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Henri IV - An unfinished reign

War with the League

According to the Salic Law, which was one of the kingdom's fundamental laws, Henri de Navarre was indeed the legitimate heir to the throne of France upon the death of the duc d’Anjou (1584). In the absence of a male heir it was Henri, the eldest of the House of Bourbon and the descendent of the youngest son of Saint Louis, who would reign at the death of Henri III. No one disputed his claim, but many despised his faith. How could a Huguenot – and one who had been excommunicated by the Pope – assume the crown of France?

Opposition crystallised around the Guise family, who revived an ultra-Catholic association: the Holy League, or the Holy Union. In December 1584 at Joinville, they signed a treaty with representatives of the king of Spain, Philip II, who provided funding, and in March 1585, they issued the Péronne Manifesto. They also managed to rally Henri III, to their cause, who assumed leadership of the League and signed the extremely restrictive Treaty of Nemours (7 July 1585). The goal was clear – make Catholicism prevail and prevent Henri de Navarre, a heretic and relapsed Catholic, from acceding to the throne at all costs. Both sides took up arms, and the eighth and final War of Religion, also known as the "War of the Three Henris", began.

In the face of this, Henri adopted a survival strategy and showed himself capable of great determination. With support from abroad ( Elisabeth I of England and the German princes), he worked hard to maintain cordial relations with the king of France, with whom he had an abundant correspondence. In October 1585, His adviser Duplessis-Mornay, drew up two Proclamations in October 1585 that showed Henri's tactical finesse: he had no intention of renouncing the throne, and he called for a national council to settle religious differences.

Nevertheless, the situation made a confrontation between Henri III and Henri de Navarre increasingly inevitable. It finally took place on 20 October 1587 at Coutras, , near Libourne, and it was the first real battle in which Henri had ever fought. Royalist troops, led by the king's favourite, Anne de Joyeuse, were about evenly matched with those of Navarre, but the latter had the advantage of knowing the terrain. After singing psalms to give themselves the necessary courage, the Huguenots charged in the early morning. The battle was waged all morning, and at the end of it, Henri de Navarre emerged victorious. Joyeuse and his brother lay dead, and with them some 2,000 royals, compared with about thirty Huguenots. It was an overwhelming and bloody victory for Henri, but also a humble one. Rather than press his advantage, he withdrew. Although history has seized on this feat of arms to create the image of a victorious king, Henri seemed truly moved by all the bloodshed. In a famous letter written immediately after his victory, he wrote to Henri III, "I am very aggrieved that on this day I could not differentiate between good, native Frenchmen and the partisans and members of the League."

Related multimedia

Title: Battle of Coutras

Scenes depicting the Battle of Coutras, 20 October 1587
© RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda
Battle of Coutras (20 October 1587), engraving by Frans Hogenberg, 16th c. Musée national du château de Pau, P64-19-2

Title: The clemency of Henri de Navarre after the Battle of Coutras

The clemency of Henri de Navarre after the Battle of Coutras
© RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda
The clemency of Henri de Navarre after the Battle of Coutras, Florentine School, drawing, 1st quarter of the 17th c. Musée national du château de Pau, Inv. P2006-3-1 Pau

Title: Portrait of Anne de Joyeuse

Portrait of Anne de Joyeuse
Portrait of Anne de Joyeuse, in Les Œuvres, by Pierre de Ronsart, Volume II A Paris: chez Nicolas Buon 1623

Title: Act dated 28 March 1585

Signature of Henri de Navarre on an act
Signature of Henri de Navarre and Duplessis-Mornay on an act dated 28 March 1585. Cote 5 E 1532
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