The Eighth War of Religion had been triggered by the death of Henry III’s brother and heir, Francois of Anjou, which had left the Protestant Henry of Navarre as the heir to the French throne. A Catholic League had emerged to oppose this, with an aristocratic wing led by Henry duke of Guise and a more radical urban wing that emerged from Paris. Henry III attempted to gain control of the League, but failed. Eventually, in an act of desperation, he had Henry of Guise and his brother Cardinal Louis of Guise assassinated at Blois on 23-24 December 1588. Unsurprisingly this backfired. Paris became even more hostile to Henry III and declared him deposed. The League was taken over by Blois’s brother Charles, duke of Mayenne. As a result Henry III’s only option was to turn to Henry of Navarre for help. The two men came to an agreement at Tours in April 1589, and their combined armies then moved to besiege Paris.
The situation changed dramatically once again on 1 August 1589 when Henry III was assassinated by a Jacobin monk, Jacques Clément. Henry of Navarre came to the throne as Henry IV, but he had a difficult task. In his new role he promised to defend the Catholic religion, and his coronation oath even committed him to persecute all heresy, but at the same time he was a Protestant himself as were most of his loyal supporters. Large parts of the country had gone over to the Catholic League after the murder of the duke of Guise. Mayenne was able to call on military assistance from Spain, and in particular from the powerful army of Alexander de Farnese, duke of Parma, in the Spanish Netherlands. However the Catholic League did have one problem - their own favoured candidate for the throne, Cardinal Charles of Bourbon, was in Henry’s hands, and even acknowledged him as king.
Henry soon had to abandon the siege of Paris as many of Henry III’s supporters left the army (including Epernon and Nevers). He decided to take part of his army into Normandy, one of the richest parts of France, where he hoped to receive help from England. Mayenne followed him with a much larger army, but suffered a defeat while attempting to attack Henry’s fortified camp south of Dieppe (battle of Arques, 21 September 1589). The promised reinforcements then arrived, and Mayenne withdrew from the area.
After his victory at Arques, Henry moved back to Paris, besieging the city by himself for the first time. His troops captured the southern suburbs, but were unable to get past the city walls, and after Mayenne entered Paris from the north, Henry withdrew.
After leaving Paris, Henry captured Vendôme (20 November 1589) and then took over Henry III’s administration at Tours. He captured Laval on 10 December and then moved into Normandy.
The campaign of 1590 began with a Catholic siege of Meulan and Henry IV’s siege of Dreux. Mayenne moved south to try and lift the siege of Dreux, but instead suffered a heavy defeat at Ivry (14 March 1590). Henry then missed a brief chance to capture Paris while the defenders were demoralised, and instead had to begin yet another siege of Paris (7 May-30 August 1590).
The threat to Paris forced Parma to intervene once again. He approached the city from the east, and outmanoeuvred Henry, who wanted to force a battle. As Henry moved east, Parma sidestepped to the south, captured Lagny and opened a supply route into Paris. Henry made one last attempt to storm the city, and then withdrew, splitting his army into four (sending it into Touraine, Champagne, Normandy and Burgundy). Parma besieged Corbeil (22 September-16 October 159) then returned to the Low Countries.
At the start of 1591 Henry was desperately short of money, and had to dismiss most of his mercenaries, only keeping the Swiss. He was still able to besiege Chartres (mid February-19 April 1591), part of a campaign to gain control of the area around Paris.
Henry did benefit from a split in the Catholic League, between the increasingly radical Sixteen in Paris and the more moderate Noble leadership outside the city. In November the Sixteen seized and executed Barbabe Brisson, the President of the Parlement of Paris, shocking many within the city. This gave Mayenne a chance to seize control of the city. On 28 November 1591 he occupied Paris and a few days later four of the leaders of the radical faction were executed.
Henry’s money problems were lifted by aid from England, Germany and the Dutch. In July the earl of Essex landed at Dieppe with around 5,500 men (send on the condition that Henry should capture Rouen), while Turenne raised 10,000 infantry and 6,000 cavalry under the Prince of Anhalt. Henry besieged Noyon (to 19 August 1591), and then sent Biron and Essex to besiege Rouen (from 11 November).
The siege of Rouen ended unsuccessfully for Henry. Parma intervened, advancing from the Spanish Netherlands. Henry moved to try and intercept him, but only managed to get himself wounded at Aumale (3 February 1592). On 26 February Parma reached Bellencombre, where he met a messenger from Rouen who assured him that all was well. Parma threw some reinforcements into the city, and then moved north to besiege Rue, near the mouth of the Somme. Henry resumed the siege of Rouen, forcing Parma to lift the siege for a second time. Henry withdrew on 20 April, and Parma and Mayenne entered the city on 21 April.
Parma’s next target was Caudebex, west of Rouen on the road to Le Havre. This gave Henry a chance to trap him in the Pays de Caux, the area between the sea and the north bank of the Seine, but Parma managed to escape across the river on 21 May, the night before Henry was planning to attack. Parma then moved east at speed, reaching Saint-Cloud, just to the west of Paris, in only five days. He reinforced the garrison, and then returned to the Low Countries, where he died at Arras on 2 December.
After lifting the siege, Henry disbanded most of his army, but kept a flying column, with which he attempted to save Epernay, but without success, and it fell to the League on 8 August,
Elsewhere Henry’s supporters suffered a defeat at Craon (c.21 May 1592), in the north-west of France, during a wider campaign in which the duke of Mercoeur attempted to seize control of Maine and Anjou. In the south the League took Carcasonne, threatened Montauban and was planning to besiege Villemur in Guyenne, but their army was defeated on 20 October. In the south-east the Huguenot leader Lesdiguières campaigned against the Duke of Savoy, who was threatening to occupy Provence.
The turning point of the war came in 1593. At the start of the year Mayenne called a meeting of the Estates-General. This met in Paris in January to try and decide who should succeed the recently deceased Cardinal of Bourbon as the Catholic claimant to the throne. Their problem was that there was no clear candidate. Henry’s uncle Condé had died in 1588 and his son Henri, Prince of Condé, was only five. Philip II of Spain suggested that his daughter should inherit, as the grand-daughter of Henry II, at first as the wife of the Archduke Ernest of Austria and later as the wife of the young duke of Guise. Unsurprisingly this suggestion was very unpopular.
Although the Estates-General were failing to come up with a credible candidate, their debate did pose a real threat to Henry’s position. His response was to finally give in to pressure and decide to convert to Catholicism. In May Henry wrote to the Archbishops, announcing that he was prepared to convert to Catholicism.
On Friday 23 July Henry met with five Catholic bishops at Saint-Denis to discuss the differences between the two faiths. On 25 July he officially abjured Protestantism at the Abbey of Saint-Denis, and entered the Catholic faith. This didn’t immediately end the war. Henry had been excommunicated by the Pope, and many members of the League were unwilling to deal with him until that had been changed. Others didn’t trust his conversion (including the Pope). However Henry’s conversion did remove the main obstacle to his being accepted as king by most of the population. Although it ran the risk of alienating his core Protestant supporters, most of them decided that they had more to lose if they turned away from him.
On 27 February 1584 Henry IV was consecrated and crowned as king of France at Chartres, as Reims was still in League hands. He was consecrated with the oil of St. Martin of Tours, as the normal oil from the Holy Ampulla was also at Reims.
Henry’s next step was to gain control of Paris. He entered into negotiations with Charles de Cossé, count of Brissac, who had only been appointed as governor of Paris in December 1593 after Mayenne began to suspect his predecessor was a royalist. On 22 March Brissac ordered two of the city gates to be opened, and at 6am Henry entered the city. The Spanish garrison under the duke of Feria offered no resistance and was allowed to leave in a military procession, and only a handful of the Sixteen were banished. In a symbolic gesture Henry celebrated mass at Notre Dame two hours after entering the city, and remained there for Holy Week. He quickly won over most of the people with a series of public displays of his new Catholicism.
The League position now began to collapse. A series of other towns came over to Henry’s side, including Rouen, Meaux, Orleans, Toulouse and Amiens. Henry also besieged and captured Laon. A series of senior members of the League, including Vitri, Andre de Villars (the defender of Rouen), La Chastre and Charles de Neufville, marquis de Villeroi also changed sides. By the end of the year Charles, duke of Guise and Charles, duke of Lorraine had both made peace with Henry.
By the end of the year only a handful of League leaders still held out against the king, but that party did include Mayenne and his brother the Duke of Mercoeur, and they still had Spanish support.
On 17 January 1595 Henry changed the nature of the conflict once again by declaring war on Spain. There were Spanish garrisons in a number of towns across the west and north of France, and powerful Spanish forces in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. The move also turned the remaining members of the Catholic League into traitors in a war against one of France’s traditional enemies.
The first threat came from Italy, where Don Juan Fernandez de Valasco, constable of Castile, was serving as governor of Milan, but was campaigning in Franche-Comté (the Imperial half of the old Duchy of Burgundy). He crossed into France with 12,000 men and moved towards Dijon, where Mayenne held the Citadel and Henry’s supporters the city. Henry left Paris on 24 May, gathered his armies at Troyes, and moved towards Dijon. The two armies clashed at Fontaine-Française, twenty miles to the north-east of Dijon, on 6 June. This was a fairly minor skirmish, but it convinced Valasco to return to Franche-Comté.
On 17 June the citadel of Dijon surrendered. Henry spent July and August campaigning in Franche-Comté, before returning to France at the request of the Swiss. Mayenne began to consider coming to terms with Henry, and in September agreed a truce with him (truce of Taisey).
In late August 1595 Henry learnt that he was to receive absolution from Pope Clement VIII, removing the last barrier to his legitimacy with the Catholic population of France. The decree of absolution was officially announced on 17 September 1595.
While Henry was campaigning in Burgundy, the Spanish were having more success in the north. An army led by Pedro Henriquez, count of Fuentes, advanced into northern France. He failed to take Ham, but then besieged Dourlens. The French attempted to raise the siege, but suffered a heavy defeat (24 July 1595), and two of their commanders (Villars and d’Humeires) were killed. Fuentes then began a siege of Cambrai (11 August-7 October 1595). Henry was unable to respond in time to save the city, and instead began a siege of La Fère, the last Spanish stronghold south of the Somme.
Mayenne officially submitted to Henry at Monceaux-en-Brie in January 1596. In return for a large payment and the appointment of his son as governor of the Ile-de-France apart from Paris he became a loyal supporter of Henry. This was part of a general trend - Henry was usually willing to forgive his opponents, and to pay for their renewed loyalty, and the effort almost always succeeded.
Henry’s forces were tied down around La Fère for the first few months of the year. In the spring the new Spanish governor of the Netherlands, the Archduke Albert, raised a relief army, but instead of risking a clash with Henry he moved north and captured Calais (17 April 1596), Ardres, Ham and Guisnes. Calais remained in Spanish hands to the end of the war. In the meantime La Fère finally fell on 16 May. A few days later Henry was able to negotiate an alliance with Elizabeth I of England. This provided him with diplomatic support, although little practical direct military assistance. The Anglo-Dutch raid on Cadiz of 1596 did help weaken Spain, and may thus have played a part in the eventual peace negotiations.
Elsewhere the duke of Guise captured Marseille for the King (17 February 1596), taking it from Jean Louis de Nogaret, duke of Epernon, who had been attempting to set up an independent government in Provence. In the following year Epernon submitted to Henry.
The main military event of 1597 was the siege of Amiens. The city had only recently submitted to Henry, who had agreed not to place a Royal garrison in the city. However he had used it as one of his military depots, and this made it a tempting target for the nearby Spanish garrison of Dourlens. The city was captured on 11 March after Spanish soldiers disguised as peasants managed to capture one of the gates. Henry was forced to abandon any other plans and concentrate on recapturing the city.
The siege of Amiens began in April when Marshal Biron began a blockade with 3,000 men. Henry then concentrated on raising fresh troops, and arrived outside the city on 8 June. At the same time Archduke Albert raised a relief army of around 21,000 men, and by 15 September he was only six miles from Amiens. However a Spanish attack on the French siege lines failed, and Albert retreated without risking a full scale battle. Amiens surrendered on 25 September.
By the start of 1598 the only senior noble still holding out against Henry was the duke of Mercoeur, who occupied Brittany. Early in the year Henry led 14,000 men into Brittany, where a series of towns expelled their League garrisons. On 20 March Mercoeur finally came to terms, surrendering the governorship of Britanny in return for 4,295,000 livres and a marriage between his only daughter Francoise and Henry’s illegitimate son with Gabrielle d’Estrees, Cesar, duke of Vendome (as both Francoise and Cesar were children on 1598 the marriage didn’t actually take place until 1609).
Mercoeur’s surrender effectively ended the war. He was finally free to act to protect his Huguenot supporters, issuing the Edict of Nantes on 15 April 1598. This gave everyone liberty of conscience and gave the Huguenots the right of public worship on the estates of nobles, at two places in every bailliage and where it had been done openly in 1596 and 1597. They were also given access to public offices and bi-partisan courts were set up.
This was followed by the Treaty of Vervins of 2 May 1598 which ended the war with Philip II of Spain. All towns captured since the treaty of Cateau-Cambresis were to be returned, so the French regained Calais but had to surrender Cambrai to the Spanish. Soon afterwards Philip II died.
The rest of Henry’s reign was largely peaceful (apart from a campaign against the Duke of Savoy in 1600-1), and he gained a reputation as a great king, doing much to undo the damage caused by long series of Wars of Religion. Henry had been the target of assassination attempts in 1593 and 1594, but he was finally killed by a third assassin, Francois Ravaillac, in Paris on 14 May 1610. Ravaillac had come to Paris to try and convince Henry to convert the Huguenots to Catholicism, but he had been unable to meet the king. When he learnt that Henry was planning to intervene in a succession dispute in Germany to support a Calvinist candidate, he saw this as the start of a war against the Pope, and decided to kill the king. He was given his chance when Henry’s coach got stuck in traffic, and stabbed him. Henry died immediately.
Henry’s religious settlement didn’t last for long. In 1614 Henry’s son Louis XIII ordered the restoration of Catholic worship in Bearn. The local estates refused to accept this, and Louis led an army south and invaded Bearn and Navarre.
In 1620 the Huguenot’s held an illegal assembly at La Rochelle where they decided to resist Louis by force. A new war broke out, but it would be short-lived. Louis XIII entered the field in June 1621, and the fighting was briefly ended by the Peace of Montpellier on October 1622, which largely confirmed the Edict of Nantes, but at the same time ordered the destruction of any Huguenot fortifications. A second outburst of fighting led to another siege of La Rochelle. This was followed by the peace of Alès (June 1629), which removed the political and military aspects of the earlier settlement. A period of religious intolerance followed, until in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. In response many of the remaining Huguenots fled from France, setting up prosperous communities in the Protestant states of Europe.