Elizabeth I's Unlikely Ally
BBC Earth|January - February 2021
She was the defiantly Protestant queen of England; he was the Catholic king of France. And yet, against the odds, the two became firm friends. And yet, against the odds, the two became firm friends. Estelle Paranque reveals how common enemies drove Henri III and Elizabeth I into one another’s affections
Estelle Paranque

ElizabethI wasn’t the only monarch fighting for her survival in 1588. In May that year, as the Spanish Armada prepared to embark upon an invasion of England, another military force was besieging Paris, forcing the unfortunate French king, Henri III, into flight.

Things were looking bleak for Henri as he sheltered in the nearby city of Chartres. His enemies, led by the formidable Guise family, were in the ascendant; backing for his ailing regime was draining away. Yet he wasn’t without the support and, when it materialised, it came from an unlikely source. It arrived in the form of a fervent Protestant named Thomas Bodley, dispatched to Chartres by none other than Queen Elizabeth I herself.

Bodley was charged with the delivery of a letter in Elizabeth’s hand. In it, the queen declared: “You cannot truly believe that I am on any other side but yours.” Henri received Bodley warmly, finding, he revealed, “more kindness in his good sister the queen of England than in all the princes, his friends and allies besides”.

It was indeed a surprising turn of events. Henri was a Catholic, while Elizabeth was a Protestant. Their nations had been at loggerheads for much of the past 300 years. They might have been expected to have been sworn, enemies. But common foes, political necessity and, perhaps, genuine personal warmth, had combined to create one of the most unlikely royal friendships of the 16th century.

Marital Woes

Such a friendship appeared to be a distant prospect in 1571, when Henri’s mother, Catherine de Medici, offered her son’s hand in marriage to Queen Elizabeth, hoping to strengthen France and England’s alliance. Henri was aghast at the idea of wedding a woman he openly denounced. Though she thought the young prince “very handsome”, Elizabeth was equally cool on the idea of an Anglo-French marital union. She refused the proposal on the grounds of religion and age difference – the queen was almost 20 years Henri’s senior – which were her two favourite excuses for rebutting potential suitors.

By the time he became king of France in 1574, Henri’s attitude to the English queen had softened. He now swore to maintain “a good alliance” with her in the hope of establishing a “perfect and indissoluble friendship”. Why the change in attitude? The answer lay in the murky world of international relations. Henri needed friends with an increasingly powerful Spain threatening French interests – even if those friends were English and Protestant.

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