Henry IV - John S. C. Abbott

War and Woe


Civil war seems peculiarly to arouse the ferocity of man. Family quarrels are notoriously implacable. Throughout the whole kingdom of France the war raged with intense violence, brother against brother, and father against child. Farm-houses, cities, villages, were burned mercilessly. Old men, women, and children were tortured and slain with insults and derision. Maiden modesty was cruelly violated, and every species of inhumanity was practiced by the infuriated antagonists. The Catholic priests were in general conspicuous for their brutality. They resolved that the Protestant heresy should be drowned in blood and terror.

Henry IV. was peculiarly a humane man. He cherished kind feelings for all his subjects, and was perfectly willing that the Catholic religion should retain its unquestioned supremacy. His pride, however, revolted from yielding to compulsory conversion, and he also refused to become the persecutor of his former friends. Indeed, it seems probable that he was strongly inclined toward the Catholic faith as, on the whole, the safest and the best. He consequently did every thing in his power to mitigate the mercilessness of the strife, and to win his Catholic subjects by the most signal clemency. But no efforts of his could restrain his partisans in different parts of the kingdom from severe retaliation.

Through the long months of a cold and dreary winter the awful carnage continued, with success so equally balanced that there was no prospect of any termination to this most awful of national calamities. Early in March, 1590, the armies of Henry IV. and of the Duke of Mayenne began to congregate in the vicinity of Ivry, about fifty miles west of Paris, for a decisive battle. The snows of winter had nearly disappeared, and the cold rains of spring deluged the roads. The Sabbath of the eleventh of March was wet and tempestuous. As night darkened over the bleak and soaked plains of Ivry, innumerable battalions of armed men, with spears, and banners, and heavy pieces of artillery, dragged axle-deep through the mire, were dimly discerned taking positions for an approaching battle. As the blackness of midnight enveloped them, the storm increased to fearful fury. The gale fiercely swept the plain, in its loud wailings and its roar drowning every human sound. The rain, all the night long, poured down in torrents. But through the darkness and the storm, and breasting the gale, the contending hosts, without even a watch-fire to cheer the gloom, waited anxiously for the morning.

In the blackest hour of the night, a phenomenon, quite unusual at that season of the year, presented itself. The lightning gleamed in dazzling brilliance from cloud to cloud, and the thunder rolled over their heads as if an aerial army were meeting and charging in the sanguinary fight. It was an age of superstition, and the shivering soldiers thought that they could distinctly discern the banners of the battling hosts. Eagerly and with awe they watched the surgings of the strife as spirit squadrons swept to and fro with streaming banners of fire, and hurling upon each other the thunderbolts of the skies. At length the storm of battle seemed to lull, or, rather, to pass away in the distance. There was the retreat of the vanquished, the pursuit of the victors. The flash of the guns became more faint, and the roar of the artillery diminished as farther and still farther the embattled hosts vanished among the clouds. Again there was the silence of midnight, and no sounds were heard but the plashing of the rain.

The Royalists and the insurgents, each party inflamed more or less by religious fanaticism, were each disposed to regard the ethereal battle as waged between the spirits of light and the spirits of darkness, angels against fiends. Each party, of course, imagined itself as represented by the angel bands, which doubtless conquered. The phenomenon was thus, to both, the omen of success, and inspired both with new energies.

The morning dawned gloomily. Both armies were exhausted and nearly frozen by the chill storm of the night. Neither of the parties were eager to commence the fight, as each was anxious to wait for re-enforcements, which were hurrying forward, from distant posts, with the utmost possible speed. The two next days were passed in various manoeuvres to gain posts of advantage. The night of the 13th came. Henry took but two hours of repose upon a mattress, and then, every thing being arranged according to his wishes, spent nearly all the rest of the night in prayer. He urged the Catholics and the Protestants in his army to do the same, each according to the rites of his own Church. The Catholic priests and the Protestant clergy led the devotions of their respective bands, and there can be no doubt whatever that they implored the aid of God with as perfect a conviction of the righteousness of their cause as the human heart can feel.

And how was it in the army of the Duke of Mayenne? They also looked to God for support. The Pope, Christ's vicar upon earth, had blessed their banners. He had called upon all of the faithful to advocate their cause. He had anathematized their foes as the enemies of God and man, justly doomed to utter extermination. Can it be doubted that the ecclesiastics and the soldiers who surrounded the Duke of Mayenne, ready to lay down their lives for the Church, were also, many of them, sincere in their supplications? Such is bewildered, benighted man. When will he imbibe the spirit of a noble toleration—of a kind brotherhood?

The morning of the 14th of March arrived. The stars shone brilliantly in the clear, cold sky. The vast plain of Ivry and its surrounding hills gleamed with the camp-fires of the two armies, now face to face. It is impossible to estimate with precision the two forces. It is generally stated that Henry IV. had from ten to twelve thousand men, and the Duke of Mayenne from sixteen to twenty thousand.

Before the first glimmer of day, Henry mounted his horse, a powerful bay charger, and riding slowly along his lines, addressed to every company words of encouragement and hope. His spirit was subdued and his voice was softened by the influence of prayer. He attempted no lofty harangue; he gave utterance to no clarion notes of enthusiasm; but mildly, gently, with a trembling voice and often with a moistened eye, implored them to be true to God, to France, and to themselves.

"Your future fame and your personal safety," said he, "depend upon your heroism this day. The crown of France awaits the decision of your swords. If we are defeated to-day, we are defeated hopelessly, for we have no reserves upon which we can fall back."

Then assembling nearly all his little band in a square around him, he placed himself upon an eminence where he could be seen by all, and where nearly all could hear him, and then, with clasped hands and eyes raised to Heaven, offered the following prayer—a truly extraordinary prayer, so humble and so Christian in its spirit of resignation:

"O God, I pray thee, who alone knowest the intentions of man's heart, to do thy will upon me as thou shalt judge necessary for the weal of Christendom. And wilt thou preserve me as long as thou seest it to be needful for the happiness and the repose of France, and no longer. If thou dost see that I should be one of those kings on whom thou dost lay thy wrath, take my life with my crown, and let my blood be the last poured out in this quarrel."

Then turning to his troops, he said,

"Companions, God is with us. You are to meet His enemies and ours. If, in the turmoil of the battle, you lose sight of your banner, follow the white plume upon my casque. You will find it in the road to victory and honor."

But a few hours before this, General Schomberg, who was in command of the auxiliaries furnished to Henry by Germany, urged by the importunity of his troops, ventured to ask for their pay, which was in arrears. Henry, irritated, replied,

"A man of courage would not ask for money on the eve of a battle."

The words had no sooner escaped his lips than he regretted them. Henry now rode to the quarters of this veteran officer, and thus magnanimously addressed him:

"General Schomberg, I have insulted you. As this day may be the last of my life, I would not carry away the honor of a gentleman and be unable to restore it. I know your valor, and I ask your pardon. I beseech you to forgive me and embrace me."

This was true magnanimity. General Schomberg nobly replied,

"Sire, you did, indeed, wound me yesterday, but to-day you kill me. The honor you have done me will lead me to lay down my life in your service."

A terrible battle immediately ensued. All fought bravely, ferociously, infernally. Love and peace are the elements of heaven. Hatred and war are the elements of hell. Man, upon the battle-field, even in a good cause, must call to his aid the energies of the world of woe. Rushing squadrons swept the field, crushing beneath iron hoofs the dying and the dead. Grapeshot mowed down the crowded ranks, splintering bones, and lacerating nerves, and extorting shrieks of agony which even the thunders of the battle could not drown. Henry plunged into the thickest of the fight, every where exposing himself to peril like the humblest soldier. The conflict was too desperate to be lasting. In less than an hour the field of battle was crimson with blood and covered with mangled corpses.

The Leaguers began to waver. They broke and fled in awful confusion. The miserable fugitives were pursued and cut down by the keen swords of the cavalry, while from every eminence the cannon of the victors plowed their retreating ranks with balls. Henry himself headed the cavalry in the impetuous pursuit, that the day might be the more decisive. When he returned, covered with blood, he was greeted from his triumphant ranks with the shout, Vive le roi!

Marshal Biron, with a powerful reserve, had remained watching the progress of the fight, ready to avail himself of any opportunity which might present to promote or to increase the discomfiture of the foe. He now joined the monarch, saying,

"This day, sire, you have performed the part of Marshal Biron, and Marshal Biron that of the king."

"Let us praise God, marshal," answered Henry, "for the victory is his."

The routed army fled with the utmost precipitation in two directions, one division toward Chartres and the other toward Ivry. The whole Royalist army hung upon their rear, assailing them with every available missile of destruction. The Duke of Mayenne fled across the Eure. Thousands of his broken bands were crowding the shore, striving to force their way across the thronged bridge, when the Royalist cavalry, led by the monarch himself, was seen in the distance spurring furiously over the hills. Mayenne himself having passed, in order to secure his own safety, cruelly gave the command to destroy the bridge, leaving the unhappy men who had not yet crossed at the mercy of the victors. The bridge was immediately blown up. Many of those thus abandoned, in their terror cast themselves into the flooded stream, where multitudes were drowned. Others shot their horses and built a rampart of their bodies. Behind this revolting breastwork they defended themselves, until, one after another, they all fell beneath the sabres and the bullets of the Protestants. In this dreadful retreat more than two thousand were put to the sword, large numbers were drowned, and many were taken captive.

In this day, so glorious to the Royalist cause, more than one half of the army of the Leaguers were either slain or taken prisoners. Though the Duke of Mayenne escaped, many of his best generals perished upon the field of battle or were captured. It is reported that Henry shouted to his victorious troops as they were cutting down the fugitives, "Spare the French; they are our brethren."

This celebrated battle has often been the theme of the poet. But no one has done the subject better justice than Mr. Macaulay in the following spirited lines. They are intended to express the feelings of a Huguenot soldier.

The Battle of Ivry

"The king has come to marshal us, all in his armor dressed.

And he has bound a snow-white plume upon his gallant crest.

He looked upon his people, and a tear was in his eye;

He looked upon the traitors, and his glance was stern and high.

Right graciously he smiled on us, as rolled from wing to wing,

Down all our line, a deafening shout, 'God save our lord the king!'

'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, amid the ranks of war,

And be your oriflamme to-day the helmet of Navarre.'

"'Hurrah! the foes are coming! Hark to the mingled din

Of fife and steed, and trump and drum, and roaring culverin!

The fiery duke is pricking fast across St. Andre's plain,

With all the hireling chivalry of Guelders and Almagne.

Now, by the lips of those we love, fair gentlemen of France,

Charge for the golden lilies now—upon them with the lance!'

A thousand spurs are striking deep, a thousand spears in rest,

A thousand knights are pressing close behind the snow-white crest.

And on they burst, and on they rushed, while, like a guiding star,

Amid the thickest carnage blazed the helmet of Navarre.

"Now, God be praised, the day is ours! Mayenne hath turned his rein,

D'Aumale hath cried for quarter, the Flemish count is slain;

Their ranks are breaking like thin clouds before a Biscay gale;

The field is heaped with bleeding steeds, and flags, and cloven mail.

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.'

Oh, was there ever such a knight, in friendship or in war,

As our sovereign lord King Henry, the soldier of Navarre?"

This decisive battle established Henry on the throne. Mayenne still held Paris, and many other important fortresses in other parts of France; but his main army was defeated and dispersed, and he could no longer venture to encounter Henry in the open field. Having thrown some additional forces into Paris, which city he knew that Henry would immediately besiege, he fled to Flanders to obtain re-enforcements.

Paris was in consternation. Not a town in its vicinity could resist the conqueror. Henry was but two days' march from his rebellious capital. The Leaguers could hope for no aid for many weeks. The Royalist cause had many friends among the Parisians, eager for an opportunity to raise within their walls the banner of their lawful sovereign.

Henry had now the entire command of the Seine from Rouen to Paris. Had he immediately marched upon the capital, there can be no doubt that it would have been compelled to surrender; but, for some reason which has never been satisfactorily explained, he remained for a fortnight within one day's march of the field of Ivry. Various causes have been surmised for this unaccountable delay, but there is no authentic statement to be found in any letters written by Henry, or in any contemporaneous records. The time, however, thus lost, whatever might have been the cause, proved to him a terrible calamity. The partisans of the League in the city had time to recover from their panic, to strengthen their defenses, and to collect supplies.

One act of magnanimity which Henry performed during this interval is worthy of record. Two regiments of Swiss Catholics, who had been sent to fight beneath the banners of Mayenne, had surrendered to the royal forces. They were for a few days intensely anxious respecting their fate. Henry restored to them their ensigns, furnished them with money, supplied them with provisions, and sent them back to their native country. He gave them a letter to the Swiss cantons, with dignity reproaching them for their violation of the friendly treaty existing between Switzerland and the crown of France.

It was not until the 28th of March that Henry appeared before the walls of Paris. By this time the Leaguers had made preparations to resist him. Provisions and military stores had been accumulated. Troops had been hurried into the city, and arrangements were made to hold out till Mayenne could bring them succor. Now a siege was necessary, with all its accompaniments of blood and woe. There were now fifty thousand fighting men in the city when Henry commenced the siege with but twelve thousand foot and three thousand horse.

In this emergence the energy of Henry returned. He took possession of the river above and below the city. Batteries were reared upon the heights of Montmartre and Montfaucon, and cannon balls, portentous of the rising storm, began to fall in the thronged streets of the metropolis. In the midst of this state of things the old Cardinal of Bourbon died. The Leaguers had pronounced him king under the title of Charles X. The insurgents, discomfited in battle, and with many rival candidates ambitious of the crown, were not in a condition to attempt to elect another monarch. They thought it more prudent to combine and fight for victory, postponing until some future day their choice of a king. The Catholic priests were almost universally on their side, and urged them, by all the most sacred importunities of religion, rather to die than to allow a heretic to ascend the throne of France.

Day after day the siege continued. There were bombardments, and conflagrations, and sallies, and midnight assaults, and all the tumult, and carnage, and woe of horrid war. Three hundred thousand men, women, and children were in the beleaguered city. All supplies were cut off. Famine commenced its ravages. The wheat became exhausted, and they ate bran. The bran was all consumed, and the haggard citizens devoured the dogs and the cats. Starvation came. On parlor floors and on the hard pavement emaciate forms were stretched in the convulsions of death. The shrieks of women and children in their dying agonies fell in tones horrible to hear upon the ears of the besiegers.

The tender heart of Henry was so moved by the sufferings which he was unwillingly instrumental in inflicting, that he allowed some provisions to be carried into the city, though he thus protracted the siege. He hoped that this humanity would prove to his foes that he did not seek revenge. The Duke of Nemours, who conducted the defense, encouraged by this unmilitary humanity, that he might relieve himself from the encumbrance of useless mouths, drove several thousands out of the city. Henry, with extraordinary clemency, allowed three thousand to pass through the ranks of his army. He nobly said, "I can not bear to think of their sufferings. I had rather conquer my foes by kindness than by arms." But the number still increasing, and the inevitable effect being only to enable the combatants to hold out more stubbornly, Henry reluctantly ordered the soldiers to allow no more to pass.

The misery which now desolated the city was awful. Famine bred pestilence. Woe and death were every where. The Duke of Nemours, younger brother of the Duke of Mayenne, hoping that Mayenne might yet bring relief, still continued the defense. The citizens, tortured by the unearthly woes which pressed them on every side, began to murmur. Nemours erected scaffolds, and ordered every murmurer to be promptly hung as a partisan of Henry. Even this harsh remedy could not entirely silence fathers whose wives and children were dying of starvation before their eyes.

The Duke of Mayenne was preparing to march to the relief of the city with an army of Spaniards. Henry resolved to make an attempt to take the city by assault before their arrival. The hour was fixed at midnight, on the 24th of July. Henry watched the sublime and terrific spectacle from an observatory reared on the heights of Montmartre. In ten massive columns the Royalists made the fierce onset. The besieged were ready for them, with artillery loaded to the muzzle and with lighted torches. An eye-witness thus describes the spectacle:

"The immense city seemed instantly to blaze with conflagrations, or rather by an infinity of mines sprung in its heart. Thick whirlwinds of smoke, pierced at intervals by flashes and long lines of flame, covered the doomed city. The blackness of darkness at one moment enveloped it. Again it blazed forth as if it were a sea of fire. The roar of cannon, the clash of arms, and the shouts of the combatants added to the horrors of the night."

By this attack all of the suburbs were taken, and the condition of the besieged rendered more hopeless and miserable. There is no siege upon record more replete with horrors. The flesh of the dead was eaten. The dry bones of the cemetery were ground up for bread. Starving mothers ate their children. It is reported that the Duchess of Montpensier was offered three thousand crowns for her dog. She declined the offer, saying that she should keep it to eat herself as her last resource.

The compassion of Henry triumphed again and again over his military firmness. He allowed the women and children to leave the city, then the ecclesiastics, then the starving poor, then the starving rich. Each of these acts of generosity added to the strength of his foes. The famished Leaguers were now in a condition to make but a feeble resistance. Henry was urged to take the city by storm. He could easily do this, but fearful slaughter would be the inevitable result. For this reason Henry refused, saying,

"I am their father and their king. I can not hear the recital of their woes without the deepest sympathy. I would gladly relieve them. I can not prevent those who are possessed with the fury of the League from perishing, but to those who seek my clemency I must open my arms."

Early in August, more than thirty thousand within the walls of the city had perished by famine. Mayenne now marched to the relief of Paris. Henry, unwisely, military critics say, raised the siege and advanced to meet him, hoping to compel him to a decisive battle. Mayenne skillfully avoided a battle, and still more skillfully threw abundant supplies into the city.

And now loud murmurs began to arise in the camp of Henry. Many of the most influential of the Catholics who adhered to his cause, disheartened by this result and by the indications of an endless war, declared that it was in vain to hope that any Protestant could be accepted as King of France. The soldiers could not conceal their discouragement, and the cause of the king was involved anew in gloom.

Still Henry firmly kept the field, and a long series of conflicts ensued between detachments of the Royalist army and portions of the Spanish troops under the command of the Duke of Mayenne and the Duke of Parma. The energy of the king was roused to the utmost. Victory accompanied his marches, and his foes were driven before him.

The winter of 1591 had now arrived, and still unhappy France was one wide and wasted battle-field. Confusion, anarchy, and misery every where reigned. Every village had its hostile partisans. Catholic cities were besieged by Protestants, and Protestant towns by Catholics. In the midst of these terrible scenes, Henry had caught a glimpse, at the chateau of Coeuvres, of the beautiful face of Gabrielle d'Estrees. Ignobly yielding to a guilty passion, he again forgot the great affairs of state and the woes of his distracted country in the pursuit of this new amour. The history of this period contains but a monotonous record of the siege of innumerable towns, with all the melancholy accompaniments of famine and blood. Summer came and went, and hardly a sound of joy was heard amid all the hills and valleys of beautiful but war-scathed France.

There was great division existing among the partisans of the League, there being several candidates for the throne. There was but one cause of division in the ranks of Henry. That he was the legitimate sovereign all admitted. It was evident to all that, would Henry but abjure Protestantism and embrace the Catholic faith, nearly all opposition to him would instantly cease. Many pamphlets were issued by the priests urging the iniquity of sustaining a heretic upon the throne. The Pope had not only anathematized the heretical sovereign, but had condemned to eternal flames all who should maintain his cause.

Henry had no objection to Catholicism. It was the religion of five sixths of his subjects. He was now anxious to give his adherence to that faith, could he contrive some way to do it with decency. He issued many decrees to conciliate the Romanists. He proclaimed that he had never yet had time to examine the subject of religious faith; that he was anxious for instruction; that he was ready to submit to the decision of a council; and that under no circumstances would he suffer any change in France detrimental to the Catholic religion. At the same time, with energy which reflects credit upon his name, he declared the bull fulminated against him by Gregory XIV. as abusive, seditious, and damnable, and ordered it to be burned by the public hangman.

By the middle of November, 1591, Henry, with an army of thirty-five thousand men, surrounded the city of Rouen. Queen Elizabeth had again sent him aid. The Earl of Essex joined the royal army with a retinue whose splendor amazed the impoverished nobles of France. His own gorgeous dress, and the caparisons of his steed, were estimated to be worth sixty thousand crowns of gold. The garrison of Rouen was under the command of Governor Villars. Essex sent a curious challenge to Villars, that if he would meet him on horseback or on foot, in armor or doublet, he would maintain against him man to man, twenty to twenty, or sixty to sixty. To this defiance the earl added, "I am thus ready to prove that the cause of the king is better than that of the League, that Essex is a braver man than Villars, and that my mistress is more beautiful than yours." Villars declined the challenge, declaring, however, that the three assertions were false, but that he did not trouble himself much about the respective beauty of their mistresses.

The weary siege continued many weeks, varied with fierce sallies and bloody skirmishes. Henry labored in the trenches like a common soldier, and shared every peril. He was not wise in so doing, for his life was of far too much value to France to be thus needlessly periled.

The influential Leaguers in Paris now formed the plan to found a new dynasty in France by uniting in marriage the young Duke of Guise—son of Henry of Guise who had been assassinated—with Isabella, the daughter of Philip II., King of Spain. This secured for their cause all the energies of the Spanish monarchy. This plan immediately introduced serious discord between Mayenne and his Spanish allies, as Mayenne hoped for the crown for himself. About the same time Pope Gregory XIV. died, still more depressing the prospects of Mayenne; but, with indomitable vigor of intrigue and of battle, he still continued to guide the movements of the League, and to watch for opportunities to secure for himself the crown of France.

The politics of the nation were now in an inextricable labyrinth of confusion. Henry IV. was still sustained by the Protestants, though they were ever complaining that he favored too much the Catholics. He was also sustained by a portion of the moderate Catholics. They were, however, quite lukewarm in their zeal, and were importunately demanding that he should renounce the Protestant faith and avow himself a Catholic, or they would entirely abandon him. The Swiss and Germans in his ranks were filling the camp with murmurs, demanding their arrears of pay. The English troops furnished him by Elizabeth refused to march from the coast to penetrate the interior.

The League was split into innumerable factions, some in favor of Mayenne, others supporting the young Cardinal of Bourbon, and others still advocating the claims of the young Duke of Guise and the Infanta of Spain. They were all, however, united by a common detestation of Protestantism and an undying devotion to the Church of Rome.

In the mean time, though the siege of Rouen was pressed with great vigor, all efforts to take the place were unavailing. Henry was repeatedly baffled and discomfited, and it became daily more evident that, as a Protestant, he never could occupy a peaceful throne in Catholic France. Even many of the Protestant leaders, who were politicians rather than theologians, urged Henry to become a Catholic, as the only possible means of putting an end to this cruel civil war. They urged that while his adoption of the Catholic faith would reconcile the Catholics, the Protestants, confiding in the freedom of faith and worship which his just judgment would secure to them, would prefer him for their sovereign to any other whom they could hope to obtain. Thus peace would be restored to distracted France. Henry listened with a willing mind to these suggestions. To give assurance to the Catholics of his sincerity, he sent embassadors to Rome to treat with the Pope in regard to his reconciliation with the Church.