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The Story of France by  Mary Macgregor


 

 

THE PRINCE OF BÉARN

[311] IN Paris there was great joy when it was known that the king was dead. Bells rang, bonfires blazed. Madame de Montpensier, sister of the murdered Duke of Guise, drove through the streets of the city telling the good news. "The tyrant is dead, dead!" she cried exultantly, for she had hated the murderer of her brother.

At St. Cloud the great army was full of excitement. The Huguenots to a man greeted Henry of Navarre as King of France. But by far the larger number of the soldiers were Catholics, and while one Catholic noble said to the Huguenot chief, "You are the king of the brave; you will be deserted by none but dastards," others were not so open-minded, and murmured, "Better die than endure a heretic king."

Henry of Navarre, who on the death of Henry III. was the true heir to the throne of France, was born in a camp, amid the thunder of cannon, the beating of drums, and the noise of trumpets.

His grandfather. Henry d'Albret, after whom he was named, was a tall strong prince, greedy of power and of lands.

Around his neck Henry d'Albret always wore a little gold box or casket. In this box he had locked his will. His daughter Jeanne, who became the mother of the Prince of Béarn, used to tease her father to tell her what was in the gold box.

The old man promised to give her the casket if, at the time her child was born, she sang a song of Béarn.

[312] And Jeanne, who was strong and brave, did not forget to sing while her little son was laid in her arms.

Henry d'Albret at once took the gold box from off his own neck and hung it around Jeanne's, but as he carried off the key, his daughter was still left to wonder over its contents.

For a cradle the babe was rocked in a large turtle-shell, for which he quickly grew too big and strong.

The little Prince of Béarn was not brought up in a palace, nor fad on dainty fare. He ran wild with the peasant children of the village, bareheaded, barefooted too as they. His food also was the same as theirs—black bread, beef and garlic—and on these he throve apace.

You have already read how, when he was fifteen years old, Jeanne d'Albret took her son to the Huguenot camp, where the lad boldly claimed the soldiers' cause as his own. This was the prince who in 1589 became Henry IV., first of the Bourbon line of kings in France.

There was, however, much to be done before Henry IV., could enter into his inheritance, for the League was stronger than ever, being helped by many of the French provinces as well as by Philip II. of Spain. Philip, who was a Catholic, refused to acknowledge a Huguenot prince as King of France.

Henry IV. and his army did not stay long at St. Cloud after the death of Henry III. Breaking up their camp they marched into Normandy, where many towns received Henry as king.

At Arques he met and defeated the troops of the League, under the Duke of Mayenne. Yet the duke had been heard to boast that he "would either drive the man of Béarn into the sea or bring him back in chains."

Before the battle one of the Leaguers had been taken prisoner. Looking at Henry's army he was surprised, it seemed so much smaller than the one led by the Duke of Mayenne.

[313] "Ah," said the king, when he heard what his prisoner thought, "you do not see all our forces. You don't reckon the good God and the good right, but they are ever with me." This happy trust often stood Henry IV. in good stead.

In October 1589 Henry again marched on Paris, but the Duke of Mayenne had already entered the city and, joining the Leaguers, forced the king to withdraw.

Henry IV. was not discouraged. Many provinces, both in the east and south of France, had now taken an oath of allegiance to him. Moreover Queen Elizabeth of England, as well as the Netherlands, had sent him money to pay his soldiers, more money than he had ever had before, Henry frankly confessed.

The following year, 1590, another great battle was fought at Ivry, a plain near the town of Nantes.

As the king rode along the ranks, he halted and said to the men, "Comrades, if you run my risks, I also run yours. I will conquer or die with you. If you lose your standards, do not lose sight of my white plume; you will always find it in the path of honour, and I hope of victory too."

Then, having galloped along the whole line of his army, he halted once more, threw his reins over his arm, clasped his hands and prayed aloud; "O God, Thou knowest my thoughts and Thou dost see to the very bottom of my heart. If it be fore my people's good that I keep the crown, favour Thou my cause and uphold my arms. But it Thy holy Will have otherwise ordained, at least let me die, O God, in the midst of these brave soldiers, who give their lives for me."

With such a leader as this the soldiers were ready to fight to the death, and although the army of the League was, as usual, far larger than the king's, numbers did not seem to be of much account, so bravely fought the royal army.

Once, it is true, the king was nearly overwhelmed, and [314] his troops actually began to waver. But calling to his men to follow, Henry dashed recklessly at the very centre of the enemy's position.

Seeing the white plume of their king before them, the soldiers followed fast, and the attack of the Leaguers was checked. Nay, more than checked, for presently the troops were seen to stumble, to hesitate, and then to turn and flee. The victory of Ivry was won by Henry IV. and his gallant troops.

No quarter was given to either Spanish or German soldiers, but the French prisoners were spared by order of the king. The Swiss also were set free, for Henry IV. remembered that they had often in the past been friendly to the crown of France.

Henry now marched again on Paris, taking St. Denis in July 1590. He would fain have won the goodwill of the people of Paris without a siege, but they determined to resist the "heretic" king to the very end.

So Paris was besieged, and before long the citizens were suffering terribly from want of food. Not even dog-flesh or horse-flesh could be had, and the people in desperation did as Madame Montpensier advised, ground any bones they could find into powder and made bread with it as though it had been flour.

Great as the misery was, it would have been greater had not the king taken pity on the poor starving folk, and more than once allowed provisions to be sent to them. He also let six thousand old men, women and children leave the city to find food and shelter elsewhere.

"Paris must not become a cemetery," said the kindhearted king. "I do not wish to reign over the dead."

The suburbs were soon in Henry's hands, and Paris itself was on the brink of being seized, when the King of Spain thought it was time to interfere, lest a Protestant became in reality King of France.

One of Philip's greatest captains, the Duke of Parma, [315] was therefore sent to relieve Paris, and take provisions to the starving inhabitants. This the duke did, and Henry IV. was forced to raise the siege. Then he marched to Rouen and began another siege beneath its walls. Again the Duke of Parma defeated his plans.

The war dragged on until the following year, when the States-General met, determined that it should end.

Philip II., although he knew the Salic law, urged that his daughter, the Infanta Elizabeth, should be made Queen of France.

While the States-General hesitated to place a woman on the throne. Henry IV. determined to take a step from which he had often ere now shrunk. He felt that it was the only way to save his country from the evils of civil war.

For her sake the king determined to give up the new religion in which his brave mother, Jeanne d'Albret, had reared him, and to become a Roman Catholic.

Often during these weeks he talked to his chief counsellor, the Duke of Sully, and ever he was anxious not to offend or grieve the Huguenots who had fought by his side so long and so faithfully. And when the Huguenot ministers came to beg him not to forsake them, he received them as friends.

"Kindly pray to God for me," he said to the ministers, "and love me always. As for me I shall always love you, and I will never suffer wrong to be done to you or any violence to your religion."

And so at length it came to pass, one summer day in July 1593, that Henry IV. went in state to hear Mass in the cathedral of St. Denis.

At the door of the cathedral he was met by the archbishop.

"Who are you?" the archbishop demanded.

"I am the king," answered Henry.

"What want you?"

[316] "To be received into the bosom of the Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church."

"Do you desire it?"

"Yes, I will and desire it."

Then, kneeling down, the king was absolved by the archbishop, who said the benediction over the bowed head of the penitent.

Afterwards the king arose, no longer a heretic, and was led by the clergy to the altar. Here he confessed, heard Mass, and was reconciled to the Church.

When the service was over, the cathedral rang with the shout of loyal citizens, "Hurrah for the king! hurrah!"


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