Eighth War of Religion, 1585-89 (War of the Three Henrys)

The Eighth War of Religion or War of the Three Henrys (1585-89) was fought after the Protestant Henry of Navarre became heir to the throne of France, and merged into the Ninth War after Henry III died, leaving Navarre as king.

On 10 June 1584 Francois, duc d’Anjou, the younger brother and heir of Henry III, died. This made the Protestant Henri de Navarre heir to the throne, something that was unacceptable to the majority of Catholic noblemen.

In September 1584 Henri de Guise and his brothers, Charles de Guise, duc de Mayenne and Louis II, Cardinal de Guise, formed an association at Nancy, which soon expanded into the Catholic League. This meant that there were now three powers in France – the Royal government under Henry III, the Huguenots under Henry of Navarre and the Catholic League under Henry of Guise.

In December 1584-January 1585 Henry of Guise met with representatives of Philip II of Spain at Joinville. The resulting Treaty of Joinville (31 December 1584), saw the two sides agree to support Cardinal Charles of Bourbon as the heir to the throne and to eliminate Protestantism in France. Philip agreed to fund Guise and his allies.

At first this treaty was kept secret, but on 31 March 1585 the Cardinal of Bourbon and the League issued of Declaration of Péronne, making their position public. This was an attack on the Huguenots, and on Henry III’s favourites, and a declaration that the League had agreed to take up arms to restore the Catholic Church as the sole religion of France, as well as the normal attack on ‘abuses’ in the government.

Although the Huguenots were their official target, this declaration marked the start of an uprising against the authority of Henry III, who had already issued decrees banning such leagues or military associations. He replied to the declaration with one of his own, defending his record as a Catholic monarch, and attacking those who conspired against the peace of France. He also briefly considered asking for help from Henry of Navarre, but eventually decided against it.

The League quickly gained control of large parts of France. Guise raised troops in the Champagne region, east of Paris, and captured Chalon, while his agents captured Verdun and Toul. Mayenne took Dijon, Macon and Auxerre, to the south-east of Paris. In the north Brittany, Normandy and Picardy were taken by Philippe-Emmanuel duc de Mercoeur, Charles de Lorraine, duke of Elbeuf and Charles, Duke of Aumale. The League also gained support from Louis Gonzaga, duc de Nevers, Charles II de Cossé, duc de Brissac and many of Anjou’s former followers.

Henry III’s resistance was short-lived. His mother Catherine de Medici was sent to negotiate with Guise, but found that she had no influence. She reported that Guise had 25,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry around Reims, leaving Henry with little choice other than to capitulate. The treaty of Nemours was agreed by Catherine de Medici for the king and Guise and Mayenne for the league on 7 July and signed and published by the King at Paris on 18 July 1585. Henry agreed to eliminate Protestantism in France. Preachers had one month to leave, worshipers six months to leave or convert, on pain of death. The League was pardoned for any offenses it had committed, and Henry agreed to fund their army.

The Huguenots quickly responded to the crisis. Henri de Montmorency, seigneur de Damville, who had supported their cause, before siding with Henry III, now swapped back. Navarre, Condé and Damville met on 10 August and officially renewed their alliance. They then issued their own manifesto, accruing Guise of trying to seize the throne and affirming their loyalty to the crown, while at the same time saying they had no choice other than to fight.

In September 1585 Pope Sixtus V excommunicated Henry of Navarre, calling him a relapsed heretic, and the prince of Condé and bared both of them from the French succession. He also declared that Henry was no longer king of Navarre.

On 7 October Henry III issued a second edict against the Huguenots. The edict of Nemours was clearly not being obeyed by the Huguenots, and Henry now branded them as traitors, ordered the forfeiture of all property owned by Protestants who were either in arms or aiding those who were, and reduced the time left for Huguenots to leave France or convert from three months to fifteen days. 


1586 saw little significant fighting. In the spring the King fielded three armies, under Guise, Marshal d’Aumont and Biron, but they achieved little. An attempt to re-open negations also failed, after the League rejected any settlement in advance. Elizabeth I offered Navarre money to raise an army in Germany, to be led (or at least raised by) John Casimir, regent of the Palatinate, but that wouldn’t have any impact until the following year. Henry III then sent Mayenne and Marshal Matignan to try and defeat Henry of Navarre in the south, but although they were able pin him between the Garonne and the Pyrenees he was then able to slip past Mayenne’s outposts and reach safety at La Rochelle. In mid December Henry of Navarre met with Catherine de Medici at St. Bris for another round of peace talks, but these failed very quickly. The following year would see much more serious fighting.


The fighting in 1587 started when a Royal army under Anne, duke of Joyeuse, headed west from Paris to confront Navarre. He decided to retreat into La Rochelle, leaving Joyeuse free to recapture a number of towns that had been taken by the Huguenots. This included 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), and on several occasions the Royalists carried out massacres of the defenders. In mid August Joyeuse returned to Paris to secure his position at court.

August also saw an army of German and Swiss troops invade Lorraine, under the command of Baron Fabian von Dohna. This army had been funded by Queen Elizabeth I of England and John Casimir, regent of the Palatinate, but on this occasion Casimir decided not to lead the army in person, significantly reducing any chance of success. This army advanced west across Champagne, heading for the Loire, harassed on both flanks by League armies under Guise and Mayenne.

The two Protestant armies never managed to unite. On 12 September Henry III left Paris to join the Duke of Epernon’s army at Gien on the Loire. At the same time Joyeuse raised fresh troops and moved to Poitou. Henry of Navarre left La Rochelle heading south to pick up reinforcements, in the hope that he could lead them east to join with the Germans. Joyeuse moved south to intercept him, and the two sides clashed at Coutras (20 October 1587). Although he was outnumbered, Navarre won a convincing victory. Joyeuse was killed in the battle and his army dispersed, but Henry failed to take advantage of his success and remained inactive in the south.

In the meantime the Germans had advanced into a trap. They were unable to cross the Loire, and so decided to push on along the north bank. They were able to get past the king, but were attacked by Guise at Vimory (26 October 1587). The Germans pushed on towards Chartres, but after their Swiss troops accepted an offer of safe conduct and returned home, they decided to retreat back up the Loire. They then suffered an embarrassing defeat at Auneau (24 November 1587), and in the aftermath of that second setback the Germans also accepted an offer of safe conduct. The German army retreated out of France via Geneva, leaving Navarre on his own. On 23 December Henry III returned to Paris in triumph, but in reality he had lost control of the country, which was now split between the Catholic League and the Huguenots.


Over the winter of 1587-88 a series of plots were hatched at Paris to replace Henry III with Henry of Guise. None of the plots succeeded, but they did alarm Henry, who moved 2,000 Swiss troops close to Paris. He continued to anger the League by giving Joyeuse’s posts to his new favourite, the duke of Epernon, instead of to members of the league. The governorship of Normandy was seen as a particular threat, giving Henry’s supporters a powerbase that could threaten Paris.

Early in the year the Huguenots lost two of their leaders. Guillaume-Robert de la Mack, duke of Bouillon, the senior French leader in the German army of 1587 died at Geneva. On 5 March 1588 Henry, prince of Condé, died. He was believed to have been poisoned by the orders of his new wife, Catherine Charlotte de la Tremouille, and she was imprisoned for several years. This left Henry of Navarre as the sole senior Protestant leader.

Henry III was now on the verge of losing control of Paris. A group of radical Catholics, led by ‘The Sixteen’, controlled the Parisian part of the Catholic League. They now felt threatened by the proximity of the Swiss and Epernon’s control of Normandy, and asked Guise to come to Paris, despite Henry III having ordered the Duke to stay away.

Guise was willing to take the risk. The Spanish Armada was about to sail, and he needed to make sure that Henry III couldn’t provide any aid to Elizabeth. Guise decided to risk ignoring the king, and on 9 May entered the city in secret. He was soon recognised, and made his way to the Royal Palace surrounded by an adoring crowd. Guise first went to Catherine de Medici, who then took him to the king. Henry III briefly considered having Guise assassinated at this first meeting, but decided not to risk triggering riots in Paris.

Henry’s next mistake was to summon his Swiss troops into the city. This immediately alarmed the population, and rumours spread that the Swiss were there to kill any supporter of the League. On 12 May the city rose against Henry. He sent the Swiss to put down the revolt, but they were soon penned in by a network of barricades. This ‘day of the barricades’ comes across as a dress rehearsal for the French Revolution, with the Royal troops unwilling to fire on the population and a revolutionary government seizing control in Paris. The difference this time was the revolutionaries still supported Guise, who gained much credit by rescuing the Swiss and French guards and escorting them to the Louvre. He turned down Parisian demands that he should take the throne, but did issue a series of demands. However Guise had made one fatal mistake - he had failed to secure the person of the king, and Henry had escaped from the Louvre and made it to Chartres. 

Henry III’s escape from Paris briefly threatened to undo the League’s successes, but the king failed to take advantage of it. After dithering for some time he eventually capitulated to the League, and signed the Edict of Union (July 1588). This effectively placed power in Catholic France in the hands of the League and of Guise, as well as repeated the anti-Huguenot terms of the earlier Treaty of Nemours of 1585. This new agreement had little direct impact on the Huguenots, who had already been outlawed, and the Union quickly fell apart, so the potential it offered for a united Catholic front never came to pass. 

When the Estates-General met at Blois in October the Catholic League was dominant. Henry of Guise led the first estate. The Cardinal of Bourbon and Guise’s brother the Cardinal of Guise led the second estate. La Chapelle-Marteau, the Sixteen’s mayor of Paris led the third estate. The estates supported Guise’s authority, but once again the third estate refused to raise new taxes to actually fight the war against the Huguenots. Henry III decided on a desperate gamble in an attempt to restore his authority – he would assassinate Guise and his brother the Cardinal.

On 23 December Henry of Guise and Cardinal Louis of Guise were summoned to the king’s chamber in the chateau at Blois, where the duke was murdered by the king’s guards. The cardinal was arrested, and was killed on the following day in his cell. Henry also arrested Guise’s mother and son and several members of the Paris Sixteen, including La Chapelle-Marteau, the mayor of Paris.


Henry III’s desperate gamble quickly failed. Henry of Guise was replaced as leader of the aristocratic faction of the Catholic League by his youngest brother, Charles, duke of Mayenne. In Paris the people turned on Henry III, declaring him to be a tyrant. The doctors of the Sorbonne declared him to be deposed, and the Parliament of Paris ratified the same declaration. The Sixteen simply replaced their arrested members. The murder of the Cardinal meant that the Catholic Church turned against him. Mayenne entered Paris on 12 February, and the Sixteen appointed him  lieutenant-general of the kingdom.

Henry also lost one of his most able supporters, when his mother Catherine de Medici died at Blois on 5 January 1589.

Henry III’s only option was to turn to Henry of Navarre for aid. They met at Plessis-les-Tours on 26 April 1589, and began to plan a joint campaign. On 30 April they signed the Treaty of Tours, forming an alliance against the Catholic League.

Mayenne was actually close to Tours with his army at this point, and one week after the signing of the treaty he actually attacked the city. Navarre was able to send reinforcements to the city, and they prevented Mayenne from crossing over the Loire into the city.

The combined Royal army then marched towards Paris. They were joined by Swiss and German contingents, giving them around 45,000-48,000 men, far more than Mayenne had inside Paris. The siege of Paris began at the end of July, but it would be short-lived. On the morning of 1 August Henry III was stabbed by a Catholic monk, Jacques Clement, and died early on 2 August. Henry of Navarre thus became Henry IV of France, but he was unable to keep the Royal army together. The three way Eighth War of Religion had thus become the more straightforward two-way Ninth War of Religion, fought over Henry of Navarre's succession to the throne.

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 (23 January 2018), Eighth War of Religion, 1585-89 (War of the Three Henrys) , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_eighth_war_religion.html

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