Gateway to the Classics: Peeps at History: France by John Finnemore
Peeps at History: France by  John Finnemore

House of Valois—IV.

Catherine and Her Sons

Four sons of Catherine de Medici now came to the throne in turn, and their mother was the evil genius of every reign. She was a Roman Catholic, and hated Protestants. But she loved power far more than her religion, and she stood at nothing if she could only see her way to rule the country through one or other of her sons. The first of these to reign was Frances II., a weak, sickly boy of sixteen. He was ruler in name only, for all authority lay in the hands of Catherine and a powerful French family, whose head was the Duke of Guise. Francis married a young Princess whose name is famous in our own history, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots. Mary was the daughter of James V. of Scotland, and her mother had belonged to the House of Guise. She was brought up at the French Court, and married Francis II. when she was only fifteen. The marriage did not last long, for Francis died within a year, and Mary returned to Scotland, where she met the sea of troubles which were only to end when she laid her head on the block in Fotheringay Castle.

During this reign, short as it was, the enmity between the Catholic party and the Huguenots, as the French Protestants were called, grew to a great height. Catherine and the Guises acted with savage cruelty towards the Reformers, and burned numbers of them at the stake. This angered the Huguenots, and many Catholics were just as angry with the government, for the Queen and her friends refused to pay the just debts of those to whom the King owed money. In fact, a gallows was set up at the palace gates, and a notice placed thereon, stating that those who came to ask for money owing to them would be hanged there at once if they did not go away.

A great plot was formed to break the power of the Guises, and many Huguenots were concerned in it. But one of the plotters betrayed his friends, and great numbers of the conspirators were seized and put to death.


Catherine de Medici, Queen of Henry II.

The next reign saw this bitter feud of Catholic and Huguenot break out in civil war. Charles X., who followed Francis II., was only ten years old, and the power of his mother and the Guises was more complete than ever. The Huguenots rose under Admiral Coligny and a great nobleman, the Prince of Condé. Both were men of splendid and fearless character, men who loved order and good government, and only rose against the rule of Catherine and the Guises when it became too harsh and unjust to be borne.

The wars which followed are known as the Wars of the League, because the Catholics declared that they were formed into a Holy League to defend their religion. The strife began in 1562, and raged with intervals of peace for some thirty years, till it ended with the close of the House of Valois. The unhappy country was almost destroyed in the dreadful struggle. Catholic and Protestant alike slew their foes with merciless ferocity. The bitterness when Frenchmen fought Frenchmen seemed ten times greater than if the enemies had been of opposing nations. Prisoners were put to death in cold blood, and, in a hostile district, the victorious army hung every inhabitant they could seize on the trees by the roadside.

In 1569 the brave and generous Prince of Condé was basely shot after he had surrendered himself a prisoner. His place was taken by a young Protestant Prince, Henry of Navarre, who, with the help of Admiral Coligny, commanded the Huguenot forces.

The Protestant army now marched upon Paris, and its strength was such that Charles was forced to make peace and to surrender a number of towns to the Huguenots. Among these towns was Rochelle, which became the great Huguenot stronghold. Henry of Navarre was now married to Charles's sister Margaret, and the Huguenot cause appeared triumphant. For a year or two there was peace on the surface, but beneath the surface Catherine de Medici was at work, plotting and planning to destroy her Protestant foes and crush those whom she and the Guises hated.

The outcome of these schemes was the dreadful massacre of St. Bartholomew in August, 1572. Catherine persuaded her son that the Huguenots must be destroyed, or their power would grow too strong, and the feeble young man was overborne by her fierce will, and gave orders that a sudden attack should be made on the Huguenots in Paris, and that all men, women, and children, should be put to the sword.

This cruel and dreadful plan was carried out. One of the first victims was the noble old Admiral Coligny, for whom of late the King had pretended a friendship. The massacre began at dead of night. The Admiral was in bed and still suffering from a wound which an assassin had dealt him a short time before. The murderers burst into his room, and for a moment were checked by the stately appearance of the venerable Huguenot leader. Then they attacked him, slew him with many wounds, and hurled his body through the window into the courtyard. The Duke of Guise himself was waiting below to make sure that his enemy was despatched. "It is he," said the Duke joyfully, then hurried away to urge his men to their dreadful work.

The streets were now filled with bands of the assassins, and lest they should strike each other in the darkness and confusion, each wore a white scarf tied about his arm, and a white cross on his cap. The houses of the Protestants had been marked, and into them the murderers burst, and slew all they found wherever they found them, many being seized and killed in their beds. Great numbers of the slaughtered Huguenots were flung into the Seine, till the river was stained with blood.

King Charles himself was seen at a window of the Louvre, the royal palace, shooting with a gun upon the unhappy Huguenots as they fled. In the palace was Henry of Navarre also, but he was locked in a room and could do nothing to save or help his poor followers, thousands of whom perished during this awful night and the day which followed.


The English embassy in Paris on the day of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Protestants watching the slaughter in the street.

Yet the Huguenots were not cowed by this dreadful massacre. They were roused, rather, to avenge their murdered friends, and they were joined by many Catholics who hated Catherine and the Guises, and looked with horror on the doings of St. Bartholomew's Day. There was another fierce war, and the Huguenots bore themselves so well that at the end they had won for themselves much freedom. Charles IX. died soon after peace was concluded. He had been failing in health since the massacre of St. Bartholomew. Night and day he brooded on the frightful scenes he had witnessed, and on the cruelties done in his name. He died in great misery, repenting bitterly of the evil-doing into which his mother's advice had drawn him, and leaving the throne to his brother Henry.

Henry III. came to the throne in 1574. He was a young man of feeble health and of nature so weak, vain, and frivolous, that all sensible people looked upon him with contempt. He was the favourite son of his grim old mother, and Catherine watched affairs very closely on his behalf. She had now to fear a family which had once been her closest friends, the House of Guise. The head of the house was at this time a clever, powerful young man, Henry, Duke of Guise. The Duke held King Henry in contempt, and aimed at grasping the chief power in the country, and even dreamed of coming to the throne if the King should die without a son.

The Duke and his friends formed a powerful party called the "Holy League," and they asked all Roman Catholics to join it in defense of their religion. Great numbers took the oath of the League, and by this oath they were bound always to obey its head. The Duke of Guise was placed at the head of the League, and thus he had a great body of followers ready at any moment to aid him in his designs on the Crown. The League at once went to war with the Huguenots, and the latter were now led by Henry of Navarre. Some time after the massacre of St. Bartholomew, Henry of Navarre managed to escape from the royal palace, and he at once joined his Huguenot friends and put himself at their head, and proved a brave, noble, and faithful leader. Once more civil war raged in France.

In 1584 the only brother of Henry III. died, and as the latter had no son, it was clear that the House of Valois was coming to an end. The crown would now fall to the House of Bourbon, of which Henry of Navarre was the head, so that a Huguenot would be King of France. The bare idea of such a thing lashed every Leaguer to fury; the power of the Duke of Guise grew swiftly. Great numbers of Roman Catholics preferred that he should take the throne rather than it should fall to Henry of Navarre, and they joined the League of which Guise was the head.

A war at once broke out which is known as the "War of the Three Henries"—Henry III., and Henry, Duke of Guise, and Henry of Navarre. The League and the Huguenots fought bitterly, but Henry of France seemed on the side of neither. Paris was on the side of the League and the Duke of Guise, and the latter now resolved to visit the capital and see how the people would receive him. They welcomed him as a hero and a conqueror. They pressed round him to touch his garments and to kiss his cloak. They strewed flowers in his way, and their shouts of joy rang from street to street. This caused much uneasiness to Catherine and the King, and the latter feared that Guise had come to thrust him from the throne.

On the next day the King called into the city a body of Swiss troops in his pay. The people of Paris thought these troops were to be used against Guise, and they became furious. They barred every street so that soldiers could not march through them. They threw up barricades, piling beams, paving stones and furniture across the way, and lashing all firm with heavy chains. Behind these barriers stood armed men and women, ready to fire upon the King's soldiers. This rising is called the "Day of the Barricades." In the end Henry III. left Paris without doing harm to Guise, but from that time the weak and foolish King hated the Duke bitterly, and resolved to murder him.

Guise was warned of the King's purpose, but he was so proud and haughty, and had such a contempt for Henry III., that he laughed scornfully at the idea of such a thing. One day he found in his table-napkin a note which a secret friend had put there. It told him that the King meant to destroy him. "He dare not," scribbled Guise across the paper, and threw it with a gesture of contempt under the table. But the next day he was called to a council with the King, and was summoned to Henry's private room. As he was about to enter, he was attacked by a band of assassins, and fell under many wounds. When he was assured that his enemy was dead, Henry came, full of glee, to see the body of the murdered man. Then he hurried to tell his mother that the "King of Paris" was dead. This was the nickname he had for Guise, because the people of Paris had been so fond of the Duke.

Catherine was ill in bed, but she received the news with joy. She praised her son for this wicked deed, but the end of her long and evil career was at hand: she died within a few days. The Catholics of the League were full of anger when they heard of the murder of their leader, and King Henry turned for help to Henry of Navarre. The royal troops and the Huguenot army joined forces to march on Paris and enter the capital. They arrived before the city, and here Henry III. fell by the very means which he had used against others, the knife of the assassin. A monk came to the camp, and said that he had a letter for the King. He was admitted to the royal presence and, when the King was reading the paper, the monk drew out a dagger, and plunged it up to the hilt in Henry's body. He was at once slain by the King's attendants, but he had delivered a fatal blow, and Henry III. died within a few hours.

Before his death he called his chief nobles together, and bade them take Henry of Navarre as their next King, and Henry of Navarre was at his bedside when he died. So the House of Valois came to an end in the year 1589.

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