Eighth France Civil War (1585–1589)


Henry IV at the Battle of Ivry, by Peter Paul Rubens.

Such political and military indecision did not guarantee peace so much as set the table for the Eighth Civil War (1585-1589), the most destructive of them all. The spark was the death of the duc d’Anjou. With the monarchy seen to be weakened, the dévots increasingly supported the Catholic League, which the Guise formally allied with Philip II in the Treaty of Joinville (December 1584). Eight months later the League forced the radically intolerant Treaty of Nemours on Henri III, effectively banning Protestantism and stripping Huguenots of legal and military protections. Confused fighting, attempted town coups, and general disruption coursed over the south and the Atlantic coast of France. In January 1585, Pope Sixtus V excommunicated Henri de Navarre and Conde’ to remove them from the line of succession. Even Catholics were shocked at this foreign intervention in the Gallican Church, but the king was too weak to retaliate. All these events provoked the so-called “War of the Three Henries” (1587-1589). The young Henri Guise, the new duc de Lorraine, took the lead military role on the Catholic side, taking control of much of the north out of the hands of the king, Henri III. Supported by Spanish gold, Guise and the League prepared to meet the third Henri, Henri de Navarre, and the Huguenot army. In mid-1587 the Huguenots were reinforced by Palatine mercenaries bought with 50,000 English gold crowns sent by Elizabeth I, herself girding for war with Spain and in great need of distraction of potential Catholic enemies in France. Henri de Navarre failed to link with German Reiters hurrying to France under John Casimir, regent of the Palatinate. These mercenaries were instead defeated in two sharp engagements with Guise’s army. Surviving Germans were simply bought off by the king and went home. Meanwhile, Navarre aligned with two Catholic Bourbon princes and moved into Maine and Normandy before falling back to winter in Guyenne. He won handily against a small Royalist army at Coutras (October 20, 1587).

In the wake of the Day of the Barricades (May 12, 1588), a coup d’état in Paris carried out by The Sixteen (a radical bourgeois council), and Henri III’s murder of Guise in December, the League moved to make war on the king. Most fighting shifted north of the Loire once a truce and alliance was agreed between Henri de Navarre and Henri III, signed on April 3, 1589. A joint campaign to retake Paris from the League followed in the summer, but was interrupted by assassination of the king on August 1, 1589. After that, Royalist troops refused to serve Navarre, reducing his force within days from 40,000 to just 18,000. Henry turned to mercenaries instead, selling off his patrimonial lands in Béarn and Navarre to pay them. Huguenots looked to his coming coronation as their salvation, but despite the Salic Law that made Henri the rightful heir, the Catholic League rejected the idea that a heretic and excommunicate could ascend the sacral throne of France. League cells seized control of the cities across the north, bringing to them a fresh League terror and ensuring that the civil war would continue.

Finally, significant battles were fought. On September 21, 1589, the League lost 10,000 men to Henri at Arques, despite outnumbering his army 4:1. Reinforced by 5,200 Scots and English, making his army 18,000 strong, Henri marched on Paris and attacked into its suburbs on November 1. Lacking siege guns he could not breach the city’s inner walls, and lacking money to pay his troops neither could he starve Paris into submission. He met Mayenne in battle and crushed him, and the last large-scale Leaguer military opposition, at Ivry-la-Bataille. The League still backed his uncle, a Bourbon Catholic cardinal (whom they called Charles X) for Henri’s throne, but he died in 1590 while in Henri’s custody. That gutted the League’s confessional hopes and its political program. Meanwhile, supported by 5,000 English troops, Henri leisurely besieged Paris (April 7-August 30, 1590). The city held out, but 13,000 starved to death. Only the intervention of the Duke of Parma with an army of 20,000 Spanish foot and 7,000 horse from the Netherlands saved the French capital from its king. Even after the siege, inside Paris fear and terror governed as The Sixteen purged and murdered “politiques” and “traitors.” Mayenne occupied the city (November 28, 1591) and executed several of The Sixteen in their turn.

Pope Gregory XIV now interfered in French affairs, excommunicating Henri IV for a second time in March 1591. A Spanish force landed in Brittany that same month, a fact that frightened Elizabeth I into sending Henri still more men, money, and warships. Her clear interest was to prevent a Leaguer victory that could mean a Franco-Spanish alliance against England. From November 1591 to April 1592, Henri conducted the Siege of Rouen. He was forced away only when Parma intervened again from the Netherlands. Papal usurpation of Gallican privileges and Spanish troops on French soil rallied the country’s tired nobles for one last hurrah. Henri gathered 24,000 men and moved to trap and destroy Parma. But the irascible old Spaniard crossed the Seine and burned his barges behind him, leaving Henri stranded on the far bank but satisfied to see a foreign army depart in haste. Only a small Spanish garrison in Paris remained and some scattered League resistance in Brittany, Provence, and Dauphine’. In any case, foreign intervention had come too late. By 1592 most Royalist Catholics accepted Henri as their legitimate king. Without an alternate French candidate after the death of Charles X, some Leaguers looked to foreign Catholic princes to displace Henri, but the majority of French balked at renunciation of the traditions and rights of the Gallican Church and the primacy of the Salic Law even over Catholicity. A majority of Catholic delegates in the Estates General reaffirmed this position on June 28, 1593. A month later, on July 25, Henri formally abjured Calvinism and submitted to formal instruction in Catholicism. With a single brilliant stroke he removed the last obstacle to his acceptance by most Catholics. With the country exhausted by war and the majority on both sides reconciled to the monarchy, over the next two years League bitter-enders were run down or driven into exile. On February 27, 1594, Henri was crowned at Chartres (Leaguers still held Reims). Paris submitted on March 22. Its Spanish garrison was given safe passage out of the city and left with arms shouldered and colors intact. Most, though not all, League towns submitted in due course as Henri shrewdly and amply rewarded those which surrendered without violence: he spent over 30 million livres forgiving taxes or bribing nobles and councils to accept him.

During 1594, Tard-Avise’s peasant revolts broke out in Agenais, Burgundy, Limousin, and Périgord, in part in reaction against economic deprivations of protracted civil war in whose largely urban quarrels and arcane doctrinal disputes peasants in France’s 30,000 villages never had much stake or interest. Henri wisely appeased the peasants, as he had Spanish troops and Leaguer garrisons. The next year he declared war on Spain (January 17, 1595), upon discovery of another plot by Philip II to invade France, and to undermine Mayenne and the League bitter-enders by exposing their alliance with a foreign power. That brought about the Franco-Spanish War of 1595-1598. Meanwhile, Huguenots became uneasy as Henri became evermore overtly Catholic in his royal persona and public displays of religiosity. Mayenne ritually submitted before his king in 1595, with Henri paying the duc’s war debts and restoring him to a provincial governorship. All other great nobles submitted soon thereafter, except the duc de Mercoeur. He did not submit until Henri invaded Brittany in early 1598, gave him a bribe of four million livres, and married Mercoeur’s daughter to his own illegitimate son. The Treaty of Ponts de Ce’ formally ended the eighth war of religion. Henri settled the outstanding Huguenot issue, at least temporarily, with issuance of the Edict of Nantes (April 13, 1598). He then made peace with Spain at Vervins. Peace in France was born of weariness with protracted war, weaned on famine and massacres, reared on economic hardship and decline, and finally seduced into bed with the king by baubles and bribery. Still, it was peace, at last.

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