Siege of Paris, 7 May-30 August 1590

The siege of Paris (7 May-30 August 1590) was Henry IV’s most serious attempt to capture his capital, but had to be lifted after a Spanish relief army approached under the duke of Parma (Ninth War of Religion).

The campaign of 1590 had begun with the Catholic siege of Meulan and Henry IV’s siege of Dreux. In order to lift the siege of Dreux, Charles of Mayenne, head of the Catholic League, moved south to try and defeat Henry, but instead suffered a heavy defeat at Ivry (14 March 1590) in which his army was scattered and almost destroyed. For a few days Paris, which was only 36 miles to the east, was almost defenceless, but instead of pressing his advantage Henry spent two weeks at Mantes, before slowly moving towards the city.

During this pause the Parisians recovered their nerve, while Mayenne had time to write to Philip II of Spain asking for help. Both would play a part in the eventual failure of the siege. However the Parisians failed to take full advantage of the time they had been given, and didn’t begin to stockpile food until it was almost too late. They did repair the walls, cast new cannon to replace the ones taken away by the various armies over the previous years, and eventually purchased around 3,000 hogsheads of food and 10,000 of wine. They also carried out a census of the population, which was calculated as between 200,000 and 220,000.

By the time Henry reached Paris, the city was well defended. The Duke of Nemours, who had been placed in command, had around 5,000-8,000 regular troops and 30,000-50,000 urban militia, many with some military experience. Henry probably had around 15,000 regular troops at any one time, from a total force of 20,000. Even so the defenders never risked any sorties against the thinly spread besiegers.

When Henry did eventually move, he advanced around the south of Paris, taking Corbeil and Melun on the Seine (south-east of Paris) and Lagny on the Marne (east of the city). He then moved closer to the city, occupying Charenton, where a bridge crossed the Seine just below its junction with the Marne. These moves allowed Henry to threaten the food supply to the city.

On 7 May Henry finally moved into place around the northern side of Paris, blocking the gates from Montmartre in the north to the Bastile in the east, having already swept around to the south and cut the rivers. Paris was now besieged.

At first morale within the city was high, helped by the many clergymen within the walls. On 14 May there was even a parade of armed monks and friars, led by Guillaume Rose, bishop of Senlis, although the impact of this was rather spoiled when one of the monks accidentally shot and killed the almoner of Cardinal Cajetan, who was watching the parade.

Food soon began to run out inside the city, and the inhabitants were reduced to eating horses, dogs and cats. There was a brief respite when the many monasteries were forced to hand out their food stocks, but this only delayed the famine.

Eventually things got so bad inside the city that a council of the leading men decided to send Cardinal Gondy, Bishop of Paris and the Archbishop of Lyons to visit Henry and try and arrange negotiations that might lead to a universal peace. Henry was willing to meet with them, just outside the city, on 7 August. He turned down their request, but offered to pardon the citizens of Paris if they surrendered, and gave then eight days. The Parisians turned down these terms, and the siege continued.

Just as it looked as if the city would have to surrender, a relief army finally arrived. Philip II had ordered Alexander Farnese, the prince of Parma, his commander in the Netherlands, to come to the aid of the defenders of Paris. He entered France with 12,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry. On 23 August, at Meaux, twenty eight miles to the east of the city, he met up with Mayenne with 6,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry, giving him 18,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry.

The approach of Parma’s army caused something of a crisis in Henry’s army, where there was a prolonged argument about what to do next - how many troops to leave at Paris and how many to take to face Parma, and where to make a stand. Eventually Henry decided to take his entire army, which was now at a peak of strength, to face Parma around Bondy, six miles to the east of the city. Henry reached Bondy on 30 August, but when Parma’s army didn’t appear, he moved further north to Claye, sixteen miles away from the city. Parma had already achieved his main objective - with Henry’s army pulled away from the city, supplies flowed into Paris. Henry had gambled that Parma would be willing to risk a battle that could decide the war in a single day, but Parma had no interest in taking that risk.

For a week Henry and Parma faced each other east of Paris. However Parma wasn’t idle. Instead he was preparing to attack Lagny, on the south bank of the Marne. He built a bridge of boats across the river, and moved his artillery to bombard the city. The moment there was a breach in the walls, Parma’s army rushed across the bridge and captured the city. At first a thick fog and a south-westerly wind meant that Henry had no idea what was going on. When he did finally discover what was happening it was too late - Parma had left a rearguard facing Henry on the north bank of the river, and the alternative route, south past a bend in the Marne, was protected by swamps. Lagny fell on 7 or 8 September.

Two or three days after the fall of Lagny, Henry made one last attempt to end the siege, launching a night attack on the walls on 10 or 11 September (our two best sources disagree on the dates). The attack went in on the opposite side of the walls from Lagny, and almost caught the defenders napping, but the Jesuits from a college near to the attack discovered it just in time and held off the first few troops to reach the top of the wall before they could get established.

Both of the main armies soon moved away from Paris. Parma had other concerns, so after taking Corbiel in October, he withdrew back to the Netherlands. Henry’s men soon retook Ligny and Corbiel, but this had little impact. By this point Henry had already made the surprising decision to disband his army, on the grounds that supplies were running short. He garrisoned a number of key places around Paris, and then sent parts of the army into Maine, Normandy, Picardy, Champagne and Burgundy, while he took a small force to harass Parma as he left France. A period of manoeuvre warfare and sieges began, with the next major battle not for five years.

The French Religious Wars 1562-1598, Robert Jean Knecht. A useful guide to the complex series of nine French Wars of Religion, including an examination of who the wars began and the main players on both sides, narrative accounts of the wars, overviews of the most important battles and sieges. Also looks at the impact of the wars on France’s neighbours, many of whom got dragged into the conflict, and on a selection of soldiers and civilians. Supported by a series of maps that help show how complex the conflict was
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (4 April 2018), Siege of Paris, 7 May-30 August 1590 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/siege_paris_1590.html

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