Inside The Brutal Life And Gruesome Death Of King Henry II Of France

Published June 10, 2022
Updated June 13, 2022

King Henry II was known to cut out the tongues of Protestants, but he faced a bloody death of his own when he was stabbed through the eye during a jousting tournament in 1559.

King Henry II of France was known for his brutality against Protestants. He would burn heretics alive and cut out the tongue of anyone who dared utter a word of dissent against the Catholic Church. But the monarch faced a gruesome death of his own when he was stabbed through the eye by a lance during a jousting tournament in 1559.

The not-so-noble ruler was also famous for his many affairs. In fact, his long-time mistress Diane de Poitiers became one of the most influential women in France during Henry’s reign.

Henry II Of France

Wikimedia CommonsKing Henry II of France, by François Clouet. 1559.

But Henry was also an effective leader. He successfully negotiated a treaty to end the Italian Wars against the Habsburgs and married off his oldest son and heir, Francis II, to Mary, Queen of Scots in an effort to establish a French claim to Scotland.

A man born into privilege and then given even more power on top of that, King Henry II of France may have thought he was untouchable. But he eventually learned the lesson of when to admit defeat, and he learned it the hard way.

The Early Life And Young Marriage Of Henry II Of France

King Henry II was born in the lavish Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye about 11 miles west of Paris. His parents, King Francis I and Claude, Duchess of Brittany, showered him with luxury — but perhaps not so much affection. Francis literally traded Henry and his brother to Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in exchange for his own release when he was captured during the Battle of Pavia in 1525.

Charles V held seven-year-old Henry captive in Spain for four years. According to Explore France, there was just one thing that got young Henry through that difficult time — a kiss.

Before Henry was shipped off to Spain, his grandmother’s lady-in-waiting, Diane de Poitiers, gave him a farewell kiss. She was two decades older than Henry, but the boy did not forget her kindness.

By 1533, 14-year-old Henry was back home in France and preparing to get married to Catherine de’ Medici. Pope Clement VII had masterminded a politically-inspired coupling between Henry and his teenage niece. Catherine was not of royal lineage, but she was extravagantly wealthy.

Catherine De Medici

Wikimedia CommonsCatherine de’ Medici, by Germain Le Mannier. 1550s.

Catherine was historically described as not much to look at, but money talks, and that was enough for King Francis to approve the match for his son. They married on Oct. 28, 1533, but Henry still held a flame for his beloved courtier Diane de Poitiers.

The newlywed prince wasted no time taking lovers, and Diane was one of the first. She was 35; Henry was 15.

From Young Dauphin To King Of France

Henry spent a lot of time in his teens and twenties screwing around with his favorite hobbies: hunting, jousting, and women. Though he wasn’t his wife’s biggest fan, he kept sleeping with her, too — mainly because Diane insisted he needed to produce legitimate heirs.

However, Henry didn’t feel the need to rush into fatherhood. He wasn’t even the heir to the throne. That distinction belonged to his older brother, Francis. That is, until Francis died suddenly after a particularly rousing game of tennis.

Meanwhile, Diane de Poitiers was helping run Henry’s soon-to-be empire, signing letters with the bizarre signature “HenriDiane”. Henry even gave Diane the Crown Jewels of France, as well as the keys to the Château de Chenonceau, a piece of royal property that Catherine had her eye on.

With Henry now first in line for the French throne, he began feeling the pressure to produce an heir. After 10 years of marriage, he and Catherine still had no children. Henry and his countrymen blamed Catherine’s “infertility” for their lack of offspring, but in reality, Henry had a penile deformity that made it difficult to impregnate anyone.

According to a study published in The Canadian Journal of Urology, the monarch likely suffered from hypospadias, a condition in which the urethra is located on the underside of the penis, and chordee, which causes the penis to curve dramatically downward.

Catherine hired a sex doctor to give them tips, and after she and Henry learned some new positions, she quickly became pregnant. After 10 years of marriage, they welcomed their son and heir, Francis, who would later go on to wed Mary, Queen of Scots. Then they had nine more children.

Henry’s father, King Francis I, died in 1547, and Henry ascended to the French throne on his 28th birthday. He soon decided that his main advisor would be Diane de Poitiers.

Diane De Poitiers

mazanto/FlickrPortrait of Diane de Poitiers.

The Bloody Death Of King Henry II Of France

Henry’s reign was marked by his brutality against Protestants and the Italian Wars against the Habsburgs, which had been fought on and off since 1494. Henry finally negotiated a peace treaty ending the war for good in 1559, and he married off his daughter Elisabeth to King Philip II of Spain for good measure.

To celebrate the treaty and his daughter’s marriage, Henry decided to host a jousting tournament. Donned in his mistress Diane’s colors, he proudly rode out to challenge Gabriel de Lorges, the Count of Montgomery and the captain of Henry’s own bodyguard unit. The count knocked him down, but Henry didn’t give up — although it should be noted that everyone told him to.

Back in the saddle, Henry watched as the count charged, his lance out. Somehow, on impact with Henry’s helmet the lance shattered, sending the sharp rod through the king’s eye and straight into his brain. Splinters of the lance were embedded throughout his head.

Blood poured from his helmet. The whole scene was so grisly that both Catherine and Diane passed out cold.

Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, the English ambassador to France, was in attendance, and according to History Today, he wrote of the incident: “I noted him to be very weak, and to have the sense of all his limbs almost benumbed, for being carried away, as he lay all along, he moved neither hand nor foot, but lay as one amazed”.

Henry II Of France At Jousting Tournament

Wikimedia Commons
Depiction of the jousting tournament between Henry II and Gabriel de Lorges.

Doctors rushed Henry inside and removed five of the main splinters. They bandaged him up, hoping a lost eye would be the worst of the king’s injuries.

Catherine stayed by her husband’s bedside, even though he howled in anguish to see Diane. The queen refused and took the opportunity to ban Henry’s mistress from entering their royal residence.

Against all odds, Henry lived for ten days with shattered lance pieces in his head and brain. However, he succumbed to sepsis on July 10, 1559, at 40 years old.

Catherine banned Diane from the funeral and made her turn over the coveted Château de Chenonceau. The jilted queen finally had power, and she was going to use it — even though she had to do so over Henry II of France’s dead body.

Next, read all about Henry II of France’s daughter-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots. Then, find out more about the life of his wife, Catherine de’ Medici.

Erin Kelly
An All That's Interesting writer since 2013, Erin Kelly focuses on historic places, natural wonders, environmental issues, and the world of science. Her work has also been featured in Smithsonian and she's designed several book covers in her career as a graphic artist.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.