Henry of Navarre : The Huguenots – Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers

Alfred the Great : The Saxons in England
Queen Elizabeth : Woman as a Sovereign
Henry of Navarre : The Huguenots
Gustavus Adolphus : Thirty Years’ War
Cardinal Richelieu : Absolutism
Oliver Cromwell : English Revolution
Louis XIV : The French Monarchy
Louis XV : Remote Causes of Revolution
Peter the Great : His Services to Russia
Frederic the Great : The Prussian Power

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers
John Lord

Topics Covered
The Cause and the Hero
The sixteenth century contrasted with the nineteenth
A New Spirit in the world
Differences of progress
Religious, civil, and social upheavals
John Calvin
Reformed doctrines in France
Persecution of the Huguenots
They arm in self-defence to secure religious liberty
Henry of Navarre
Jeanne D’Albret
Education of Henry
Slaughter of St. Bartholomew
The Duke of Guise, Catherine de Medicis, and Charles IX.
Effects of the massacre
Responsibility for it
Stand taken by the Protestants
They retire to La Rochelle
Bravery and ability of Henry
Battle of Coutras
Battle of Ivry
Abjuration of Henry IV
His motives
The ceremony
Edict of Nantes
Henry’s service to France
Effects of the Abjuration of Henry IV. on the Huguenots
Character of Henry

Henry of Navarre : The Huguenots

A. D. 1553-1610.

In this lecture I shall confine myself principally to the connection of Henry IV. with that memorable movement which came near making France a Protestant country. He is identified with the Huguenots, and it is the struggles of the Huguenots which I wish chiefly to present. I know he was also a great king, the first of the Bourbon dynasty, whose heroism in war was equalled only by his enlightened zeal in the civilization of France,–a king who more deeply impressed himself upon the affections of the nation than any monarch since Saint Louis, and who, had he lived to execute his schemes, would have raised France to the highest pitch of glory. Nor do I forget, that, although he fought for a great cause, and reigned with great wisdom and ability, and thus rendered important services to his country, he was a man of great defects of character, stained with those peculiar vices which disgraced most of the Bourbon kings, especially Louis XIV. and Louis XV.; that his court was the scene of female gallantries and intrigues, and that he was more under the influence of women than was good for the welfare of his country or his own reputation. But the limits of this lecture will not permit me to dwell on his acts as a monarch, or on his statesmanship, his services, or his personal defects of character. I am obliged, from the magnitude of my subject, and from the necessity of giving it unity and interest, to confine myself to him as a leader of the Huguenots alone. It is not Henry himself that I would consider, so much as the struggles of the brave men associated with him, more or less intimately, in their attempt to secure religious liberty in the sixteenth century.

The sixteenth century! What a great era that was In comparison with the preceding centuries since Christianity was declared! From a religious and heroic point of view it was immeasurably a greater period than the nineteenth century, which has been marked chiefly for the triumphs of science, material progress, and social and political reforms. But in earnestness, in moral grandeur, and in discussions which pertain to the health and life of nations, the sixteenth century was greater than our own. Then began all sorts of inquiries about Nature and about mind, about revelation and Providence, about liberty of worship and freedom of thought; all of which were discussed with an enthusiasm and patience and boldness and originality to which our own times furnish no parallel. And united with this fresh and original agitation of great ideas was a heroism in action which no age of the world has equalled. Men risked their fortunes and their lives in defence of those principles which have made the enjoyment of them in our times the greatest blessing we possess. It was a new spirit that had arisen in our world to break the fetters which centuries of fraud and superstition and injustice had forged,–a spirit scornful of old authorities, yet not sceptical, with disgust of the past and hope for the future, penetrating even the hamlets of the poor, and kindling the enthusiasm of princes and nobles, producing learned men in every country of Europe, whose original investigations should put to the blush the commentators and compilers of this age of religious mediocrity and disguised infidelity. Such intellectual giants in the field of religious inquiry had not appeared since the Fathers of the Church combated the paganism of the Roman world, and will not probably appear again until the cycle of changes is completed in the domain of theological thought, and men are forced to meet the enemies of divine revelation marshalled in such overwhelming array that there will be a necessity for reformers, called out by a special Providence to fight battles,–as I regard Luther and Calvin and Knox. The great difference between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, outside of material aspects, is that the former recognized the majesty of God, and the latter the majesty of man. Both centuries believed in progress; but the sixteenth century traced this progress to first, and the nineteenth to second, causes. The sixteenth believed that human improvement was owing directly to special divine grace, and the nineteenth believes in the necessary development of mankind. The school of the sixteenth century was spiritual, that of the nineteenth is material; the former looked to heaven, the latter looks to earth. The sixteenth regarded this world as a mere preparation for the next, and the nineteenth looks upon this world as the future scene of indefinite and completed bliss. The sixteenth century attacked the ancient, the nineteenth attacks the eternal. The sixteenth destroyed, but reconstructed; the nineteenth also destroys, but would substitute nothing instead. The sixteenth reminds us of audacious youth, still clinging to parental authority; the nineteenth reminds us of cynical and irreverent old age, believing in nothing but the triumphs of science and art, and shaking off the doctrines of the ages as exploded superstitions.

The sixteenth century was marked not only by intensely earnest religious inquiries, but by great civil and social disorders,–showing a transition period of society from the slaveries and discomforts of the feudal ages to the liberty and comforts of highly civilized life. In the midst of religious enthusiasm we see tumults, insurrections, terrible animosities, and cruel intolerance. War was associated with inhuman atrocities, and the acceptance of the reformed faith was followed by bitter and heartless persecution. The feudal system had received a shock from standing armies and the invention of gunpowder and the central authority of kings, but it was not demolished. The nobles still continued to enjoy their social and political distinctions, the peasantry were ground down by unequal laws, and the nobles were as arrogant and quarrelsome as the people were oppressed by unjust distinctions. They were still followed by their armed retainers, and had almost unlimited jurisdiction in their respective governments. Even the higher clergy gloried in feudal inequalities, and were selected from the noble classes. The people were not powerful enough to make combinations and extort their rights, unless they followed the standards of military chieftains, arrayed perhaps against the crown and against the parliaments. We see no popular, independent political movements; even the people, like all classes above them, were firm and enthusiastic in their religious convictions.

The commanding intellect at that time in Europe was John Calvin (a Frenchman, but a citizen of Geneva), whom we have already seen to be a man of marvellous precocity of genius and astonishing logical powers, combined with the most exhaustive erudition on all theological subjects. His admirers claim a distinct and logical connection between his theology and civil liberty itself. I confess I cannot see this. There was nothing democratic about Calvin. He ruled indeed at Geneva as Savonarola did in Florence, but he did not have as liberal ideas as the Florentine reformer about the political liberties of the people. He made his faith the dearest thing a man could have, to be defended unto death in the face of the most unrelenting persecution. It was the tenacity to defend the reformed doctrines, of which, next to Luther, Calvin was the greatest champion, which kindled opposition to civil rulers. And it was opposition to civil rulers who proved themselves tyrants which led to the struggle for civil liberty; not democratic ideas of right. These may have been the sequence of agitations and wars, but not their animating cause,–like the ideas of Rousseau on the French revolutionists. The original Puritans were not democratic; the Presbyterians of Scotland were not, even when Cromwell led the armies, but not the people, of England. The Huguenots had no aspirations for civil rights; they only aspired for the right of worshipping God according to the dictates of conscience. There was nothing popular in their notions of government when Henry IV. headed the forces of the Huguenots; he only aimed at the recognition of religious rights. The Huguenots never rallied around popular leaders, but rather under the standards of princes and nobles fighting for the right of worshipping God according to the dictation or ideas of Calvin. They would preserve their schools, their churches, their consistories, and their synods; they would be unmolested in their religious worship.

Now, at the time when Henry IV. was born, in the year 1553, when Henry II. was King of France and Edward VI. was King of England, the ideas of the Reformation, and especially the doctrines of Calvin, had taken a deep and wide hold of the French people. The Calvinists, as they were called, were a powerful party; in some parts of France they were in a majority. More than a third of the whole population had enthusiastically accepted the reformed doctrines. They were in a fair way toward triumph; they had great leaders among the highest of the nobility. But they were bitterly hated by the king and the princes of the house of Valois, and especially by the Duke of Guise and the Cardinal of Lorraine,–the most powerful famlies in France,–because they meditated to overturn, not the throne, but the old established religion. The Pope instigated the most violent proceedings; so did the King of Spain. It was resolved to suppress the hated doctrines. The enemies of the Calvinists resorted to intrigues and assassinations; they began a furious persecution, as they held in their hands the chief political power. Injustice succeeded injustice, and outrage followed outrage. During the whole reigns of the Valois Princes, treachery, assassinations, and bloody executions marked the history of France. Royal edicts forbid even the private assemblies of the Huguenots, on pain of death. They were not merely persecuted but calumniated. There was no crime which was not imputed to them, even that of sacrificing little children; so that the passions of the people were aroused against them, and they were so maltreated that all security was at an end. From a condition of hopeful progress, they were forced back and beaten down. Their condition became insupportable. There was no alternative but desperate resistance or martyrdom, for the complete suppression of Protestantism was resolved upon, on the part of the government. The higher clergy, the parliaments, the University of Paris, and the greater part of the old nobility supported the court, and each successive Prince of the house of Valois adopted more rigorous measures than his predecessor. Henry II. was more severe than Francis I.; and Francis II. was more implacable than Henry II., who was killed at a tournament in 1559. Francis II., a feeble prince, was completely ruled by his mother, Catherine de Médicis, an incarnated fiend of cruelty and treachery, though a woman of pleasing manners and graceful accomplishments,–like Mary of Scotland, but without her levities. Under her influence persecution assumed a form which was truly diabolical. The Huguenots, although supported by the King of Navarre, the Prince of Condé, Coligny (Admiral of France), his brother the Seigneur d’ Andelot, the Count of Montgomery, the Duke of Bouillon, the Duke of Soubise, all of whom were nobles of high rank, were in danger of being absolutely crushed, and were on the brink of despair. What if a third part of the people belonged to their ranks, when the whole power of the crown and a great majority of the nobles were against them; and these supported by the Pope and clergy, and stimulated to ferocity by the Jesuits, then becoming formidable?

At last the Huguenots resolved to organize and arm in their own defence, for there is a time when submission ceases to be a virtue. If ever a people had cause for resistance it was this persecuted people. They did not rise up against their persecutors with the hope of overturning the throne, or producing a change of dynasties, or gaining constitutional liberty, or becoming a political power hostile to the crown, like the Puritans under Cromwell or Hampden, but simply to preserve what to them was more precious than life. All that they demanded was a toleration of their religion; and as their religion was dearer to them than life, they were ready to undergo any sacrifices. Their resistance was more formidable than was anticipated; they got possession of cities and fortresses, and were able to defy the whole power of the crown. It was found impossible to suppress a people who fought with so much heroism, and who defied every combination. So truces and treaties were made with them, by which their religious rights were guaranteed. But these treaties were perpetually broken, for treachery is no sin with religious persecutors, since “the end justified the means.”

This Huguenotic contest, attended with so much vicissitude, alternate defeat and victory, and stained by horrid atrocities, was at its height when Henry IV. was a boy, and had no thought of ever being King of France. His father, Antoine de Bourbon, although King of Navarre and a prince of the blood, being a lineal descendant from Saint Louis, was really only a great noble, not so powerful as the Duke of Guise or the Duke of Montmorency; and even he, a leader of the rebellion, was finally won over to the court party by the seductions brought to bear on him by Roman priests. He was either bribed or intimidated, and disgracefully abjured the cause for which he at first gallantly fought. He died from a wound he received at the siege of Rouen, while commanding one of the armies of Charles IX., who succeeded his brother Francis II., in 1560.

The mother of the young prince, destined afterwards to be so famous, was one of the most celebrated women of history,–Jeanne D’Albret, niece of Francis L; a woman who was equally extolled by men of letters and Calvinistic divines. She was as beautiful as she was good; at her castle in Pau, the capital of her hereditary kingdom of Navarre, she diffused a magnificent hospitality, especially to scholars and the lights of the reformed doctrines. Her kingdom was small, and was politically unimportant; but she was a sovereign princess nevertheless. The management of the young prince, her son, was most admirable, but unusual. He was delicate and sickly as an infant, and reared with difficulty; but, though a prince, he was fed on the simplest food, and exposed to hardships like the sons of peasants; he was allowed to run bareheaded and barefooted, exposed to heat and rain, in order to strengthen his constitution. Amid the hills at the base of the Pyrenees, in the company of peasants’ children, he thus acquired simple and natural manners, and accustomed himself to fatigues and dangers. He was educated in the reformed doctrines, but was more distinguished as a boy for his chivalric graces, physical beauty, and manly sports than for seriousness of character or a religious life. He grew up a Protestant, from education rather than conviction. At twelve, in the year 1565, he was intrusted by his mother, the Queen of Navarre, to the care of his uncle, the Prince of Condé, and, on his death, to Admiral Coligny, the acknowledged leader of the Protestants. He thus witnessed many bloody battles before he was old enough to be intrusted with command. At eighteen he was affianced to Marguerite de Valois, sister of Charles IX., in spite of differences of religion.

It was amid the nuptial festivities of the young King of Navarre,–his mother had died the year before,–when all the prominent leaders of the Protestants were enticed to Paris, that preparations were made for the blackest crime in the annals of civilized nations,–even the treacherous and hideous massacre of St. Bartholomew, perpetrated by Charles IX., who was incited to it by his mother, the ever-infamous Catherine de Médicis, and the Duke of Guise.

The Protestants, under the Prince of Condé and Admiral Coligny, had fought so bravely and so successfully in defence of their cause that all hope of subduing them in the field was given up. The bloody battles of Montcontour, of St. Denis, and of Jarnac had proved how stubbornly the Huguenots would fight; while their possession of such strong fortresses as Montauban and La Rochelle, deemed impregnable, showed that they could not easily be subdued. Although the Prince of Condé had been slain at the battle of Jarnac, this great misfortune to the Protestants was more than balanced by the assassination of the great Duke of Guise, the ablest general and leader of the Catholics. So when all hope had vanished of exterminating the Huguenots in open warfare, a deceitful peace was made; and their leaders were decoyed to Paris, in order to accomplish, in one foul sweep, by wholesale murder, the diabolical design.

The Huguenot leaders were completely deceived. Old Admiral Coligny, with his deeper insight, hesitated to put himself into the power of a bigoted and persecuting monarch; but Charles IX. pledged his word for his safety, and in an age when chivalry was not extinguished, his promise was accepted. Who could believe that his word of honor would be broken, or that he, a king, could commit such an outrageous and unprecedented crime? But what oath, what promise, what law can bind a man who is a slave of religious bigotry, when his church requires a bloody and a cruel act? The end seemed to justify any means. I would not fix the stain of that infamous crime exclusively on the Jesuits, or on the Pope, or on the councillors of the King, or on his mother. I will not say that it was even exclusively a Church movement: it may have been equally an apparent State necessity. A Protestant prince might mount the throne of France, and with him, perhaps, the ascendency of Protestantism, or at least its protection. Such a catastrophe, as it seemed to the councillors of Charles IX., must somehow be averted. How could it be averted otherwise than by the assassination of Henry himself, and his cousin Condé, and the brave old admiral, as powerful as Guise, as courageous as Du Gueslin, and as pious as Godfrey? And then, when these leaders were removed, and all the Protestants in Paris were murdered, who would remain to continue the contest, and what Protestant prince could hope to mount the throne? But whoever was directly responsible for the crime, and whatever may have been the motives for it, still it was committed. The first victim was Coligny himself, and the slaughter of sixty thousand persons followed in Paris and the provinces. The Admiral Coligny, Marquis of Chatillon, was one of the finest characters in all history,–brave, honest, truthful, sincere, with deep religious convictions, and great ability as a general. No Englishman in the sixteenth century can be compared with him for influence, heroism, and virtue combined. It was deemed necessary to remove this illustrious man, not because he was personally obnoxious, but because he was the leader of the Protestant party.

The Morning after the Massacre of St. Bartholomew painting by Édouard Debat-Ponsan

The Morning after the Massacre of St. Bartholomew painting by Édouard Debat-Ponsan

It is said that as the fatal hour approached to give the signal for the meditated massacre, Aug. 24, 1572, the King appeared irresolute and disheartened. Though cruel, perfidious, and weak, he shrank from committing such a gigantic crime, and this too in the face of his royal promises. But there was one person whom no dangers appalled, and whose icy soul could be moved by no compassion and no voice of conscience. At midnight, Catherine entered the chamber of her irresolute son, in the Louvre, on whose brow horror was already stamped, and whose frame quivered with troubled chills. Coloring the crime with the usual sophistries of all religious and political persecution, that the end justifies the means, and stigmatizing him as a coward, she at last extorted from his quivering lips the fatal order; and immediately the tocsin of death sounded from the great bell of the church of St. Germain de Auxerrois. At once the slaughter commenced in every corner of Paris, so well were the horrid measures concerted. Screams of despair were mingled with shouts of vengeance; the cries of the murdered were added to the imprecations of the murderers; the streets flowed with blood, the dead rained from the windows, the Seine became purple. Men, women, and children were seen flying in every direction, pursued by soldiers, who were told that an insurrection of Protestants had broken out. No sex or age or dignity was spared, no retreat afforded a shelter, not even the churches of the Catholics. Neither Alaric nor Attila ever inflicted such barbarities. No besieged city taken by assault ever saw such wanton butcheries, except possibly Jerusalem when taken by Titus or Godfrey, or Magdeburg when taken by Tilly. And as the bright summer sun illuminated the city on a Sunday morning the massacre had but just begun; nor for three days and three nights did the slaughter abate. A vulgar butcher appeared before the King and boasted he had slain one hundred and fifty persons with his own hand in a single night. For seven days was Paris the scene of disgraceful murder and pillage and violence. Men might be seen stabbing little infants, and even children were known to slaughter their companions. Nor was there any escape from these atrocities; the very altars which had once protected Christians from pagans were polluted by Catholic executioners. Ladies jested with unfeeling mirth over the dead bodies of murdered Protestants. The very worst horrors of which the mind could conceive were perpetrated in the name of religion. And then, when no more victims remained, the King and his court and his clergy proceeded in solemn procession to the cathedral church of Notre Dame, amidst hymns of praise, to return thanks to God for the deliverance of France from men who had sought only the privilege of worshipping Him according to their consciences!

Nor did the bloody work stop here; orders were sent by the Government to every city and town of France to execute the like barbarities. The utter extermination of the Protestants was resolved upon throughout the country. The slaughter was begun in treachery and was continued in the most heartless cruelty. When the news of it reached Borne, the Holy Father the Pope caused a medal to be struck in commemoration of the event, illuminated his capital, ordained general rejoicings, as if for some signal victory over the Turks; and, assisted by his cardinals and clergy, marched in glad procession to St. Peter’s Church, and offered up a solemn Te Deum for this vile and treacherous slaughter of sixty thousand Protestants.

In former lectures I have passed rapidly and imperfectly over this awful crime, not wishing to stimulate passions which should be buried, and thinking it was more the fault of the age than of Catholic bigots; but I now present it in its naked deformity, to be true to history, and to show how cruel is religious intolerance, confirmed by the history of other inhumanities in the Catholic Church,–by the persecution of Dominican monks, by the slaughter of the Albigenses, by inquisitions, gunpowder plots, the cruelties of Alva, and that trail of blood which has marked the fairest portions of Europe by the hostilities of the Church of Borne in its struggles to suppress Protestant opinions. I mention it to recall the fact that Protestantism has never been stained by such a crime. I mention it to invoke gratitude that such a misguided zeal has passed away and is never likely to return. Catholic historians do not pretend to deny the horrid facts, but ascribe the massacre to political animosities rather than religious,–a lame and impotent defence of their persecuting Church in the sixteenth century.

But this atrocity had such a demoniacal blackness and perfidy about it that it filled the whole Protestant world with grief and indignation, especially England, and had only the effect of binding together the Huguenots in a solid phalanx of warriors, resolved on making no peace with their perfidious enemies until their religious liberties were guaranteed Though decimated, they were not destroyed; for the provincial governors and rural magistrates generally refused to execute the royal decrees,–their hearts were moved with pity. The slaughter was not universal, and Henry himself had escaped, his life being spared on condition of his becoming a Catholic, which as a matter of form he did.

Nevertheless, all Protestant eyes were now directed to him as their leader, since Coligny had perished by daggers, and Condé on the field of battle. Henry was still a young man, only twenty years of age, but able, intrepid, and wise. He and his cousin, the younger Condé, were still held as hostages, while the Huguenots again rallied and retired to their strong fortress of La Rochelle. Their last hopes centred in this fortress, defended by only fifteen thousand men, under the brave La None, while the royal army embraced the flower of the French nobility, commanded by the Dukes of Anjou and Alençon. But these royal dukes were compelled to raise the siege, 1573, with a loss of forty thousand men. I regard the successful defence of this fortress, at this crisis, as the most fortunate event in the whole Huguenot contest, since it enabled the Huguenots to make a stand against the whole power of the monarchs. It did not give them victory, but gave them a place to rally; and it proclaimed the fact that the contest would not end until the Protestants had achieved their liberties or were utterly annihilated.

Soon after this successful and glorious defence of La Rochelle, Charles IX. died, at the age of twenty-four, in awful agonies,–the victim of remorse and partial insanity, in the hours of which the horrors of St. Bartholomew were ever present to his excited imagination, and when he beheld wild faces of demons and murdered Huguenots rejoicing in his torments, and heard strange voices consigning his name to infamy and his body to those never-ending physical torments in which both Catholics and Protestants equally believed. His mother however remained cold, inflexible, and unmoved,–for when a woman falls under the grip of the Devil, then no man can equal her in shamelessness and reckless sin.

Charles IX. was succeeded, in 1574, by his brother the King of Poland, under the name of Henry III., who was equally under the control of his mother Catherine.

Two years afterward the King of Navarre succeeded in making his escape, and joined the Huguenot army at Tours. He was now twenty-three. He astonished the whole kingdom by his courage and intrepidity,–winning the hearts of the soldiers, and uniting them by strict military discipline. His friend and counsellor was Rosny, afterwards Duke of Sully, to whose wise counsels his future success may be in a great measure traced. Fortunate is the prince who will listen to frank and disagreeable advice; and that was one of the virtues of Henry,–a magnanimity which has seldom been equalled by generals.

The Huguenots were now able to make a stand in the open country, partly from additions to their numbers and partly from the mistakes and frivolities of Henry III., who alienated stern Catholics and his best friends. It was then that Bouillon, father of the illustrious Turenne, joined the standard of Henry of Navarre. Soon after this, Henry became heir-apparent of the French throne, by the death of the Duke of Alençon, 1584. Only the King, Henry III., a man without children, and the last of the male line of the house of Valois, stood between Henry of Navarre and the throne. The possibility that he, a Protestant, might wield the sceptre of Saint Louis, his ancestor, increased the bitterness and animosity of the Catholics. All the forces which the Government could raise were now arrayed against him and his party. The Pope, Sixtus V., in a papal bull, took away his hereditary rights; but fortune favored him. The Duke of Guise, who aspired to the throne, was himself assassinated, as his father had been; and now, by the orders of his jealous sovereign, his brother, the Cardinal of Guise, nephew of the Cardinal of Lorraine,–a man who held three archbishoprics, six bishoprics, and five abbeys, and these the richest in the kingdom,–shared the same fate. And Providence removed also, soon after, the most guilty and wicked of all the perpetrators of the massacre of St. Bartholomew, even Catherine de Médicis,–who would be regarded as a female monster, an incarnate fiend, a Messalina, or a Fredegunda, had she not been beautiful, with pleasing and gracious manners, a great fondness for society and music and poetry and art,–the most accomplished woman of her day, and so attractive as to be compared by the poets of her court to Aurora and Venus. Her life only shows how much heartlessness, cruelty, malignity, envy, and selfishness may be concealed by the mask of beauty and agreeable manners and artistic accomplishments.

The bloody battle of Coutras enabled Henry of Navarre to take a stand against the Catholics; but after the death of Henry III. by assassination, in 1589, his struggles for the next five years were more to secure his hereditary rights as King of France than to lead the Huguenots to victory as a religious body. It might have been better for them had Henry remained the head of their party rather than become King of France, since he might not have afterwards deserted them. But there was really no hope of the Huguenots gaining a political ascendency at any time; they composed but a third part of the nation; their only hope was to secure their religious liberties.

The most brilliant part of the military career of Henry IV. was when he struggled for his throne, supported of course by the Huguenots, and opposed by the whole Catholic party, the King of Spain, and the Pope of Rome. The Catholics, or the “Leaguers” as they were called, were led by the Duke of Mayenne. I need not describe the successes of Henry, until the battle of Ivry, March 14, 1590, made him really the monarch of France. On that eventful day both armies, having performed their devotions, were drawn out for action. Both armies knew that this battle would be decisive; and when all the arrangements were completed, Henry, completely covered with mail except his hands and head, mounted upon a great bay charger, galloped up and down the ranks, giving words of encouragement to his soldiers, and assuring them that he would either conquer or die. “If my standard fail you,” said he, “keep my plume in sight: you will always see it in the face of glory and honor.” So saying, he put on his helmet, adorned with three white plumes, gave the order of battle, and, sword in hand, led the charge against the enemy. For some time the issue of the conflict was doubtful, for the forces were about equal; but at length victory inclined to the Protestants, who broke forth in shouts as Henry, covered with dust and blood, appeared at the head of the pursuing squadrons.

“Now, God be praised, the day is ours! Mayenne hath turned his rein,
D’Aumale hath cried for quarter, the Flemish count is slain.
Their ranks are breaking like thin clouds before a Biscay gale;
The field is heaped with bleeding steeds, and flags, and cloven mail;
And then we thought on vengeance, and all along our van
‘Remember St. Bartholomew’ was passed from man to man.
But out spake gentle Henry then: ‘No Frenchman is my foe;
Down, down with every foreigner, but let your brethren go!’
Oh, was there ever such a knight, in friendship or in war,
As our sovereign lord, King Henry, the soldier of Navarre?”

The battle of Ivry, in which the forces of the League met with a complete overthrow, was followed by the siege of Paris, its memorable defence, and the arrival of the Duke of Parma, which compelled Henry to retire. Though he had gained a great victory, and received great accessions, he had to struggle four years longer, so determined were the Catholics; and he might have had to fight a still longer time for his throne had he not taken the extraordinary resolution of abjuring his religion and cause. His final success was not doubtful, even as a Protestant king, since his title was undisputed; but he wearied of war. The peace of the kingdom and the security of the throne seemed to him a greater good than the triumph of the Huguenots. In that age great power was given to princes; he doubtless could have reigned as a Protestant prince had he persevered for a few years longer, and Protestantism would have been the established religion of France, as it was of England under Elizabeth. Henry as a Protestant king would have had no more enemies, or difficulties, or embarrassments than had the Virgin Queen, who on her accession found only one bishop willing to crown her. He had all the prestige of a conqueror, and was personally beloved, besides being a man of ability. His prime minister, Sully, was as able a man as Burleigh, and as good a Protestant; and the nation was enthusiastic. The Huguenots had deeper convictions, and were more logical in their creed, than the English Episcopalians. Leagued with England and Holland and Germany, France could have defied other Catholic powers,–could have been more powerful politically. Protestantism would have had the ascendency in Europe.

Henry of Navarre and La Belle Fosseuse After the painting by Antony Paul Emile Morlon

Henry of Navarre and La Belle Fosseuse After the painting by Antony Paul Emile Morlon

But it was not to be. To the mind of the King he had nothing before him but protracted war, unless he became a Catholic; and as all the Huguenots ever struggled for was religious toleration, he would, as king, grant this toleration, and satisfy all parties. He either had no deep religious convictions, like Coligny and Dandelot, or he preferred an undisturbed crown to the ascendency of the religion for which he had so bravely fought. What matter, the tempter said, whether he reigned as a Catholic or Protestant monarch, so long as religious liberty was given to his subjects? Could he have reigned forever, could he have been assured of the toleration of his successors, this plea might have had some force; but it was the dictate of expediency, and no man can predict its ultimate results. He was not a religious man, although he was the leader of the Protestant party. He was far from being even moral in his social relations; still less had he the austerity of manners and habits that then characterized the Huguenots, for they were Calvinists and Presbyterians. He was gallant, brave, generous, magnanimous, and patriotic,–the model of a gentleman, the impersonation of chivalry, the charm of his friends, the idol of his army, the glory of his country; but there his virtues stopped. He was more of a statesman than the leader of a party. He wanted to see France united and happy and prosperous more than he wanted to see the ascendency of the Huguenots. He was now not the King of Navarre,–a small country, scarcely thirty miles long,–but the King of France, ruling, as he aspired, from the Pyrenees to the Rhine. So it is not strange that he was governed by the principles of expediency, as most monarchs are. He wished to aggrandize his monarchy; that aim was dearer to him than the reformed faith. Coligny would have fought to the bitter end to secure the triumph of the Protestant cause; but Henry was not so lofty a man as the Admiral,–he had not his religious convictions, or stern virtues, or incorruptible life. He was a gallant monarch, an able general, a far-reaching statesman, yet fond of pleasure and of the glories of a court.

So Henry made up his mind to abjure his faith. On Sunday the 25th of July, 1593, clad not in helmet and cuirass and burnished steel, as at Ivry, but in a doublet of white satin, and a velvet coat ornamented with jewels and orders and golden fleurs de lis, and followed by cardinals and bishops and nobles, he entered the venerable Abbey of St. Denis, where reposed the ashes of all his predecessors, from Dagobert to Henry III, and was received into the bosom of the Catholic Church. A solemn Te Deum was then chanted by unnumbered priests; and the lofty pillars, the marble altars, the storied effigies, the purple windows, and the vaulted roof of that mediaeval monument re-echoed to the music of those glorious anthems which were sung ages before the most sainted of the kings of France was buried in the crypt. The partisans of the Catholic faith rejoiced that a heretic had returned to the fold of true believers; while the saddened, disappointed, humiliated members of the reformed religion felt, and confessed with shame, that their lauded protector had committed the most lamentable act of apostasy since the Emperor Julian abjured Christianity. It is true they palliated his conduct and remained faithful to his standard; but they felt he had committed a great blunder, if it were not a great crime. They knew that their cause was lost,–lost by him who had been their leader. Truly could they say, “Put not your trust in princes.” To the irreligious, but worldly-wise, Henry had made a grand stroke of policy; had gained a kingdom well worth a Mass, had settled the disorders of forty years, had united both Catholics and Protestants in fealty to his crown, and was left at leisure to develop the resources of the nation, and lay a foundation for its future greatness.

I cannot here enumerate Henry IV.’s services to France, after the long civil war had closed; they were very great, and endeared him to the nation. He proved himself a wise and beneficent ruler; with the aid of the transcendent abilities of Sully, whose counsels he respected, he reduced taxation, founded schools and libraries, built hospitals, dug canals, repaired fortifications, restrained military license, punished turbulence and crime, introduced useful manufactures, encouraged industry, patronized learning, and sought to perpetuate peace. He aimed to be the father of his people, and he was the protector of the poor. His memorable saying is still dear to the hearts of Frenchmen: “I hope so to manage my kingdom that the poorest subject of it may eat meat every day in the week, and moreover be enabled to put a fowl into the pot every Sunday.” I should like to point out his great acts and his enlightened policy, especially his effort to create a balance of power in Europe. The settlement of the finances and the establishment of various industries were his most beneficial acts. The taxes were reduced one half, and at his death he had fifty millions in the treasury,–a great sum in those days,–having paid off a debt of three hundred millions in eight years.

These and other public services showed his humane nature and his enlightened mind, until, after a glorious reign of twenty-one years, he was cut off, in the prime of his life and in the midst of his usefulness, by the assassin’s dagger, May, 1610, in the fifty-eighth year of his age,–the greatest of all the French kings,–leaving five children by his second wife, Marie de Médicis, four of whom became kings or queens.

But to consider particularly Henry’s connection with the Huguenots. If he deserted their ranks, he did not forget them. He gave them religious toleration,–all they originally claimed. In 1598 was signed the memorable edict of Nantes, by which the Protestants preserved their churches, their schools, their consistories, and their synods; and they retained as a guarantee several important cities and fortresses,–a sort of imperium in imperio. They were made eligible to all offices. They were not subjected to any grievous test-act. They enjoyed social and political equality, as well as unrestricted religious liberty, except in certain cities. They gained more than the Puritans did in the reign of Charles II. They were not excluded from universities, nor degraded in their social rank, nor annoyed by unjust burial laws. The two religions were placed equally under the protection of the government. By this edict the Huguenots gained all that they had struggled for.

Still, the abjuration of Henry IV. was a great calamity to them. They lost their prestige; they were in a minority; they could count no longer on the leadership of princes. They were deprived gradually of the countenance of powerful nobles and all the potent influences of fashion; and when a reaction against Calvinism took place in the seventeenth century, the Huguenots had dwindled to a comparatively humble body of unimportant people. They lost heart and men of rank to defend them when the persecution of Richelieu overtook them in the next reign. They were then unfit to contend successfully with that centralized monarchy of which Henry IV. had laid the foundation, and which Richelieu cemented by fraud and force. Louis XIV., educated by the Jesuits and always under their influence, repealed the charter which Henry IV. had given them. The persecution they suffered under Louis XIV. was more dreadful than that they suffered under Charles IX., since they had neither arms, nor organization, nor leaders, nor fortresses. Under the persecution of the Valois princes they had Condé and the King of Navarre and Coligny for leaders; they were strong enough to fight for their liberties,–they had enthusiasm and prestige and hope. Under the iron and centralized government of Louis XIV. they were completely defenceless, like lambs before wolves; they had no hopes, they could make no defence; they were an obnoxious, slandered, unimportant, unfashionable people, and their light had gone out. They had no religious enthusiasm even; they were small farmers and tradesmen and servants, and worshipped God in dingy chapels. No great men arose among them, as among the Puritans of England. They were still evangelical in their creed, but not earnest in defending it; so persecution wiped them out–was terribly successful. Eight hundred thousand of them perished in prisons and galleys or on scaffolds, and there was no help.

Henry IV., when he gave toleration to the Huguenots, never dreamed that his successors would undo his work. Had he foreseen that concession to the unchanged and unchangeable enemies of human freedom would have ended as it did, I believe his noble heart would have revolted from any peace until he could have reigned as a Protestant king. Oh, had he struggled a little longer for his crown, how different might have been the subsequent history of France, and even Europe itself! How much greater would have been his own fame! Even had he died as the defender of Protestant liberties, a greater glory than that of Gustavus would have been his forever. The immediate results of his abjuration were doubtless beneficial to himself, to the Huguenots, and to his country. Expediency gives great rewards; but expediency cannot control future events,–it is short-sighted, and only for the time successful. Ask you for the ultimate results of the abjuration of Henry IV., I point to the demolition of La Rochelle, under Richelieu, and the systematic humiliation of the Huguenots; I point to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, by Louis XIV., and the bitter and cruel and wholesale persecution which followed; I point to the atrocities of the dragonnades and the exile of the Huguenots to England and America and Holland; I point to the extinction of civil and religions liberty in France,–to the restoration of the Jesuits,–to the prevalence of religious indifference under the guise of Roman Catholicism, until at last it threw off the mask and defied all authority, both human and divine, and invoked all the maddening passions of Revolution itself.


Histoire de Thou; L’Estoile; Mémoires de la Reine Marguerite; Histoire de Henri le Grand, par Madame de Genlis; Mémoires de Sully; D’Aubigné; Matthien; Brantôme’s Vie de Charles IX.; Henri Martin’s History of France; Mézerai; Péréfixe; Sismondi.

Gustavus Adolphus : Thirty Years’ War

Beacon Lights of History, Volume VIII : Great Rulers