II. HENRY III: 1574–89

The Duke of Anjou, after a brief tenure of the Polish throne, returned, aged twenty-four, to be Henry III, the last Valois king of France. An anonymous portrait in the Louvre shows him tall, lank, pale, wistful—a man of good will confused by bad heredity. He was physically weak, emotionally unstable, easily fatigued; he had to avoid riding and hunting, and a few minutes of active love left him bedded for days. His skin itched incurably, his head and stomach ached, his ear ran. Before he was thirty-six his hair was white and his teeth were gone. His apparent haughtiness was really diffidence, his cruelty was fear; normally he was gentle and cautious. Unfortunately, he had a passion for feminine raiment. He appeared at a ball in a low-necked dress, with a circlet of pearls around his throat; he wore jewels on his ears and bracelets on his arms. He gathered about him a dozen mignons, youths who frizzed their long hair, painted their faces, adorned themselves with fancy garb, and sprinkled themselves with perfumes that scented their trail. With these uncertain men he would on occasion—disguised as a woman—romp through the streets at night, playing pranks upon the citizens. In a country nearing bankruptcy and anarchy he emptied the treasury upon his male favorites, spending eleven million francs on the wedding of one, and doubling the price of judgeships to buy a marriage gift for another. Some of his people’s money he spent to good purpose—building the Pont Neuf, improving the Louvre, and raising parts of Paris out of squalor into architecture and cleanliness. He supported literature and the theater. He labored fretfully at administration. To square all his accounts he made pilgrimages on foot to Chartres and Cléry; in Paris he walked from church to church fingering large rosaries, zealously accumulating paternosters and Ave Marias; he marched in the ghostly nocturnal processions of the Blue Penitents, his body enclosed in a sack with holes for feet and eyes. He had no children. His mother, who had brought the seeds of degeneracy to him from diseased parents, looked with sorrow on the decadence and the imminent extinction of her stock.

The political situation was confused beyond Henry’s understanding. He was not made for war, and Catherine, aging, longed for peace; but the Huguenots, desperate yet unsubdued, were still in revolt. His brother, the Duke of Alençon, was flirting with a Protestant queen in England, with Protestant rebels in the Netherlands, and with Henry of Navarre in Béarn. A minority of Catholic leaders, called “Politiques” by their critics, took up the ideas of L’Hôpital (who had died in grief in 1573), proposed mutual toleration between the warring faiths, and defended the idea, so unpopular in both camps, that a nation could survive without unity of religious belief. If (they argued) the popes forbade such a compromise, France should sever its religious bonds with Rome. Frightened by the co-operation of Politiques and Huguenots, and by the inroads of German troops coming to reinforce the Protestants, Henry ended (1576) the Fifth Religious War by signing the “Peace of Monsieur” at Beaulieu, and issuing an edict of pacification—the Edict of Beaulieu—which gave the Hugue nots full freedom of worship everywhere in France, made them eligible to all offices, and allowed them eight cities in which they were to have complete political and military dominance.

Most French Catholics, and above all the ardently orthodox populace of Paris, were shocked by these concessions to a party supposedly destroyed. In 1562 the Cardinal of Lorraine had proposed a ligue sainte whose members should swear to defend the Church by whatever means and at whatever cost; Henry of Guise had organized such a band in Champagne in 1568; now similar associations were formed in many provinces. In 1576 the Duke openly proclaimed the Holy League, and took the field with a vow to crush the Huguenots once and for all.

We must not follow the trajectories of the Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Religious Wars except as they affected the flow of ideas or the character of France. Now again philosophy entered the fray. In 1579 an unidentified author—perhaps Philippe Duplessis-Mornay, one of Navarre’s councilors—sent out from Basel a stirring pronunciamento entitled Vindiciae contra tyrannos (A Vindication [of public rights] against Tyrants). It was written in Latin, but was soon translated into vernaculars. Its influence lasted for a century; it was used by the Huguenots in France, by the Dutch against Philip, by the Puritans against Charles I, by the Whigs to justify the dethroning of James II. The old theory of an implicit “social contract” between a nation and its ruler here took definite form; we shall see it again in Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Government is first of all a covenant between God, the people, and the king to uphold and obey the “true religion”—in this case Protestantism; any king failing to do this may be deposed. Secondly, government is a pact between king and people: the one to rule justly, the other to obey peaceably. King and people alike are subject to natural law—that is, a law of reason and natural justice conformable to the divine moral code and superior to all “positive” (man-made) law. The function of the king is to maintain the law, positive, natural, and divine; he is the instrument, not the dictator, of the law. “Subjects …, considered in a body, ought to be esteemed absolute lords and owners of the kingdom.” But who shall determine whether the king is a tyrant? Not the people as a multitude, “that monster with countless heads”; rather, let the magistrates decide, or some such assembly as the States-General of France. It will not do for each private individual to follow his own conscience; he would mistake his desires for his conscience, and chaos would ensue; but if the magistrate summons him to armed rebellion he must obey the call. If however, the tyrant is a usurper, he may justly be killed by anyone.4

The conflict of forces and ideas was sharpened when the Duke of Alençon died (1584) and Henry III recognized Henry of Navarre as heir presumptive to the throne. Overnight the Huguenots ceased to talk of tyranny and deposition and became ardent supporters of legitimacy, expecting the fragile Valois King to collapse soon and yield France to their Bourbon Protestant. The Vindiciae, so recently a Huguenot manifesto, was frowned upon, and Hotman himself proclaimed that resistance to Henry of Navarre was a sin.5But most of France shuddered at the thought of a Huguenot king. How could a Protestant be anointed at Reims by the Church? And could anyone, without such unction, ever be a rightful monarch of France? The orthodox clergy, led by fervent Jesuits, denounced the succession and called all Catholics to the League. Henry III, swept away by the tide, joined the League and ordered all Huguenots to accept Catholicism or leave France. Henry of Navarre appealed to Europe to recognize the justice of his cause, but Pope Sixtus V excommunicated him, and declared that as a persistent heretic he could not inherit the throne. Charles, Cardinal de Bourbon, now declared himself heir presumptive. Catherine again tried for peace, offering to support Navarre if he would renounce Protestantism; he refused. He took the field with an army partly Catholic, captured half a dozen cities in as many months, and defeated at Coutras a League army twice as large as his own (1587).

The Huguenots, numbering about a twelfth of the population,6 now held half the major towns of France.7 But Paris was the heart of France, and Paris was passionately for the League. Dissatisfied with Henry Ill’s halfhearted support, the League set up in the capital a revolutionary government composed of representatives from the sixteen wards; the “Sixteen” negotiated with Spain for a Spanish invasion of England and France and planned to seize the person of the King. Henry sent for Swiss guards; the Sixteen called upon the Duke of Guise to take control of Paris; the King forbade it; the Duke came and was hailed by the populace as head of the Catholic cause in France. Henry III, humiliated and vowing vengeance, fled to Chartres. Then, again losing his nerve, he disowned Henry of Navarre, appointed Henry of Guise commander in chief of the royal armies, and summoned the States-General to meet at Blois.

When the delegates assembled, the King noted with anger the almost royal honors paid to Guise. In a day of frenzied resolution he persuaded some of his aides to kill the Duke. He invited him to a private conference; as the young noble approached the King’s room nine assailants stabbed him to death; and the King, opening a door, gazed in excited satisfaction upon his accomplished aim (December 24, 1588). He ordered the imprisonment of the League leaders and the death of the Duke’s brother, the Cardinal of Guise. In pride and terror he reported his vicarious exploits to his mother. She wrung her hands in despair. “You have ruined the kingdom,” she told him.

Twelve days later she died, aged sixty-nine, worn out with responsibilities, anxieties, intrigues, and probably remorse. Hardly anyone paused to mourn her. She was buried in a common grave at Blois, for when a proposal was made to let her remains occupy the tomb she had prepared in St.-Denis, the Sixteen announced that if her body were brought to Paris they would throw it into the Seine. Half of France denounced Henry III as a murderer; students paraded the streets demanding his dethronement; the theologians of the Sorbonne, supported by the Pope, absolved the people from allegiance to the King, and priests called for armed resistance to him everywhere. Supporters of the King were arrested; men and women crowded the churches for fear of being taken as royalists. The pamphleteers of the League took over the political ideology of the Huguenots: the people were declared sovereign, with the right, through the Parlement or the magistrates, to depose a tyrant; any future king should be subject to constitutional limitations, and his prime duty should be to enforce the true religion—in this case Catholicism.8

Henry III, now at Tours with some nobles and soldiers, found himself between two terrors. The army of the League, under the Duke of Mayenne, was advancing upon him from the north; the army of Navarre, taking town after town, was advancing from the south; one or the other force must capture him. Henry the Huguenot seized his opportunity; he sent Duplessis-Mornay to offer the King alliance, protection, and support. At Plessisles-Tours the two Henrys met and pledged mutual fidelity (April 30, 1589). Together their armies defeated Mayenne and marched upon Paris.

In the frenzied capital a Dominican monk, Jacques Clément, listened fervently to denunciations of Henry III as an assassin. He was assured that a great deed in a divine cause would clear away all the guilt of his sins; and the grief and beauty of Catherine, Duchess of Montpensier, sister of the slain Guises, agitated him. He bought a dagger, found his way into the royal camp, stabbed the King in the stomach, was killed by the guards, and died in the confidence of Paradise. Henry of Valois died on the morrow (August 2, 1589), beseeching his followers to cleave to his cousin of Navarre. Chaos swept through the besieging army; much of it melted away; the proposed attack on Paris was postponed. Within the city the joy of the League and its followers reached delirium. Some churches placed the monk’s picture on the altar;9 devotees hailed the assassination as the noblest act of God since the Incarnation of Jesus Christ.10 Clément’s mother was brought from the provinces, preached in the churches, and was hailed with a sacred chant: “Blessed be the womb that bore thee, and the paps that gave thee suck.”11

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