Story of Old France - Helene Guerber
The sixth religious war, which now broke out, was carried on with great cruelty, and ended by granting the Huguenots some of the judgeships, and eight fortresses, as a sort of guarantee that their rights would thereafter be respected (1577). Notwithstanding this agreement, which proved so advantageous to the Protestants, the Catholic party continued to predominate in France, and especially in Paris, where the sixteen wards of the city were under sixteen magistrates, all of whom were strong partisans, both of the League and hence of the Duke of Guise.
In a vain attempt to regain the allegiance of many of the nobles whom his weak and effeminate conduct had alienated, Henry founded the order of the Holy Spirit (Saint Esprit, in 1578), appointing at first only twenty-four members, which made it a very select affair. This was the second order of knighthood which had been founded in France, the first being that of St. Michael (St. Michel, instituted in 1469), which counted by this time so many members that it was no longer considered a distinction to belong to it.
There had been already, as we have seen, six religious civil wars in France. A seventh was about to break out, but this time new complications arose to embitter both parties, for the Duke of Alencon had died. As long as this prince had lived, the Catholics fully expected him to succeed his brother, Henry III., whose weak constitution, was being rapidly undermined by his fast life. But when Alencon passed away without offspring, it became apparent that the crown, at the death of the present ruler, would fall to Henry of Navarre, next of kin, but a Huguenot.
The idea of a heretic upon the throne of France was unendurable to the bulk of the population, which was, and has always been, stanchly Roman Catholic. For that reason the Holy League's plan to place the Duke of Guise on the throne now gained many adherents. Still, there were many Frenchmen who did not deem it right to attempt to change the natural order of succession. Besides, Henry of Navarre had many of the manly qualities which appeal strongly to the nation, for while he, too, loved pleasure, he was nevertheless a thorough soldier, brave, shrewd, and cordial, making friends easily, holding them fast after they were once made, and ever ready to bear anything and everything for the good of his party or people.
It was in 1587 that Henry of Navarre, leader of the Huguenots, found himself face to face with the royal army, at Coutras, led by the king's favorite, Joyeuse. The royal forces outnumbered their opponents, and when the Huguenots, according to their custom, knelt before entering into battle, one of the courtiers cried to Joyeuse: "Look! look! the Huguenot traitors are already beaten! They prostrate themselves! They tremble!"
But, a bystander, knowing better what such conduct portended, replied: "Do not be deceived, my lord; I know these said Huguenots. They are pleased now to appear down in the mouth and sanctimonious, but when we come to the charge, we shall find them devils and lions of courage!"
At this statement, it is said, some of the royalists were badly frightened, and turning to Joyeuse, timorously inquired, "What is to be done?" Their leader, who was quite as brave as dandified, retorted briefly, "Die!" And he set them the example by perishing on the battlefield after having fought to the last.
Just before the battle began, Henry of Navarre said to his relatives: "Cousins, I only remind you that you are of Bourbon blood, but with God's help, I will show you to-day that I am your elder!" To this, Condé retorted: "And we will show you that you have worthy juniors!" Thus saying, all plunged into the fray with such ardor that in less than an hour the royalist general was dead, his troops in full flight, and Henry of Navarre had won a triumph which gave him great prestige in France.
Although dauntless in battle, Henry of Navarre was a generous foe. Before beginning the fight, he sent word to the royalists what terms of peace he was willing to grant, and when, on the point of surrendering, the foe inquired what conditions he would now demand, he promptly answered, "The same as before."
The Huguenot victory in the south of France was offset in the north by the success of the Duke of Guise, who drove back an invading army of German Protestants. The war, therefore, continued fiercely, and as it was carried on by Henry the king, Henry of Guise, and Henry of Navarre, it is often known as the "War of the Three Henrys."
Had the Catholics been united, there is no doubt that they could have triumphed quickly over the Huguenots; but they were greatly divided. The Duke of Guise was aiming to secure the throne for himself; his ally, Philip II. of Spain, claimed it for his daughter, a niece of Henry III.; and the French king, who wanted to retain his power as long as possible, was desperately jealous of these rival claims for his crown.
In his anger over Guise's growing popularity, Henry III. forbade the duke to return to Paris; but in spite of this, Guise shortly after marched boldly into the city. When the king ordered his guards to eject the disobedient nobleman, the Parisians rose up and formed barricades in the streets to defend the man who had become their idol (1588). Indeed, it was only because the duke forbade it that the people refrained from attacking the king's guards.