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History of France - H. E. Marshall

The Riot of Amboise
Francis II (Regent: Duke of Guise) [1559-1560]

Henry II was succeeded by his son Francis II, a sickly boy of fifteen. He was the husband of beautiful Queen Mary of Scotland, and they were both children in the hands of the powerful Duke of Guise and of his brother the Cardinal of Lorraine.

During the last reign the Protestants, or Huguenots, as they were now called, had been growing stronger and stronger; this, too, in spite of bitter persecutions. Some of the greatest nobles had become Protestants, the greatest of all being the Bourbons.

These Bourbons were of the same family as that Charles of Bourbon who, you remember, rebelled against Francis I. They were thus cousins of the King, and the head of the house was Anthony King of Navarre. He received this title through Jeanne, his wife, who was Queen of Navarre of Navarre in her own right. Navarre was a small kingdom carved out of the north of Spain, the boundaries stretching over the Pyrenees a little way into France. It was really from this French Navarre that Jeanne took her title, for the Spanish province was in the hands of Philip of Spain. It was a tiny mountainous kingdom. The people were simple shepherds and peasants, and the King and Queen lived almost as simply as their subjects.

King Anthony was not really a sincere Protestant, like his wife Queen Jeanne, but he was an enemy of the Guises. He thought, too, that as the King's nearest relative he ought to be his chief adviser. The Duke of Guise, however, had no idea of giving up his office, and he insulted and neglected Anthony of Navarre and his brother, the Prince of Conde, in every way possible. So there began a struggle for power. On the one hand were the Guises at the head of the Catholics, on the other the Prince of Conde (for he was the real leader) at the head of the Protestants.

The Protestants now formed a plot to rescue the young King from the power of the Guises. Through all the land messengers were sent secretly to persuade all people who hated the rule of the Guises to take up arms for the "Dumb Leader." This was the name given to Conde, who dared not yet openly appear as the champion of the Protestants.

All went well. Hundreds and thousands joined the conspiracy. In the very castle itself where the King was there were conspirators. Plans were made, everything was ready. It was arranged that upon the day fixed the castle should be surrounded. Then, at a signal given by friends within the castle, it should be attacked on all sides, and the doors forced. The Guises were to be taken prisoner, but no harm was to be done to the King.

There was, however, a traitor within the camp. Before the day arrived Guise knew all the plans of the Protestants. He acted quietly and swiftly. He sent soldiers to every meeting place to scatter the conspirators. He changed the guards around the castle, replacing them with men he could trust; he walled up the gate of the town by which the conspirators hoped to enter. Thus when they arrived they were easily taken prisoner or scattered in flight, and the rebellion was at an end. It was called the riot of Amboise from the name of the castle in which the King then was.

But if the riot was over, not so the anger of Guise. He now caused himself to be made lieutenant-general of the kingdom, with power to do as he liked. And for a month the wretched conspirators were hunted from place to place. They were taken prisoner by dozens, and tortured and killed in many cruel ways.

For one long month there was nothing but hanging, and drowning, and beheading of people. They were led to death without any trial. "My business is not to talk, but to cut off heads," said Guise.

It was for him a horrible orgy of triumph. He delighted in the sight, and kept the chief executions as an after-dinner amusement, when even the ladies of the court sat at the windows of the palace to watch the terrible show.

The Duchess of Guise, it is said, turned from the sight in horror. "What is the matter?" asked the Queen, as she saw her turn away pale and stricken.

"What is the matter?" she answered. "Ah, Madame, I have just seen a most piteous sight, the blood of the innocent shed, the good subjects of the King done to death. Alas! some awful misfortune will fall upon our house."

The King too was uneasy. "I don't know how it is," he said to Guise, "but I hear it said that it is only you the people hate. I wish you would go away for a time, so that I might see whether it is you or I that they are against.'

But the Guises had no thought of going away. "If we left you," they said, "neither you nor your brothers would have an hour longer to live. The Bourbons want to kill you all."

Although so many of his followers were killed or imprisoned the Prince of Conde was at first allowed to go free. For even Guise did not dare to put a prince of the royal house to death. But after a time both Conde and his brother, King Anthony, were ordered to come to the court. They came, and Conde was imprisoned, tried, and condemned to death, and although the sentence was not carried out he was kept in prison. Thus one enemy was got rid of. The Guises wanted to get King Anthony, too, out of the way, but nothing could be proved against him. So, it is said, the Duke persuaded the King to kill him. It was arranged that Anthony should be sent for to speak with the King, and that the King should accuse him of being in league with his brother. If Anthony denied it the King should then draw his dagger, and at that signal men hidden there for the purpose should rush in and put King Anthony to death.

Thus it was arranged. Anthony was summoned to speak with King Francis. But before he went he was warned of the plot. Still he went. "If I die yonder," he said, "carry my bloodstained shirt to my wife, so that she may send it to every prince in Christendom, that they may avenge my death. For my son is not yet old enough to do it."

The first part of the plot had succeeded perfectly. But the young King's heart failed him. He could not strike a man in cold blood and Anthony left the King's presence in safety. "Was there ever a greater coward known?" muttered Guise, disgusted at the soft-heartedness of his royal slave, and at the failure of his plans.

Francis could not bring himself to kill a fellow creature. But he himself was soon to die. He had always been a sickly boy; now one day as he was mounting his horse he fell back fainting. It was quickly seen that he was dangerously ill, and that he could not live long. The Guises were in an agony of fear and rage. The Duke cursed and blasphemed, and threatened to hang the doctors. The Cardinal ordered prayers and masses to be said for the King's recovery.

Neither threats nor prayers were of any avail, and Francis died on December 5, 1560, having reigned less than a year.