King Henri IV of France was a man of courage and foresight who, more than 400 years ago, saved his country from pious quarrels and taught the French to enjoy life rather than slaughter each other over religious abstractions. Instead of paying for wars to be fought, he paid for them not to be fought. He understood the conditions of the common people, whom he had a real affection for, and tried to improve their lives. His fiat, a poule au pot, a chicken in every pot, is still recalled today.
Henri was the son of Antoine de Bourbon and Jeanne d’Albret of Navarre. The d’Albrets were one of the most commanding and influential families in Gascony, rising to importance as loyal representatives of the French Crown who lavished internecine wealth and matrimonial advantages on them. Under English soverignty, during the 15th and 16th centuries, the Gascony-Aquitaine regions of France had few ties with France. It was a quilt of the domains of Foix, Béarn, Armagnac and Albret. The royal family presided over their court in Pau and Nérac. They were religiously tolerant and welcomed both Catholics and Protestants alike.
In 1572, Henri married Marguerite de Valoise, a daughter of Catherine de Medici, who became known as Queen Margot when Henri became king. Alexandre Dumas, who wrote the book, The Three Musketeers, also wrote a book about Queen Margot, La Reine Margot. In 1994 this book was made into a movie about her life starring Isabelle Adjani. The marriage between Henri and Margot was summarily annulled due to her wantonly scandalous behavior and the fact that she didn’t produce an heir. Henri then married another daughter of Catherine de Medicis, Marie. Marie bore him six children, descendants of whom are still alive today.
Henri became King in 1589. By now he’d firmly established his reputation as a KIng of the people and spent some of his best years enjoying the good life, for which he also became known as the Vert Galant, old charmer, due to his many amorous escapades. Rumor has it that he fathered over a thousand children throughout Gascony.
Ironically, in 1610, Henri was murdered by a religious fanatic, François Ravaillac, and buried in the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris. During the French Revolution, revolutionaries plundered the Basilica and Henri’s head disappeared from the rest of his imbalmed body. The mystery of its whereabouts remained unknown until 2010, when a head, reported to be that of Henri IV, was discovered among the private collection of a retired antique dealer. A forensic medical team confirmed that it was, indeed, the head of Henri IV. It was given to Louis Alphonse, the Duke de Anjou, the King’s senior descendant. In 2011, he had it re-interred in the Basilica of St. Denis in Paris.
The city of Nérac, once home to Henry IV’s court, bears little resemblance to its former bucolic beauty, though it remains one of the most attractive larger villages in the Lot-et-Garonne department. During the Wars of Religion, Henry’s son, Louis XIII, had the entire city destroyed, and the only building that remained was the Chateau of Henri IV which is currently open daily for visitation in the heart of the centre ville. Nérac lay fallow until the 18th century when it developed into a thriving agricultural community. So important, economically, was the city thought to be, that in 1830, Baron Haussmans, who redesigned Paris in the 1850’s, was sent to rebuild its road network.
Devastating floods in 1952 made the Baise River, which runs through the heart of the city, completely unnavigable and it remained so until the early 1990’s. Today, Nérac is a charming, lively city boasting one of the best Saturday farmer’s markets in the region. You can arrive early, have a mouth watering pastry at the corner patisserie with a cup of delicious coffee, then set off on a leisurely stroll through the many market stalls. You can also ride one of several riverboats along the now picturesque Baise River or promenade beneath the shade of a variety of old trees in the grand park, La Garenne, that Jeanne d’Albret’s husband, Antoine de Bourbon designed, that runs along the riverbank. This park, with its many hidden nooks and crannies, was the inspiration for Shakespeare’s, Love’s Labours Lost.