The first important event in the war with Spain was the siege of St. Quentin.
St. Quentin stood on a height, protected on one side by a great stretch of morass, through which flowed a branch of the river Somme.
Admiral Coligny, a nephew of the constable, undertook to hold St. Quentin against the enemy, but it was plain that this would be no easy matter. The marsh, which lay to the east, was the best defence the town had, for its walls were old and broken down. Two holes had even been discovered in these crumbling walls, and had been filled up only with twigs and bales of wool.
It was important to hold the town, for, should St. Quentin fall, the enemy would have little difficulty in marching on Paris itself. The constable, therefore, hearing from Admiral Coligny that the town could hold out only for a few days longer without relief, hastened toward it, hoping to raise the siege, or, if that was not possible, at least to send provisions to the starving garrison.
D'Andelot, Coligny's youngest brother, was accordingly ordered to cross the Somme, wade through the marsh, and try to reach St. Quentin with men and provisions. The marsh was the only possible way by which to reach the town, the others being closely guarded by the enemy.
Montmorency, with the main body of his army, began to move his soldiers across the morass in order to support d'Andelot in his attempt to enter the town. But many of the men lost the narrow footpaths, which were covered with water, and floundered in the marsh, while the boats promised by Coligny to carry them across the Somme did not appear for two hours after the time they were expected.
When the boats did arrive, the eager soldiers crowded into them so that in the middle of the stream they were in danger of being swamped. Seeing the danger, some of the men jumped out to lighten the boats, and many were drowned; while others who reached the opposite shore could not land, so steep and treacherous was the bank.
In the end d'Andelot and about five hundred men succeeded in entering the town with a small quantity of provisions.
The constable now saw that he must withdraw from his dangerous position. He remembered a narrow pass through which he hoped to lead his army to safety. He sent forward a body of cavalry to secure the passage, only to find that he was too late; it was already held by the enemy. The French army was in a trap, and the Spanish soldiers knew it.
Fiercely they swooped down upon the constable and his army, and soon half the French soldiers lay slain upon the ground.
Montmorency was wounded and taken prisoner, as were many of his officers; although the Prince of Condé, brother of the King of Navarre, escaped as by a miracle. French flags were strewn on the ground and captured by the enemy, as well as nearly all the French guns. The defeat of the French army was complete.
This great victory was won by the Spanish in August 1557. Philip's officers begged him to advance at once on Paris, but the King of Spain hesitated, and missed his opportunity.
St. Quentin was still untaken, and Philip determined to stay and continue the siege. Admiral Coligny, knowing well that every day he held out gave his nation a day longer to recover from the heavy blow that had been dealt her, did not dream of surrendering, though the townsfolk were in a pitiful state of starvation and weakness.
For seventeen days the admiral inspired the citizens to repulse every attack made by the Spaniards. At the end of that time the tottering walls gave way, and the enemy rushed into the town.
Coligny met them almost single-handed, and fought with desperate courage, but he was overcome and taken prisoner. D'Andelot also resisted to the last.
A terrible scene followed. The Spanish troops spread over the town, killing and torturing all whom they met, until women and little children fled in terror, to hide themselves in cellars or garrets—anywhere to escape from the Spanish soldiers.
The Duke of Guise, who had been sent to Italy to help the Pope against the Spanish, was speedily recalled after St. Quentin had fallen. The Pope thought that the French had been of little use, and bluntly said so, when he heard that Henry wished the commander to return to France. "Go then," he told the duke, "having done little for your king, less for the Church, and nothing for your own honour."
In France Guise was welcomed with joy. Nobles and men-at-arms flocked to his standard, as brave as before the defeat of St. Quentin.
The duke led his army to Calais, and in January 1558, after only a week's siege, the town was stormed and taken from the English, in whose hands it had been for more than two hundred years.
When Queen Mary of England heard that Calais was taken by the French she was lying ill in bed. Her grief at the loss of the town was so great that she became rapidly worse. As she lay dying she said to those who watched beside her, "If my heart is opened there will be found graven upon it the word 'Calais.' "
After his success at Calais, the Duke of Guise soon enjoyed another, though a different kind of triumph. His niece, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was married to the Dauphin Francis. This marriage the duke believed would increase his influence both in France and Scotland.
Soon afterwards, in 1559, Philip ii. made peace with Henry, for he wished the French king to help him to find out and kill all heretics in France and in his own vast domains.
The Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis was, therefore, signed in April 1559. In this treaty, among other arrangements, was this secret one—that the Guises should do all they could to slay every heretic living in France.
To make the alliance between Henry and Philip more sure, it was arranged that the daughter of the French king should marry the King of Spain.
After the wedding a grand tournament was held near Paris. As King Henry tilted with the captain of his Scottish guards, a splinter of wood broke off the captain's lance, pierced the king's eye, and entered his brain. After a short illness Henry ii. died at the age of forty.