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History of France - H. E. Marshall

How the Duke of Guise Defended Metz
Henry II [1547-1559]

When Francis I died, in 1547, he was succeeded by his son Henry, a weak and stupid man of twenty-eight. He left the government very much in the hands of powerful and self-seeking counsellors, among whom were the Guises, the Duke of Guise and his brother the Cardinal. They claimed to be descended from the House of Anjou and even from Charlemagne. They now rose to power and for many years played a great part in the history of France. They were courteous, and brilliant, while their great rival, Anne of Montmorency, the Constable of France, was a big, rough bully, carrying everything with a high hand, shouting down those who did not agree with him.

Meanwhile, although a new King was on the throne, the hatred between the Emperor and the King of France still continued, and about four years after Henry succeeded to the crown there was war once more.

The Emperor by this time had grown into a tyrant. Many of the princes of the Empire had become Protestant, but he fought and imprisoned them tor it. He settled matters of religion without asking advice of the Pope, he settled matters of the Empire without asking the advice of the princes. He did as he liked.

At length his tyranny was not to be borne, and many of the Protestant princes entered into a league against him. By this league they bound themselves to resist in every way in their power the schemes by which, they said, "Charles of Austria tried to bring Germany into a bestial, unbearable and eternal slavery, such as he had done in Spain and elsewhere."

In secret Henry joined the league, and with a great army marched into Lorraine, and took possession of Metz, Toul, and Verdun. Delighted with his success, Henry marched farther into the country. But he was driven back from the walls of Strasburg, and boasting that he had watered his horses in the Rhine he returned to Verdun. The Emperor had been completely taken by surprise, and he now hastened to make peace with his Protestant princes. He set free those he had imprisoned, and agreed to allow them to follow their own religion. But Henry refused to be a party to this treaty, for he had no wish to give up the towns he had taken. So the war between him and the Emperor went on.

The Emperor was determined to recover Metz, Henry was just as determined to keep it. Francis Duke of Guise was chosen to command the French within the walls. The defenses were poor, but by his orders houses, churches, abbeys were pulled down, and with the stones new walls were built. The work went on apace. Great nobles, even the Duke of Guise himself, might be seen wheeling stones and carrying mortar like any common laborer, such was their eagerness.

All who could not fight were sent out of the town, while hundreds of French gentlemen, among them the greatest lords in the land, crowded into Metz eager to take part in defending it. Food was gathered in great quantities and brought within the walls, and the country for miles round left a desert. The Emperor was slow to move, and Guise had time to make all his preparations before the enemy appeared. But at length they came with great guns and cannons. "I mean to knock the town about the ears of Monsieur de Guise," said the Emperor.

The bombardment was so tremendous that the sound of it was heard on the banks of the Rhine. The walls were broken down. But as quickly as they fell they were built up again. Sometimes even when the old wall had been battered down, the besiegers found that there was already a new wall within the old, so that the town was as safe as before.

"If they give us peas we will give them beans," said the Duke of Guise. So when the Germans dug mines the French dug counter mines. The German cannon thundered against the walls, the French poured shot into the German camp.

Week by week the siege lasted. Cannon roared and thundered all day long, and the air was bitter with the smell of gunpowder, heavy with smoke. The weather too was awful. Rain and snow poured down in torrents, until the camp of the German soldiers was a reeking marsh. Their sufferings were terrible, disease carried them off in hundreds. Still the Emperor set his teeth, and swore that he would have Metz, if it cost him three armies, one after the other.

But sufferings sapped the courage of the soldiers. Many deserted, the rest fought on sullenly. At length Charles gave way. On the first of January, 1553, he marched away. "Fortune," he said sadly, "I well see is but a fickle jade. She prefers a young King to an old Emperor."

The retreat was disastrous. In the silence and darkness of the night the troops marched away. Tents, baggage, and a great part of the guns and ammunition were left behind. For the wheels of wagons and gun carriages stuck axle deep in mud, and neither horses nor men could dislodge them.

When the French reached the deserted camp they found it in a fearful state. On every side, amid dead and dying horses, abandoned arms, knapsacks, cooking utensils, were dead and dying soldiers. Some lay half-buried in the mud, others sat on stones with their legs sunk in half-frozen mud to the knees, unable to move. When they saw their enemies some cried aloud for mercy, others prayed for a speedy death, so that their sufferings might be ended. The French soldiers were filled with horror and pity at the sight. They had mercy on these poor forsaken wretches, carried them into the town, and took care of them so generously that for many a long day the "Courtesy of Metz" was a proverb.

Soon after this Charles V, weary of all the glories and troubles of an empire, gave up his throne and went into a monastery, there to end his days. He divided his lands and power. Austria and the title of Emperor he gave to his brother Ferdinand; the Netherlands and Spain to his son Philip.

In the great hall of his palace at Brussels the Emperor called his nobles together. Clad in black velvet with a golden chain about his neck, the bent old man limped painfully to his throne, leaning heavily with one hand upon a stick, with the other upon the arm of William the Silent.

Turning to the waiting nobles he told them of all that he had done since, when a boy of seventeen, he had become King of Spain. His had been a stormy life. Nine times he had journeyed to Germany, seven to Italy, six to Spain, ten to Flanders, four to France, and twice to England and to Africa. Three times had he crossed the ocean, eight times the Mediterranean. But now he was old, he was already half dead. He could no longer bear the burden of the Crown. He begged his people to forgive him all the wrongs he had unwillingly done them, and to accept his son Philip as their ruler.

Then while Philip knelt before him he kissed him, and laying his hand upon his head proclaimed him to be the ruler of the Netherlands in the Name of the Holy Trinity. As the Emperor spoke tears ran down his cheeks. And as he fell back exhausted upon his throne the silence was broken by the sobs of those who listened to him.