Story of Liberty - Charles Coffin

The Retribution that Followed Crime

The Huguenots of France are not exterminated by the terrible massacre of St. Bartholomew; there are still one hundred thousand in the kingdom. Catherine de' Medici and the Duke of Guise are determined to root them out, and the young king, Henry III., is a pliant tool in their hands.

"I will have but one religion in the State," is the edict of the weak boy-king. The Huguenots must give up their religion, or fight for life, liberty, and property. Give up they will not. A terrible war begins. Henry of Navarre is the leader of the Huguenots. The whole country is disturbed. Amidst all the commotion, what is the young King of France doing? He is down in the city of Lyons, buying all the little dogs, parrots, and monkeys he can find—paying more than one hundred thousand crowns for them. With him are two hundred women, and as many men—ladies and gentlemen of the court, who have nothing to do but to eat and drink, dance and sing, and dawdle their time away; while the people, with no security of life or property, with no freedom of thought or action, are plundered by the tax-collectors of their hard earnings, to maintain the worthless, dissolute creatures in all their mock gentility.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


We come to 1588. The Duke of Guise has been laying a plot to get rid of Henry III., and also Henry of Navarre, the leader of the Huguenots, who is heir to the throne. The duke is not content with being a duke; he must be king. But how shall he do it? He will summon the Jesuits. He will manage to have his own immediate friends appointed chief inquisitors. He consults with the Holy League. But the king is aware of what is going on. He sees through the plan of the wily man, who is on his way from Nancy, a town in Northern France, to Paris.

"You must not enter Paris without my consent," is the order which the king sends to him. What does the Duke of Guise care for that? Nothing.

"If you will break with the king, I will send you three hundred thousand crowns, and seven thousand soldiers," is the word which comes to the duke from Philip II.

The Leaguers are in Paris, secretly stirring up the people, distributing money to the rabble.

"What a noble, generous man the Duke of Guise mast be! He does not spend his money buying poodles and monkeys!" So say the people, as the coins drop into their hands. They are ready to take up arms for such a man against the weak-minded Henry.

At noon, May 12th, a man in a white doublet, black cloak, tall, dignified, with a sear on his face, enters the Gate of St. Martin. All Paris is out to welcome him. "Hurrah for the Duke of Guise!" The shout runs along the streets. The people come out with their arms, and the king flies in terror to a place of safety. Then there are negotiations, and the weak, vacillating king comes to terms, accedes to all the duke's demands, publishes an edict against the Huguenots, and another declaring that Henry of Navarre has no right to the throne. The king appoints to office all whom the duke says must be appointed—the duke himself being made lieutenant-general, commanding the army.

Christmas comes. The duke is master. The king feels his degradation.

"What shall I do?" He puts the question to one of his trusty friends.

"Arrest the duke, and have him tried."

"Strike him at once. He is planning your destruction. You never can try him for treason. Strike, and get rid of him," is the advice of another.

Walls have ears; and a servant, a spy of the duke's, hears it. The duke is sitting at dinner, when a servant hands him a note. Thus it reads: "The king intends to kill you."

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The duke takes a pen and writes, "He does not dare to." The duke does not know, nor does he care, who sent the note, for he is conscious of his power. To-morrow morning he is to meet the king in council, and he will make new demands more humiliating to the king. Morning comes, and the duke enters the council-chamber. It is cold and chilly.

"Will you kindle a fire?"

A servant lights the wood upon the hearth, and the duke warms himself, eating, while doing it, some plums, which another servant brings him.

"The king would like to see you in his chamber." The Secretary of State brings the message. Now he will make his demands. Every Huguenot shall be exterminated. He pulls up his cloak, and takes his hat. Some of the councillors have come in. He bows to them with kingly grace, and passes through a door. Whip! whip! whip! whip! whip! Five strokes from as many poniards. Nine men have been standing concealed in the passage-way, and five of them have plunged their weapons into his body.

"God have mercy!" It is his only cry. There he lies, close by the king's bed, his blood flowing from five ghastly wounds.

The king comes from an inner chamber. "Is it done?"


The king bends over the body and kicks it. Who was he that stamped the heel of his boot into the face of the dead Coligny, sixteen years ago, on the night of St. Bartholomew? The Duke of Guise, now weltering in his gore, did not stop on that eventful night to ponder the words of Christ concerning retribution, "With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." But the retributive hour has come, and the words spoken by that Carpenter of Galilee are not fiction, but stern and irreversible fact. The time has been long, but the measure has come at last.

"I am king." Henry speaks the words, and goes to see his mother, Catherine, old and feeble now.

"How are you this morning?"

"Better," Catherine replies.

"So am I."

"You have had the duke put out of the way, I hear. I hope the cutting is all right; but now for the sewing." So the mother addresses the son. Thirteen days later, the grandniece of Leo X.—the woman who poisoned Jeanne d'Albret, who planned the massacre of St. Bartholomew, who poisoned her own son Charles, who has been accessory to many other crimes—lies upon her bed, weak, helpless, with death staring her in the face. "Blood! blood! There is a river of blood!" she cries. "See! see! The devils are after me! they are dragging me down to hell."

She is a maniac. Death steals on apace. The withered hands move convulsively; the once fair face is haggard now; the lips quiver, and the breathing ceases. Death has come, and that is the end! Is it? If the good which men do lives after them, does the evil die when the pulse ceases its beatings? No. A legacy of blood and hate, of war and crime, is what Catherine de' Medici bequeaths to France.

Six months pass. The King of France and Henry of Navarre are at St. Cloud, with their armies. The land is convulsed with civil war. Paris is in the hands of the Holy Leaguers, who fain would exterminate every Huguenot.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


It is Tuesday, August 1st, that a monk appears at St. Cloud; he has come from Paris, with a message for the king.

"You can't go in," says the guard.

"Let him come in," shouts the king from his tent. The monk passes in, bows low before the king to present a paper. A poniard flashes in the air, and the monk drives it to the hilt into the king's abdomen.

"He has killed me!" The shout is heard by the guards, who rush in in season to see the king falling to the floor. Jacques Clement stands there, with his arms outstretched, as if to make a crucifix of himself in his fanatical hatred of the king. In a moment he is hacked to pieces.

Henry of Navarre and the Duke of Sully are with the army. A horseman rides up at a swift pace, bows to Henry, and whispers in his ear, and the three gallop to St. Cloud. The king is dying, but conscious.

"Navarre is your king; recognize him as the rightful King of France," are the words that fall from the lips of the wounded sovereign. "We will."

"Swear it."

The noblemen who have gathered round fall upon their knees, and lift their hands to heaven in confirmation of their promise. The dead king is borne to his tomb; and the boy born and nurtured among the defiles of the Pyrenees, whose infant lips were wet with wine and chafed with garlic by a doting old grandfather, is King of France—Henry IV., the first of the house of Bourbon.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Though Henry IV. has come to the throne, the war is not yet ended. The Leaguers are in possession of Paris, and the Duke of Mayenne, youngest brother of the Duke of Guise, their leader. The war widens. Queen Elizabeth of England sends over six thousand men to aid Henry. On March 14th the two armies meet on the plain of Ivry, Henry with ten thousand, and the Duke of Mayenne with thirteen thousand men.

"My children," says the king, just as the battle is beginning, "if you lose sight of your colors, rally to my white plume: you will always find it in the path to honor and glory. The historian Macaulay tells us about the battle:

"The king is come to marshal us, in all his armor drest,

And he has bound a snow-white plume upon his gallant crest.

He looked upon his people, and a tear was in his eye;

He looked upon the traitors, and his glance was stern and high.

Right graciously he smiled on us, as rolled from wing to wing,

Down all our line, a deafening shout, ' God save our lord the king!'

'And if my standard-bearer fall, as fall full well he may,

For never saw I promise yet of such a bloody fray,

Press where ye see my white plume shine, amidst the ranks of war,

And be your oriflamme to-day the helmet of Navarre."

The Leaguers are utterly routed. Their commander is a fat man; he seeks safety in flight, but is overtaken and captured. Henry treats him kindly.

"Spare the French," are his orders to his troops. He will not have a Frenchman put to death.

But how shall Henry govern? He is a Huguenot, while three-fourths of the people of France are Catholics. He cares very little for the forms of religion; but he believes that every man should be allowed to think for himself in religious matters. He sees that the country is torn by factions. He would have the people united; and, to bring about a union, decides to give in his adhesion to the Roman Church. Some of the bigoted Catholics say that he is a hypocrite, while many of the Huguenots accuse him of being a traitor. For the sake of peace, he acknowledges the Pope as the head of the Church. He marks out his course of action. There shall be freedom of conscience to every man, and there shall be no more burning or hanging of heretics.

The country has been drenched in blood since Bernard Palissy, the potter, and his friends began to think for themselves; but at last, after the weary years, the people may think for themselves, without fear of priest or Pope.

Henry publicly abjures the Huguenot faith, and ranks himself a Catholic; but on April 13th, 1598, in the old town of Nantes, he publishes an edict guaranteeing protection and toleration to all. So liberty, like a ship at sea, after breasting the storm and tempest, sails in calmer waters.