an heir after he married Louise of Lorraine on 14 February 1575, no issue resulted from their union.
In 1576, Henry signed the Edict of Beaulieu, which granted many concessions to the Huguenots. His action resulted in the Catholic activist Henry I, Duke of Guise, forming the Catholic League. After much posturing and negotiations, Henry was forced to rescind most of the concessions that had been made to the Protestants in the edict.
In 1584, the King's youngest brother and heir presumptive, Francis, Duke of Anjou, died. Under Salic Law, the next heir to the throne was Protestant Henry of Navarre, a descendant of Louis IX (Saint Louis). Under pressure from the Duke of Guise, Henry III issued an edict suppressing Protestantism and annulling Henry of Navarre's right to the throne.
On 12 May 1588, when the Duke of Guise entered Paris, an apparently spontaneous Day of the Barricades erupted in favor of the Catholic champion. Henry III fled the city.
Following the defeat of the Spanish Armada that summer, the king's fear of Spanish support for the Catholic League apparently waned. Accordingly, on 23 December 1588, at the Château de Blois, he invited the Duke of Guise to the council chamber where his brother Louis II, Cardinal of Guise, already waited. The duke was told that the king wished to see him in the private room adjoining the royal bedroom. There, royal guardsmen murdered the duke, then the cardinal. To make certain that no contender for the French throne was free to act against him, the king had the duke's son imprisoned.
The Duke of Guise had been very popular in France, and the citizenry turned against Henry for the murders. The Parlement instituted criminal charges against the king, and he was compelled to join forces with his heir, the Protestant Henry of Navarre, by setting up the Parliament of Tours.
Under Henry, France named the first Consul of France in Morocco in the person of Guillaume Bérard. The request came from the Moroccan prince Abd al-Malik, who had been saved by Bérard, a doctor by profession, during an epidemic in Constantinople and wished to retain Bérard in his service.
Henry III encouraged the exploration and development of New World territories. In 1588, he granted Jacques Noël, the nephew of Jacques Cartier, privileges over fishing, fur trading, and mining in New France.
On 1 August 1589, Henry III lodged with his army at Saint-Cloud, and was preparing to attack Paris, when a young fanatical Dominican friar, Jacques Clément, carrying false papers, was granted access to deliver important documents to the king. The monk gave the king a bundle of papers and stated that he had a secret message to deliver. The king signalled for his attendants to step back for privacy, and Clément whispered in his ear while plunging a knife into his abdomen. Clément was then killed on the spot by the guards.
At first, the king's wound did not appear fatal, but he enjoined all the officers around him, in the event that he did not survive, to be loyal to Henry of Navarre as their new king. The following morning, the day that he was to have launched his assault to retake Paris, Henry III died.
Chaos swept the attacking army, most of it quickly melting away; the proposed attack on Paris was postponed. Inside the city, joy at the news of Henry III's death was near delirium; some hailed the assassination as an act of God.
Henry III was interred at the Saint Denis Basilica. Childless, he was the longest-living of Henry II's sons to have become king and also the last of the Valois kings. Henry III of Navarre succeeded him as Henry IV, the first of the kings of the House of Bourbon.