Front Matter France Long Ago The Gauls In France The Priests of the Gauls Sailor Stories Conquests of the Gauls Two Great Battles Caesar in Gaul Gaul under the Romans First Christian Martyrs Patron Saint of France Franks Come to Gaul The First Kings Conquests of Clovis Clotaire and His Relatives Two Rival Queens Good King Dagobert The Saracens Checked End of the Merovingians Charlemagne's Wars Charlemagne's Manners Charlemagne, Emperor Feudalism Troublesome Sons The Strassburg Oath Normans Besiege Paris Last of the Carolingians The Year One Thousand Robert's Two Wives Wealth of the Clergy The First Crusade A Love Story The Second Crusade More Crusades The Battle of Bouvines Blanche of Castile The Sixth Crusade The Reign of Louis IX Effect of the Crusades The Battle of the Spurs End of Knights Templar The Hundred Years' War The Siege of Calais The Battle of Poitiers Seven Years of Misery The Brave du Guesclin Achievements of Charles V Charles VI Misrule in France The Disgraceful Treaty Joan to the Rescue Orleans and Rheims Joan's Martyrdom Charles's Successes The Crafty King Louis XI Louis XI's Reign Achievements of Louis XI Charles VIII The Second Italian War Death of Louis XII Francis I Rivalry of Kings Achievements of Francis I End of Francis's Reign Reign of Henry II A Young King and Queen Catherine's Regency The Forced Wedding Massacre of the Huguenots Death of Charles IX An Effeminate King he Battle of Coutras The Murder of the Guises Winning a Crown Conversion of Henry IV Henry IV's Second Marriage Death of Henry IV The Minority of Louis XIII Rule of the Favorites Richelieu and Louis XIII End of Louis XIII's Reign Beginning of a Great Reign Wars of the Fronde Death of Mazarin Versailles The Iron Mask Louis XIV's Campaigns Madame de Maintenon Later Wars of Louis XIV The Spanish Succession The Age of Louis XIV

Story of Old France - Helene Guerber

The Reign of Henry II

When Francis I lay on his deathbed (1547), he called his son and heir to his side, and solemnly parted from him, saying: "My son, I have been a great sinner. My passions led me astray. Avoid this, Henry. If I have done well, follow that, not the evil!"

This was sound advice, but unfortunately Henry was not the sort of man to take it to heart or put it into practice. Not only had he inherited all his father's strong passions and luxurious tastes, but he had received a very inferior education, and was, besides, entirely under the influence of Diana of Poitiers, who had been his father's favorite at one time. A very witty and handsome, yet wholly unprincipled woman, Diana did not scruple to play the leading part at court, and to make the young king neglect his wife,—Catherine de Medici,—to whom, as you have seen, this prince had been married in early youth.

On coming to the throne, Henry II continued his father's policy to a certain extent; yet, instead of maintaining the old ministers in office, he thoughtlessly encouraged the Guise and Montmorency families, against whom his father had particularly warned him, doubtless foreseeing that they would soon become powerful enough to prove a menace to the throne.

At the very beginning of his reign Henry II had to put down a rebellion which occurred in the region of the Charente in southern France, still noted for its salt marshes. The people there, infuriated by the heavy salt tax, slew the tax collectors, and flung their bodies into the river, crying derisively, "Go, ye wicked tax collectors, and salt the fish of the Charente!"

Such conduct could not, of course, be condoned. The king's troops soon severely punished these rebels, burning three of the ringleaders alive, and saying, "Go, ye rebels, and grill the fish of the Charente, which ye salted with the bodies of your king's officers, rabid hounds that ye are!"

This was still, you see, an age of retaliation, so it will not surprise you to hear that Henry II was anxious to continue the bitter struggle which his father had begun with the House of Austria. He began by courting an alliance with the Protestants in Germany, although he discouraged the reformed religion in his own realm, and severely persecuted all those who professed it. On one occasion he is even said to have invited his court to witness the burning of some heretics, the court ladies taking particular pleasure in such grim diversions, and thereby showing how far from civilized they really were, in spite of the fine manners on which they prided themselves. But the burning of men and women who refused to obey the Catholic Church, and the public destruction by fire of "heretical" books, was then considered so praiseworthy that such a deed was called an "act of faith" (auto-da-fe). In certain other countries, where the Protestants had the upper hand, it was likewise considered a duty to persecute Catholics, and to destroy "papist" books and works of art.

Henry II, like the three preceding kings, waged war in Italy, but unlike them, he also tried to round out his lands on the northeast. He took forcible possession of the bishoprics of Metz, Toul, and Verdun on the frontier, thus rousing Charles V's wrath to such an extent that he soon appeared with an army to recover possession of these places. But Metz was so ably defended by the Duke of Guise that Charles could not obtain any advantage. Besides, the season was unfavorable, and the imperial host was ravaged by disease, so that Charles V is said to have lost no less than forty thousand men in the course of this one siege. Obliged to raise it on this account, he bitterly exclaimed, referring to his own advanced years and to his youthful antagonist: "I now see that Fortune is like the rest of her sex; she favors young men and disdains those who are getting on in years!"

The city of Metz, which was taken by the French in 1552, remained in the hands of the French until 1870, when the Germans finally succeeded in recovering possession of it, after many vain attempts in the course of the intervening years.

A few years after the capture of Metz, Charles V, the great opponent of France, abdicated, leaving his vast estates to his brother and his son. Thus the latter, Philip II, became master of Spain, Holland, Flanders, Italy, and America, and by his marriage with Mary Tudor, Queen of England, soon secured the aid of that country also for the new campaign he was planning against France.

The united English and Spanish forces entered France on the northwest, and soon after won a brilliant battle at St. Quentin (1557). Had they been wise enough to take immediate advantage of this victory, they might have marched straight on to Paris; but they stopped to besiege a fortified town, and were detained there some time by an able French general, thus giving the King of France a chance to raise a new army wherewith to defend his capital. The enemy were then forced to leave France without accomplishing much, in spite of their grand victory, which Philip II commemorated by erecting the Escorial Palace in Spain.

The French soon after wiped out the shame of this defeat by recapturing Calais, which had belonged to the English for two hundred and ten years. As you may remember, Edward III had obtained possession of it after a nine months' siege, but the French, under the Duke of Guise, recovered it by a bold dash in less than nine days. Thus England lost her last stronghold on French soil, a loss which Queen Mary felt so keenly that she mournfully declared: "After my death you will find 'Calais' engraved on my heart!"

The war with Philip II closed with a treaty (Cateau-Cambresis, 1559) which ended the long series of disastrous Italian Wars waged by Charles VIII, Louis XII, Francis I, and Henry II. By this treaty France was assured the continued possession of the towns of Metz, Toul, and Verdun; but she abandoned Italy, which remained mainly in the power of Austria most of the time until 1859.

During these Italian Wars, which extended over a period of sixty-five years, the French marched four times to Naples, and repeatedly conquered much of the peninsula, but each time soon lost control of the land again, owing principally to their unjust treatment of the people. It has been claimed, therefore, that these Italian Wars resulted in nothing but a series of French graves, extending the whole length of the peninsula. But the fact remains that the French brought back from those campaigns many priceless notions of art, science, and literature, which quickened progress in France, and brought about the Age of the Renaissance in that country. Not only were the fine arts of painting, sculpture, architecture, and music encouraged, but the modern theater was born in France at this epoch also; for the old mysteries, or religious plays, ceased to be represented in public, and were replaced by classic tragedies, the first and most famous of which was Cleopatra.

One of the clauses of the last treaty with Philip II provided that peace should be cemented by a double marriage, the king giving his sister to the Duke of Savoy,—leader of the Spanish and English forces at St. Quentin,—and his daughter to Philip II of Spain, a widower since Queen Mary's death. In honor of this double royal wedding a great tournament was held in Paris, in which the king and all the most influential nobles of his court personally took part.

The jousting had lasted many hours, everything had passed off successfully, and the combatants were already leaving the lists, when Henry II, spying two unbroken lances, suddenly challenged his captain of the guards, Montgomery, to run a tilt with him. Both lances were shivered at the first shock, but Montgomery failed to raise quickly enough the butt end of his broken shaft. A splinter entered through the king's visor and, piercing his eye, inflicted such a severe wound that he died nine days later.

The unfortunate outcome of this tournament put an end to all such celebrations for the court. Henry left his kingdom one of the strongest and richest countries in Europe, but his death was a severe loss: for many years to come, France was to have only minor or incapable kings, being governed mainly by the cruel and crafty Catherine de Medici.