Henry of Navarre was at the crisis of his life. Suddenly he was, in law and by tradition, King of France; but almost as suddenly half his troops deserted him. The nobles who had clung to Henry III rode off to their estates; most of the Catholics in his army disappeared. Two thirds of France rejected forcibly the notion of a Protestant king. The Politiques had for the time been silenced by the two assassinations; the Parlement of Paris recognized Cardinal de Bourbon as king of France; Philip of Spain pledged to the League the gold of the Americas to keep France Catholic. Meanwhile, not quite to Philip’s chagrin, the disruption of French production and trade had brought the country to such desolation that no comfort was left it but the consuming ecstasy of hate.
It was out of the question for Navarre to attack a city so overwhelmingly hostile as Paris with an army so disorganized and reduced. Cautiously, and with a generalship impeded more by his mistresses than by the enemy, he withdrew his forces northward to receive help from England, and Mayenne followed as rapidly as his corpulence would permit. At Arques, just south of Dieppe, the two armies met, Henry with 7,000 men, Mayenne with 23,000 (September 21, 1589). We may gather the result from Henry’s message to his comrade at arms Crillon: “Pendstoi, brave Crillon; nous avons combattu à Arques, et tu n’y étais pas” (Hang yourself, brave Crillon; we have fought at Arques, and you were not there). The victory heartened Henry’s secret supporters everywhere. Several towns opened their gates to him cheerfully; the Republic of Venice recognized him as King; Elizabeth, as anxious as Venice to keep Spain from dominating France, sent him four thousand troops, £ 22,000 in gold, 70,000 pounds of gunpowder, and cargoes of shoes, food, wine, and beer. Philip retaliated by sending a detachment from Flanders to Mayenne. The reinforced armies fought at Ivry, on the Eure, March 14, 1590. Henry stuck a white plume—hardly to be termed a white feather—in his helmet and told his soldiers, “If the heat of battle disperse you for a while, rally … under those pear trees you see up yonder to my right, and if you lose your standards do not lose sight of my white plume—you will always find it in the path of honor and, I hope, of victory too.” As usual, he fought in the fore of the fray; his right arm was swollen and his sword beaten out of shape with the blows they gave. His reputation for mercy served him well, for thousands of unpaid Swiss in Mayenne’s service surrendered. Henry’s victory left the League without an army; almost unhindered he advanced to besiege Paris again.
From May to September, 1590, his hungry and penniless soldiers camped around the capital, eager to assault and plunder it, but checked by Henry’s refusal to sanction a slaughter that might have been worse than the St. Bartholomew. After a month of siege the Parisians were eating horses, cats, dogs, and grass. Henry relented and let provisions enter the city. The Duke of Parma, Philip’s governor in the Netherlands, came to the relief of Paris with a well-equipped army of Spanish veterans; Henry, outmaneuvered, retreated to Rouen; Parma followed him in a duel of strategy; sickness disabled the Duke, and Henry’s army once more sat down before the capital.
Now he faced the decisive question: Could he, as a Protestant, win and keep the throne of a country 90 per cent Catholic? Even his army was predominantly Catholic. Doubtless it was no small item in his thoughts that he was running out of funds and could no longer pay his troops. He called in his aides and confessed that he was thinking of conversion to Catholicism. Some approved the plan as the only road to peace; some condemned it as a cruel and scandalous desertion of Huguenots who had given him blood and money in the hope of having a Protestant king. To these Henry replied, “If I were to follow your advice, in a little while there would be neither king nor kingdom in France. I wish to give peace to my subjects and rest to my soul. Take council among you as to what you need for your security. I shall always be ready to satisfy you.”12 He added, “Perhaps between the two religions the difference is great only through the animosity of those who preach it. Someday, by my authority, I shall try to arrange all that.”13 And he defined his own essential faith: “Those who unswervingly follow their conscience are of my religion, and I am of the religion of all who are brave and good.”14 Duplessis-Mornay, Agrippa d’Aubigné, and many other Protestant leaders abandoned the King, but Henry’s most trusted adviser, the Duke of Sully, while himself remaining staunchly Protestant, agreed with his master’s decision, “Paris vaut bien une messe” (Paris is well worth a Mass).15
On May 18, 1593, Henry sent word to the Pope and the Paris hierarchy that he desired instruction in the Catholic faith. Gregory XIV had renewed his excommunication, but the French hierarchy, never obsequious to Rome, prepared to groom the new penitent to be a pious king. He was no easy pupil. He would give no pledge to make war against heresy, and refused to sign or believe “rubbish which he was quite sure that the majority of them did not believe” themselves.16 He graciously agreed to the doctrine of purgatory because “it is the best part of your revenues.”17 On July 25 he wrote to his current mistress, “Je vais faire le saut perilleux” (I am going to make the perilous leap). He went to the abbey church of St.-Denis, confessed, received absolution, and heard Mass.
Thousands of voices, in both camps, denounced him as a hypocrite. The Jesuits repudiated his conversion, and the League leaders continued to resist. But the deaths of the Duke of Parma and Cardinal de Bourbon had weakened the League, and the Sixteen had lost standing with French patriots by supporting Philip’s plan to have his daughter made queen of France. Many of the nobility inclined to Henry as a general who could keep Philip in check, and as a humane ruler who could restore health to a land disordered to the verge of dismemberment. A clever periodical, Satyre Ménippée (1593–94), voiced the sentiments of the Politiques and the bourgeoisie, ridiculed with wit and irony the Jesuits and the League, and declared, “There is no peace so unjust that it is not worth more than the most just war.”18 Even fanatical Paris was crying for peace. Minor hostilities continued for eight months more, but on March 22, 1594, Henry marched into Paris and hardly a man hindered him; such crowds acclaimed him that when he wished to enter Notre Dame he had to be lifted over the heads of the multitude. Established as king in the same Louvre where, twenty-two years before, he had been a prisoner and near death, he surrendered himself to joy, and issued, in his buoyant way, an amnesty to all, even to the Guises and the Sixteen. Some enemies he brought over by ready forgiveness and gallant courtesy; some he bribed with borrowed funds.
Not all were won over. At Lyon Pierre Barrière bought a knife, had it sharpened, and started out for Paris proclaiming his intent to assassinate the King. He was arrested at Melun and summarily strangled. “Alas,” said Henry, “if I had known it I would have pardoned him.” Pope Clement VIII sent the King absolution, but the Jesuits continued to preach against him. On December 27 Jean Châtel, aged nineteen, struck at the King with a dagger, but inflicted only a cut lip and a broken tooth. Again Henry proposed to pardon the fanatic, but the authorities subjected Châtel to all the tortures required by the law against regicides. He proudly admitted his desire to kill the King as a dangerous heretic, and professed his readiness to make another attempt for his own salvation’s sake. He confessed that he was a pupil of the Jesuits, but would not further implicate them in his enterprise. The Spanish Jesuit Juan de Mariana (whom we shall meet again) was quoted as having approved the assassination of bad kings, of Henry III especially; and the French Jesuit Jean Guignard was found to have written that Henry IV should have been killed in the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, and that he ought now to be got rid of “at any price and in any way whatsoever.”19 Early in 1595 the Parlement of Paris, on petition of the secular clergy of the Sorbonne, ordered the Jesuits to leave France.