Heroes of Modern Europe - Alice Birkhead

Henry of Navarre

Throughout France the followers of John Calvin of Geneva organized themselves into a powerful Protestant party. The Reformation in Germany had been aristocratic in tendency, since it was mainly upheld by princes whose politics led them to oppose the Papacy. The teaching of Calvin appealed more directly to the ignorant, for his creed was stern and simple. The Calvinists even declared Luther an agent of the devil, in striking contrast to their own leader, who was regarded as the messenger of God. For such men there were no different degrees of sinfulness—some were held to be elect or "chosen of the Lord" at their birth, while others were predestined for everlasting punishment. It was characteristic of Calvin that he called vehemently for toleration from the Emperor, Charles V, and yet caused the death of a Spanish physician, Servetus, whose views happened to be at variance with his own!

The Calvinists generally held meetings in the open air where they could escape the restrictions that were placed on services held in any place of worship. The middle and lower classes attended them in large numbers, and the new faith spread rapidly through the enlightened world of Western Europe. John Knox, the renowned Scotch preacher, was a firm friend of Calvin, and thundered denunciations from his Scotch pulpit at the young Queen Mary, who had come from France with all the levity of French court-training in her manners. The people of Southern France were eager to hear the fiery speech that somehow captured their imagination. As they increased in numbers and began to have political importance they became known as Huguenots or Confederates. To Catherine de Medici, the Catholic Regent of France, they were a formidable body, and in Navarre their leaders were drawn mainly from the nobles.

Relentless persecution would probably have crushed the Huguenots of France eventually if it had been equally severe in all cases. As a rule, men of the highest rank could evade punishment, and a few of the higher clergy preached religious toleration. Thousands marched cheerfully to death from among the ranks of humble citizens, for it was part of Calvin's creed that men ought to suffer martyrdom for their faith without offering resistance. Judges were known to die, stricken by remorse, and marvelling at their victims' fortitude. At Dijon, the executioner himself proclaimed at the foot of the scaffold that he had been converted.

The Calvinist preachers could gain no audience in Paris, where the University of the Sorbonne opposed their doctrines and declared that these were contrary to all the philosophy of ancient times. The capital of France constantly proclaimed loyalty to Rome by the pompous processions which filed out of its magnificent churches and paraded the streets to awe the mob, always swayed by the violence of fanatic priests. The Huguenots did not attempt to capture a stronghold, where it was boasted that "the novices of the convents and the priests' housekeepers could have driven them out with broomsticks."

Such rude weapons would have been ineffectual in the South-East of France, where all the most flourishing towns had embraced the reformed religion. The majority of the Huguenots were drawn from the most warlike, intelligent, and industrious of the population of these towns, but princes also adopted Calvinism, and the Bourbons of Navarre made their court a refuge for believers in the new religion.

Navarre was at this time a narrow strip of land on the French side of the Pyrenees, but her ruler was still a sovereign monarch and owed allegiance to no overlord. Henry, Prince of Bourbon and King of Navarre, was born in 1555 at Bearns, in the mountains. His mother was a Calvinist, and his early discipline was rigid. He ran barefoot with the village lads, learnt to climb like a chamois, and knew nothing more luxurious than the habits of a court which had become enamoured of simplicity. He was bewildered on his introduction to the shameless, intriguing circle of Catherine de Medici.

The Queen-Mother did not allow King Charles IX to have much share in the government of France at that period. She had an Italian love of dissimulation, and followed the methods of the rulers of petty Italian states in her policy, which was to play off one rival faction against another. Henry of Guise led the Catholic party against the Huguenots, whose leaders were Prince Louis de Bourbon and his uncle, the noble Admiral de Coligny. Guise was so determined to gain power that he actually asked the help of Spain in his attempt to crush the "heretics" of his own nation.

The Huguenots at that time had won many notable concessions from the Crown, which increased the bitter hostility of the Catholics. The Queen-Mother, however, concealed her annoyance when she saw the ladies of the court reading the New Testament instead of pagan poetry, or heard their voices chanting godly psalms rather than the old love-ballads. She did not object openly to the pious form of speech which was known as the "language of Canaan." She was a passionless woman, self-seeking but not revengeful, and adopted a certain degree of tolerance, no doubt, from her patriotic counsellor, L'Hopital, who resembled the Prince of Orange in his character.

The Edict of January in 1562 gave countenance to Huguenot meetings throughout France, and was, therefore, detested by the Catholic party. The Duke of Guise went to dine one Sunday in the little town of Vassy, near his residence of Joinville. A band of armed retainers accompanied him and pushed their way into a barn where the Huguenots were holding service. A riot ensued, in which the Duke was struck, and his followers killed no less than sixty of the worshippers.

This outrage led to civil war, for the Protestants remembered bitterly that Guise had sworn never to take life in the cause of religion. They demanded the punishment of the offenders, and then took the field most valiantly. Gentlemen served at their own expense, but they were, in general, "better armed with courage than with corselets." They were overpowered by the numbers of the Catholic League, which had all the wealth of Church and State at its back, and also had control of the King and capital. One by one the heroic leaders fell. Louis de Bourbon was taken prisoner at Dreux, and Anthony of Bourbon died before the town of Rouen.

The Queen of Navarre was very anxious for the safety of her son, for she heard that he was accompanying Catherine and Charles IX on a long progress through the kingdom. She herself was the object of Catholic animosity, and the King of Spain destined her for a grand Auto-da-fe, longing to make an example of so proud a heretic. She believed that her son had received the root of piety in his heart while he was under her care, but she doubted whether that goodly root would grow in the corrupt atmosphere which surrounded the youthful Valois princes. Henry of Navarre disliked learning, and was fond of active exercise. His education was varied after he came to court, and he learnt to read men well. In later life he was able to enjoy the most frivolous pastimes and yet could endure the privations of camp life without experiencing discomfort.

Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Conde, was killed at the battle of Jarnac, and Henry de Bourbon became the recognized head of the Huguenot party. He took an oath never to abandon the cause, and was hailed by the soldiers in camp as their future leader. The Queen of Navarre clad him in his armour, delighted that her son should defend the reformed religion. She saw that he was brave and manly, if he were not a truly religious prince, and she agreed with the loudly expressed opinion of the populace that he was more royal in bearing than the dissolute and effeminate youths who spent their idle days within the palaces of the Louvre and the Tuileries.

The country was growing so weary of the struggle that the scheme for a marriage between Henry of Navarre and Margaret of Valois was hailed with enthusiasm. If Catholic and Huguenot were united there might be peace in France that would add to the prosperity of the nation. Catherine de Medici had intended originally that her daughter should marry the Catholic King of Portugal, and was angry with Philip II of Spain because he had done nothing to assist her in making this alliance. Charles IX longed to humble Philip, who was indignant that the "heretics" had been offered freedom of worship in 1570, and had expressed his opinion rather freely. Therefore the Valois family did not hesitate to receive the leader of the Protestants, Henry de Bourbon, whose territory extended from the Pyrenees to far beyond the Garonne.

The Queen of Navarre disliked the match and was suspicious of the Queen-Mother's motives. She feared that Catherine and Catherine's daughter would entice Henry into a gay, dissolute course of life which would destroy the results of her early training, and she could not respond very cordially to the effusive welcome which greeted her at the court when she came sadly to the wedding.

The marriage contract was signed in 1571, neither bride nor bridegroom having much choice in the matter. Henry was probably dazzled by the brilliant prospects that opened out to one who was mated with a Valois, but he was only nineteen and never quite at ease in the shifting, tortuous maze of diplomacy as conceived by the mind of Catherine de Medici. Margaret was a talented, lively girl, and pleased with the fine jewels that were given her. She did not understand the reasons which urged her brother Charles to press on the match. He insisted that it should take place in Paris in order that he might show his subjects how much he longed to settle the religious strife that had lately rent the kingdom. It was a question, of course, on which neither of the contracting parties had to be more than formally consulted.

The Queen of Navarre died suddenly on the eve of the wedding, and her son, with 800 attendants, entered the city in a mourning garb that had soon to be discarded. Gorgeous costumes of ceremony were donned for the great day, August 18th, 1572, when Margaret met her bridegroom on a great stage erected before the church of Notre Dame.

Henry of Navarre could not attend the Mass, but walked in the nave with his Huguenot friends, while Margaret knelt in the choir, surrounded by the Catholics of the party. Admiral Coligny was present, the stalwart Huguenot who appealed to all the finest instincts of his people. He had tried to arrange a marriage between Elizabeth of England and Henry of Anjou, the brother of the French King, but had not been successful, owing to Elizabeth's politic vacillation. He was detested by Catherine de Medici because he had great power over her son, the reigning monarch, whom she tried to dominate completely. A dark design had inspired the Guise faction of late in consequence of the Queen's enmity to the influence of Coligny. It was hinted that the Huguenot party would be very weak if their strongest partisan were suddenly taken from them. All the great Protestant nobles were assembled in Paris for the marriage of Navarre and Margaret of Valois. They were royally entertained by the Catholic courtiers and lodged at night in fine apartments of the Louvre and other palaces. They had no idea that they had any danger to fear as they slept, and would have disdained to guard themselves against the possible treachery of their hosts. They might have been warned by the attempted assassination of Admiral Coligny, who was wounded by a pistol-shot, had not the King expressed such concern at the attempt on the life of his favourite counsellor. "My father," Charles IX declared when he came to the Admiral's bedside, "the pain of the wound is yours, but the insult and the wrong are mine."

The King had the gates of Paris shut, and sent his own guard to protect Coligny. He was weak, and subject to violent gusts of passion which made him easy to guide, if he were in the hands of an unscrupulous person. His mother, who had plotted with Guise for the death of Coligny, pointed out that there was grave danger to be feared from the Protestants. She made Charles declare in a frenzy of violence that every Huguenot in France should perish if the Admiral died, for he would not be reproached with such a crime by the Admiral's followers.

The bells of the church nearest to the Louvre rang out on the Eve of St Bartholomew—they gave the signal for a cruel massacre. After the devout Protestant, Coligny, was slain in the presence of the Duke of Guise, there was little resistance from the other defenceless Huguenot nobles. They were roused from sleep, surprised by treacherous foes, and relentlessly murdered. It was impossible to combine in their perilous position. Two thousand were put to death in Paris, where the very women and children acted like monsters of cruelty to the heretics for three days, and proved themselves as cunning as the Swiss guards who had slain the King's guests on the night of Saint Bartholomew. A Huguenot noble escaped from his assailants and rushed into Henry's very bridal chamber. He cried, "Navarre! Navarre!" and hoped for protection from the Protestant prince against four archers who were following him. Henry had risen early and gone out to the tennis-court, and Margaret was powerless to offer any help. She fled from the room in terror, having heard nothing previously of the Guises' secret conspiracy.

Charles IX sent for Navarre and disclosed the fact that he had been privy to the massacre. He showed plainly that the Protestants were to find no toleration henceforth. Henry felt that his life was in great jeopardy, for most of the noblemen he had brought to Paris had fallen in the massacre, and he stood practically alone at a Catholic court. Henry understood that if he were to be spared it was only at the price of his conversion, and with the alternatives of death or the Mass before him, it is little wonder that he yielded, at least in appearance, to the latter. There were spies and traitors to be feared in the circle of the Medici. Even Margaret was not safe since her marriage to a Protestant, but she gave wise counsel to her husband and guided him skilfully through the perils of court life.

Catherine disarmed the general indignation of Europe by spreading an ingeniously concocted story to the effect that the Huguenots had been sacrificed because they plotted a foul attack on the Crown of France. She had been hostile to Coligny rather than to his policy, and continued to follow his scheme of thwarting Spain by alliances with Elizabeth and the Prince of Orange.

[Illustration] from Heroes of Modern Europe by Alice Birkhead


Henry of Guise met the charge of excessive zeal in defending his King with perfect equanimity. He was a splendid figure at the court, winning popularity by his affable manners and managing to conceal his arrogant, ambitious nature.

After 1572 the Huguenots relied mainly on the wealthy citizens of the towns for support in the struggle against the Guise faction. In addition to religious toleration they now demanded the redress of political grievances. A republican spirit rose in the Protestant party, who read eagerly the various books and pamphlets declaring that a monarchy should not continue if it proved incapable of maintaining order even by despotic powers. More and more a new idea gained ground that the sovereignty of France was not hereditary but elective.

Charles IX, distracted by the confusion in his kingdom and the caprices of his own ill-balanced temper, clung to Henry of Navarre because he recognized real strength in him such as was wanting in the Valois. Henry III, his successor, was contemptibly vain and feminine in all his tastes, wearing pearls in his hair and rouging his face in order that he might be admired by the foolish, empty courtiers who were his favourite companions. He succeeded to the throne in 1575, and made some display of Catholic zeal by organizing fantastic processions of repentant sinners through the streets of Paris. He insisted on Navarre taking part in this mummery, for it was to his interest to prevent the Protestant party from claiming a noble leader.

Navarre had learnt to play his part well, but he chafed at his inglorious position. He saw with a fierce disgust the worthless prince, Alencon, become the head of the Protestant party. Then he discovered that he was to have a chance of escape from the toils of the Medici. In January, 1576, he received an offer from some officers—who had been disappointed of the royal favour—that they would put him in possession of certain towns if he would leave the court. He rode off at once to the Protestant camp, leaving his wife behind him.

The Peace of Monsieur, signed in February 1576, granted very favourable conditions to the Protestants, who had stoutly resisted an attack on their stronghold of La Rochelle. Catherine and Henry III became alarmed by the increasing numbers of their enemies, for a Catholic League was formed by Henry of Guise and other discontented subjects in order to ally Paris with the fanatics of the provinces. This League was by no means favourable to the King and Catherine, for its openly avowed leader was Henry of Guise, who was greatly beloved by the people. Henry III was foolish enough to become a member, thereby incurring some loss of prestige by placing himself practically under the authority of his rival. Bitterly hostile to the Protestants as were the aims of the League, it was nevertheless largely used by the Duke of Guise as a cloak to cover his designs for the usurpation of the royal power. The hope of Henry III and his mother was that the rival Catholics and Protestants would fight out their own quarrel and leave the Crown to watch the battles unmolested.

The last of the Valois was closely watched by the bold preachers of political emancipation. These were determined to snatch the royal prerogatives from him if he were unworthy of respect and squandered too much public money on his follies. It enraged them to hear that he spent hours on his own toilette, and starched his wife's fine ruffs as if he were her tire-woman. They were angry when they were told that their King regarded his functions so lightly that he gave audiences to ambassadors with a basketful of puppies round his neck, and did not trouble to read the reports his ministers sent to him. They decided secretly to proclaim Henry III's kinsman, the King of Navarre, who was a fine soldier and a kindly, humane gentleman.

Navarre was openly welcomed as the leader of the Reformed Church party. He was readmitted to Calvinist communion, and abjured the Mass. He took the field gladly, being delighted to remove the mask he had been obliged to wear. His brilliant feats of arms made him more popular than ever.

When Anjou died, Navarre was heir presumptive to the throne, and had to meet the furious hostility of the Guise faction. These said that Navarre's uncle, Cardinal de Bourbon, "wine-tun rather than a man," should be their king when Valois died. They secured the help of Spain before publishing their famous Manifesto. This document avowed the intentions of those forming the Catholic League to restore the dignity of the Church by drawing the sword, if necessary, and to settle for themselves the question of Henry III's successor. He bribed the people by releasing them from taxation and promised regular meetings of the States-General.

The King hesitated to grant the League's demands, which were definitely formulated in 1585. He did not wish to revoke the Edicts of Toleration that had recently been passed, and might have refused, if his mother had not advised him to make every concession that was possible to avoid the enmity of the Guise faction. He consented, and was lost, for the Huguenots sprang to arms, and he found that he was to be driven from his capital by the Guises.

The King was accused of sympathy with the Protestant cause, which made his name odious to the Catholic University of Paris. He had personal enemies too, such as the Duchess of Montpensier, sister to Henry of Guise, who was fond of saying that she would give him another crown by using the gold scissors at her waist. There was some talk of his entering a monastery where he would have had to adopt the tonsure.

One-half of Navarre's beard had turned white when he heard that Henry III was revoking the Edicts of Toleration. Yet he was happiest in camp, and leapt to the saddle with a light heart in May 1588 when the King fled from Paris and Guise entered the capital as the deliverer of the people. He looked the model of a Gascon knight, with hooked nose and bold, black eyes under ironical arched eyebrows. He was a clever judge of character, and knew how to win adherents to his cause. His homely garb attracted many who were tired of the weak Valois kings, for there was no artificial grace in the scarlet cloak, brown velvet doublet and white-plumed hat which distinguished him from his fellows.

Henry III plotted desperately to regain his prestige, and showed some of the Medici guile in a plot for Guise's assassination. When this succeeded he went to boast to Catherine that he had killed the King of Paris. "You have cut boldly into the stuff, my son," she answered him, "but will you know how to sew it together?"

Paris was filled by lamentations for the death of Guise, and the festivities of Christmas Eve gave way to funeral dirges. The University of Sorbonne declared that they would not receive Henry of Valois again as king. His only hope was to reconcile himself with Navarre and the Protestant party. Paris was tumultuous with resistance when the news came that Royalists and Huguenots had raised their standards in the same camp and massed two armies. The Catholic League was beloved by the poorer citizens because it released them from rent-dues. The spirit of the people was shown by processions of children, who threw lighted torches to the ground before the churches, stamped on them, and cried, "Thus may God quench the House of Valois!"

The capital welcomed Spanish troops to aid them in keeping Henry III from the gates. He was assassinated by a Burgundian monk as he approached the city "he had loved more than his wife," and Henry of Navarre, though a heretic, now claimed the right of entrance.

Navarre was the lineal descendant of Saint Louis of France, but for ten generations no ancestor of his in the male line had ruled the French kingdom. He was the grandson of Margaret, sister of Francis I, and Henry d'Albret, who had borne captivity with that monarch. Many were pledged to him by vows made to the dying King, who had come to look on him as a doughty champion; many swore that they would die a thousand deaths rather than be the servants of a heretic master.

In February 1590, Henry laid siege to Dreux in order to place himself between his enemies and Paris. Mayenne, the leader of the opposite camp, drew him to Ivry, where a battle was fought on March 14th, resulting in the complete discomfiture of the Catholic Leaguers. The white plume of Navarre floated victorious on the field, and the black lilies of Mayenne were trampled. The road to Paris lay open to the heretic King, who invested the city on the northern side, but did not attack the inhabitants. The blockade would have reduced the hungry citizens to submission at the end of a month if the Duke of Parma had not come to their relief at the command of the Spanish sovereign.

Philip II wished his daughter to marry the young Duke of Guise and to ascend the French throne with her husband. For that reason he supported Paris in its refusal to accept the Protestant King of Navarre. It was not till March 1594, that the King, known as Henri Quatre, was able to lead his troops into Paris.

Navarre had been compelled to attend Mass in public and to ask absolution from the Archbishop of Bourges, who received him into the fold of the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman Church before the coronation. He was now the "most Christian King," welcomed with blaze of bonfires and the blare of trumpets. He was crowned at Chartres because the Catholic League held Rheims, and he entered Paris by the Porte Neuve, through which Henry III had fled from the Guises some six years previously. The Spaniards had to withdraw from his capital, being told that their services would be required no longer.

Henry IV waged successful wars against Spain and the Catholic League, gradually recovering the whole of his dominions by his energy and courage. He settled the status of the Protestants on a satisfactory basis by the Edict of Nantes, which was signed in April 1598, to consolidate the privileges which had been previously granted to the Calvinists. Full civil rights and full civil protection were granted to all Protestants, and the King assigned a sum of money for the use of Protestant schools and colleges.

Henry introduced the silk industry into France, and his famous minister, Sully, did much to improve the condition of French agriculture. By 1598 order had been restored in the kingdom, but industry and commerce had been crippled by nearly forty years of civil war. When France's first Bourbon King, Henry IV, was assassinated in April 1610, he had only begun the great work of social and economical reform which proved his genuine sense of public duty.