Battle of Dreux, 19 December 1562

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The battle of Dreux (19 December 1562) was the only major battle of the First War of Religion (1562-63) and was a hard-fought Royal victory notable because both commanders were captured during the fighting.

At the start of the First War of Religion a number of cities were taken by the Huguenots, but in the summer and autumn of 1562 the Royal army recaptured many of them, including Bourges (31 August) and Rouen (26 October). In the aftermath of this second victory the Royal and Catholic commanders believed the war to be over for the year. Much of their army moved into winter quarters, although a number of garrisons were left in the area around Orleans and the Duke of Guise prepared to move against the English at Le Havre.

On the Huguenot side the Prince of Condé was at Orleans, while an army of German troops under d'Andelot was advancing through Alsace, Lorraine and Burgundy into Champagne. On 6 November d'Andelot reached Orleans, and on 7 November he left the city at the head of around 15,000 men and marched towards Paris, hoping to cut off the city's supplies. The Huguenot army moved rather slowly, and didn’t arrive outside Paris until 28 November. A series of negotiations between the Huguenot leaders and the court followed, allowing Guise to arrive to bolster the garrison. On 10 December, after two fruitless weeks, the Huguenot army broke camp

The Huguenot's march took then towards Chartres, but a few days into the march they decided not to risk an attack on that city and instead to move towards the English in Normandy. The Royal army was moving in parallel, and was able to get across the River Eure and place themselves between the Huguenots and Dreux.

Sources differ on the size of the two armies. The Catholics had around 16,000 infantry and 2,000-3,000 cavalry, with 22 cannon. Estimates of the size of the Huguenot force are more varied, giving them 5,000-8,000 infantry and 4,000-8,000 cavalry. Generally those sources that give the higher figure for infantry give a lower figure for cavalry, so the overall size of the army remains around 12,000 men.

The Catholic army was set up with Duke Anne of Montmorency, constable of France, in overall command. Marshal Saint-André commanded on the right, while Duke François of Guise commanded a company of cavalry.

On the Huguenot side Louis I of Bourbon, prince of Condé was the overall commander, while Admiral Coligny commanded on the right. Coligny was thus facing Montmorency, while Condé faced Saint-André and later Guise.

The battle started with a successful Huguenot cavalry charge. Condé commanded on their left where he led an impressive charge against the Swiss troops on the Catholic side, eventually forcing them to retreat.

On the Huguenot right Coligny led a cavalry charge that was even more successful, capturing Montmorency, whose horse was killed under him, and whose jaw was broken by a pistol shot.

For a short time it looked as if the Huguenots were close to victory, but at this point the Duke Guise entered the battle with his uncommitted troops. Condé was captured during this attack. The Catholics were denied a total victory by Coligny, who managed to rally enough of the cavalry to allow some of the army to escape. During this final phase of the battle Marshal Saint-André was captured and murdered, leaving Guise as the only remaining senior Catholic commander.

Estimates of the casualties at Dreux vary significantly. The Huguenots admitted to 3,000 casualties and 1,500 captured Germans. Other sources give a much higher total, of around 6,000 dead in total. Catholic losses were at least 2,000, with half of them amongst the Swiss troops.

In the aftermath of the battle the focus of the war moved to Orleans. Coligny managed to throw a garrison into the city, before moving away to raise a fresh army. Guise followed, and the siege of Orleans began. Guise was not to see the end of this siege. On 18 February 1562 he was shot and mortally wounded, dying on 24 February. With three of the four main Catholic leaders dead, Catherine de Medici was soon able to arrange peace negiations, and on 18 March the Edict of Amboise ended the First War of Religion.

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (18 January 2011),Battle of Dreux, 19 December 1562, http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_dreux.html

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