A series of true love stories which could not claim Henry of Navarre among the number of its heroes would be sadly incomplete, for a more romantic figure has rarely crossed the stage of history. A great warrior, a great statesman, a great king, he created order out of disorder, and enabled Louis XIV. later to win for France the fear and admiration of all Europe.
But Henry of Navarre has yet another claim to fame. He was essentially a man, and it is as a man, and as the last and, indeed, a spendid scion of the Age of Chivalry, that posterity has honoured him.
Big, strong, and generous, one cannot but admire him, in spite of all his faults. Half mediaeval, half modern, wayward, and impetuous, his was a big heart, and, like most great men, he loved and received the love of many women. Among these women, however, one stands out pre-eminent, and the story of his love for her, the story here recorded, is the most romantic of romances, conspicuous alike for its sincerity and its charm.
Gabrielle d'estrees was the daughter of a noble house of Picardy, and was about eighteen years of age when a capricious destiny brought her to the notice of Henry of Navarre. This first meeting, which took place in 1590-the year of the Battle of Ivry -was a result of what subsequently proved to be a serious indiscretion on the part of the King's Grand Equerry. The Equerry, a certain M. de Bellegarde, was himself madly in love with Gabrielle, and so persistently did he sing her praises in his monarch's ear that, at length, Henry's curiosity was aroused. He demanded that the lady should be shown to him, and, as a connoisseur of beauty, was astonished not a little when he found that her charms did not belie her reputation; was astonished, and, moreover, pleased. Henry had seen, and immediately was conquered.
But these were strenuous times. The forces of the Catholic League were still strong in Northern France, and so arduous and anxious was the fighting that, for the present, the champion of the down-trodden Huguenots had neither time nor opportunity even for love-making. Later, however, during a brief respite between campaigns, he found himself at Compiegne, and again in the presence of the lady of whom the impression of one fleeting glance had remained steadfast in his memory. Love would be denied no longer, and Henry now set to work to woo and win.
But first there was a rival to be disposed of. Forthwith, therefore, Henry summoned M. de Bellegarde to his presence, and-for with a servant he declined to fight a duel of love-commanded him to desist from his attentions, since Gabrielle had been chosen for his King. And the Grand Equerry, because he was a faithful servant and a loyal subject, had no alternative other than to obey. Sorrowfully, therefore, he departed, and acquainted Gabrielle with the royal behest.
But Gabrielle was a woman, and, as such, was mad with indignation when she realised the nature of the King's intentions. Had M. de Bellegarde betrayed her? Surely not, for she loved him dearly; loved him as much as she hated this other man who dared thus to use his kingship to impose himself upon her. But she would never yield to him, never; she told him so, and her resolution was determined. Moreover, in order to escape his importunity, she hastened stealthily to Coeuvres, her parents' home, alone, a dangerous journey across some seven leagues of. forest.
This, however, was an action which delighted Henry's heart; the woman had spirit, and he loved adventure. Heedless, therefore, to saner counsels, he set out in hot pursuit. To desert his army at this time, and on a quest of love, was a reckless act of folly which could have been perpetrated alone by Henry of Navarre, for in the forest still lurked numerous and scattered bands of Leaguers.
How, therefore, could the King's historic, waving plume escape detection? But to Henry danger was the salt of life. His was a resourceful daring. Accordingly, he donned the garments of a peasant, and, thus disguised, journeyed on foot, with " a sack of straw upon his head," and in due course presented himself before the castle gates.
Could any woman resist such pertinacity? Or, indeed, could any woman withstand the ardour and the fascination of this peasant king, this warrior giant, glowing with vigour and bronzed by the hardships of unceasing wars? Surely he was an irresistible Adonis. Henry felt confident; but, for once, the quarry had been underrated by the hunter, for Gabrielle, when she received him, laughed in his face, and then left him to the tender mercies of her sister. And that sister, a true daughter of her mother, quickly completed his discomfiture.
Humiliated, therefore, and shamed, Henry made his way back to the army and his jeering captains. His dignity and safety he had compromised in vain. He had been fooled and laughed at by a woman; it was ridiculous, preposterous; he was very angry. Opposition, however, served but to whet his will. His admiration for Gabrielle knew no bounds; he loved now as he had never loved before; the woman should be his; he would win her yet, in spite of all.
As soon as he had established his headquarters at Mantes, therefore, he appointed Gabrielle's father, the Marquis d'estrees, a member of the Royal Council, and sent word bidding him, with his family, to join the Court immediately. Resistance was futile. This Gabrielle must have realised, and, perhaps, already she began to love this masterful man who rode rough-shod over obstacles. Always courteous, always tender, he was a magnificent lover. Surely she loved him; surely she longed to yield, but she would not admit it-no, not yet.
But the Marquis d'estrees was shrewd enough to read the signs; he soon saw through Henry's transparent ruse, and, because he loved his daughter and knew to what dangers must be exposed the woman who accepts the favours of a king, strove hard to save Gabrielle from herself and him. But it was not easy for him to combine the functions of a good courtier and a good father. Perhaps, however, a husband could save his child. But to whom could he marry her? The man she loved, M. de Belle-garde, obviously could not be considered as a husband; he must find, therefore, another suitor. The idea of finding a husband for Gabrielle, however, appealed strongly to Henry also, and while the Marquis still was weighing the qualifications of the eligible, Gabrielle, relying on a promise that he should be a husband to her only in name, accepted the hand of the King's nominee, and became the wife of the Sieur de Liancourt, an elderly but wealthy cripple.