Henry IV - John S. C. Abbott

The League


About this time there was formed the celebrated league which occupies so conspicuous a position in the history of the sixteenth century. Henry III., though conscious that his throne was trembling beneath him, and courting now the Catholics and again the Protestants, was still amusing himself, day after day, with the most contemptible and trivial vices. The extinction of the house of Valois was evidently and speedily approaching. Henry of Navarre, calm, sagacious, and energetic, was rallying around him all the Protestant influences of Europe, to sustain, in that event, his undeniable claim to the throne. The Duke of Guise, impetuous and fearless, hoped, in successful usurpation, to grasp the rich prize by rallying around his banner all the fanatic energies of Catholic Europe.

Henry III. was alike despised by Catholics and Protestants. His brother Francis, though far more impulsive, had but few traits of character to command respect. He could summon but a feeble band for his support. Henry of Guise was the available candidate for the Catholics. All the priestly influences of France were earnestly combined to advance his claims. They declared that Henry of Navarre had forfeited every shadow of right to the succession by being a heretic. The genealogy of the illustrious house of Guise was blazoned forth, and its descent traced from Charlemagne. It was asserted, and argued in the pulpit and in the camp, that even the house of Valois had usurped the crown which by right belonged to the house of Guise.

Under these circumstances, the most formidable secret society was organized the world has ever known. It assumed the name of The League. Its object was to exterminate Protestantism, and to place the Duke of Guise upon the throne. The following are, in brief, its covenant and oath:


In the name of the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, this League of Catholic princes, lords, and gentlemen shall be instituted to maintain the holy Catholic, apostolical, and Roman Church, abjuring all errors to the contrary. Should opposition to this league arise in any quarter, the associates shall employ all their goods and means, and even their own persons unto death, to punish and hunt down those opposing. Should any of the Leaguers, their associates or friends, be molested, the members of the League shall be bound to employ their bodies, goods, and means to inflict vengeance upon those thus offending. Should any Leaguer, after having taken the oath, withdraw from the association under any pretext whatever, the refractory member shall be injured, in body and goods, in every manner which can be devised, as enemies of God, rebels, and disturbers of the public peace. The Leaguers shall swear implicit obedience to their chief, and shall aid by counsel and service in preserving the League, and in the ruin of all who oppose it. All Catholic towns and villages shall be summoned secretly, by their several governors, to enter into this League, and to furnish arms and men for its execution.


I swear by God the Creator, touching the Evangelists, and upon the pain of eternal damnation, that I have entered into this holy Catholic League loyally and sincerely, either to command, to obey, or to serve. I promise, upon my life and honor, to remain in this League to the last drop of my blood, without opposing or retiring upon any pretext whatever.

Such was the character of secret societies in the sixteenth century. A more atrocious confederacy than this the human mind could hardly have conceived. It was, however, peculiarly calculated to captivate the multitude in those days of darkness and blood. Though at first formed and extended secretly, it spread like wildfire through all the cities and provinces of France. Princes, lords, gentlemen, artisans, and peasants rushed into its impious inclosures. The benighted populace, enthralled by the superstitions of the Church, were eager to manifest their zeal for God by wreaking the most awful vengeance upon heretics. He who, for any cause, declined entering the League, found himself exposed to every possible annoyance. His house and his barns blazed in midnight conflagrations; his cattle were mutilated and slain; his wife and children were insulted and stoned in the streets. By day and by night, asleep and awake, at home and abroad, at all times and every where, he was annoyed by every conceivable form of injury and violence.

Soon the League became so powerful that no farther secrecy was needful. It stalked abroad in open day, insulting its foes and vaunting its invincibility. The gigantic plan it unblushingly avowed was to exterminate Protestantism by fire and the sword from France; then to drown it in blood in Holland; then to turn to England and purify that kingdom from the taint of heresy; then to march upon Germany; and thus to advance from kingdom to kingdom, in their holy crusade, until Protestantism should be every where ingulfed in blood and flame, and the whole of Europe should be again brought back to the despotism of Rome.

The Duke of Guise was the soul of this mammoth conspiracy, though Philip II., the bigoted King of Spain, was its recorded commander-in-chief. The Protestants were justly alarmed by the enormous energy of the new power thus suddenly evoked against them. The Pope, though at first hostile, soon, with his cardinals, espoused the cause of the League, and consecrated to its support all the weapons which could be wielded by the Vatican. From France, the demoniac organization spread through all the kingdoms of Europe. Hundreds of thousands were arrayed beneath its crimson banner. Even Henry III. in the Louvre, surrounded by his parasites and his concubines, trembled as he saw the shadow of this fearful apparition darkening his court.

He immediately perceived that he must mount the car or be crushed by it. Adroitly he leaped into the seat of the charioteer and seized the reins. The demands of the League he adopted as his own, and urged them with energy. He issued a proclamation commending the League to his subjects, and announcing that he, to set them an example, had signed its covenant and its oath. The Duke of Guise and his followers were quite bewildered by this unexpected step.

The League had demanded the assembling of the States-General, a body somewhat resembling the Congress of the United States. The king immediately summoned them to meet. They declared war against the Protestants. The king adopted the declaration as his own decree, and called loudly for supplies to prosecute the war with vigor. He outleagued the most violent of the Leaguers in denunciations of the Protestants, in declaring that but one religion should be tolerated in France, and in clamoring for arms and munitions of war, that heresy might be utterly extirpated. The Leaguers thus found, to their great perplexity, the weapon which they had forged wrested from their hands and wielded against them. They had organized to drive the imbecile Henry III. from the throne. He had seized upon that organization, and was using it to establish himself more firmly there.

The situation of Henry of Navarre was now extremely critical. Pope Sextus V., besides giving the League his Papal blessing, had fulminated against the King of Navarre the awful thunders of excommunication.

The bull of excommunication was exceedingly coarse and vulgar in its denunciatory terms, calling the King of Navarre "this bastard and detestable progeny of Bourbons."

Henry replied to this assault in accents intrepid and resolute, which caused Catholic Europe to stand aghast.

"Henry," said this bold document, "by the grace of God King of Navarre, sovereign prince of Bearn, first peer and prince of France, resists the declaration and excommunication of Sextus V., self-styled Pope of Rome, asserts it to be false, and maintains that Mr. Sextus, the self-styled Pope, has falsely and maliciously lied; that he himself is heretic, which he will prove in any full and free council lawfully assembled; to which if he does not consent and submit, as he is bound by the canons, he, the King of Navarre, holds and pronounces him to be anti-Christ and heretic, and in that quality declares against him perpetual and irreconcilable war."

This energetic protest was placarded in most of the towns of France, and by some fearless followers of the prince was even attached to the walls of the Vatican. The Pope, though at first much irritated, had the magnanimity to express his admiration of the spirit manifested by Henry.

"There are but two princes in Europe," said he, "to whom I could venture to communicate the grand schemes revolving in my mind, Henry of Navarre and Elizabeth of England; but, unfortunately, they are both heretics."

Henry III., having no moral principles to guide him in any thing, and having no generous affections of any kind, in carrying out his plan of wielding the energies of the League without any scruples of conscience, issued the infamous Edict of Nemours in 1585, which commanded every Protestant minister to leave the kingdom within one month, and every member of the Reformed faith either to abjure his religion and accept the Catholic faith, or to depart from France within six months. The penalty for disobedience in either of these cases was death and the confiscation of property. This edict was executed with great rigor, and many were burned at the stake.

Henry of Navarre was amazed, and, for a time, overwhelmed in receiving the news of this atrocious decree. He clearly foresaw that it must arouse France and all Europe to war, and that a new Iliad of woes was to commence. Leaning his chin upon his hand, he was for a long time lost in profound reverie as he pondered the awful theme. It is said that his anguish was so intense, that when he removed his hand his beard and mustache on that side were turned entirely gray.

But Henry rose with the emergence, and met the crisis with a degree of energy and magnanimity which elicited, in those barbarous times, the admiration even of his enemies. The Protestants heroically grasped their arms and rallied together for mutual protection. War, with all its horrors, was immediately resumed.

Affairs were in this condition when Francis, the Duke of Anjou, was taken sick and suddenly died. This removed another obstruction from the field, and tended to hasten the crisis. Henry III. was feeble, exhausted, and childless. Worn out by shameless dissipation, it was evident to all that he must soon sink into his grave. Who was to be his successor? This was the question, above all others, which agitated France and Europe. Henry of Navarre was, beyond all question, legitimately entitled to the throne; but he was, in the estimation of France, a heretic. The League consequently, in view of the impending peril of having a Protestant king, redoubled its energies to exclude him, and to enthrone their bigoted partisan, Henry of Guise. It was a terrific struggle. The Protestants saw suspended upon its issue their property, their religious liberty, their lives, their earthly all. The Catholics were stimulated by all the energies of fanaticism in defense of the Church. All Catholic Europe espoused the one side, all Protestant Europe the other. One single word was enough to arrest all these woes. That word was TOLERATION.

When Henry III. published his famous Edict of Nemours, commanding the conversion, the expulsion, or the death of the Protestants, Henry of Navarre issued another edict replying to the calumnies of the League, and explaining his actions and his motives. Then adopting a step characteristic of the chivalry of the times, he dispatched a challenge to the Duke of Guise, defying him to single combat, or, if he objected to that, to a combat of two with two, ten with ten, or a hundred with a hundred.

"In this challenge," said Henry, "I call Heaven to witness that I am not influenced by any spirit of bravado, but only by the desire of deciding a quarrel which will otherwise cost the lives of thousands."

To this appeal the duke made no reply. It was by no means for his interest to meet on equal terms those whom he could easily outnumber two or three to one.

Though the situation of Henry of Navarre seemed now almost desperate, he maintained his courage and his hope unshaken. His estates were unhesitatingly sold to raise funds. His friends parted with their jewels for gold to obtain the means to carry on the war. But, with his utmost efforts, he could raise an army of but four or five thousand men to resist two armies of twenty thousand each, headed by the Duke of Guise and by his brother, the Duke of Mayenne. Fortunately for Henry, there was but little military capacity in the League, and, notwithstanding their vast superiority in numbers, they were continually circumvented in all their plans by the energy and the valor of the Protestants.

The King of France was secretly rejoiced at the discomfiture of the Leaguers, yet, expressing dissatisfaction with the Duke of Guise, he intrusted the command of the armies to one of his petted favorites, Joyeuse, a rash and fearless youth, who was as prompt to revel in the carnage of the battle-field as in the voluptuousness of the palace. The king knew not whether to choose victory or defeat for his favorite. Victory would increase the influence and the renown of one strongly attached to him, and would thus enable him more successfully to resist the encroachments of the Duke of Guise. Defeat would weaken the overbearing power of the Leaguers, and enable Henry III. more securely to retain his position by the balance of the two rival parties. Joyeuse, ardent and inexperienced, and despising the feeble band he was to encounter, was eager to display his prowess. He pressed eagerly to assail the King of Navarre. The two armies met upon a battle-field a few leagues from Bordeaux. The army of Joyeuse was chiefly of gay and effeminate courtiers and young nobles, who had too much pride to lack courage, but who possessed but little physical vigor, and who were quite unused to the hardships and to the vicissitudes of war.

On the morning of the 20th of October, 1589, as the sun rose over the hills of Perigord, the two armies were facing each other upon the plains of Coutras. The Leaguers were decked with unusual splendor, and presented a glittering array, with gorgeous banners and waving plumes, and uniforms of satin and velvet embroidered by the hands of the ladies of the court. They numbered twelve thousand men. Henry of Navarre, with admirable military skill, had posted his six thousand hardy peasants, dressed in tattered skins, to meet the onset.

And now occurred one of the most extraordinary scenes which history has recorded. It was a source of constant grief to the devout Protestant leaders that Henry of Navarre, notwithstanding his many noble traits of character, was not a man of pure morality. Just before the battle, Du Plessis, a Christian and a hero, approached the King of Navarre and said,

"Sire, it is known to all that you have sinned against God, and injured a respectable citizen of Rochelle by the seduction of his daughter. We can not hope that God will bless our arms in this approaching battle while such a sin remains unrepented of and unrepaired."

The king dismounted from his horse, and, uncovering his head, avowed in the presence of the whole army his sincere grief for what he had done; he called all to witness that he thus publicly implored forgiveness of God, and of the family he had injured, and he pledged his word that he would do every thing in his power to repair the wrong.

The troops were then called to prayers by the ministers. Every man in the ranks fell upon his knees, while one of the clergy implored God to forgive the sin of their chieftain, and to grant them protection and victory.

The strange movement was seen from the Catholic camp. "By death," exclaimed Joyeuse, "the poltroons are frightened. Look! they kneel, imploring our mercy."

"Do not deceive yourself," replied an old captain. "When the Huguenots get into that position, they are ready for hard fighting."

The brilliant battalions of the enemy now began to deploy. Some one spoke of the splendor of their arms. Henry smiled and replied, "We shall have the better aim when the fight begins." Another ventured to intimate that the ministers had rebuked him with needless severity. He replied, "We can not be too humble before God, nor too brave before men." Then turning to his followers, with tears in his eyes, he addressed to them a short and noble speech. He deplored the calamities of war, and solemnly declared that he had drawn arms only in self-defense. "Let them," said he, "perish who are the authors of this war. May the blood shed this day rest upon them alone."

To his two prominent generals, the Prince of Conde and the Count de Soissons, he remarked, with a smile, "To you I shall say nothing but that you are of the house of Bourbon, and, please God, I will show you this day that I am your elder."

The battle almost immediately ensued. Like all fierce fights, it was for a time but a delirious scene of horror, confusion, and carnage. But the Protestants, with sinewy arms, hewed down their effeminate foes, and with infantry and cavalry swept to and fro resistlessly over the plain. The white plume of Henry of Navarre was ever seen waving in the tumultuous throng wherever the battle was waged the fiercest.

There was a singular blending of the facetious with the horrible in this sanguinary scene. Before the battle, the Protestant preachers, in earnest sermons, had compared Henry with David at the head of the Lord's chosen people. In the midst of the bloody fray, when the field was covered with the dying and the dead, Henry grappled one of the standard-bearers of the enemy. At the moment, humorously reminded of the flattering comparison of the preachers, he shouted, with waggery which even the excitement of the battle could not repress,

"Surrender, you uncircumcised Philistine."

In the course of one hour three thousand of the Leaguers were weltering in blood upon the plain, Joyeuse himself, their leader, being among the dead. The defeat of the Catholics was so entire that not more than one fourth of their number escaped from the field of Coutras.

The victors were immediately assembled upon the bloody field, and, after prayers and thanksgiving, they sung, with exultant lips,

"The Lord appears my helper now,

Nor is my faith afraid

What all the sons of earth can do,

Since Heaven affords its aid."

Henry was very magnanimous in the hour of victory. When some one asked what terms he should now demand, after so great a discomfiture of his foes, he replied, "The same as before the battle."

In reading the records of these times, one is surprised to see how mirth, festivity, and magnificence are blended with blood, misery, and despair. War was desolating France with woes which to thousands of families must have made existence a curse, and yet amid these scenes we catch many glimpses of merriment and gayety. At one time we see Henry III. weeping and groaning upon his bed in utter wretchedness, and again he appears before us reveling with his dissolute companions in the wildest carousals. While Henry of Navarre was struggling with his foes upon the field of battle, Marguerite, his wife, was dancing and flirting with congenial paramours amid all the guilty pleasures of the court. Henry wrote repeatedly for her to come and join him, but she vastly preferred the voluptuousness of the capital to the gloom and the hardships of the Protestant camp. She never loved her husband, and while she wished that he might triumph, and thus confer upon her the illustrious rank of the Queen of France, she still rejoiced in his absence, as it allowed her that perfect freedom which she desired. When she saw indications of approaching peace, she was so apprehensive that she might thus be placed under constraint by the presence of her husband, that she did what she could to perpetuate civil war.

It will be remembered that several of the fortified cities of France were in the hands of the Protestants. Henry of Navarre held his comparatively humble court in the town of Agen, where he was very much beloved and respected by the inhabitants. Though far from irreproachable in his morals, the purity of his court was infinitely superior to that of Henry III. and his mother Catharine. Henry of Navarre was, however, surrounded by a body of gay and light-hearted young noblemen, whose mirth-loving propensities and whose often indecorous festivities he could not control. One evening, at a general ball, these young gentlemen extinguished the lights, and in the darkness a scene of much scandal ensued. Henry was severely censured by the Protestant clergy, and by many others of his friends, for not holding the members of his court in more perfect control. His popularity suffered so severely from this occurrence, that it even became necessary for Henry to withdraw his court from the town.

Catharine and Marguerite, accompanied by a retinue of the most voluptuously-beautiful girls of France, set out to visit the court of Henry of Navarre, which had been transferred to Neruc. Henry, hearing of their approach, placed himself at the head of five hundred gentlemen, and hastened to meet his mother-in-law and his wife, with their characteristic and congenial train. These were the instrumentalities with which Catharine and Marguerite hoped to bend the will of Henry and his friends to suit their purposes. Catharine had great confidence in the potency of the influence which these pliant maidens could wield, and they were all instructed in the part which they were to act. She was accustomed to call these allies her flying squadron.

There then ensued a long series of negotiations, intermingled with mirth, gallantry, and intrigue, but the result of which was a treaty highly conducive to the interests of the Protestants. Various places were designated where their religion should be freely tolerated, and in which they were to be allowed to build conventicles. They were also permitted to raise money for the support of their ministers, and fourteen cities were surrendered to their government. Several incidents occurred during these negotiations very characteristic of the corrupt manners of the times.

Marguerite devoted herself most energetically to the promotion of the success of Henry's plans. Catharine found herself, notwithstanding all her artifice, and all the peculiar seductions of her female associates, completely foiled by the sagacity and the firmness of Henry. She had brought with her Monsieur de Pibrac, a man very celebrated for his glowing eloquence and for his powers of persuasion. The oratory of Pibrac, combined with the blandishments of the ladies, were those co-operative influences which the queen imagined none would be able to resist. Marguerite, however, instructed in the school of Catharine, succeeded in obtaining entire control over the mind of Pibrac himself, and he became a perfect tool in her hands. Catharine, thus foiled, was compelled to grant far more favorable terms to the Protestants than she had contemplated.

La Reole was one of the towns of security surrendered to the Protestants. There was, however, so little of good faith in that day, that, notwithstanding the pledge of honor, possession of the place could only be retained by vigilance. The government of the town had been conferred upon a veteran Protestant general by the name of Ussac. His days, from early youth, had been passed on fields of battle. He was now far advanced in years, in feeble health, and dreadfully disfigured by wounds received in the face. One of the most fascinating of the ladies of the queen-mother lavished such endearments upon the old man, already in his dotage, that he lost his principles and all self-control, and made himself very ridiculous by assuming the airs of a young lover. Henry had the imprudence to join in the mockery with which the court regarded his tenderness. This was an indignity which an old man could never forget. Instigated by his beautiful seducer, he became entirely unmindful of those principles of honor which had embellished his life, and in revenge invited a Roman Catholic general to come and take possession of the town.

Henry was informed of this act of treachery while dancing at a very brilliant entertainment given in his palace. He quietly whispered to Turenne, Sully, and a few others of his most intimate friends, requesting them to escape from the room, gather around them such armed men as they could, and join him at a rendezvous in the country. They all stole unperceived from the mirthful party, concealed their swords beneath their cloaks, traveled all night, and arrived, just as the day began to dawn, before the gates of the city. They found the place, as they had expected, entirely unprepared for such a sudden attack, and, rushing in, regained it without difficulty. The Catholic soldiers retreated to the castle, where they held out a few days, and many of them perished in the assault by which it was soon taken.

Such was the character of the nominal peace which now existed. A partisan warfare was still continued throughout France. Catharine and her maids did every thing in their power to excite dissensions between the Protestant leaders. In this they succeeded so well that the Prince of Conde became so exasperated against Turenne as to challenge him to single combat.

Such a peace as we have above described could not, of course, be lasting. Both parties were soon again gathering all their forces for war. There is a tedious monotony in the recital of the horrors of battle. Cities bombarded, and sacked, and burned; shells exploding in the cradle of infancy and in the chambers of mothers and maidens; mutilated bodies trampled beneath the hoofs of horses; the cry of the maddened onset, the shrieks of the wounded, and the groans of the dying; the despair of the widow and the orphan; smouldering ruins of once happy homes; the fruits of the husbandman's toils trodden into the mire; starvation, misery, and death—these are ever the fruits of war.

During the short interval of peace, many attempts had been made to assassinate Henry of Navarre by the partisans of the Duke of Guise. Henry was, one fine morning, setting out with a few friends for a ride of pleasure. Just as the party were leaving the court-yard, he was informed that an assassin, very powerfully mounted, was prepared to meet him on the way and to take his life. Henry apparently paid no heed to the warning, but rode along conversing gayly with his friends. They soon met, in a retired part of the way, a stranger, armed according to the custom of the times, and mounted upon a very magnificent steed, which had been prepared for him to facilitate his escape after the accomplishment of the fell deed. Henry immediately rode up to the assassin, addressed him in terms of great familiarity and cordiality, and, professing to admire the beautiful charger upon which he was mounted, requested him to dismount, that he might try the splendid animal. The man, bewildered, obeyed the wishes of the king, when Henry leaped into the saddle, and, seizing the two loaded pistols at the saddle-bow, looked the man sternly in the eye, and said,

"I am told that you seek to kill me. You are now in my power, and I could easily put you to death; but I will not harm you."

He then discharged the two pistols in the air, and permitted the humiliated man to mount his horse and ride away unharmed.