The battle of Courtras (20 October 1587) was the first major Huguenot battlefield victory during the Wars of Religion, but Henry of Navarre failed to take advantage of his success (Eighth War of Religion).
In the early spring of 1587 a Royal army led by Anne, duke of Joyeuse, one of Henry III’s favourites, advanced west towards Henry of Navarre. He decided to retreat into La Rochelle, leaving Joyeuse free to recapture a number of places that had fallen to the Huguenots, including Saint Maixent (half way between La Rochelle and Poitiers), Tonnay Charente (sixteen miles to the south-east of La Rochelle) and Maillezais (20 miles to the north-east of La Rochelle). Some of these successes were accompanied by massacres of the defenders, which greatly angered many of the Huguenots and would later cost Joyeuse his life. They also cost him the support of Henry III, and in an attempt to restore his position he returned to Paris.
Once Joyeuse had gone, Navarre left La Rochelle and moved north-east to the southern bank of the Loire, in an successful attempt to help Condé’s younger brother, the count of Soissons, to change sides. He had been raised as a Catholic, but was now disillusioned with the Court, and moved to Montsoreau on the Loire between Tours and Angers, with reinforcement from the north of France. After collecting Soissons, Navarre returned to La Rochelle to pick up his artillery, and then moved south towards Gascony to join up with more reinforcements. His plan after that was probably to turn east to join up with an army of German and Swiss troops that was coming from Alsace.
By now Joyeuse had realised that his position at court was vulnerable, and decided that he needed a military success to secure his position. He rejoined his army at Poitiers, where he received a call for help from Marshal Matignon, the Royalist commander around Bordeaux, who had realised where Navarre was heading. He promised to meet Joyeuse with 4,000 men, and the Duke decided to move south in response.
The two armies were now heading south on almost parallel courses, heading for the small town of Courtras. Navarre’s route took him south-east from La Rochelle to Archiac and then south to Montlieu. Joyeuse was a little further to the east. Both needed to cross the River Isle using bridges just to the south of Courtas, which lies between the Isle to the south and the Dronne to the north-west.
Henry’s men were the first to cross the Dronne, and by the night of 19 October his army was across the river and quartered in the town of Coutras. Joyeuse crossed over further to the north, and prepared to camp at La Roche Chalais, ten miles to the north-east. However when he discovered that Henry was close by he ordered an overnight march to close up with the Huguenots before they could escape.
Henry took up a position on the plain to the north of Courtas. His left flank was protected by the Dronne and a wood containing one of its tributary books, and his right by the park and warren of a chateaux built by Marshal Lautrec, a French commander during the Italian Wars.
Henry’s line formed a slight crescent, with the centre bulging forward. The three Bourbon princes, Navarre, Condé and Soissons, each commanded a cavalry force in the centre, with Navarre in the centre with around 300 men, Soissons on his left and Condé on his right. The Gascon cavalry under Turenne and the light horse under Trémouille were on Condé’s right. Most of the infantry was posted on the flanks, but there were also bodies of 25 arquebusiers posted between each cavalry squadron, with orders to fire only if the foe got within 20 paces. Henry also had somewhere between two and five cannon, which he positioned very skilfully.
On the Royalist side Joyeuse was in the centre with around 1,200 lances, and 500 men of arms under Montigny. On his left Lavardin’s 400 light horse faced Turenne. His infantry was also on the flanks. Joyeuse had more cannon, but they were badly placed.
All of the sources agree that Navarre was outnumbered, but there is little agreement on the exact size of the two armies. Navarre is given somewhere between 5,500 and 7,000 men, Joyeuse between 7,000 and 12,000. The Royalists had more artillery and cavalry, but probably not by a very large margin.
The battle began with a small scale artillery duel in which the well placed Huguenot guns did better than the poorly placed Catholic guns, inflicting heavy casualties. Joyeuse then gave Lavardin permission to charge, supported by the infantry on the Royalist left. Lavardin defeated Turenne’s Gascons and pursued then back to Coutras, but his infantry was repulsed in the park around the castle. Some of the Gascons were rallied, and they and Tremouille then took up a position behind Condé.
Joyeuse then ordered his main cavalry force to advance. As the lancers began to move, Navarre called for a prayer, and his Huguenots knelt to pray, apparently convincing some of their opponents that they were about to give up in fear. They then rose to their feet and chanted Marot’s version of the 118th Psalm.
They were given the time to do this because the Royalists had to advance over about a mile to reach the Huguenot lines. The Royal cavalry was said to have been an impressive glittering sight, but the charge soon slowed down into a canter, and some disorder began to creep in. The force slowed down more as they had to advance up the slight hill Navarre was positioned on. Towards the end of the charge they also realised that the Huguenot cavalry was split into three forces, and part of the left and right of the Catholic force had to split off to face them, leaving open flanks on both sides of Joyeuse’s mian force.
When the advancing Royalists were within 20 paces, the Huguenots opened fire, and their men at arms then charged. They were fresher and quicker than the Royalists, and very quickly had the best of the fighting. Joyeuse was killed in the fighting, after his opponent refused to accept a 100,000 crown ransom because of the earlier massacres. His brother Saint Sauveur was also killed. The battle began at 9am and was over by 10am. A three hour pursuit followed, which almost reached Chalais, 18 miles to the north.
The Royalists lost 300-400 noblemen and 2,000-3,000 infantry killed during the battle. The Huguenots only admitted to 25-32 deaths. This was the first major battlefield victory for the Huguenots in the entire wars of religion, but Henry failed to take advantage of it. He decided not to try and join up with the Swiss and German troops who were advancing into France to help him, leaving them to be defeated at Vimory (26 October 1587) and Auneau (24 November 1587). In the aftermath of this second defeat the Germans accepted an offer of safe conduct, and left France.