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Henri de Guise is a controversial character, beloved by the Catholics as their champion and despised by the Huguenots as a villainous tyrant who wanted to seize the throne from the king, his pawn. Very little has been written about his entire life outside of Stuart Carroll’s Martyrs and Murderers, and Noble Power during the French Wars of Religion. To learn more about this controversial figure, it became necessary to look at both Pro-Guise and Anti-Guise works ranging from the “Calendar of States Papers from the Reign of Queen Elizabeth” to R.J. Knecht’s comprehensive works, The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France 1483-1610.
Henri, duc de Guise was the son of François de Guise and Anne d ‘Este, born December 31, 1549, at the ducal seat of Joinville. Henri reportedly preferred fighting over letters and had one year of formal education at Navarre College, before his father summoned him to learn the arts of war. Henry had an exaggerated sense of honor and picked fights with anyone; he did not stand on ceremony with others and was the family’s leader because he had a set of agreements with them. This dynastic bond is the reason the Guise were so influential and able to gain power without feuds breaking out among the family members. The previous generation was bound together through fraternal love and respect for François’s authority as the head of the family. Henry was involved heavily with Jesuits: they educated his cousins , spied for him and the League, and helped planned L ‘Impresa.
When he was 12, Henri watched his father die from an assassin’s shot, and along with the remaining family members, pledged revenge on the man they believed responsible. Henri reportedly had an aggravated sense of self-worth and focused all his anger at Coligny because “‘the others were not worthy of his hatred, anger, and revenge.'” The Guise’s policy up until St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was dominated by an all-encompassing desire for justice against Coligny, who they held responsible for Francois’s assassination, a desire the king attempted to impede by evoking the lawsuit filed (for justice) to the royal council’s jurisdiction and suspending judgment for three years. The king’s interference may have strained the Guises’ relationships with him early on. On January 5, 1564, the Guise and Coligny were publicly reconciled, and the Guise retired from the court (more significant according to Carroll than the sham reconciliation). Henri briefly appeared in court before his departure to fight the Turks in Hungary, at the celebration to honor the Spanish plenipotentiaries at Bayonne in June 1565.
During Henri’s time in Hungary, the Cardinal de Lorraine was intriguing against Montmorency. In January, the Parlement of Paris interceded in the feud and the Cardinal left Paris. This threatened Montmorency enough that he called Coligny and 70 men to Paris (he arrived 22 Jan.). The other family members had been building support networks against the Montmorency, which appeared to be ineffective when the king staged yet another reconciliation in Jan. 1566, where Henri de Guise was not even present, and when he arrived, Coligny left.
In 1566, Guise influence was at its lowest point, making it very hard to track their movements at this point, when contemporary accounts seem to blame them for the crown’s religious moderation, the civil war’s continuous outbreak, etc. The Third civil war provided opportunities for the young duc de Guise, who achieved a seat on the privy council after his defense of Poitiers between July and September 1569. Henri was not directly involved in government affairs and planning for the third civil war. He fought at the Battle of Jarnac, successfully defended Poitiers during a siege, and fought at the Battle of Moncontour. In 1570, Henri had to leave the court because his love for the princess disgraced him and the family in the king and Anjou’s eyes. The departure allowed the Edict of Saint Germain to be signed on 8 Aug. 1570, as the Guise had opposed the peace, and a precondition for peace was their removal.
The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is one of the most debated events of the early French Religious Wars, marking the beginning of the Black Legend of the Guise. Stuart Carroll’s work, Martyrs and Murderers, extensively discusses the massacre and points out the following: the would-be-assassin had connections to the Guise; the myth of an ultra-Catholic league, saying there were many leagues; the councilors who played a crucial war in the massacre; the fact the government was dominated by Catherine de Medici’s Italian protégés; the King. These people, Carroll argues, are all people semi-responsible for the massacre, not just the Guise. Coligny was planning on intervening in the Netherlands, and had to be stopped, Carroll argues, but not by the Guise, who would not break their word after only three months peace. The Guise, he claims, were honorable and would only murder with the royal authority’s consent. In Jan. 1572, Henri petitioned the King to rescind his 1566 arrêt exculpating Coligny but was forced to make peace in May by formally recognizing his innocence. Henri gained very little influence at court for this “bitter comedown,” and then Coligny attempted to encourage the king to intervene in the Netherlands, which drove Guise and Anjou together. After the independent French Protestants’ defeat at Mons, Coligny was prepared to go alone. Henri, being a man with inflated honor would not break his word unless the king ordered him to do so.
On August 22, Maurevert shot Coligny, an act he received a pension from Guise for a few months later. The Guise wanted revenge and did not do so out of religious passion. Apparently, Guise left the city after Coligny’s death to apprehend the Vidame de Chartres and the Comte de Montgomery. Upon returning to the city, he offered shelter to Protestants and denied all guilt in the general massacre. His involvement in Coligny’s death, unfortunately, contributed to his legend as heresy’s uncompromising foe, partly because the Guise family did encourage the preaching of anti-heretical views and did support preachers.
Carroll’s portrays the Guise at this point as honorable, loyal subjects to the crown, who were the most likely suspects due to their connections. Carroll then admits there was another possibility: there was no conspiracy. This possibility still involved the Guise’s support and protection for the attempted killer, Maurevert. The house from which Coligny was shot at two days before his murder belonged to the Guise’s servant and the man who did the shooting was also associated with the Guise family. What the documentation concerning the incident shows is that was an isolated attack on one man, not an international conspiracy.
Guise was placed in charge of the executions of several dozen Huguenot leaders in their beds. The prominent Huguenot nobles’ murders unleashed a wave of popular violence in Paris that lasted for three days. Many sources have said that Guise told his men that morning that it was “the king’s command,” a statement that the populace took to mean that the king had ordered the death of all Huguenots. The massacre, intended to kill the Huguenot cause, caused them to rally together and to no longer view the government being perverted by the Catholic-Guise conspiracy but as a tyranny. Now, the government itself was the Reformed Religion’s enemy. Some called on the Guise to strike down the king, others contemplated the idea of kingship.
Carroll also points out that the Guise were offering Paris’s residents safety in the aftermath, which is not a fact normally discussed when considering the Massacre. Holt’s account of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and Guise’s and others’ attempts to protect Huguenots from the general massacre corroborates Carroll’s narration. In the end, the crown was blamed due to Charles IX’s announcement in the Parlement of Paris on August 26 that “everything that had occurred was done by his expressed commandment,” and the Guise’s popularity with the people remained unchanged despite numerous accounts painting him as a monster, mostly printed by Huguenots.
The playwright Christopher Marlowe portrays the massacre in his play Massacre at Paris as being Guise’s and the Queen Mother’s brainchild. Marlowe also blames Guise for Jeanne d ‘Albret’s death by sending her poisoned gloves. The play also showcases the deaths of Cardinal Charles, Henry de Guise, Cardinal Louis, and Henry III right after the massacre. The play is a jumbled mess with no sense of time and portrays Guise as an ambitious monster, Huguenot killer, and desirous of France’s throne. There are no transitions and little context to the events. Guise’s portrayal is a good indication of how the Huguenots writers saw him: a merciless monster determined to murder them all and to seize the throne for himself.
According to J.H. Elliott, the Guises were the Queen Mother’s scapegoats during the massacre’s planning and the aftermath. Elliot seems to be indifferent towards the Guise involvement in the massacre. The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was carefully planned and consented to by the royal family, and became an uncontrollable disaster, possibly caused by what Guise said to his men. As a result, thousands died and the king lost control. Guise has been credited by some with proposing the Huguenot leaders’ executions, Catherine de Medici by others; whoever it was had a consensus by the royal council and the king and Queen Mother. Whoever proposed it, the king was convinced there was an imminent Protestant assault on Paris in retaliation for the attack on his beloved Coligny and was resolved that this was the only option. We also know that the Duke of Anjou, later Henry III, helped plan and carry out the massacre as the recognized Catholic leader in 1572.
At 25, Henri de Guise was a good-looking man, who got on very well with Henri de Navarre and spent much time chasing women and hunting. Neither men seemed to place religion as a high priority, which may explain Henri de Navarre’s prevarication that caused him to constantly switch religions to what fitted his needs at the time. This good relationship faltered when Navarre finally escaped from court and rejoined the Huguenots.
The Fourth Civil War broke out in 1572 after the massacre and lasted only a year. The highlight was the siege of Huguenot-held La Rochelle by Anjou in 1573; it failed and led to Duc Claude d’Aumale’s death. Henri de Guise fought at La Rochelle alongside d’Aumale, and during the siege, Henri duc de Anjou was elected Poland’s king, giving him an excuse to end the siege. The ensuing Edict of Boulogne gave amnesty and freedom of belief to all Huguenots, but their worship was limited to La Rochelle, Montauban, and Nîmes and then only in private residences. Protestant nobles received some limited benefits in the cities and worship was banned in the rest of France.
In January 1574, the Guises supposedly attacked Alençon and his men to discredit them, claiming Alençon’s man Ventabren had been hired to attempt to assassinate him. This account by Knecht shows Guise ambitious nature and rather unsavory acts used to influence at court. The reason for the attack was that Alençon had been promised the lieutenant-general and they wanted it. So, their cousin Charles duc de Lorraine was given the position by Catherine de Medici as a counterweight to her son’s ambitions. In late February, the Court fled Saint-Germaine-en-Laye to Paris after spotting Protestant forces in the area. The forces where supposedly being led against the Guises who had prevented the Sieur de Guitry, the troops’ leader, from obtaining a position of responsibility in the government. Alençon confirmed this, claiming it was in response to their involvement in depriving him a government position. Alençon and Navarre were forced to sign oaths of loyalty. In April, Montgomery returned to court and a second plot, this time against Catherine, was leaked. Navarre and Alençon were planning to escape; both princes were pardoned again.
On 30 May 1574, Charles IX died, and Anjou was proclaimed king. On the way to Paris to be coronated, he married Louise de Vaudémont, Henri de Guise’s kinswoman. The Guise were involved in all the council meetings held at Lyons in 1574 and the Guise ascended in power and influence once again. From 1562-1574, the Guise were building up loyalty and a provincial power base in Normandy, which would be essential for any actions against England to free their cousin or to help the Spanish Armada. In 1575, the war against the Huguenots was essential for the Guise to maintain their newly recovered influence. Henri left the court in September to organize his lands’ defense against Huguenots and John Casimir’s reiters. According to Elliott, this was the Holy League’s birth under Guise.
Henry III ended the war by making peace with his brother, who had, along with Henri of Navarre, joined the Huguenot side. The Edict of Beaulieu (Peace of Monsieur) (6 May 1576) was very generous. King Henri III had to turn to his allies for loans to pay for the mercenaries’ departure and the Guise offered him silver plate as collateral for loans worth 100,000 livres, 2 million livres, 100,000 more in the form of silk and woolen cloth, and a request was made to Charles III of Lorraine for a loan of 2 million. Casimir had wanted 1.7 million and the settlement of old debts. Casimir received his hostages and payment on 20 July at the court of Lorraine at Nancy.
In 1576 in Paris, there appeared a group of men who quickly became known as the mignons. These men were Henry III’s favorites and quickly rose from obscure nobility to occupy the best positions in France’s government, becoming even more hated than the Guise. These mignons were “ridiculously dressed, ill-disciplined, rowdy, sentimentally loyal to the king, quarrelsome and ‘quick on the draw’.” One was a man named D’Arques, who became the Duke of Joyeuse. These men chiefly fought with Guise and his followers, which culminated in a duel in February 1578, where three mignons, Caylus, Maugiron, and Livarot fought three Guisards, Entraguet, Ribérac, and Schomberg. Maugiron and Schomberg were killed in the duel, Ribérac died the next day and Livarot was severally injured. Caylus died soon after the duel and the king pledged revenge, which he was unable to get as Guise stood by his men. On May 10, the Guise family and the Duke of Lorraine left court. The duel was only one of several recorded between the two groups. Guise returned to court the next March because the king was attempting to restructure the court but could not afford to provoke the Guise yet. This description by Carroll indicates that the king was very clever and attempting to control the Guise who were very intent on maintaining the family’s influence and power at court. It also indicates that Carroll is not very
The declaration regarded as the League’s founding document was penned by Guise and was sent along with an emissary to Rome to seek the Pope’s approval. The emissary was murdered on his return and a memo was found that claimed the Guise were the legitimate heirs to the throne. While the document was a fake, it alerted Henri III that they may come after the throne. In 1576, when he became aware of the league, the king made Guise and his brother and father-in-law, the Duke de Nemours, sign and swear to uphold the Edict of Beaulieu. According to Carroll, this league and the others that cropped up in Champagne in 1579 or Normandy and Picardy in 1580 were led by the Duke’s lieutenants and never actually Guise himself due to their illicit nature (The 56th Article of the pacification edict outlawed all leagues and associations). At this point, the league was mostly full of malcontent nobles who just happened to be violently Catholic.

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