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

Winning a Crown

Henry IV, who was called to the throne by the murder of his cousin, Henry III, was born at Pau in southern France, where the people still show the huge tortoise shell which served as his cradle. His mother, the Queen of Navarre, a woman of unusual strength of body and mind, sang cheerily at his birth, so that her child should be light-hearted; and she allowed him to be brought up exactly like the peasant children of the neighborhood, in order that he might become hardy, active, and independent.

Henry lost his father when only nine, and at fifteen, as we have seen, was taken to the camp of the Huguenots to become nominal leader of their forces. But he showed himself so brave and skillful that before long he was the acknowledged head of his party. He used to say, "Nature made me hot-tempered, but anger is a bad counselor, and since I have known myself, I have always been on guard against so dangerous a passion." But although he showed self-control in restraining his anger, he never deemed it important to govern any of his other passions, and was, for instance, in the habit of falling violently in love with almost every pretty face he saw.

We have already seen how Henry of Navarre went to Paris to marry the king's sister, and how his life was spared in the massacre of St. Bartholomew. Later on, you remember, he effected his escape from court and returned to the Huguenot party, where he immediately abjured the Catholic religion, which he had professed only in order to escape death.

Although Henry III had taken the precaution before dying to make the nobles swear formal allegiance to his cousin and successor, Henry IV, he had no sooner passed away than many of the Leaguers left the camp with their troops, declaring that nothing would ever induce them to fight for a Huguenot king! But some Catholics remained loyal to him, and one man expressed their sentiments when he cried, "You are the king of the brave. Sire, and none but cowards will abandon you!"

Being left with only four thousand men, the new monarch found it impossible to carry out the plan of assaulting Paris, so he withdrew with his troops. Meanwhile the extreme Leaguers, under the guidance of Mayenne, proclaimed the captive Cardinal of Bourbon, Henry's uncle, King of France. But as this cardinal died in captivity, and never enjoyed the royalty thus thrust upon him, he does not count at all in the annals of the country.

Very many Catholics urged Henry to be converted to their faith, and promised to support his claim to the crown if he would do so. Even the Pope is said to have remarked at that time: "Were the King of Navarre here, I would go down on my knees to implore him to end and heal these divisions by becoming a Catholic!" There was some hope that Henry might do so, because he was by no means a zealous Huguenot, and because he frequently said, "If I am wrong, instruct me!" Still, he was too blunt and straightforward to be willing to change even a nominal religion for expediency's sake only, and so the war continued.

Henry IV, who aptly described himself at this time as "A king without a kingdom, a husband without a wife, and a warrior without money," marched off to Dieppe, where the people gave him a warm welcome. But Henry always showed a great dislike for formality and long speeches, and put an end to all such fuss on this occasion by exclaiming: "No ceremony, my children! I want only your love, good wine, good bread, and friendly faces."

Shortly after this, Henry's forces were attacked by those of the Leaguers under Mayenne, at Arques (1589). There, Henry won a brilliant victory, so was able to write jovially on the morrow to a friend who had been absent that day: "Hang yourself, my brave fellow; we have fought at Arques, and you were not there!"

The following year Henry gained much territory, and fought another pitched battle with Mayenne and his Leaguers, at Ivry (1590). Many anecdotes are related in regard to this battle. The king, whose forces were so small that he had to depend greatly on his German allies, had been too poor to pay them for their services. He was, therefore, seriously annoyed when their leader, Baron of Schomberg, on the eve of the fight, came and asked for money for his men. Irritated by this demand, which he could not satisfy at that moment, Henry haughtily exclaimed: "Men of honor do not ask for money on the eve of battle!"

But the next morning, realizing how unjust he had been, he marched up to the baron in the presence of his army, and frankly apologized, saying: "Baron, I insulted you yesterday. This may be the last day of my life, and I would not willingly take away with me the honor of a gentleman. Pardon me, and embrace me."

The baron then answered: "Sire, yesterday, it is true, your Majesty wounded me, but to-day you kill me, for the honor you do me will oblige me to lay down my life in your service!"

Having thus atoned for his bitter words, Henry gave the following instructions to his troops: "My friends, keep your ranks in good order. If you lose your ensigns, pennons, or guides, the white plume that you see on my helmet will lead you on the way to honor and glory!" It is to this speech that we owe frequent historical and literary allusions to "the white plume of Navarre."

Mayenne's army was composed of choice French and Spanish troops, but all Henry's arrangements were nevertheless made either to win or to die. When one of his officers come to inquire what provisions had been made in case of retreat, he sternly rejoined, "There will be no retreat save the battlefield!" Then, too, when his men seemed to be on the point of giving up, and were already beginning to flee, Henry IV saved the day by thundering at them, "Turn around, you cowards, and if you won't fight, at least see me die!" But just as soon as the battle was won, all Henry's generous inclinations came to the front once more, and he bade his followers, "Strike hard the foreigner, but spare every Frenchman!" thus showing that he could not forget that every native was one of his subjects.

Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry


This battle of Ivry was a most brilliant victory. Knowing that it was the turning point of Henry's career, one of his followers joyfully exclaimed: "You have. Sire, committed the bravest folly that ever was, in staking the fate of the kingdom on one cast of the dice!"

Having won this battle, Henry's next move was to press on and besiege Paris (1590), which he held for four months under strict blockade. At first there were sufficient provisions so the inhabitants did not suffer too grievously; but during the last two months the famine became so dire that many people died of hunger.

The kind-hearted king could not bear to think of the suffering in the city. Some historians declare that he allowed convoys of provisions to pass his lines so as to relieve the people's distress; but the fact is that Henry IV was far too good a general to permit anything of the sort. Of course the people's suffering could be ended at any time by surrendering; meanwhile the only supplies which entered the city were those intended for the sick and wounded, against whom no brave man ever makes war.

But the Spanish sent excellent troops which succeeded in relieving the threatened capital, just as Henry was about to become master of it. Seeing he could not now take it without a more bloody contest than he was able or willing to wage, he quietly withdrew, exclaiming, "I am like the true mother in the Judgment of Solomon, for I would rather not have Paris at all, than to see it all torn to pieces and dead."