Henry IV - John S. C. Abbott

Civil War


While France was thus deluged with the blood of a civil war, young Henry was busily pursuing his studies in college. He could have had but little affection for his father, for the stern soldier had passed most of his days in the tented field, and his son had hardly known him. From his mother he had long been separated; but he cherished her memory with affectionate regard, and his predilections strongly inclined him toward the faith which he knew that she had so warmly espoused. It was, however, in its political aspects that Henry mainly contemplated the question. He regarded the two sects merely as two political parties struggling for power. For some time he did not venture to commit himself openly, but, availing himself of the privilege of his youth, carefully studied the principles and the prospects of the contending factions, patiently waiting for the time to come in which he should introduce his strong arm into the conflict. Each party, aware that his parents had espoused opposite sides, and regarding him as an invaluable accession to either cause, adopted all possible allurements to win his favor.

Catharine, as unprincipled as she was ambitious, invited him to her court, lavished upon him, with queenly profusion, caresses and flattery, and enticed him with all those blandishments which might most effectually enthrall the impassioned spirit of youth. Voluptuousness, gilded with its most dazzling and deceitful enchantments, was studiously presented to his eye. The queen was all love and complaisance. She received him to her cabinet council. She affected to regard him as her chief confidant. She had already formed the design of perfidiously throwing the Protestants off their guard by professions of friendship, and then, by indiscriminate massacre, of obliterating from the kingdom every vestige of the reformed faith. The great mass of the people being Catholics, she thought that, by a simultaneous uprising all over the kingdom, the Protestants might be so generally destroyed that not enough would be left to cause her any serious embarrassments.

For many reasons Catharine wished to save Henry from the doom impending over his friends, if she could, by any means, win him to her side. She held many interviews with the highest ecclesiastics upon the subject of the contemplated massacre. At one time, when she was urging the expediency of sparing some few Protestant nobles who had been her personal friends, Henry overheard the significant reply from the Duke of Alva, "The head of a salmon is worth a hundred frogs." The young prince meditated deeply upon the import of those words. Surmising their significance, and alarmed for the safety of his mother, he dispatched a trusty messenger to communicate to her his suspicions.

His mind was now thoroughly aroused to vigilance, to careful and hourly scrutiny of the plots and counterplots which were ever forming around him. While others of his age were absorbed in the pleasures of licentiousness and gaming, to which that corrupt court was abandoned, Henry, though he had not escaped unspotted from the contamination which surrounded him, displayed, by the dignity of his demeanor and the elevation of his character, those extraordinary qualities which so remarkably distinguished him in future life, and which indicated, even then, that he was born to command. One of the grandees of the Spanish court, the Duke of Medina, after meeting him incidentally but for a few moments, remarked,

"It appears to me that this young prince is either an emperor, or is destined soon to become one."

Henry was very punctilious in regard to etiquette, and would allow no one to treat him without due respect, or to deprive him of the position to which he was entitled by his rank.

Jeanne d'Albret, the Queen of Navarre, was now considered the most illustrious leader of the Protestant party. Catharine, the better to disguise her infamous designs, went with Henry, in great splendor, to make a friendly visit to his mother in the little Protestant court of Bearn. Catharine insidiously lavished upon Jeanne d'Albret the warmest congratulations and the most winning smiles, and omitted no courtly blandishments which could disarm the suspicions and win the confidence of the Protestant queen. The situation of Jeanne in her feeble dominion was extremely embarrassing. The Pope, in consequence of her alleged heresy, had issued against her the bull of excommunication, declaring her incapable of reigning, forbidding all good Catholics, by the peril of their own salvation, from obeying any of her commands. As her own subjects were almost all Protestants, she was in no danger of any insurrection on their part; but this decree, in that age of superstition and of profligacy, invited each neighboring power to seize upon her territory. The only safety of the queen consisted in the mutual jealousies of the rival kingdoms of France and Spain, neither of them being willing that the other should receive such an accession to its political importance.

The Queen of Navarre was not at all shaken in her faith, or influenced to change her measure, by the visit of the French court to her capital. She regarded, however, with much solicitude, the ascendency which, it appeared to her, Catharine was obtaining over the mind of her son. Catharine caressed and flattered the young Prince of Navarre in every possible way. All her blandishments were exerted to obtain a commanding influence over his mind. She endeavored unceasingly to lure him to indulgence in all forbidden pleasure, and especially to crowd upon his youthful and ardent passions all the temptations which yielding female beauty could present. After the visit of a few weeks, during which the little court of Navarre had witnessed an importation of profligacy unknown before, the Queen of France, with Henry and with her voluptuous train, returned again to Paris.

Jeanne d'Albret had seen enough of the blandishments of vice to excite her deepest maternal solicitude in view of the peril of her son. She earnestly urged his return to Navarre; but Catharine continually threw such chains of influence around him that he could not escape. At last Jeanne resolved, under the pretense of returning the visit of Catharine, to go herself to the court of France and try to recover Henry. With a small but illustrious retinue, embellished with great elegance of manners and purity of life, she arrived in Paris. The Queen of France received her with every possible mark of respect and affection, and lavished upon her entertainments, and fetes, and gorgeous spectacles until the Queen of Navarre was almost bewildered.

[Illustration] from Henry IV by John S. C. Abbott


Whenever Jeanne proposed to return to her kingdom there was some very special celebration appointed, from which Jeanne could not, without extreme rudeness, break away. Thus again and again was Jeanne frustrated in her endeavors to leave Paris, until she found, to her surprise and chagrin, that both she and her son were prisoners, detained in captivity by bonds of the most provoking politeness. Catharine managed so adroitly that Jeanne could not enter any complaints, for the shackles which were thrown around her were those of ostensibly the most excessive kindness and the most unbounded love. It was of no avail to provoke a quarrel, for the Queen of Navarre was powerless in the heart of France.

At last she resolved to effect by stratagem that which she could not accomplish openly. One day a large party had gone out upon a hunting excursion. The Queen of Navarre made arrangements with her son, and a few of the most energetic and trustworthy gentlemen of her court, to separate themselves, as it were accidentally, when in the eagerness of the chase, from the rest of the company, and to meet at an appointed place of rendezvous. The little band, thus assembled, turned the heads of their horses toward Navarre. They drove with the utmost speed day and night, furnishing themselves with fresh relays of horses, and rested not till the clatter of the iron hoofs of the steeds were heard among the mountains of Navarre. Jeanne left a very polite note upon her table in the palace of St. Cloud, thanking Queen Catharine for all her kindness, and praying her to excuse the liberty she had taken in avoiding the pain of words of adieu. Catharine was exceedingly annoyed at their escape, but, perceiving that it was not in her power to overtake the fugitives, she submitted with as good a grace as possible.

Henry found himself thus again among his native hills. He was placed under the tuition of a gentleman who had a high appreciation of all that was poetic and beautiful. Henry, under his guidance, devoted himself with great delight to the study of polite literature, and gave free wing to an ennobled imagination as he clambered up the cliffs, and wandered over the ravines familiar to the days of his childhood. His personal appearance in 1567, when he was thirteen years of age, is thus described by a Roman Catholic gentleman who was accustomed to meet him daily in the court of Catharine.

"We have here the young Prince of Bearn. One can not help acknowledging that he is a beautiful creature. At the age of thirteen he displays all the qualities of a person of eighteen or nineteen. He is agreeable, he is civil, he is obliging. Others might say that as yet he does not know what he is; but, for my part, I, who study him very often, can assure you that he does know perfectly well. He demeans himself toward all the world with so easy a carriage, that people crowd round wherever he is; and he acts so nobly in every thing, that one sees clearly that he is a great prince. He enters into conversation as a highly-polished man. He speaks always to the purpose, and it is remarked that he is very well informed. I shall hate the reformed religion all my life for having carried off from us so worthy a person. Without this original sin, he would be the first after the king, and we should see him, in a short time, at the head of the armies. He gains new friends every day. He insinuates himself into all hearts with inconceivable skill. He is highly honored by the men, and no less beloved by the ladies. His face is very well formed, the nose neither too large nor too small. His eyes are very soft; his skin brown, but very smooth; and his whole features animated with such uncommon vivacity, that, if he does not make progress with the fair, it will be very extraordinary."

Henry had not escaped the natural influence of the dissolute society in the midst of which he had been educated, and manifested, on his first return to his mother, a strong passion for balls and masquerades, and all the enervating pleasures of fashionable life. His courtly and persuasive manners were so insinuating, that, without difficulty, he borrowed any sums of money he pleased, and with these borrowed treasures he fed his passion for excitement at the gaming-table.

The firm principles and high intellectual elevation of his mother roused her to the immediate and vigorous endeavor to correct all these radical defects in his character and education. She kept him, as much as possible, under her own eye. She appointed teachers of the highest mental and moral attainments to instruct him. By her conversation and example she impressed upon his mind the sentiment that it was the most distinguished honor of one born to command others to be their superior in intelligence, judgment, and self-control. The Prince of Navarre, in his mother's court at Bearn, found himself surrounded by Protestant friends and influences, and he could not but feel and admit the superior dignity and purity of these his new friends.

Catharine worshiped no deity but ambition. She was ready to adopt any measures and to plunge into any crimes which would give stability and lustre to her power. She had no religious opinions or even preferences. She espoused the cause of the Catholics because, on the whole, she deemed that party the more powerful; and then she sought the entire destruction of the Protestants, that none might be left to dispute her sway. Had the Protestants been in the majority, she would, with equal zeal, have given them the aid of her strong arm, and unrelentingly would have striven to crush the whole papal power.

Jeanne d'Albret, on the contrary, was in principle a Protestant. She was a woman of reflection, of feeling, of highly-cultivated intellect, and probably of sincere piety. She had read, with deep interest, the religious controversies of the day. She had prayed for light and guidance. She had finally and cordially adopted the Protestant faith as the truth of God. Thus guided by her sense of duty, she was exceedingly anxious that her son should be a Protestant—a Protestant Christian. In most solemn prayer she dedicated him to God's service, to defend the faith of the Reformers. In the darkness of that day, the bloody and cruel sword was almost universally recognized as the great champion of truth. Both parties appeared to think that the thunders of artillery and musketry must accompany the persuasive influence of eloquence. If it were deemed important that one hand should guide the pen of controversy, to establish the truth, it was considered no less important that the other should wield the sword to extirpate heresy. Military heroism was thought as essential as scholarship for the defense of the faith.

A truly liberal mind will find its indignation, in view of the atrocities of these religious wars, mitigated by comparison in view of the ignorance and the frailty of man. The Protestants often needlessly exasperated the Catholics by demolishing, in the hour of victory, their churches, their paintings, and their statues, and by pouring contempt upon all that was most hallowed in the Catholic heart. There was, however, this marked difference between the two parties: the leaders of the Protestants, as a general rule, did every thing in their power to check the fury of their less enlightened followers. The leaders of the Catholics, as a general rule, did every thing in their power to stimulate the fanaticism of the frenzied populace. In the first religious war the Protestant soldiers broke open and plundered the great church of Orleans. The Prince of Conde and Admiral Coligni hastened to repress the disorder. The prince pointed a musket at a soldier who had ascended a ladder to break an image, threatening to shoot him if he did not immediately desist.

"My lord," exclaimed the fanatic Protestant, "wait till I have thrown down this idol, and then, if it please you, I will die."

It is well for man that Omniscience presides at the day of judgment. "The Lord knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust."

Europe was manifestly preparing for another dreadful religious conflict. The foreboding cloud blackened the skies. The young Prince of Navarre had not yet taken his side. Both Catholics and Protestants left no exertions untried to win to their cause so important an auxiliary. Henry had warm friends in the court of Navarre and in the court of St. Cloud. He was bound by many ties to both Catholics and Protestants. Love of pleasure, of self-indulgence, of power, urged him to cast in his lot with the Catholics. Reverence for his mother inclined him to adopt the weaker party, who were struggling for purity of morals and of faith. To be popular with his subjects in his own kingdom of Navarre, he must be a Protestant. To be popular in France, to whose throne he was already casting a wistful eye, it was necessary for him to be a Catholic. He vacillated between these views of self-interest. His conscience and his heart were untouched. Both parties were aware of the magnitude of the weight he could place in either scale, while each deemed it quite uncertain which cause he would espouse. His father had died contending for the Catholic faith, and all knew that the throne of Catholic France was one of the prizes which the young Prince of Navarre had a fair chance of obtaining. His mother was the most illustrious leader of the Protestant forces on the Continent, and the crown of Henry's hereditary domain could not repose quietly upon any brow but that of a Protestant.

Such was the state of affairs when the clangor of arms again burst upon the ear of Europe. France was the arena of woe upon which the Catholics and the Protestants of England and of the Continent hurled themselves against each other. Catharine, breathing vengeance, headed the Catholic armies. Jeanne, calm yet inflexible, was recognized as at the head of the Protestant leaders, and was alike the idol of the common soldiers and of their generals. The two contending armies, after various marchings and countermarchings, met at Rochelle. The whole country around, for many leagues, was illuminated at night by the camp-fires of the hostile hosts. The Protestants, inferior in numbers, with hymns and prayers calmly awaited an attack. The Catholics, divided in council, were fearful of hazarding a decisive engagement. Day after day thus passed, with occasional skirmishes, when, one sunny morning, the sound of trumpets was heard, and the gleam of the spears and banners of an approaching host was seen on the distant hills. The joyful tidings spread through the ranks of the Protestants that the Queen of Navarre, with her son and four thousand troops, had arrived. At the head of her firm and almost invincible band she rode, calm and serene, magnificently mounted, with her proud boy by her side. As the queen and her son entered the plain, an exultant shout from the whole Protestant host seemed to rend the skies. These enthusiastic plaudits, loud, long, reiterated, sent dismay to the hearts of the Catholics.

Jeanne presented her son to the Protestant army, and solemnly dedicated him to the defense of the Protestant faith. At the same time she published a declaration to the world that she deplored the horrors of war; that she was not contending for the oppression of others, but to secure for herself and her friends the right to worship God according to the teachings of the Bible. The young prince was placed under the charge of the most experienced generals, to guard his person from danger and to instruct him in military science. The Prince of Conde was his teacher in that terrible accomplishment in which both master and pupil have obtained such worldwide renown.

Long files of English troops, with trumpet tones, and waving banners, and heavy artillery, were seen winding their way along the streams of France, hastening to the scene of conflict. The heavy battalions of the Pope were marshaling upon all the sunny plains of Italy, and the banners of the rushing squadrons glittered from the pinnacles of the Alps, as Europe rose in arms, desolating ten thousand homes with conflagrations, and blood, and woe. Could the pen record the smouldering ruins, the desolate hearthstones, the shrieks of mortal agony, the wailings of the widow, the cry of the orphan, which thus resulted from man's inhumanity to man, the heart would sicken at the recital. The summer passed away in marches and counter-marches, in assassinations, and skirmishes, and battles. The fields of the husbandmen were trampled under the hoofs of horses. Villages were burned to the ground, and their wretched inhabitants driven out in nakedness and starvation to meet the storms of merciless winter. Noble ladies and refined and beautiful maidens fled shrieking from the pursuit of brutal and licentious soldiers. Still neither party gained any decisive victory. The storms of winter came, and beat heavily, with frost and drifting snow, upon the worn and weary hosts.

In three months ten thousand Protestants had perished. At Orleans two hundred Protestants were thrown into prison. The populace set the prison on fire, and they were all consumed.

At length the Catholic armies, having become far more numerous than the Protestant, ventured upon a general engagement. They met upon the field of Jarnac. The battle was conducted by the Reformers with a degree of fearlessness bordering on desperation. The Prince of Conde plunged into the thickest ranks of the enemy with his unfurled banner bearing the motto, "Danger is sweet for Christ and my country." Just as he commenced his desperate charge, a kick from a wounded horse fractured his leg so severely that the fragments of the bone protruded through his boot. Pointing to the mangled and helpless limb, he said to those around him, "Remember the state in which Louis of Bourbon enters the fight for Christ and his country." Immediately sounding the charge, like a whirlwind his little band plunged into the midst of their foes. For a moment the shock was irresistible, and the assailed fell like grass before the scythe of the mower. Soon, however, the undaunted band was entirely surrounded by their powerful adversaries. The Prince of Conde, with but about two hundred and fifty men, with indomitable determination sustained himself against the serried ranks of five thousand men closing up around him on every side. This was the last earthly conflict of the Prince of Conde. With his leg broken and his arm nearly severed from his body, his horse fell dead beneath him, and the prince, deluged with blood, was precipitated into the dust under the trampling hoofs of wounded and frantic chargers. His men still fought with desperation around their wounded chieftain. Of twenty-five nephews who accompanied him, fifteen were slain by his side. Soon all his defenders were cut down or dispersed. The wounded prince, an invaluable prize, was taken prisoner. Montesquieu, captain of the guards of the Duke of Anjou, came driving up, and as he saw the prisoner attracting much attention, besmeared with blood and dirt,

"Whom have we here?" he inquired.

"The Prince of Conde," was the exultant reply.

"Kill him! kill him!" exclaimed the captain, and he discharged a pistol at his head.

The ball passed through his brain, and the prince fell lifeless upon the ground. The corpse was left where it fell, and the Catholic troops pursued their foes, now flying in every direction. The Protestants retreated across a river, blew up the bridge, and protected themselves from farther assault. The next day the Duke of Anjou, the younger brother of Charles IX., and who afterward became Henry III., who was one of the leaders of the Catholic army, rode over the field of battle, to find, if possible, the body of his illustrious enemy.

"We had not rode far," says one who accompanied him, "when we perceived a great number of the dead bodies piled up in a heap, which led us to judge that this was the spot where the body of the prince was to be found: in fact, we found it there. Baron de Magnac took the corpse by the hair to lift up the face, which was turned toward the ground, and asked me if I recognized him; but, as one eye was torn out, and his face was covered with blood and dirt, I could only reply that it was certainly his height and his complexion, but farther I could not say."

They washed the bloody and mangled face, and found that it was indeed the prince. His body was carried, with infamous ribaldry, on an ass to the castle of Jarnac, and thrown contemptuously upon the ground. Several illustrious prisoners were brought to the spot and butchered in cold blood, and their corpses thrown upon that of the prince, while the soldiers passed a night of drunkenness and revelry, exulting over the remains of their dead enemies.

Such was the terrible battle of Jarnac, the first conflict which Henry witnessed. The tidings of this great victory and of the death of the illustrious Conde excited transports of joy among the Catholics. Charles IX. sent to Pope Pius V. the standards taken from the Protestants. The Pope, who affirmed that Luther was a ravenous beast, and that his doctrines were the sum of all crimes, wrote to the king a letter of congratulation. He urged him to extirpate every fibre of heresy, regardless of all entreaty, and of every tie of blood and affection. To encourage him, he cited the example of Saul exterminating the Amalekites, and assured him that all tendency to clemency was a snare of the devil.

The Catholics now considered the condition of the Protestants as desperate. The pulpits resounded with imprecations and anathemas. The Catholic priests earnestly advocated the sentiment that no faith was to be kept with heretics; that to massacre them was an action essential to the safety of the state, and which would secure the approbation of God.

But the Protestants, though defeated, were still unsubdued. The noble Admiral Coligni still remained to them; and after the disaster, Jeanne d'Albret presented herself before the troops, holding her son Henry, then fourteen years of age, by one hand, and Henry, son of the Prince de Conde, by the other, and devoted them both to the cause. The young Henry of Navarre was then proclaimed generalissimo of the army and protector of the churches. He took the following oath: "I swear to defend the Protestant religion, and to persevere in the common cause, till death or till victory has secured for all the liberty which we desire."