In the summer of 1589, France was afflicted by the Wars of Religion. The authority of King Henri III was severely destabilized by a litany of political parties which were being funded by foreign powers. The Catholic League was supported by King Philip II of Spain, the protestant French Huguenots were supported by the Dutch and Queen Elizabeth I of England and the Malcontents who were led by Henri’s younger brother the Duke of Alençon. The Malcontents were made up of Catholic and protestant aristocrats who jointly opposed the absolutist ambitions of the king. Henri himself took the position that a strong and religiously tolerant monarchy would save France from collapse.
During this religious and political strife, there was a young Burgundian Dominican lay brother named Jacques Clément who became fanatically religious and an ardent partisan of the Catholic League. He viewed any Protestantism as heresy and many heard him talk of exterminating the Huguenots and formulating a plan to assassinate King Henri. His schemes were encouraged by some of the heads of the Catholic League, in particular Catherine de Guise, Duchess Montpensier. He was assured he would reap worldly rewards if he succeeded and eternal bliss if he failed. On July 31, Clément came into possession of letters for the King and left Paris to travel to Saint-Cloud, the headquarters of Henri who was besieging Paris.
Clément arrived on August 1 and was admitted to the king’s presence disguised as a priest. While he presented the letters to the king, he told Henri he had a confidential message to deliver. His attendants withdrew and as Clément leaned in close to the king to whisper in his ear, he stabbed Henri with a dagger which he had concealed under his cloak. The assassin was immediately seized and killed by Henri’s attendants. Henri was still alive and was being attended by physicians. During this interval he dictated the following letter to his wife Queen Louise.
My enemies perceiving that all their artifices and rebellion were fruitless; and that their only hope of safety lay in my death, aware of my zeal and fidelity for the holy Roman Apostolic Faith, and that it was my custom never to refuse audience to ecclesiastics, they decided that no more feasible method existed of executing their accursed design than to hide it under the monastic mantle and cowl – thus outraging all laws human and divine, and violating the sanctity of the priestly habit.
This morning while I was alone in my cabinet with the sieur de Bellegarde, my attorney-general brought to me by my commandment, a young Dominican, who stated that he had letters from the first president of my parliament, and declared he had a message to deliver from the said president. After presenting me with the letters from the first president, the said monk, pretending that he had some secret communications to make, I desired the said Bellegarde and my attorney-general to retire a little. This wicked wretch then gave me a stab with a knife, thinking to kill me; but the Almighty, who is the Guardian of kings, willed not that His humble servant should perish for the reverence he has shown to those who declared themselves specially devoted to His service. God by his mercy so directed the blow, that the wound is slight; and I hope in a few days to recover my accustomed health, in which trust I am encouraged, first by my own sensations; secondly, by the opinion of my surgeons and physicians, who believe that no danger exists. I have thought it wise to advertise you of my true condition, that you may not be alarmed by false and contrary reports.”
The letter was dictated by Henri to his secretary Megret. Henri added a postscript in his own hand:
“M’Amye, – I hope soon to be well. Pray God for me and do not leave the place where you now are!
Au Pont de St. Cloud, the first day of August, 1589
Due to the confusion that ensued after the assassination of King Henri, the letter was given to a messenger who actually held on to it for a year. It was only delivered to Louise after she insisted he hand it over. Henri suffered on and off as the wound became infected. He had been stuck in the abdomen and the intestines had been perforated and protruded from the wound. He spoke to his nobles and to his heir, Henri, King of Navarre. At two in the morning on August 2, Henri awoke and asked for his confessor and he was given the last sacraments. He made his submission to the Holy See in front of witnesses and he died at four that morning.
A post-mortem examination was immediately made and it was determined that Henri had died of internal bleeding. Jacques Clément’s body was taken to the plaza in front of the church of St. Cloud and after having been torn asunder by horses, it was burned and the ashes were scattered to the wind. Henri III was buried in the Chapelle de Valois in the church of St. Denis on August 5.
Further reading: “Henri III, King of France and Poland: His Court and Times” by Martha Walker Freer, entry on Jacques Clément in the 1911 Encyclopedia Brittannica, Volume 6