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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 17 — Protestantism in France From Death of Francis I (1547) to Edict of Nantes (1598)

Chapter 18 — New persecutions — Reign and death of Henry III

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Henry III—A Sensualist and Tyrant—Persecuting Edict—Henry of Navarre—His Character—The Protestants Recover their Rights—The League—War—Henry III Joins the League—Gallantry of "Henry of the White Plume"—Dissension between Henry III and the Duke of Guise— Murder of Guise—Murder of the Cardinal of Lorraine—Henry III and Henry of Navarre Unite their Arms—March on Paris—Henry III Assassinated—Death of Catherine de Medici.

The Duke of Anjou, the heir to the throne, was in Poland when Charles IX died. He had been elected king of that country, as we have stated, but he had already brought it to the brink of civil war by the violations of his coronation oath. When he heard that his brother was dead, he stole out of Poland, hurried back to Paris, and became King of France under the title of Henry III. This prince was shamelessly vicious, and beyond measure effeminate. Neglecting business, he would shut himself up for days together with a select band of youths, debauchers like himself, and pass the time in orgies which shocked even the men of that age. He was the tyrant and the bigot, as well as the voluptuary, and the ascetic fit usually alter-nated at short intervals with the sensual one. He passed from the beast to the monk, and from the monk to the beast, but never by any chance was he the man. It is true we find no St. Bartholomew in this reign, but that was because the first had made a second impossible. That the will was not wanting is attested by the edict with which Henry opened his reign, and which commanded all his subjects to conform to the religion of Rome or quit the kingdom. His mother, Catherine de Medici, still held the regency; and we trace her hand in this tyrannous decree, which happily the government had not the power to enforce. Its impolicy was great, and it instantly recoiled upon the king, for it advertised the Huguenots that the dagger of the St. Bartholomew was still suspended above their heads, and that they should commit a great mistake if they did not take effectual measures against a second surprise. Accordingly, they were careful not to let the hour of weakness to the court pass without strengthening their own position.

Coligny had fallen, but Henry of Navarre now came to the front. He lacked the ripened wisdom, the steady persistency, and deep religious convictions of the great admiral; but he was young, chivalrous, heartily with the Protestants, and full of dash in the field. His soldiers never feared to follow wherever they saw his white plume waving "amidst the ranks of war." The Protestants were further reinforced by the accession of the Politiques. These men cared nothing for the "religion," but they cared something for the honor of France, and they were resolved to spare no pains to lift it out of the mire into which Catherine and her allies had dragged it. At the head of this party was the Duke of Alencon, the youngest brother of the king. This combination of parties, formed in the spring of 1575, brought fresh courage to the Huguenots. They now saw their cause espoused by two princes of the blood, and their attitude was such as thoroughly to intimidate the King and Queen-mother. Never before had the Protestants presented a bolder front or made larger demands, and bitter as the mortification must have been, the court had nothing for it but to grant all the concessions asked. Passing over certain matters of a political nature, it was agreed that the public exercise of the Reformed religion should be authorized throughout the kingdom; that the provincial Parliaments should consist of an equal number of Roman Catholics and Protestants; that all sentences passed against the Huguenots should be annulled; that eight towns should be placed in their hands as a material guarantee; that they shbuld have a right to open schools, and to hold synods; and that the States-General should meet within six months to ratify this agreement. This treaty was signed May 6th, 1576. Thus within four years after the St. Bartholomew Massacre, the Protestants, whom it was supposed that that massacre had exterminated, had all their former rights conceded to them, and in ampler measure.

The Roman Catholics opened their eyes in astonishment. Protestant schools; Protestant congregations; Protestant synods! They already saw all France Protestant. Taking the alarm, they promptly formed themselves into an organisation, which has since become famous in history under the name of "The League." The immediate aim of the League was the prevention of the treaty just signed; its ulterior and main object was the extirpation, root and branch, of the Huguenots. Those who were enrolled in it bound themselves by oath to support it with their goods and lives. Its foremost man was the Duke of Guise; its back-bone was the ferocious rabble of Paris; it found zealous and powerful advocates in the numerous Jesuit fraternities of France; the duty of adhesion to it was vociferously preached from the Roman Catholic pulpits, and still more persuasively, if less noisily, urged in all the confessionals; and we do not wonder that, with such a variety of agency to give it importance, the League before many months had passed numbered not fewer than 30,000 members, and from being restricted to one province, as at the beginning, it extended over all the kingdom. A clause was afterwards added to the effect that no one should be suffered to ascend the throne of France who professed or tolerated the detestable opinions of the Huguenots, and that they should have recourse to arms to carry out the ends of the League. Thus were the flames of war again lighted in France.

The north and east of the kingdom declared in favor of the League, the towns in the south and west ranged themselves beneath the standard of Navarre. The king was uncertain which of the two parties he should join. Roused suddenly

from his sensualities, craven in spirit, clouded in understanding, and fallen in popular esteem, the unhappy Henry saw but few followers around him. Navarre offered to rally the Huguenots round him, and support the crown, would he only declare on their side. Henry hesitated; at last he threw himself into the arms of the League, and, to cement the union between himself and them, he revoked all the privileges of the Protestants, and commanded them to abjure their religion or leave the kingdom. The treaty so recently framed was swept away. The war was resumed with more bitterness than ever. It was now that the brilliant military genius of Navarre, "Henry of the White Plume," began to blaze forth. Skillful to plan, cool and prompt to execute, never hesitating to carry his white plume into the thick of the fight, and never failing to bring it out victoriously, Henry held his own in the presence of the armies of the king and Guise. The war watered afresh with blood the soil so often and so profusely watered before, but it was without decisive results on either side. One thing it made evident, namely, that the main object of the League was to wrest the scepter from the hands of Henry III, to bar the succession of Henry of Navarre, the next heir, and place the Duke of Guise upon the throne, and so grasp the destinies of France.

The unhappy country did not yet know rest; for if there was now a cessation of hostilities between the Roman Catholics and the Huguenots, a bitter strife broke out between the king and Guise. The duke aspired to the crown. He was the popular idol; the mob and the army were on his side, and knowing this, he was demeaning himself with great haughtiness. The contempt he felt for the effeminacy and essential baseness of Henry III, he did not fail to express. The king was every day losing ground, and the prospects of the duke were in the same proportion brightening. The duke at last ventured to come to Paris with an army, and Henry narrowly escaped being imprisoned and slain in his own capital. Delaying the entrance of the duke's soldiers by barricades, the first ever seen in Paris, he found time to flee, and taking refuge in the Castle of Blois, he left Guise in possession of the capital. The duke did not at once proclaim himself king; he thought good to do the thing by halves; he got himself made lieutenant of the kingdom, holding himself, at the same time, on excellent terms of friendship with Henry. Henry on his part met the duke's hypocrisy with cool premeditated treachery. He pressed him warmly to visit him at his Castle of Blois. His friends told him that if he went he would never return; but he made light of all warnings, saying, with an air that expressed his opinion of the king's courage, "He dare not." To the Castle of Blois he went.

The king had summoned a council at the early hour of eight o'clock to meet the duke. While the members were assembling, Guise had arrived, and was sauntering carelessly in the hall, when a servant entered with a message that the king wished to see him in his bed-room. To reach the apartment in question the duke had to pass through an ante-chamber. In this apartment had previously been posted a strong body of men-at-arms. The duke started when his eye fell on the glittering halberds and the scowling faces of the men; but disdaining retreat he passed on. His hand was already on the curtain which separated the antechamber from the royal bed-room, with intent to draw it aside and enter, when a soldier struck his dagger into him. The duke sharply faced his assailants, but only to receive another and another stroke. He grappled with the men, and so great was his strength that he bore them with himself to the floor, where, after struggling a few minutes, he extricated himself, though covered with wounds. He was able to lift the curtain, and stagger into the room, where, falling at the foot of the bed, he expired in the presence of the king. Henry, getting up, looked at the corpse, and kicked it with his foot.

The Queen-mother was also at the Castle of Blois. Sick and dying, she lay in one of the lower apartments. The king instantly descended to visit her. "Madam," he said, "congratulate me, for I am again King of France, seeing I have this morning slain the King of Paris." The tidings pleased Catherine, but she reminded her son that the old fox, the uncle of the duke, still lived, and that the morning's work could not be considered complete till he too was dispatched. The Cardinal of Lorraine, who had lived through all these bloody transactions, was by the royal orders speedily apprehended and slain. To prevent the superstitious respect of the populace to the bodies of the cardinal and the duke, their corpses were tied by a rope, let down through a window into a heap of quicklime, and when consumed, their ashes were scattered to the winds. Such was the end of these ambitious men. [1] Father, son, and uncle had been bloody men, and their grey hairs were brought down to the grave with blood.

These deeds brought no stability to Henry's power. Calamity after calamity came upon him in rapid succession. The news of his crime spread horror through France. The Roman Catholic population of the towns rose in insurrection, enraged at the death of their favorite, and the League took care to fan their fury. The Sorbonne released the subjects of the kingdom from allegiance to Henry. The Parliament of Paris declared him deposed from the throne. The Pope, dealing him the unkindest cut of all, excommunicated him. Within a year of the duke's death a provisional government, with a younger brother

of Guise's at its head, was installed at the Hotel de Ville. Henry, appalled by this outburst of indignation, fled to Tours, where such of the nobility as adhered to the royalist cause, with 2,000 soldiers, gathered round him.

This force was not at all adequate to cope with the army of the League, and the king had nothing for it but to accept the hand which Henry of Navarre held out to him, and which he had afore-time rejected., Considering that Henry, as Duke of Anjou, had been one of the chief instigators of the St. Bartholomew Massacre, it must have cost him, one would imagine, a severe struggle of feeling to accept the aid of the Huguenots; and not less must they have felt it, we should think, unseemly and anomalous to ally their cause with that of the murderer of their brethren. But the flower of the Huguenots were in their grave; the King of Navarre was not the high-minded hero that Coligny had been. We find now a lower type of Huguenotism than before the St. Bartholomew Massacre; so the alliance was struck, and the two armies, the royalist and the Huguenot, were now under the same standard. Here was a new and strange arrangement of parties in France. The League had become the champion of the democracy against the throne, and the Huguenots rallied for the throne against the democracy. The united army, with the two Henries at its head, now began its march upon Paris; the forces of the League, now inferior to the enemy, retreating before them. While on their march the king and Navarre learned that the Pope had fulminated excommunication against them, designating them "the two sons of wrath," and consigning them, "in the name of the Eternal King," to "the company of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram," and "to the devil and his angels." The weak superstitious Henry III was so terrified that for two days he ate no food. "Cheer up, brother," said the more valorous Henry of Navarre, "Rome's bolts don't hurt kings when they conquer." Despite the Papal bull, the march to Paris was continued. King Henry, with his soldiers, was now encamped at St. Cloud; and Navarre, with his Huguenots, had taken up his position at Meudon. It seemed as if the last hour of the League had come, and that Paris must surrender. The Protestants were overjoyed. But the alliance between the royalist and Huguenot arms was not to prosper. The bull of the Pope was, after all, destined to bear fruit. It awoke all the pulpits in Paris, which began to thunder against excommunicated tyrants, and to urge the sacred duty of taking them off; and not in vain, for a monk of the name of Jacques Clement offered himself to perform the holy yet perilous deed. Having prepared himself by fasting and absolution, this man, under pretense of carrying a letter, which he would give into no hands but those of the king himself, penetrated into the royal tent, and plunged his dagger into Henry. The League was saved, the illusions of the Huguenots were dispelled, and there followed a sudden shifting of the scenes in France. With Henry III the line of Valois became extinct. The race had given thirteen sovereigns to France, and filled the throne during 261 years.

The last Valois has fallen by the dagger. Only seventeen years have elapsed since the St. Bartholomew Massacre, and yet the authors of that terrible tragedy are all dead, and all of them, with one exception, have died by violence. Charles IX, smitten with a strange and fearful malady, expired in torments. The Duke of Guise was massacred in the Castle of Blois, the king kicking his dead body as he had done the corpse of Coligny. The Cardinal of Lorraine was assassinated in prison; and Henry III met his death in his own tent as we have just narrated, by the hand of a monk. The two greatest criminals in this band of great criminals were the last to be overtaken by vengeance. Catherine de Medici died at the Castle of Blois twelve days after the murder of the Duke of Guise, as little cared for in her last hours as if she had been the poorest peasant in all France; and when she had breathed her last, "they took no more heed of her," says Estelle, "than of a dead goat." She lived to witness the failure of all her schemes, the punishment of all her partners in guilt, and to see her dynasty, which she had labored to prop up by so many dark intrigues and bloody crimes, on the eve of extinction. And when at last she went to the grave, it was amid the execrations of all parties. "We are in a great strait about this bad woman," said a Romanist preacher when announcing her death to his congregation; "if any of you by chance wish, out of charity, to give her a pater or an ave, it may perhaps do her some good." Catherine de Medici died in the seventieth year of her age; during thirty of which she held the regency of France. Her estates and legacies were all swallowed up by her debts. [2]

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Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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