04 September 2008

You Know You're In Trouble When

I ask you, what could a woman do, left by the death of her husband with five little children on her arms, and two families of France who were thinking of grasping the crown—our own [the Bourbons] and the Guises? Was she not compelled to play strange parts to deceive first one and then the other, in order to guard, as she did, her sons, who successively reigned through the wise conduct of that shrewd woman? I am surprised that she never did worse. (Henri IV, on Catherine d'Medici)

To understand the religious tensions facing Henri IV on his ascention to the throne of France, it is important to consider the strife that had evolved between the political and religious factions. For much of his reign, Francis I treated the early Protestant movement with tolerance. It was quite politically useful, as it caused tensions for and between two of his chief rivals, Henry VIII of England and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. Unfortunately, religious zealots in 1534 breached security to pin an anti-Catholic pamphlet to the door to the king's own bedchamber during the Affaire des Placards.[1] Responding to the affair as a conspiracy and affront to royal dignity and his own authority, Francis withdrew his protection, and Protestants were jailed, exiled and executed -- the so-called Chambre Ardente was established as a special judiciary to try heretics. When Francis died in 1547, his son and heir Henri II proved an apt successor in this regard.

The Edict of Chateaubriand (1551) declared that previous measures against heretics (read, Huguenots) had proven ineffective. It placed responsibility for finding and trying heretics on both civil and religious courts; confiscated the lands and property of those protestants who had already fled France; banned any non-approved books; forbade the public discussion of religion; and, most dangerously, encouraged people to turn on their neighbours by granting both immunity and one-third of property seized to informers. Six years later, the Edict of Compiègne applied the death penalty, and added to the earlier list of offenses such seditious activities as going to Geneva; having books published in Geneva; blasphemy against images; and participating in public _or_ private (non-Catholic) religious gatherings.

Midway through 1559, however, Henri II was killed in a joust by a shattered lance, leaving France under the regency of Catherine d'Medici, his wife and queen consort.

Henri II's first successor was his son Francis II, who was said to be so weak at his coronation that his crown had to be held in place by the nobles serving him. His wife's uncle, Francis de Guise, is worth mentioning for his son, who would later play a pivotal role in the War of the Three Henries.

Catherine continued her regency on the ascention of her next son, Charles IX (he was only ten years old at the time of his coronation). The retainers of the above-mentioned Duke of Guise provoked a renewal in military hostilities between Protestants and Catholics, and the first ten years of Charles' reign were marked by the seizure of many French cities by foreign-sponsored Protestant troops.

Catherine had made arrangements to marry her daughter, the princess Marguerite de Valois to the protestant Henri of Bourbon, prince of Navarre. Although this sounds simple enough, and like an (at least nominal) attempt to reconcile religious differences, there were several problems with the match:

  • Henri of Bourbon's mother, Jeanne d'Albret (Jeanne III of Navarre) was a particularly staunch and stubborn Protestant (read, zealot). After adopting Calvinism as the official religion of Navarre , she banished priests and nuns, burned churches and banned Catholic rituals from Navarre. In 1567, both she and Henri went to La Rochelle to support the (rebelling) city against royal (French) troops. She vehmently opposed the marriage of her son to the Catholic princess, but conveniently died two months before the marriage occurred, spurring rumours among both Catholics and Protestants that Catherine had arranged for her to be poisoned with perfumed gloves.
  • Marguerite was very much interested in Henri, and was possibly even his lover prior to the marriage. Except...it was the wrong Henri. Her dead brother Francis (II, King of France)'s uncle Francis (of Guise) had a son who was ALSO named Henri. And lots of ambition toward the French throne. To further complicate things, there was ANOTHER Henri involved in all this, Marguerite's brother (and heir to the current king, Charles IX). All three Henris were born within three years of each other: Henri de Guise (born 1550), Henri de Valois (born 1551) and Henri de Navarre (born 1553).
  • The Parlement of Paris, the Pope, and King Philip II of Spain all opposed the match. Paris was violently anti-Protestant. And, incidentally, full of nobles who weren't exactly keen on a Protestant foreigner being _quite_ that close to the throne, especially since Catherine's sons hadn't proven themselves overly gifted in remaining alive or siring legitimate heirs.

Predictably enough, the bridegroom came escorted by a number of his friends -- high-ranking Protestant nobles, content at the marriage that was planned and reassured by the 1570 Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which (theoretically) had ended hostilities between the two factions. Four days after the marriage, an assassin made an attempt on the life of one of the leading admirals (a Huguenot) in France. Who just happened, at the time, to have an army of about four thousand men waiting out the city. To further complicate matters, the shot was fired from a house owned by the de Guises.

The king went to visit Coligny (the admiral injured) with his court, promising that the culprits would be found and punished. By the night of the 23rd of August, Catherine and Charles IX met, and contemporary accounts seem to agree that the decision was made to destroy the Huguenots before they would have time to leave the city and retaliate for the admiral's life. Henri (of Guise) was put in charge of the soldiers who would lead the purge. Widely credited to Charles is the exclaimation "By God's death, since you think it is proper to kill the admiral, I consent; but (kill) all the Huguenots in Paris as well in order that there remain not one to reproach me afterwards. Give the orders at once."[2]

Coligny was murdered, successfully this time, by de Guise and his followers. An account of the time reports:

Meanwhile the conspirators; having burst through the door of the chamber, entered, and when Besme, sword in hand, had demanded of Coligny, who stood near the door, "Are you Coligny ?" Coligny replied, "Yes, I am he," with fearless countenance. "But you, young man, respect these white hairs. What is it you would do? You cannot shorten by many days this life of mine." As he spoke, Besme gave him a sword thrust through the body, and having withdrawn his sword, another thrust in the mouth, by which his face was disfigured. So Coligny fell, killed with many thrusts. Others have written that Coligny in dying pronounced as though in anger these words: "Would that I might at least die at the hands of a soldier and not of a valet." But Attin, one of the murderers, has reported as I have written, and added that he never saw any one less afraid in so great a peril, nor die more steadfastly.

Then the duke of Guise inquired of Besme from the courtyard if the thing were done, and when Besme answered him that it was, the duke replied that the Chevalier d'Angouleme was unable to believe it unless he saw it; and at the same time that he made the inquiry they threw the body through the window into the courtyard, disfigured as it was with blood. When the Chevalier d'Angouleme, who could scarcely believe his eyes, had wiped away with a cloth the blood which overran the face and finally had recognized him, some say that he spurned the body with his foot. However this may be, when he left the house with his followers he said: "Cheer up, my friends! Let us do thoroughly that which we have begun. The king commands it." He frequently repeated these words, and as soon as they had caused the bell of the palace clock to ring, on every side arose the cry, "To arms !" and the people ran to the house of Coligny. After his body had been treated to all sorts of insults, they threw it into a neighboring stable, and finally cut off his head, which they sent to Rome. They also shamefully mutilated him, and dragged his body through the streets to the bank of the Seine, a thing which he had formerly almost prophesied, although he did not think of anything like this.

As some children were in the act of throwing the body into the river, it was dragged out and placed upon the gibbet of Montfaucon, where it hung by the feet in chains of iron; and then they built a fire beneath, by which he was burned without being consumed; so that he was, so to speak, tortured with all the elements, since he was killed upon the earth, thrown into the water, placed upon the fire, and finally put to hang in the air. After he had served for several days as a spectacle to gratify the hate of many and arouse the just indignation of many others, who reckoned that this fury of the people would cost the king and France many a sorrowful day, Francois de Montmorency, who was nearly related to the dead man, and still more his friend, and who moreover had escaped the danger in time, had him taken by night from the gibbet by trusty men and carried to Chantilly, where he was buried in the chapel.[3]

The rioting and murder spread through Paris, already tense because of the wedding and a grain shortage earlier that year, and left three thousand Huguenots dead. On the second day of the massacre (August 25), Charles IX issued an order for the killing to stop, but instead it continued, spreading out to the provinces. There are wildly varying accounts of just how many were murdered through this period, though most accepted estimates range in the tens of thousands. Even the English ambassador had a hard time escaping, and when reports of the massacre spread, a renowned contemporary bastion of human rights and civil propriety in Russia wrote to Charles IX to condemn the "excessive cruelty" of the act.[4]

By the 29th of September, things were still tense enough in Paris that, although protected by the crown, on the 29th of September, Henri of Navarre pretended to convert, then was kept confined by the crown until early 1576, when he escaped and renounced Catholicism.[5]

Meanwhile, Charles IX, recognising his nation's need for a strong and competent leader, fell to alternately blaming his mother for the massacre, and bragging about it. His tuberculosis worstened, and by May 1574 he was on his death bed. He had Henri (of Navarre) brought to him, claiming:

"Brother, you are losing a good friend. Had I believed all that I was told, you would not be alive. But I always loved you...I trust you alone to look after my wife and daughter. Pray God for me. Farewell."[6]

On his death, his brother Henri (now elected King of Poland, and the same gallant who described Elizabeth I of England as "a public whore" during their [surprisingly] failed marriage negotiations) was summoned back to France to take the crown.

Next installment: The War of the Henris

[1] It is a shame that religious zeal for handing out pamphlets did not learn from this example.
[2] Guizot, The History of France, (London, 1887) Vol.III, , 296
[3] From De Thou, Histoire des choses arrivees de son temps, (Paris, 1659), 658 sqq, in J.H. Robinson, 2 vols. (Boston: Ginn, 1906), 2:180-183. Scanned by Brian Cheek, Hanover College, November 12, 1995.
[4] Ivan the Terrible. It's usually a bad sign, when you get criticised this way by the same despotic monarch who created the oprichniki, instituted serfdom, regularly ordered his soldiers to massacre his own cities and towns for fun, beat up his (pregnant) daugher-in-law and murdered his son.
[5] Ironically, "They discussed for some time whether they should make an exception of the king of Navarre and the prince of Condé. All agreed that the king of Navarre should be spared by reason of the royal dignity and the new alliance." [2]
[6] Guizot, The History of France, (London, 1887) Vol.III, 415.

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