Gabrielle d'Estrèes (1573-1599), later Marquise de Monceaux and Duchesse de Beaufort, is immortalized both in the famous painting "Gabrielle d'Estrèes and One of Her Sisters" and as the extraordinary mistress of Henry IV, King of France.

The beautiful, blonde and blue-eyed Gabrielle was a close friend of the King's sister, Catherine of Navarre. King Henri first made advances to her in 1591, but she rejected them. In June 1592 her father arranged for her to marry the middle-aged widower Nicolas d'Amerval. (When she learned of the arranged marriage, Gabrielle did not speak for four days. It is speculated that this marriage was to "protect" her from the King, who was legally married, but estranged.) D'Amerval always claimed he never slept with her; later, after the birth of Gabrielle and Henri's first child, poor d'Amerival was coerced into saying he was impotent so that a divorce could be granted. (The "impotent" d'Amerval had managed to sire fourteen children with his first wife.) In any case, on September 4 of 1592, Gabrielle packed up and traveled with the King from that day onward.

Nor was this a jaunt in the country. Henri was at war with rebellious factions throughout France, and constantly campaigning for the first years of their relationship. Gabrielle--often pregnant--stayed with him on campaign, combining the roles of camp follower and aide-de-camp: living in tents, seeing he was properly fed, nursing him when he was sick, and personally washing his clothes. She also wrote his dispatches. Famously, the couple were at a ball in Paris in 1596 when word arrived that the Spanish had captured Amiens in a surprise attack. Gabrielle went to her strongboxes, emptied them totally, and gave all the cash to Henri. She then canvassed the nobility for donations, but must have decided it was not enough, since she also pawned all of her jewelry and set out towards the front.

"Last evening I found three bullet holes burned into the fabric of my mistress' tent, and begged her to go to her house in Paris, where her life would not be endangered, but she laughed and was deaf to my pleas... She replied that only in my presence is she pleased. I entertain no fears for myself, but daily tremble for her." King Henri.

Once during a battle, Austrian soldiers appeared unexpectedly and caused the two companies of French to flee. Gabrielle ignored the flying cannonballs and shouted out for the French to stay and fight. She stayed and shouted even when the Austrians came within fifty paces of her; Henri eventually ordered her slung over a horse and taken to the rear.

Gabrielle was instrumental in convincing the Huguenot Henri to convert to Catholicism, which would unite the country and open up the possibility of the Pope granting Henri a divorce from his estranged wife, Marguerite de Valois. Quipping, "Paris is well worth a Mass", Henri eventually converted.

At court, Gabrielle was officially recognized as royal mistress--Henri appointed her "Titulary Mistress of His Majesty, the King of France", and heads of state sent gifts to her. The King decreed that all foreign ambassadors were to be presented to her. But Gabrielle was more than just a pretty face; she was also an astute politician. She negotiated with the Pope to get him to stop supporting Spanish raiding into south of France, and to accept Henri's conversion. It worked. Soon, the Pope was instructing French religious houses to pray for the health of King Henri. She also negotiated with the Duc de Mayenne, leader of the de Guise clan which had been battling the King. Gabrielle had close female relatives among the de Guises; together, they conspired to get the men to play nice. Each worked on her respective menfolk until both made concessions--and peace.

In 1596, Henri gave proven diplomat Gabrielle the symbolic gold keys of his government council, entitling her to a place on it (to discourage scandal, he also gave his Protestant sister Catherine keys). (Gabrielle was not the first royal mistress to have an official place in the government; Diane de Poitiers, mistress of Henri II, had served on the royal council forty years earlier.) She wore them proudly on public occasions. Catherine and Gabrielle both worked tirelessly to reconcile French Catholics and Protestants, and succeeded rather well.

Gabrielle's last great diplomatic victory occured in 1597. The last rebel against Henri was the Duc de Mercoeur, of Brittany. The two armies were facing each other when Gabrielle invited Mercour's wife to a private conversation in her carriage. They arranged Mercour's honorable surrender, and while they were at it, they arranged a marriage between their children. The men agreed to the decision. Henri created Gabrielle the Duchesse de Beaufort (he had made her the Marquise de Monceaux earlier, in 1594).

During this time, Gabrielle had given birth to three children: César de Bourbon (later Duke of Vendome) in 1594; Catherine-Henriette de Bourbon in 1596; and Alexandre (later Chevalier de Vendome) in 1598. Henri had vowed to marry her (thereby legitimizing their children) and make her Queen of France; to show his sincerity, he gave her the large diamond ring that he had received at his coronation, symbolic of his marriage to France. Henri applied for a divorce from the Pope, and, confident it would be granted, set the wedding for Easter Sunday 1599. At this time, Gabrielle--who had already moved into the official Queen's apartments, and was Queen in all but name--was five months pregnant. Her first three pregnancies had all been easy and healthy, but this time was different; she was unhealthy, she felt unwell, fearful, and suffered from nightmares. When she bid goodbye to Henri three days before Easter--she was going to Paris to prepare--she burst into tears and clung to him on the riverbank.

Two days later Gabrielle was in premature labor. The child was dead; doctors needed to dismember it inside her and draw it out. On Easter Sunday, hours before she was to become Queen of France, Gabrielle was also dead. Contemporary doctors ascribed her death to eating a bad lemon, (though rumors of poison flew) but modern-day science believes it was probably a septic pregnancy. Many, of course, knew that it was God's wrath, striking the harlot down before they were saddled with her as Queen.

Henri had raced to see her when he heard of her illness, but he was stopped on the way with news of her death. He immediately went into black mourning--unheard of among French monarchs, who usually wore white or violet.

Nothing remained of Gabrielle's famous beauty. Her agonized grimaces had been so horrible that her mouth twisted around towards the back of her head; it stayed there, unmoveable at her death. Her coffin was nailed shut, and mourners visited a wax effigy instead. She had a Queen's funeral in everything except for location--Notre Dame was barred to the non-royal, so Henri held services at the Basilica of St. Denis. After burial, the effigy was transferred to the King's apartments; he visited it often, and it was dressed in a new dress every day. During his lifetime, Henri is believed to have had over 50 lovers. Gabrielle was the only one he was ever faithful to.

Sex With Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry, and Revenge by Eleanor Herrman. This is a kickass book, and you should read it.

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