Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

King Henry of Navarre

For the first time in its history France had a Protestant king. Henry III. had died by the knife of an assassin. Henry of Navarre was named by him as his successor. But the Catholic chiefs of France, in particular the leaders of the League which had been banded against Henry III., were bitterly opposed to the reign of a Huguenot in a realm that had always been governed by Catholic kings, and it was evident that only by the sword could the throne be secured.

The League held Paris and much of France. Henry's army was too weak to face them. He fell back on Dieppe, that he might be near the coast, and in position to receive reinforcements and supplies promised him by Queen Elizabeth. The Duke of Mayenne pursued him with an army of some thirty-five thousand men. Such was the situation at the date of the opening of our story.

Henry III. had been killed on the 1st of August, 1589. Henry IV. was proclaimed king on the 2nd of August. On the 26th of the same month he reached Dieppe, where he was met by the governor, Aymar de Chastes, and the leading citizens, who brought him the keys of the place.

"I come to salute my lord and hand over to him the government of this city," said Aymar, who was a Catholic noble.

"Ventre-saint-gris!" cried Henry, with his favorite exclamation; "I know none more worthy of it than you are."

The citizens crowded round the king, profuse in their expressions of loyalty.

"No fuss, my lads," said Henry, who was the embodiment of plain common sense; "all I want is your affection, good bread, good wine, and good hospitable faces."

Within the town he was received with loud cheers, and the population seemed enthusiastic in his favor. But the shrewd soldier had no idea of shutting himself up in a walled town, to be besieged there by Mayenne. So, after carefully inspecting its fortifications, he left five hundred men within the town, assisted by a garrison of burgesses, and established his camp on a neighboring hill, crowned by the old castle of Arques, where he put all his men and all the peasants that could be found busily to work digging like beavers, working night and day to fortify the camp. He set the example himself in the use of the spade.

Henry IV of France


"It is a wonder I am alive with such work as I have," he wrote at the time. "God have pity upon me and show me mercy, blessing my labors, as He does in spite of many folks. I am well, and my affairs are going well. I have taken Eu. The enemy, who are double me just now, thought to catch me there; but I drew off towards Dieppe, and I await them in a camp that I am fortifying. To-morrow will be the day when I shall see them, and I hope, with God's help, that if they attack me they will find they have made a bad bargain."

The enemy came, as Henry had said, saw his preparations, and by a skilful manœuvre sought to render them useless. Mayenne had no fancy for attacking those strong works in front. He managed, by an unlooked-for movement, to push himself between the camp and the town, "hoping to cut off the king's communications with the sea, divide his forces, deprive him of his reinforcements from England, and, finally, surround him and capture him, as he had promised the Leaguers of Paris, who were already talking of the iron cage in which the Bearnese would be sent to them."

But Henry IV. was not the man to be caught easily in a trap. Much as had been his labor at digging, he at once changed his plans, and decided that it would not pay him to await the foe in his intrenchments. If they would not come to him, he must go to them, preserving his communications at any cost. Chance, rather than design, brought the two armies into contact. A body of light-horse approached the king's intrenchments. A sharp skirmish followed.

"My son," said Marshal de Biron to the young Count of Auvergne, "charge; now is the time."

The young soldier—a prince by birth—obeyed, and so effectively that he put the Leaguers to rout, killed three hundred of them, and returned to camp unobstructed. On the succeeding two days similar encounters took place, with like good fortune for Henry's army. Mayenne was annoyed. His prestige was in danger of being lost. He determined to recover it by attacking the intrenchments of the king with his whole army.

The night of the 20th of September came. It was a very dark one. Henry, having reason to expect an attack, kept awake the whole night. In company with a group of his officers, he gazed over the dark valley within which lay Mayenne's army. The silence was profound. Afar off could be seen a long line of lights, so flickering and inconstant that the observers were puzzled to decide if they were men or glow-worms.

At five in the morning, Henry gave orders that every man should be at his post. He had his breakfast brought to him on the field, and ate it with a hearty appetite, seated in a fosse with his officers around him. While there a prisoner was brought in who had been taken during a reconnoissance.

"Good-morning, Belin," said the king, who knew him. "Embrace me for your welcome appearance."

Belin did so, taking the situation philosophically.

"To give you appetite for dinner," he said, "you are about to have work to do with thirty thousand foot and ten thousand horse. Where are your forces?" he continued, looking around curiously.

"You don't see them all, M. de Belin," answered Henry. "You don't reckon the good God and the good right, but they are ever with me."

Belin had told the truth. About ten o'clock Mayenne made his attack. It was a day ill-suited for battle, for there lay upon the field so thick a fog that the advancing lines could not see each other at ten paces apart. Despite this, the battle proceeded briskly, and for nearly three hours the two armies struggled, now one, now the other, in the ascendant.

Henry fought as vigorously as any of his men, all being so confusedly mingled in the fog that there was little distinction between officers and soldiers. At one time he found himself so entangled in a medley of disorganized troopers that he loudly shouted,—

"Courage, gentlemen; pray, courage! Are there not among you fifty gentlemen willing to die with their king?"

The confusion was somewhat alleviated by the arrival, at this juncture, of five hundred men from Dieppe, whose opportune coming the king gladly greeted. Springing from his horse, he placed himself beside Chatillon, their leader, to fight in the trenches. The battle, which had been hot at this point, now grew furious, and for some fifteen minutes there was a hand-to-hand struggle in the fog, like that of two armies fighting in the dead of night.

Then came a welcome change. For what followed we may quote Sully. "When things were in this desperate state," he says, "the fog, which had been very thick all the morning, dropped down suddenly, and the cannon of the castle of Arques, getting sight of the enemy's army, a volley of four pieces was fired, which made four beautiful lanes in their squadrons and battalions. That pulled them up quite short; and three or four volleys in succession, which produced marvellous effects, made them waver, and, little by little, retire all of them behind the turn of the valley, out of cannon-shot, and finally to their quarters."

Mayenne was defeated. The king held the field. He pursued the enemy for some distance, and then returned to Arques to return thanks to God for the victory. Immediately afterwards, Mayenne struck camp and marched away, leaving Henry master of the situation. The king of Navarre had scored a master-point in the contest for the throne of France.

During the ensuing year the cause of the king rapidly advanced. More and more of France acknowledged him as the legitimate heir to the throne. A year after the affair at Dieppe he marched suddenly and rapidly on Paris, and would have taken it had not Mayenne succeeded in throwing his army into the city when it was half captured. In March, 1590, the two armies met again on the plain of Ivry, a village half-way between Mantes and Dreux, and here was fought one of the famous battles of history, a conflict whose final result was to make Henry IV. king of all France.

On this notable field the king was greatly outnumbered. Mayenne had under his command about four thousand horse and twenty thousand foot, while Henry's force consisted of three thousand horse and eight thousand foot. But the king's men were much better disciplined, and much more largely moved by patriotism, Mayenne's army being in considerable part made up of German and Swiss auxiliaries. The king's men, Catholics and Protestants alike, were stirred by a strong religious enthusiasm. In a grave and earnest speech to his men, Henry placed the issue of the day in the hands of the Almighty. The Catholics of his army crowded to the neighboring churches to hear mass. The Huguenots, much fewer in number, "also made their prayers after their sort."

The day of battle dawned,—March 14, 1590. Henry's army was drawn up with the infantry to right and left,—partly made up of German and Swiss auxiliaries,—the cavalry, under his own command, in the centre. In this arm, in those days of transition between ancient and modern war, the strength of armies lay, and those five lines of horsemen were that day to decide the fate of the field.

In the early morning Henry displayed a winning instance of that generous good feeling for which he was noted. Count Schomberg, colonel of the German auxiliaries, had, some days before, asked for the pay of his troops, saying that they would not fight if not paid. Henry, indignant at this implied threat, had harshly replied,—

"People do not ask for money on the eve of a battle."

He now, just as the battle was about to begin, approached Schomberg with a look of contrition on his face.

"Colonel," he said, "I have hurt your feelings. This may be the last day of my life. I cannot bear to take away the honor of a brave and honest gentleman like you. Pray forgive me and embrace me."

"Sir," answered Schomberg, with deep feeling, "the other day your Majesty wounded me; to-day you kill me."

He gave up the command of the German reiters that he might fight in the king's own squadron, and was killed in the battle.

As the two armies stood face to face, waiting for the signal of onset, Henry rode along the front of his squadron, and halted opposite their centre.

"Fellow-soldiers," he said, "you are Frenchmen; behold the enemy! If to-day you run my risks, I also run yours. I will conquer or die with you. Keep your ranks well, I pray you. If the heat of battle disperse you for a while, rally as soon as you can under those pear-trees you see up yonder to my right; and if you lose sight of your standards, do not lose sight of my white plume. Make that your rallying point, for you will always find it in the path of honor, and, I hope, of victory also."

And Henry pointed significantly to the snow-white plume that ornamented his helmet, while a shout of enthusiastic applause broke from all those who had heard his stirring appeal. Those words have become famous. The white plume of Henry of Navarre is still one of the rallying points of history. It has also a notable place in poetry, in Macaulay's stirring ode of "Ivry," from which we quote:

"'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 words we have quoted spoken, Henry galloped along the whole line of his army; then halted again, threw his bridle over his arm, and said, with clasped hands and deep feeling,—

"O God, Thou knowest my thoughts, and dost see to the very bottom of my heart; if it be for my people's good that I keep the crown, favor Thou my cause and uphold my arms. But if Thy holy will have otherwise ordained, at least let me die, O God, in the midst of these brave soldiers who give their lives for me!"

The infantry began the battle. Egmont, in command of Mayenne's right wing, attacked sharply, but after a brief success was killed and his men repulsed. On the king's right, Aumont, Biron, and Montpensier drove their opponents before them. At this stage of the affray Mayenne, in command of the powerful body of cavalry in the centre, fell upon the king's horse with a furious charge, which for the time threatened to carry all before it. The lines wavered and broke; knights and nobles fell back; confusion began and was increasing; the odds appeared too great; for a brief and perilous period the battle seemed lost.

At this critical moment Henry came to the rescue. Victory or death had been his word to his men. His promise was now to be kept in deeds. Pointing with his sword to the enemy, and calling in a loud voice upon all who heard him to follow, he spurred fiercely forward, and in a moment his white plume was seen waving in the thickest ranks of the foe.

His cry had touched the right place in the hearts of his followers. Forgetting every thought but that of victory and the rescue of their beloved leader, they pushed after him in a gallant and irresistible charge, which resembled in its impetuosity that of the Black Prince at Poitiers. Mayenne's thronging horsemen wavered and broke before this impetuous rush. Into the heart of the opposing army rode Henry and his ardent followers, cutting, slashing, shouting in victorious enthusiasm. In a few minutes the forward movement of Mayenne's cavalry was checked. His troops halted, wavered, broke, and fled, hotly pursued by their foes. The battle was won. That rush of the white plume had carried all before it, and swept the serried ranks of the Leaguers to the winds. Let us quote the poetic rendition of this scene from Macaulay's ode.

"Hurrah! the foes are moving!

Hark to the mingled din

Of fife, and steed, and trump, and drum

And roaring culverin!

The fiery duke is pricking fast

Across St André's plain,

With all the hireling cavalry

Of Gueldres and Almayne.

'Now by the lips of those ye love,

Fair gentlemen of France,

Charge for the golden lilies,

Upon them with the lance!'

A thousand spurs are striking deep,

A thousand spears in rest,

A thousand knights are pressing close

Behind a snow-white crest,

And in they burst, and on they rushed,

While, like a gliding star,

Amidst the thickest carnage blazed

The helmet of Navarre."

The enemy's cavalry being in flight and hotly pursued, Henry with a handful of horsemen (he had but thirty at his back when he came out of the mêlée) charged upon the Walloons and Swiss, who instantly broke and fled, with such impetuous haste that they left their standards behind them.

"Slay the strangers, but spare the French," was the king's order, as a hot pursuit of the flying infantry began, in which the German auxiliaries in particular were cut down mercilessly.

"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,

'No Frenchman is my foe;

Down, down with every foreigner,

But let your brethren go.'"

The Swiss, however, ancient friends and allies of France, begged the king's compassion and were admitted to mercy, being drafted into his service. The flying Germans and French were severely punished, great numbers of them falling, many more being taken, the list of prisoners including a large number of lords and leaders of the foe. The battle had been remarkably short. It was won by the cavalry, the infantry having scarcely come into action. As to its effect, we may quote again from the poem.

"Now glory to the Lord of Hosts,

From whom all glories are,

And glory to our sovereign liege,

King Henry of Navarre.

Now let there be the merry sound

Of music and of dance,

Through thy corn-fields green and sunny vines,

Oh, pleasant land of France.

Hurrah! Hurrah! a single field

Hath turned the chance of war!

Hurrah! Hurrah! for Ivry,

And Henry of Navarre!"

It "turned the chance of war" in truth, in a great measure. Paris was in consternation. Everywhere was a great change in public opinion. Men ceased to look on Henry as an adventurous soldier, and came to regard him as a great prince, fighting for his own. Beyond this, however, the effect was not immediate. Paris remained in the hands of the League. A Spanish League was formed. The difficulties seemed to grow deeper. The only easy solution to them was an abjuration of the Protestant faith, and to this view Henry in the end came. He professed conversion to Catholicism, and all opposition ceased. Henry IV. became the fully acknowledged king of France, and for the time being all persecution of the Huguenots was at an end.