Both sides sought and received foreign aid, the Catholics from Spain, the Protestants from England and Germany. Elizabeth, bribed by the promise of Calais, sent 6,000 men; 2,000 of these took Rouen, but Guise captured and sacked the city (October 26, 1562), and his spoils-hungry soldiers pillaged and slaughtered Catholic and Protestant inhabitants impartially. In these actions Antoine de Bourbon, who had joined the Catholic faith and forces, was mortally wounded. The Huguenots took control of most towns in south France, sacking churches and smashing images religiously. Their main body of 17,000 men, under Condé and Coligny, marched toward Normandy to unite with the English reinforcements. At Dreux they were intercepted by a Catholic army of 17,000 under the triumvirs; on December 19 a furious battle was fought, which left 6,000 dead on the field; Saint-André was killed, Montmorency was wounded and captured by the Huguenots, Condé was wounded and captured by the Catholics. For a time French courtesy prevailed: Montmorency was treated as a hero, who, though commander in chief of the King’s armies, had always fought in the ranks and had been wounded in seven battles; and the Duke of Guise used Condé as an honored guest, dined with him, and shared with him the only bed available in the camp.38 The indecisive victory went to the Catholics, but Paris and the royal family for a time believed that the Huguenots had won. Catherine took the news calmly, saying, “Very well, then, we shall pray to God in French.”39
Guise himself met death in the aftermath of victory. While deploying his army to besiege Orléans he was shot in ambush by Jean Poltrot de Méré (February 18, 1563), a nineteen-year-old Huguenot. The Duke died after six days of pain. Poltrot, brought before Catherine, asserted that Coligny had hired him, for a large sum, to murder Guise, and that Bèze had promised him Paradise if he succeeded. Catherine wrote to Coligny asking for his answer to the charge. He denied any part in the assassination plan; he had often warned the Duke to beware of assassins; he admitted that he had heard Poltrot declare his intention, and had done nothing to deter him; he had given Poltrot one hundred crowns, but for other purposes; however, he was not sorry that the plot had succeeded, “for … fortune can deal no better stroke for the good of the Kingdom and the Church of God, and most especially it is good for myself and my house.”40 Poltrot was torn apart by horses on March 18; in his dying agony he renewed his accusation of Coligny.41 Henry, now third Duke of Guise, swore to avenge his father’s death.
Catherine continued to work for peace; it was quite clear that either faction, if decisively victorious, would set her aside and possibly depose her son. She called L’Hôpital back to her Council, arranged a meeting of Montmorency and Condé, and persuaded them to sign the Edict of Amboise, ending the First Religious War (March 19, 1563). The terms were a victory for the Huguenot nobles only: liberty of conscience and practice of the religion “called reformed” were granted “for all barons and lords high justiciary in their houses, with their families and dependents,” and “for nobles having fiefs without vassals and living on the King’s lands, but for them and their families personally.” The Huguenot worship was to be allowed in towns where it had been practiced before March 8, 1563; otherwise it was to be confined to the outskirts of a single town in any seneschalty or bailiwick; in Paris it was altogether forbidden. Coligny charged Condé with having sacrificed the Huguenot rank and file to protect his class.
On September 15 Charles IX, who was not yet fourteen, was declared of age; Catherine surrendered her regency, but not her leadership. In March 1564 she led the King and the court on a progress through France, partly to show the nation its new monarch, partly to consolidate the fragile peace. At Roussillon she issued an edict of partial toleration, calling upon each faith to respect the liberty of the other. After fourteen months of royal touring, the party reached Bayonne (June 3, 1565), where Catherine greeted with joy her daughter Elizabeth, now Queen of Spain, and conferred with the Duke of Alva in secret parleys that alarmed the Huguenots. They rightly suspected that Alva counseled full forcible measures against them, but his extant letters to Philip make it clear that Catherine rejected his proposals, refused to dismiss L’Hôpital, and still clung to her policy of peace.42 Soon after her return to Paris (December 1565) she used all her influence to reconcile Coligny, Montmorency, Condé, and the Guises.
In 1564 the Jesuits entered France; their sermons roused the ardor of the Catholics, and in Paris especially they converted a number of Huguenots. In the provinces a strong Catholic reaction nullified many Protestant gains. The edicts of toleration were repeatedly violated, and barbarity flourished under both dispensations. It was not unusual for Catholic magistrates to hang citizens merely for being Huguenots.43 At Nîmes the Protestants massacred eighty Catholics (1567).44 Between 1561 and 1572 there were eighteen massacres of Protestants, five of Catholics; and there were over thirty assassinations.45 Catherine imported mercenaries from Switzerland and gave no satisfactory answer when Condé asked for what use she intended them. Believing that their own lives were in danger, Condé and Coligny, with armed followers, tried to seize the King and the Queen Mother at Meaux (September 1567), but Montmorency foiled the attempt. Catherine now feared Coligny as once she had feared Guise.
Coligny and Condé felt that a second war was needed to restore even the limited rights of the Huguenots. They in their turn imported mercenaries, chiefly from Germany, to reinforce their depleted armies; they captured Orléans and La Rochelle and marched on Paris. Catherine asked Alva for reinforcements; he sent them at once, and at St.-Denis, just outside the capital, Montmorency led sixteen thousand men against Condé’s troops in one of the bloodiest and least decisive battles of these wars. Montmorency died of his wounds. France again wondered what religion was this that led men to such slaughter; and L’Hôpital seized the opportunity to arrange the Peace of Longjumeau (March 23, 1568), which restored the modest toleration granted in the Edict of Amboise.
The Catholics denounced the treaty and refused to carry out its terms. Coligny protested to Catherine; she pleaded impotence. In May 1568 the Spanish ambassador at Rome, Juan de Zuñiga, reported that he had heard from Pope Pius V that the French government was considering the assassination of Coligny and Condé.46 The two Huguenot leaders may have had similar information. They fled to La Rochelle, where they were joined by Jeanne d’Albret and her son, now fifteen years old and itching for action. A new Huguenot army was formed, a fleet was collected, the walls were fortified, and all attempts of government forces to enter the city were repulsed. English private vessels accepted Condé’s commission, flew his flag, and made a prey of any Catholic property they could seize.47 Condé was now virtually sovereign south of the Loire.
Catherine looked upon this Third Religious War as a revolution, as an attempt to divide France into two nations, one Catholic, the other Protestant. She reproached L’Hôpital for the failure of his conciliation policies; he resigned; she replaced him as chancellor with an uncompromising partisan of the Guises. On September 28, 1568, the government repealed the edicts of toleration and outlawed the Reformed faith from France.
All that winter the rival forces prepared for a decisive engagement. On March 3, 1569, they met at Jarnac, near Angoulême. The Huguenots were defeated; Condé, exhausted with wounds, surrendered, but was shot from the rear and died. Coligny took command and reorganized the troops for an orderly retreat. At Moncontour the Huguenots were again defeated, but Coligny recovered by strategy what had been lost in battle; and without victories, almost without food, the undiscourageable Huguenots advanced to within a few hours’ march of Paris (1570). Despite subsidies from Rome and Spain, the government found it difficult both to finance its armies and to keep the Catholic nobles in the field for more than a month or two at a time. Meanwhile hordes of mercenaries devastated the country, pillaging Catholics and Protestants indiscriminately, and killing all who dared resist.
Catherine offered Coligny a renewal of the Treaty of Longjumeau; he refused it as inadequate and continued his advance. At this point the youthful Charles IX suddenly asserted his authority and signed at St.-Germain (August 8, 1570) a peace that gave the oft-defeated Huguenots more than they had ever gained before: freedom of worship except in Paris or near the court, full eligibility to public office, and, as a guarantee that these terms would be honored in practice, the right to hold four cities under their independent rule for two years. The Catholics fumed and wondered why such a surrender followed so many victories. Philip and the Pope protested. Catherine turned them off with the assurance that she was only biding her time.I
Nevertheless she proceeded to strengthen the new peace by offering to marry her daughter Marguerite of Valois to Henry, King of Navarre, now, since Condé’s death, the titular head of the Huguenots. It was Catherine’s last and boldest stroke. No matter that she and Jeanne d’Albret were sworn foes; no matter that Henry had already slain his quota of Catholics in war. He was young and malleable; perhaps the magic of a beautiful and vivacious princess would woo him from his heresies. There would be a magnificent wedding feast at Paris; men and women of either faith would be invited. The gay Renaissance would revive amid the bitter Reformation; there would be a moratorium on theology and war and massacre.