This Day in History -- "Paris is Worth a Mass"

On July 25, 1593, the Huguenot Henry of Navarre went to the Church of St. Denis, north of Paris, to renounce Protestantism, convert to Roman Catholicism, secure the loyalty of Parisians and become King Henry IV of France. "Paris vaut bien une messe," he reportedly remarked--"Paris is well worth a mass."

Born in 1553, Henry barely escaped martyrdom in the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre in August, 1572, while in Paris to marry Margaret of Valois.  For the next several years, Henry was involved in fighting a powerful coalition of French nobles led by the Duke of Guise and styling itself "the Catholic League." 

In 1589, Henry and a cousin who was reigning as Henry III were laying siege to Catholic League-controlled Paris when a Dominican lay brother with ties to the League successfully infiltrated the king's entourage and assassinated him. By right of the applicable laws of succession, Henry of Navarre became king of France at that moment, but he would have to defeat the Catholic League if he was to reign over the whole country. 

Although given arms and advisors by Elizabeth I of England, Henry was unable to prevail over the Catholic League, which was supported by Phillip II of Spain.  After four years of inconclusive fighting, Henry concluded that if he wanted to be king of all France, he would have to convert to Roman Catholicism.  So on this day in 1593, he rode off to St. Denis to abjure Protestantism.

He was a tolerant king, very well liked by his subjects, who called him, Henri le Grand "Henry the Great," and le bon roi Henri "the good king Henry."   In 1598, he issued the Edict of Nantes, granting toleration to the Huguenots and other Protestants.  The Edict of Nantes largely ended religious persecution in France for 87 years, until Henry's grandson, Louis XIV, the so-called "Sun King," revoked it in 1685. 

Hard core Roman Catholics always suspected that Henry had converted to Catholicism for reasons of state, and resented the toleration he extended to the Huguenots.  A fanatical Catholic assassinated Henry in 1610, while his royal coach was stuck in traffic.  He was buried at the same Basilica of St. Denis at which he had converted, the traditional burial place of the French kings. 

Today, St. Denis is an overwhelmingly Muslim suburb of Paris.