King Henri III and His Mignons
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Published in: July-August 2020 issue.


CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI, Dowager Queen of France in the age of Shakespeare, Cervantes, and Rabelais, had bad luck with her sons. Although each was to ascend a throne, as Nostradamus had predicted to her, each came to a sticky end. François II died in a freak jousting accident. Charles IX succumbed to a “bloody flux” (some said he was poisoned). And Henri III (1551–1589) was assassinated by a religious fanatic.

            This last fate is the least surprising, for it was an age of religious wars. Catholics and Protestants were at one another’s throats all over Christendom. At his mother’s instigation, Charles had unleashed the Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre, which slaughtered thousands of French Huguenots. Both the Catholic Duc de Guise and the Protestant Admiral Coligny were savagely murdered after previous attempts. The recent invention of movable type allowed all factions to print cheap broadsides and caricatures inflaming passions by demonizing their opponents as misbegotten monsters. It was amid this welter of blood and calumny that the modern image of the effeminate homosexual took shape.

Figure 1. Alexandre Édouard de Valois before becoming King of France as Henri III. Portrait by François Clouet.

            Henri had just been elected King of Poland in recognition of his military valor when he was recalled to Paris in 1574 to replace his dead brother (Figure 1). He was soon under attack from both camps. Even before his coronation, outside observers had commented unfavorably on Henri’s appearance, his unmanly demeanor, and such pastimes as masquerade cross-dressing. Giovanni Correr noted in 1569 that he “sta volontieri fra le dame” (likes to hang out with the ladies), and the Venetian ambassador Giovanni Michieli reported in 1572 that “he keeps for the most part among the ladies, dowsing himself in perfume, reeking of scent, primping and curling his hair, putting pendants in his ears [which, another ambassador commented, were pierced] and rings of all sort. You have no idea the prices he pays for the beauty and elegance of his shirts.” (See Figure 2.)

            Henri’s innovations in court etiquette, his sartorial refinements, and the intensity of his male friendships expressed his tastes, but were also part of his policy. Often based on Italian practice, they were marks of elitism, a prerequisite to entering the world of high politics. As his reign began, these whimsies raised eyebrows but not ire. Gradually, his “leadership style” provoked

Figure 2. Henri III, when King of France. Painting by François Clouet.

greater dissatisfaction, and Henri’s eccentricities came to be deplored by the middle classes and the lower echelons of the clergy. Despite heavy censorship and laws against press freedom, sermons fulminated against the king and lampoons flourished. By 1577, a police edict admitted that banned satires were selling better than ever, circulated by itinerant peddlers.

            Both in words and images, the strongest attacks excoriated the “effeminacy” of Henri and his immediate circle, the “mignons.” The term “effeminé” had only recently come into usage and was ambiguous in its meaning. Effeminacy commonly implied lust and over-indulgence in sensual pleasures. One could become effeminate from too much intercourse with women, since women were believed to be more sexually active and avid than men.

            Mignon” as it appears in Rabelais simply means a companion or, as “mignon de couche,” a woman’s bedfellow. By July 1576, when the Parisian burgher Pierre de L’Estoile first notes it in his diary, the word had become current as a scornful term for the king’s favorites:


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Laurence Senelick is the author ofThe Changing Room: Sex, Drag and Theatre and Lovesick: Modernist Plays of Same-sex Love.