- King Henry:
- Weep not sweet Navarre, but revenge my death.
- Ah Epernoun, is this thy love to me?
- Henry thy King wipes off these childish tears,
- And bids thee whet thy sword on Sixtus' bones,
- That it may keenly slice the Catholics.
- He loves me not the best that sheds most tears,
- But he that makes most lavish of his blood.
- The Massacre at Paris, Scene XXIV.95-101
The Massacre at Paris
The Assassination of King Henry
Location: Saint Cloud, Near Paris
The culmination of the tragedy finds the two King Henries of France and Navarre joining forces to attack the Catholic League in their Parisian stronghold.1 But no sooner have the two made their pact and recognised their new found amity, than the Jacobin friar tricks his way into the King's presence under the pretence of delivering a letter. As Henry III reads the letter, he is stabbed, but in the struggle is able to kill the friar in return. When it becomes clear that Henry will not survive, the King declares Navarre as official heir to the French throne, who ends the play vowing yet more revenge.
The Henries' Pact
Henry III "sorrows much" (XXIV.1) for the past enmity between the two rulers. He it is that is in far greater need of an ally now, and also has much to apologise to the Huguenot leader for. The audience will remember that, as Anjou, he played a significant role in the Massacre, stabbing Ramus whilst offering only token denials of his involvement to Navarre in Scene IX. He it was too that has waged an active war against the Huguenots, including the appointment of his mignon Joyeux as General to lead the French forces against Navarre in the battle of Coutras (Scene XV). Now though, in his desperate state, he is eager to "recompense your reconciled love, / With all the honours and affections, / That ever I vouchsaf'd my dearest friends" (XXIV.6-8). Navarre is a little less effusive, content enough if he be "esteemed faithful to the King of France, / Whose service he may still command to death" (XXIV.10-11).
The Friar Arrives and Stabs Henry III
The friar is announced as having been "sent from the President of Paris" with a letter. Epernoun is immediately suspicious and advises a security search for concealed weapons. But Henry is more trusting, having faith that "holy men ... will not offer violence to their King, / For all the wealth and treasure of the world" (XXIV.24-25). It is not, of course, financial gain that motivates the assassin, and when Henry asks him if he "acknowledges me as King" (XXIV.26),2 the Jacobin ambiguously replies "Ay, my good Lord, and will die therein" (XXIV.27). Henry presumably takes this to be the swearing of loyal allegiance, but the audience know what's coming from the previous scene: as Henry reads the letter, the friar "stabs the King with a knife" (XXIV.33.1 SD). However, in the struggle Henry somehow "getteth the knife and kills [the friar]" (XXIV.33.2 SD).3
Epernoun wishes that the King had "let [the friar] live, / [that] We might have punish'd him for his deserts" (XXIV.44-45), but Henry is happy to "let the villain die, and feel in hell, / Just torments for his treachery" (XXIV.35-36), noting that his death will act as an example to those who think to "bear arms against their sovereign" (XXIV.48). Initially, nobody is aware of the severity of the king's injuries, including Henry himself, although Navarre has the good sense to call for a surgeon to inspect the wound.
Henry's Message for the Queen of England
In the meantime, the King calls for "the English agent" to be brought to him, so that he can "send my sister England news of this, / And give her warning of her treacherous foes" (XXIV.50-51). Whilst this might be Marlowe's addition for the interest of an English audience, Henry was widely perceived by the Catholics in France as having an affinity for England.4 More tantalising though is Marlowe possibly introducing his own personal experience here. We know that Marlowe "had done Her Majesty good service" in connection with Rheims in the mid 1580's,5 and he is also glimpsed in Flushing (on the Dutch coast), where he and his nemesis Richard Baines swap counter-accusations of coining and threatening to "go to the enemy or to Rome".6 It thus seems certain that Marlowe had undertaken some work as a government agent, and might therefore be making some reference to that experience here.7
Henry has a message for Queen Elizabeth which he addresses to the English agent, which is in effect a death-bed conversion.8 No longer is it a personal war against the Guise faction; the treachery of the Jacobin friar has turned him against the Church of Rome. If he lives, he promises that "the papal Monarch goes / To wrack, an antichristian kingdom falls" (XXIV.58-59); Henry's "bloody hands shall tear his triple Crown, / And fire accursed Rome about his ears" (XXIV.60-61). He turns to Navarre, his long time Huguenot enemy, and "here do swear, / To ruinate this wicked Church of Rome" (XXIV.64-65). He finishes by expressing his love for the two protestant rulers, "to thee [Navarre], / And to the Queen of England especially, / Whom God hath bless'd for hating Popery" (XXIV.67-69).
The Wound is Declared Fatal and so Henry Announces Navarre as his Heir
Unfortunately, having thus declared his intention to take up the Protestant cause, the surgeon announces the results of his examination, that "the wound is dangerous, / For you are stricken with a poisoned knife" (XXIV.73-74). The surgeon tells the king straight, "Your Highness cannot live" (XXIV.84). His mignon Epernoun is distraught, but Henry quickly accepts his fate.
In his final 'death-bed' speech, Henry declares Navarre will be the next King of France, and urges his followers to "Fight in the quarrel of this valiant Prince, / For he is your lawful King and my next heir," since "Valois's line ends in my tragedy" (XXIV.90.92).He holds out the hope that the new royal house of Bourbon will "never end in blood as mine hath done" (XXIV.94).9 At the same time Henry implores Navarre to "revenge my death" (XXIV.95), and Epernoun too: "whet thy sword on Sextus' bones, / That it may keenly slice the Catholics" (XXIV.98-99), and not forgetting to "Fire Paris where these treacherous rebels lurk" (XXIV.102). His dying words appear to be directed at the English agent once more: "Salute the Queen of England in my name, / And tell her Henry dies her faithful friend" (XXIV.104-105).
Navarre, now King Henry IV of France, makes the final speech of the play, vowing yet more revenge in response to this latest assassination. "Rome and all those popish Prelates there," he declares, "shall curse the time that e'er Navarre was King, / And ruled in France by Henry's fatal death" (XXIV.109-111). Although the playwright could not know it at the time he was writing, in real life Henry IV would in fact only finally assert his regal authority in France by converting to Catholicism,10 enabling him finally to be crowned in 1594. One can't help feeling that Marlowe would have appreciated the irony of such a final twist, one that, as implausible as it may have seemed at the time, would not have looked out of place as a climax to his own play.
- Note 1: Henry III and Navarre actually signed an accord in April 1589. Henry III was stabbed on 01 August, and died the following day. See the historical summary of the assassination of Henry III. Back to Text
- Note 2: Henry was deeply unpopular in much of France after murdering Guise, with the Sorbonne and the Pope refuting his right to the crown as a result. Back to Text
- Note 3: Some might note a prophetic similarity with the death of Marlowe himself on 30 May 1593. According to the record of the Coroner's Inquisition, Marlowe "drew the dagger of the said Ingram which was at his back, and with the same dagger ... then & there maliciously gave the aforesaid Ingram two wounds on his head ... where-upon the said Ingram, in fear of being slain, ... in his own defence & for the saving of his life, then & there struggled with the said Christopher Morley to get back from him his dagger aforesaid; in which affray the same Ingram ... gave the said Christopher ... a mortal wound over his right eye of the depth of two inches & of the width of one inch; of which mortal wound the aforesaid Christopher Morley then & there instantly died" - PRO Chancery C260/174/27. Back to Text
- Note 4: [Briggs], p.271, mentions that this was "another favourite theme of League pamphleteers, for whom his acceptance of the Order of the Garter represented a feeble, if not a positively dangerous dependence on 'la Jesabel Anglaise'." Back to Text
- Note 5: PRO Privy Council Registers PC2/14/381 - read a transcript of the privy council's letter to Cambridge University authorities. Back to Text
- Note 6: PRO SP 84/44/60 - A letter from the Governor of Flushing, Sir Robert Sidney, to Lord Burghley reporting the arrest and deportation of Marlowe and Baines. Read a transcript at Peter Farey's website. Back to Text
- Note 7: See Marlowe's Own Experience. Back to Text
- Note 8: In fact Henry remained true to his religion, holding a mass as he lay dying, and pushing Navarre to convert to Catholicism even as he named him his successor. Back to Text
- Note 9: In fact, despite eventually converting faiths, asserting his authority, and establishing a successful reign, Henry IV too would eventually be murdered by a Catholic assassin in 1610. See the historical summary of the reign of Henry IV. Back to Text
- Note 10: Henry IV was alleged to have famously declared that "Paris vaut bien une messe" ("Paris is worth a mass"). Back to Text