Gabrielle d’Estreés came from a family of women who were courtesans. She had the great fortune to become the maîtresse-en-titre or official chief mistress of King Henri IV of France. The circumstance which differentiates her from other official royal mistresses is the fact that Henri was willing to marry her.
Gabrielle was born c. 1573 at either the Château de la Bourdaisière in Montlouis-sur-Loire in Touraine or at the château de Cœuvres in Picardy. Her father was Antoine d’Estreés, Baron Boulonnois, Vicomte de Soissons Bersy, Marquis of Cœuvres and Governor of the Île-de-France. Her mother was Françoise Babou La Bourdaisière. Gabrielle’s mother had served as lady-in-waiting to Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots when she became the wife of King François II. Françoise had many lovers right after she married Gabrielle’s father but later settled down to a period of maternal fecundity, bearing ten children in ten years. After that, Françoise took a lover and created a scandal by leaving her family. She bore another daughter out of wedlock and then was promptly murdered in her bed along with her lover by some dissatisfied tenants.
Gabrielle was given an education but she didn’t have an aptitude for it. She was not well trained in comportment but did learn a great deal about feminine wiles and the ways of gallantry. Gabrielle and her six sisters engaged in gross sexual misconduct and were infamous for their roles as courtesans. Gabrielle’s beauty was remarked upon by many. She was tall with a graceful walk, had blonde hair and blue eyes with a perfectly pale complexion. Early on she attracted the attention of the grand equerry of France, Roger de Saint-Larry, Duke of Bellegarde, and promptly became his lover.
Henri was the Protestant King of Navarre, married to Marguerite de Valois and heir to the throne of France. When King Henri III was assassinated on August 2, 1589, he named Henri as his heir. But it wasn’t an easy task for him to claim the crown. He was forced to fight the Catholic League who were dead set against a Protestant king. In November 1590, as the siege of Paris dragged on, Bellegarde conspired to introduce Gabrielle to Henri. They travelled to Cœuvres where Gabrielle lived and Henri immediately developed an intense passion for her. Legend says she held out in giving herself to him until January of 1591 during the siege of Chartres. By April of 1591, their relationship was acknowledged as official although Bellegarde may still have been her lover.
Early on during her relationship with the king, Gabrielle’s father had arranged a marriage to the widower Nicholas d’Amerval, lord of Liancourt, Baron Benais. Bellegarde had shown interest in marrying Gabrielle too but gave up once the king got involved with her. Gabrielle was dead set against the marriage but could not defy her father.
In 1593, for reasons unknown, Gabrielle became singularly loyal and devoted to the king and began accompanying him on campaign, even while pregnant, living in his tent near the battlefield. She was practical and intelligent, making sure his clothes were clean, pounding them with rocks when she ran out of soap. She made sure he had a good meal after a day’s battle. She also handled his day to day diplomatic and political correspondence. Henri trusted her, telling her his most important secrets and following her advice. When they weren’t together, Henri wrote her regularly. Henri was worried about her life being in danger and insisted she return to Paris. She replied that she was only happy in his presence.
Henri inundated Gabrielle with gifts, making her extremely wealthy. It may have been about this time that Henri considered making her his queen. Gabrielle’s marriage could be easily annulled by the French clergy but the King’s annulment would need papal approval. Gabrielle convinced Henri that the kingdom of France was worth changing his religion and on July 25, 1593, Henri converted to Catholicism at Saint-Denis, famously saying “Paris is worth a Mass”. That same year, the military campaign to take control of Paris became more successful for Henri and the Parlement of Paris recognized him as king. He was solidly on the throne and was crowned at Chartres on February 27, 1594.
On September 15, 1594, he made a triumphal entry into Paris. This was Gabrielle’s first public appearance as a member of the royal entourage. She rode in a magnificent, open litter before the king, wearing a black satin dress which was tufted all over with white and was covered in pearls and sparkling gems. It must have made quite an impression. It was the only time someone proceeded him in any fashion and was clearly a public statement of her elevated status.
Gabrielle gave birth to a son César, Duke of Vendôme in June of 1594. On January 7, 1595, Henri had Gabrielle’s marriage to Liancourt annulled by forcing her husband to admit he was impotent in court. The next day Henri decreed that Gabrielle was to be attended by a court and a suite of rooms was prepared for her at the Louvre. Henri officially recognized and legitimized César in a testament which he had validated by the Parlement of Paris. In the same document, he recognized Gabrielle as the child’s mother and as a subject most worthy of his friendship. Basically Henri made the Parlement officially endorse Gabrielle’s position as his mistress, granting her the title of “Titulary Mistress of His Majesty, King of France”.
Gabrielle gave birth to two other children. Catherine-Henriette de Bourbon was born in 1596 and Alexandre de Bourbon was born in 1598. Henri later recognized these two children as legitimate. In 1596, Henri ennobled Gabrielle giving her the title of Marchioness of Montceaux which included the Châteaux Royal de Montceaux. Gabrielle continued the beautification work on Montceaux which had been started by Queen Catherine de’ Medici along with constructing new buildings. In 1597, Henri made Gabrielle the Duchess of Beaufort and later gave her the title of Duchess of Verneuil.
Henri was very public with his displays of affection with Gabrielle, enough for it to be commented on. One chronicler was disgusted by the behavior of Henri and Gabrielle at a masked ball at Fontainebleau. They kept raising their masks to kiss each other.
During another ball in Paris, Henri received a dispatch that the Spanish had made a surprise attack and captured the city of Amiens. Henri was ready to leave immediately. Gabrielle went to her personal treasury in the Louvre and gave Henri fifty thousand pieces of gold to help pay for troops and provisions. While Henri raised troops, Gabrielle visited members of the nobility to ask for donations to the cause. She managed to collect an additional two hundred and fifty thousand ecus. She also took her most lavish pieces of jewelry to be pawned with the richest banker in Paris.
During another particularly fierce battle, the French troops were surprised by a unit of Austrian soldiers. As the French fled the scene, Gabrielle came out to yell at the top of her lungs for the troops to continue the fight, even though cannonballs were flying around her and the Austrians were dangerously close. Henri rode up to her and ordered her to be picked up by a horseman and taken to the rear of the camp.
Henri used Gabrielle as his chief diplomat and relied on her female friends from families of the Catholic League to garner peace. In March of 1596, he sanctioned seats on his council for Gabrielle and her sister Catherine. On the council, she helped form laws, she received ambassadors and worked very hard to end the religious civil war. She used her charm and gifts of persuasion and conciliation to arbitrate complex problems. She was allowed to have direct communication with the Pope. She used this as a weapon to convince the Pope to officially accept Henri’s conversion to Catholicism. She succeeded.
In 1597, Henri made peace with the Catholic opposition. He could now work to reconcile supporters of the two religions. After the peace, there was another triumphal entry into Paris. Gabrielle sat next to the king and was waited on by the Duchess of Guise at the celebratory feast. As the duchess presented her with dainty dishes, she used one hand to select her food and offered the other to the king to kiss.
In 1598, Henri signed the Edict of Nantes, giving the Protestant Huguenots certain rights in an effort to promote civil unity between Protestants and Catholics. Gabrielle and her Protestant sister Catherine worked to overcome the objections of powerful Catholics and Huguenots to strengthen compliance with the Edict. Henri was exceedingly impressed with her efforts.
In the 1590’s, Gabrielle was in charge of a large household that included eighty-three ladies and gentlemen, seventeen crown officials and over two hundred servants. Gabrielle was the regular recipient of lavish gifts from foreign monarchs and French nobility. Some of the gifts she received included a large diamond and sapphire brooch mounted in gold from Queen Elizabeth I of England, twenty-four silver goblets from Archduke Ferdinando de’ Medici of Tuscany, an emerald pin from a French politician, a jar of refined perfumed oil from a noblewoman and two stags from a courtier which he had just killed in the hunt.
On November 17, 1598, Gabrielle moved into the queen’s apartments at the Louvre and began to be attended to as if she was the queen. She was pregnant for the fourth time and Henri wanted the child to be legitimate which probably impacted his decision to marry her. On January 20, 1599, Henri personally wrote to the Pope, begging for an annulment. In February of 1599, during a festival at the Louvre, Henri gave Gabrielle his coronation ring, promising to marry her. He then sent nobles and cardinals to the Vatican to plead his case for an annulment of his marriage to Marguerite and permission to remarry.
Although Henri had legitimized Gabrielle’s two sons, they were born out of wedlock and would not have been considered legitimate heirs to the throne. But Henri seemed more than willing to do this even though it would have created a succession crisis. The French aristocracy bore a grudge against Gabrielle because of her relationship with Henri. Cruel pamphlets were circulated blaming her for many of the ills and misfortunes of society and calling her a whore. Gabrielle’s household was very expensive to keep up and some resented her for the expenses she incurred. With Henri’s declaration to marry her, attacks on Gabrielle became more vehement. Clergymen began preaching sermons against her.
Pope Clement VIII was adverse to Henri’s plan to repudiate Marguerite, even though she had long been separated from the king. Clement worried about the possibility of Henri’s children from an adulterous relationship causing a succession crisis. But eventually it looked like Clement was about to issue the annulment.
The wedding of Gabrielle and Henri was to take place on Easter Sunday 1599. Gabrielle was five months pregnant. She had sailed through her first three pregnancies with excellent health but this time was different. She didn’t feel well, was peevish and fretful. She suffered nightmares and had a gloomy sense of foreboding. Three days before the wedding she traveled by barge to Paris to prepare while Henri remained at Fontainebleau. When she departed, she burst into tears and held on to him. She may have known it was the last time she would see him.
In Paris, she had dinner at the house of a friend where she had a lemon or lemonade. The next afternoon she was in labor. She was in dreadful pain. The child was dead in her womb and the doctors worked to remove him. She had convulsions. Her face turned black and her mouth twisted to the side. Even though there were two surgeons, three apothecaries and priest in attendance, Gabrielle died giving birth to a stillborn son. Those friends who saw her were so shocked by her appearance they fainted.
Due to the strangeness of her death, rumors of poison were swift to appear. The doctors concluded she had been killed by a corrupt lemon. But the symptoms are more in line with eclampsia, a condition during pregnancy that causes fatal increases in blood pressure. Another suggestion for cause of death is placenta previa. Servants stole rings from her fingers. Her father took from storage royal furniture she had ordered for her apartments as queen.
Henri was at the Château de Fontainebleau when he received news of her illness. As he made his way to her on April 10, he learned that Gabrielle had died. Henri was devastated by her death. He wore black in mourning for her which etiquette and tradition did not allow a French king to do. Henri gave her a royal funeral. Her coffin was accompanied by many princes, princesses and nobles to the church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois in Paris where a requiem mass was celebrated. She was then interred in the church of Notre-Dame-La-Royale de Maubuisson Abbey in Saint-Ouen-l’Aumône (Val-d’Oise, Île-de-France). After the funeral, the wax effigy used in the ceremony was propped up in a small chamber off of Henri’s apartments in the Louvre. Each day it was dressed in a new gown and Henri would visit the figure for many years.
Gabrielle is the only mistress Henri was entirely faithful to. He soon realized declaring his sons by her as his heirs would be a calculated mistake. He went on a womanizing spree and started courting Henriette d’Entragues, making large payments to her. She would replace Gabrielle as his official mistress. He also offered marriage to Marie de’ Medici after his first marriage was annulled in December of 1599. She would become the next queen of France in November of 1600 and mother of his heir, the future King Louis XIII.
Further reading: “Sex With Kings: 500 Years of Adultery, Power, Rivalry and Revenge” by Eleanor Herman, “Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France” by Kathleen Wellman