Biographies & Memoirs


Learning to Lead in the Army, 1594–98

To Samuel de Champlain, aide to Sieur de Hardy … the sum of nine écus for a certain secret voyage in which he has made an important service to the King.

—pay records from the Army of Henri IV, Brittany, 15951

EVEN AFTER HENRI IV converted to the Roman Church, a hard core of leaders in the Catholic League continued to oppose him. As the young king gained strength, his enemies resolved to stop him by any means. When all else failed, they took up arms. The result was yet another civil war in France—the ninth and largest of them all, called the War of the League. The fighting spread to every part of the kingdom and became a general European war.2

Once again the Catholic party invited Spanish and Italian armies into France, and recruited volunteers from Ireland and other countries. Foreign troops invaded France from the north, south, and west. A large Spanish force landed in Brittany and fortified some of its strategic towns. Another Spanish army crossed the southern Alps and entered Burgundy in 1595. In the northwest, Spanish infantry seized Calais on the English Channel. A mixed force of Spanish, Italian, and Walloon Catholics under the count de Fuentes, a very cruel commander, took the town of Amiens the following spring. These foreign armies plundered, raped, and ravaged many parts of France. One of them advanced nearly to the gates of Paris.3

This invasion was a mortal challenge to the monarchy of Henri IV and to the sovereignty of France. It brought much suffering throughout the country. The result was an outpouring of patriotism in France. Protestants strongly supported the king, and this time they were joined by many good Catholics who were sick of religious strife and appalled by the conduct of the League. Ordinary people rallied to Henri IV. They turned to him as a leader who could unite their ravaged country and expel foreign armies that plundered friend and foe alike.

The king attracted to his cause the best military leaders in the kingdom. The marshals of France, many of them Roman Catholic, strongly supported him against the League. Henri took the field himself and led from the front. He acted with decision, moved with energy, out-generaled his opponents, and his armies began to win. First he dealt with the southern threat. In 1595, he won a brilliant victory at Fontaine-Français and shattered his enemies in the south. He turned to the north and, after a hard siege, recovered the important fortress of La Fère in 1596. On September 15, he liberated the town of Amiens. With each victory his support increased. Then Henri sent an army to the west of France to confront the largest threat to his kingship. The Catholic League had great strength there, and Spanish troops held some of the major seaports in Brittany. The Spanish monarchy poured men and money into the campaign. They built massive fortifications at Crozon in the west of Brittany, and Blavet on the south coast. The forces of Henri IV attacked them in five years of bitter campaigning from 1594 to 1598.4

Among the many young Frenchmen who fought for the king in Brittany was Samuel Champlain. He joined the royal army as a volunteer and first appeared on the army’s pay records in 1595, serving on the staff of Jean Hardy, an officer in the logis du Roy, the service of supply for the royal army. The earliest pay record listed him as a fourrier, which historians have understood as quartermaster sergeant (its later meaning). Young Champlain began in the rank of a noncommissioned officer and received the modest but not inconsiderable pay of 33 écus a month.5

Champlain was able to make himself useful to senior officers in the logis du Roy. In the Brittany campaign, much of the army’s supplies came by water. Champlain knew the business of commerce and he had sailed the waters of western France. His skills were well suited to the difficult task of supplying a sixteenth-century army.6 He appears to have pleased his superiors, as he rose rapidly in his rank. Within a year he was promoted from fourrier to an “ayde du sieur Hardy.” A little later he described himself as amaréchal des logis, a commissioned officer in the supply service.7 Special assignments came to him. In 1595, he received extra pay for a “certain secret voyage in which he had made an important service to the King.”8 Whatever that “secret voyage” and “important service” may have been, the army’s paymasters were now referring to him as the sieur de Champlain.9

He came to the attention of the highest commanders in the army. Champlain tells us that he served as an aide or staff officer to three of them: Jean d’Aumont, François d’Espinay seigneur de Saint-Luc, and Charles de Cossé-Brissac, a brother-in-law of Saint-Luc. These men were marshals of France, very close to the king. They were in the thick of very heavy fighting throughout the Brittany campaign.10

Champlain was in combat too. He was not a man who would have been content to remain in the rear echelon. A sixteenth-century army worked differently that way from a modern force. When a day of battle arrived, aides and staff officers of the logis du Roy put down their pens and picked up their swords. An engraving of a fortified camp that was attacked in a combat zone shows the logis du Roy in the center of the action.11

Champlain served in one of the most hard-fought campaigns of the war: the siege of Crozon on the west coast of Brittany. At stake was a strategic peninsula that commanded the entrance to Brest, and control of western rivers. The tip of the peninsula was high ground, with steep rocky cliffs that made it a natural fortress. Today it is a quiet place, with long views across the water toward the French naval base at Brest. In the summer, French families picnic there, and children play among ruined fortifications.

In the last war of religion, the high escarpments of the Crozon Peninsula were a key to the port of Brest and control of western Brittany. Here in 1594 French and English troops defeated a Spanish force in heavy fighting. For Champlain, these barren cliffs were bright with laurels.

In 1594, the Crozon peninsula was the scene of savage fighting. A very able Spanish officer, Don Juan de Aguila, led 5,000 troops there. His engineers built a massive fort called El Leon, with an outer wall 37-feet thick. Don Juan installed a battery that commanded the approaches to Brest, and protected it with a strong force of Spanish infantry.12

In the last war of religion, the high escarpments of the Crozon Peninsula were a key to the port of Brest and control of western Brittany. Here in 1594 French and English troops defeated a Spanish force in heavy fighting. For Champlain, these barren cliffs were bright with laurels.


The Spanish fort El Léon at Crozon in a field sketch by English officer John Norreys (1594). After many repulses Martin Frobisher led English troops from the right side of this map and fell with a mortal wound. Champlain and the French attacked from the left, and won the day.

England’s Queen Elizabeth I sent a strong force to support the army of Henri IV in a combined operation against the Spanish at Crozon. A hard campaign followed, in which Champlain saw action. The French army was commanded by his own superior, Marshal Jean d’Aumont. The English fleet of eleven ships was led by the great Elizabethan explorer Martin Frobisher.

The allied forces tried to take the Spanish fort by storm, and were thrown back several times with heavy losses. An attempt was made to tunnel under the wall of the fort and destroy it with a mine. On November 7, the mine was exploded and opened a small breach. English and French troops rushed in, led by Frobisher and d’Aumont, perhaps with his aides at his side. Champlain was said to have conducted himself with great gallantry.13

The 400 Spanish defenders fought with dogged courage. They retreated to the edge of the cliffs behind them, and resisted nearly to the last man. The British leader wrote that they “never asked for mercy, so all were put to the sword.” After the battle five or six Spanish soldiers were found alive in the rocks below. They were taken prisoner and returned with honor to their Spanish commander, who hanged them for not having fought to the death. The French, in tribute to the courage of the defenders, called the place the Pointe des Espagnols. It still bears that name.14

The fighting in Brittany continued for five years. Two of Champlain’s commanders were killed in action: Marshall d’Aumont in the summer of 1595, and Marshall Saint-Luc at Amiens to the north. Champlain soldiered through the entire campaign.15 In 1597, he appeared in army records as “capitaine d’une compagnie,” a line officer with command responsibility for troops in the garrison of Quimper, a fortified river town in southwestern Brittany, midway between Brest and Blavet.16

In the course of his service, Champlain rose steadily in rank and responsibility. He went from being a volunteer to a noncommissioned officer, became an aide to a supply officer, was soon an officer himself entrusted with a secret mission in the king’s service, then an aide to the highest ranking marshals in the royal army, and finally got his own command. It was exactly the same sequence that would later occur in his American career. Some of his opportunities might have come from the king himself. Royal favor may have opened doors for this promising young man; but merit took him through them.

For Champlain, the royal army in Brittany became a school of leadership. He learned about fidelity to comrades, obedience to superiors, responsibility for others, loyalty to a cause, and endurance in a long struggle. That experience taught him to master himself, which was the first step in learning to lead others. He also learned the importance of strength, stamina, and steadfast purpose. A good captain, he wrote, “must be hardy and active,” and “untiring at his work.”17 Most of all he learned about courage, honor, and duty. Many years later he wrote that a “captain must give proof of a manly courage, and even in the face of death make light of this, and issuing his orders in a calm voice incite each to be courageous and to do everything to clear the danger.”18

Champlain was learning other things as well. Some of the men who soldiered with him in Brittany had long experience of America. Among them was the English commander at the siege of Crozon, Martin Frobisher. He was older than Champlain but they had much in common. Both were men at arms and men of the sea. Both were employed in the 1590s on secret missions for their monarchs. Both fought at Crozon.19 They may have had opportunities to meet when Frobisher worked with the French commander, Jean d’Aumont, and Champlain was on d’Aumont’s staff. They probably fought together in the final assault at El Leon, when the English and the French charged side by side across a narrow causeway into the Spanish fort. Frobisher was shot in the leg and mortally wounded.20

These two men could have met and talked together in the course of the Crozon campaign. They also had something else in common. Both shared an interest in the exploration of North America. In later years, Champlain called his comrade in arms “Messire Martin Forbichet” in a familiar way, as if he had made his acquaintance. He knew much about Frobisher’s three northern voyages to America in search of gold, a passage to China, and sites for settlement. Frobisher failed in all of those purposes, but his adventures were mentioned by Champlain as part of his inspiration for a vision of New France in North America.21

For Henri IV, the crisis of the religious wars came in 1598, and some of the decisive events happened in Brittany. After the Spanish defeat at Crozon, the Breton armies of the Catholic League were broken in other engagements. As the fighting came to an end, the king began to wage peace with the same relentless determination that he had shown in the war. It was done in his inimitable way, with a combination of coercion and conciliation. The last chief of the defeated League, the Catholic duc de Mercoeur, was invited to surrender, and required to gave his daughter in marriage to the king’s illegitimate son César, the duc de Vendóme.

Peter de l’Estoile, a Paris diarist, told a revealing story about the victorious king and the defeated duke. “The composition was advantageous and honorable,” l’Estoile wrote, “… the final clause of the treaty was the marriage of the King’s son César to the Duke’s daughter.” L’Estoile added, “This involved an exchange between the king and Madame [the Duchess de Mercoeur], who found His Majesty fixing little César’s hair…. She asked him, laughing, if it was possible that a great King could be a good barber. To which he replied in a flash, ‘Why not, Cousin? I’m barber to the whole World. Didn’t you see what a good job I did a few days back, on M. de Mercoeur your husband?’”22

Henri moved quickly to consolidate his victory in Brittany. On April 13, 1598, he hammered out a solution to the religious question in the Edict of Nantes. Protestant and Catholic leaders in France accepted a compromise that was offered to them: an officially Catholic state with toleration of Protestant dissent, and much latitude for local hegemonies. It was a complex agreement, with 92 general articles plus 56 secret provisions which mostly exempted individual towns and leaders from the general terms. Two royal warrants also gave large sums to Huguenot towns for “heavy expenses,” and annual pay to Huguenot troops. Some Catholics and Calvinists were unhappy with this middle way, but it began to work.23

The following month, the king achieved another settlement, which brought peace to Europe. In May of 1598, many French and Spanish leaders met together in the town of Vervins and signed a formal treaty between their countries. This “Peace of Vervins” is little remembered today, but it was a pivotal event in early modern history. In most parts of France it ended forty years of savage religious war, and began a period of internal peace. Philip of Spain agreed to withdraw his troops from French soil. Portuguese and Italian forces departed with the Spanish armies, as did Catholic volunteers from Ireland and Scotland.24

The Peace of Vervins was also a European event. Major parts of it were ratified by rulers in other states. Elizabeth of England and leaders of the Low Countries all became formal parties to the peace in various ways. The main agreement at Vervins was followed by other treaties between England and Spain, France and Savoy, and also Spain and the Netherlands. Catholic kings in France and Spain, and Protestant leaders in England and the Netherlands grudgingly accepted an idea of coexistence. It was all very fragile, but it survived through the reign of Henri IV.25

The king’s biographer David Buisseret writes that “the year 1598 was for Henri an annus mirabilis, when Mercoeur ended his stubborn resistance, the Protestants accepted an edict of compromise, and an honorable peace was concluded with Spain.” For the first time in many years, the king of France became the master of all his territory. The country rallied to the support of a triumphant young king and his dream of France, as a place of peace and plurality. Henri’s vision was of a country bound together by a tolerance of diversity and a mutual respect for its differences. Many came to share that vision in 1598. With Henri’s leadership the divided people of France were beginning to think of themselves as a united nation.26

The war ended in the Treaty of Vervins (1598). Philip II of Spain recognized Henri IV as king, and withdrew his armies. This victory for France led to peace in Europe, and opened North America to French and English enterprise. Here a young and virile Henri IV bows gracefully to unhappy Spanish leaders.

The Peace of Vervins also proved to be a pivotal event in American history. The end of hostilities with Spain opened opportunities in the New World for France, England, and the Netherlands. Many historians believe that the negotiations at Vervins included a secret understanding about America. Henri IV and Philip II are thought to have recognized “lignes d’amitié; lines of amity” in the Atlantic, which regulated conflict among the major European powers.

No documents to that effect have been found in the treaty of Vervins or in the papers of the men who negotiated it. A very able French historian, Eric Thierry, doubts that a ligne d’amitié was drawn in any formal way as part of the negotiations at Vervins. He is probably correct, but something else appears to have happened there, and it made a difference in Champlain’s career.

European rulers had already drawn many lines on maps of the Atlantic Ocean, before and after the treaty of Vervins. On May 4, 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull that established a “line of demarcation,” running north and south one hundred leagues west of the Azores. All undiscovered lands to the east were decreed to belong to Portugal, and all to the west to Spain. The Portuguese were not happy about that, and a treaty at Tordesillas substituted another line, 370 leagues (1,110 nautical miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands, which gave Portugal a stronger title to Brazil. Other states rejected the treaty entirely. In 1598, Henri IV put Spanish leaders on notice that he would not be bound by old agreements that carved up the world between Spain and Portugal. He wanted a more open system.27

After 1598, another set of lines came to be recognized informally by Henri’s successors in France. In 1634, Louis XIII of France wrote of a “ligne d’Amitié et d’Alliance,” drawn “a few years ago” (depuis quelques années). Sometimes they were called “les lignes d’enclos et d’amitié.” Louis XIII seems to have believed that one of these lines ran from north to south at “the meridian” of 18 degrees west longitude, which passed through the town of Ferro [Hierro], on the far southwestern island of the Canary Islands. Another line ran east to west on the Tropic of Cancer, which passed between Florida and Cuba in America, and midway between the Canaries and the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Africa. North and east of these lines, hostile acts between French and Spanish vessels were prohibited. But south and west of the ligne d’amitié that rule did not apply.28

No definitive written text appears to have existed. As a consequence, French rulers after Henri IV drew lines of amity in different places. Marie de Medici, Queen Regent of France after Henri IV’s death, thought that the north-south line lay further west, through the longitude of the Azores, not the Canaries. But she agreed that the east-west line was the Tropic of Cancer.

Wherever the lines were drawn, the rulers of France and England recognized the principle of amity to the north and east, and an open field for rivalry to the south and west. In 1611, Marie de Medici wrote to James I of England, “all acts of hostility that are committed beyond the Azores, or below the tropic of Cancer are not subject to complaints and restitution.” She added, “the strongest in those quarters are masters there.”29

The English shared the same idea and summarized it in a brutal phrase: “no peace beyond the line.” Historian Carl Bridenbaugh writes that this maxim guided the official acts and private conduct of the English, French, Dutch, and Spanish in the Antilles throughout the seventeenth century.30

Henri IV went further and warned Spanish rulers that he did not accept their hegemony in the new world. He clearly intended to challenge it—by peaceful means if possible, but by war if necessary. After 1598, he encouraged French settlement in Brazil and French trade in the West Indies, and he proclaimed a rule of retaliation against Spanish ships that attacked the French in those waters.31 Immediately after the Peace of Vervins, Henri IV also made clear to other rulers that he meant to exercise sovereignty in the region of North America that was widely recognized as New France on European globes. The French claimed their title by right of discovery in the voyages of Jacques Cartier and others. Henri understood New France in a typically spacious and large-spirited way. He set its southern boundaries at the 40th parallel, approximately the latitude of Philadelphia. Above that line he claimed the coast and interior of America as French territory.32

This activity was linked to another major purpose that Henri IV began to pursue more actively after 1598. He had long been interested in many parts of America, and often thought of himself as following François I, who had sponsored the voyages of Cartier and other French explorers. As early as the 1570s before he came to the throne, Henri had supported French colonization in parts of South America.33 In August 1588, he corresponded with Sir Francis Drake, his “most affectionate and best friend,” about opportunities in the new world. These early discussions were mostly questions, not assertions.34

After taking the throne, he grew more seriously interested in his determination to make France a global power, and very active in promoting settlement in New France. He also tried to create a strong French navy, which had scarcely existed in his youth. Before Henri’s reign the navy of France was described by a French historian as “totally unable to intervene against corsairs or pirates.” It was incapable even of delivering a French diplomat abroad. In 1579, the government of France had to ask a Venetian warship to carry a French ambassador to Constantinople.35 A leading French naval historian, Étienne Taillemite, writes that the weakness of the navy compelled French merchants to arm their ships as if they were men of war. Every French seaman who ventured abroad had to be a fighter.36

Henri did not succeed in his effort to build a powerful navy. Not until the reign of Louis XIII and the rule of Richelieu would French naval power begin to develop. But he had more success in promoting French exploration abroad. He visited the maritime provinces of France and met with men who kept the sea. In 1601 he was at Calais in the north; in 1602, he went to Saint-Jean-de-Luz in the far south. During the year that followed, he was in Rouen, Le Havre, Dieppe, Dives, and Caën. Some of these events were state visits. Others were inquiries of another kind. In the early years of his reign, the king liked to travel incognito, dressed in the tattered clothing that he often preferred. He sought out salty fishermen in waterfront taverns and talked directly to them without revealing his identity.37

His purposes did not center on a single continent or ocean. He strongly supported Arctic exploration and chartered a North Pole Company to seek a northwest or northeast passage. This group did not find a route to Asia but it developed a whaling industry in the Arctic Ocean, near Greenland and Spitz-bergen.38 The king also encouraged French voyages from Normandy to the Cape of Good Hope. In 1604, he tried to found a French East Indian Company on the Dutch and English models, with little success. The first merchant who led the company died suddenly and the enterprise faltered. It was a story often repeated in French overseas exploration. Henry tried again, but met strong opposition at home and abroad, not least from his own minister the duc de Sully, who was thought to be in the pocket of Dutch interests. The East Indian project had no driver except the king himself. It collapsed with his death and was not revived for many years.39

Even so, individual French seamen boldly explored the world. In 1586, a captain from Dieppe, Jean Sauvage, went in search of a northeast passage. He doubled the North Cape of Norway and got as far as Archangel, which was opened to western trade by Boris Gudonov. In Saint-Malo, another small group of merchants founded a French Asia company and sent out ships in 1601. One vessel reached Madagascar and was wrecked on the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean. Another called at Ceylon, continued on to Sumatra, and returned to Europe after many adventures, only to be captured by a Dutch ship off Cape Finisterre in Spain. Henri’s interest was truly global. Few parts of the world did not attract his interest.40

Henri IV made a major effort to support a French presence in North America, and kept working at it in the face of many difficulties. Historian Bernard Barbiche writes that the king pursued his goal “with a remarkable perseverance that none of his predecessors had shown in overcoming obstacles” and it was Henri himself who “finally succeeded in establishing a durable French presence in Canada.”41

As in many other projects, the king was very clear about what he was trying to do. His primary purpose was to promote colonization in New France. In letters patent for settlement in America, the king ordered that land should be granted to people of merit in “fiefs, seigneuries, chátellenies, comtés, vicomtés, baronies and other dignities relating to us.” He had a vision of an ideal society on a feudal and monarchical model, a better version of the world he knew. It was to have an elaborate social hierarchy of descending ranks, all rooted in the soil. He intended that this society should be ruled from the top down, by a nobility of merit and virtue. Henri also wanted New France to be open to Protestants and Catholics, bound by their faith in the same God, and their allegiance to the same crown. The colony was to have a mixed economy, but without free trade. The king awarded monopolies of fisheries and the fur trade to individuals and groups who were useful to his purposes.42

Henri IV was himself the driver, an “ardent partisan of French expansion overseas,” in the words of Bernard Barbiche, and “the colonial policy of France under his reign had been his work.” It was very different from the policies of his successors. Under Louis XIII and Louis XIV, the drivers were the great ministers of state, Richelieu and Colbert. The kings approved, but they were not personally occupied in colonizing projects. In the reign of Henri IV the king himself was the prime mover, against heavy resistance from leading ministers in his own court.

His very powerful minister, the duc de Sully, strongly disapproved of colonial enterprises. He was of the opinion that colonies abroad required an effort “disproportionate to the natural capacity and intelligence of the French people, who,” he said, “I regretfully realize have neither the foresight nor the perseverance that are necessary.”43 He also thought that colonies drew effort away from the most important sources of wealth in France. In his Economies Royales (1638), Sully argued that “farming and herding are the two breasts from which France is fed,” not the mines and treasures of Peru.44

Sully specially disliked North America, arguing that “great riches are never to be found in places above forty degrees” of latitude. He not only opposed Henri’s plans for New France but did what he could to disrupt them. Sully controlled the purse strings in the French government and spent nothing on Canada, “not so much as a single denier,” in the words of one French historian. Sully insisted that colonization should draw nothing from the royal treasury, and demanded that it be supported entirely by private capital. He worked with rival commercial groups to undercut the men that the king had chosen to take the lead in New France. Sully may have been in league with Dutch merchants, perhaps even in their pockets. It was surprising that the king put up with it, but they were old comrades and agreed on other things.45

The men who founded New France knew their enemies, and they understood the vital role of Henri in their enterprise. Many years later Samuel de Champlain wrote about it in his Voyages de la Nouvelle France (1632), with words of praise, fondness, and gratitude for “Henri the great of happy memory who had great affection for this design.”46

Champlain’s “design” grew from Henri’s vision of New France. Both men had much in common that way. Both reacted against the horrors they had witnessed during the wars of religion. Both dreamed of a Nouvelle France in North America that combined the best of the old world as they understood it, with an expansive idea of humanity that embraced people different from ourselves. Some dark spirits who are writing history today laugh cynically at such a thought. But these extraordinary Frenchmen who lived four centuries ago had witnessed some of the worst cruelties that human beings ever inflicted on one another. They also knew something else about our condition that others never learned. They had witnessed the good and noble things that people do in bad times, which gave them hope for a better world to come.

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