previous chapter
11 The Buildup, 1585 to May 1588
next sub-section

Origins of the Movement

L'Estoile, Pasquier, and de Thou each recognized not long after the death of François, duc d'Alençon, in June 1584 that a corollary to its momentous consequence—Henri de Navarre's becoming the immediate successor—was the origin of what historians call "the second League," and that it was a much greater and more direct threat to the established order than that of the earlier League of the mid-1570s. Given the virtual certainty that Henri III would have no heirs, Navarre's changed status provided an urgent incentive for several interested parties to join forces in order to block his


eventual accession. The Guises, the Spanish and papal leaders, and the local clergy had long grasped every opportunity to prepare for the eventuality, and in the new situation they closed ranks in a firm coalition and encouraged the rise of a new ally—the Parisian radical organization known as the Sixteen.

Other components in the program of the second League were in fact carried over from the first one, religious and financial issues in a special mix: the persistence of a Protestant movement and successive edicts that could be construed as royal encouragement of heresy, joined with Henri III's highly visible religiosity, ever-escalating fiscal demands—allegedly to combat heresy—whose fruits were lavished on the mignons and an extravagant life-style. As long as there was another Valois king in the immediate future, however, it was difficult to mobilize popular opinion and whip up a frenzy over the dangers that would threaten the Holy Land and the Chosen People if the Most Christian King were a heretic. Faced with that prospect at any moment, the Paris League stepped up both organization and propaganda.

In March 1585, after a description of the king's pre-Lenten festivities, with overtones of disapproval but nothing like the indignation of later years, Pierre de L'Estoile heads a section of his Mémoires-Journaux "La Ligue à Cheval, qui est une autre espèce de masquerade, mais mal plaisante": "At this time the enterprise of the Holy League began to reveal itself, of which those [of the houses of Guise and Lorraine] were the chiefs, supported and assisted by the pope, the king of Spain and the duke of Savoy, his son-in-law." The diarist then lists a series of motives having to do with various titles and fiefs for the Guise-Lorrainers, that were at first thought to be their purpose,

But soon it was discovered that the undertaking was to be a Holy League . . . with the pretext that they were designated [by themselves] protectors and proclaimers of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Religion, against those who professed the Religion claimed to be reformed . . . introduced into this kingdom by those who are called Huguenots, who practice it with the king's permission. Holy League, I say, invented by the late Charles, cardinal de Lorraine, [who,] seeing the Valois line nearing its end, seized the occasion, under this fine mask and holy pretext of religion, to eliminate the members of the house of Bourbon and others close to the crown, because they openly professed the said RPR [religion prétendue réformée ], and by this means to take over the crown of France, that they say was usurped from Lothair, last king of France in the Carolingian line, and from


his successors (their ancestors) by Hugh Capet, who could claim no right to it except by violent usurpation.[4]

Three months later, L'Estoile records the first of Henri III's capitulations to the League, the Épernay Accord of June 20, 1585, by which the king promised to exterminate the reform, with the comment, "The worst of this is, that the king is on foot and the League on horseback, as the penitent's sack he wore and their armor clearly demonstrated" (Brunet 2:199).

In a letter to Scévole de Sainte-Marthe about the same time, Étienne Pasquier asserts that the death of Alençon had set off the present evils, "which, I feel certain, would not have dared to raise their heads if he had lived." "Suddenly, after [Alençon's] death, the king, thinking he had a favorable wind, and wishing to assure the general tranquillity of the kingdom, sent the duc d'Épernon to summon the king of Navarre to court, as first prince of the blood and the nearest claimant to succeed to the crown." The fact that the Guise-Lorraine nobles were not included in Épernon's suite and that they took offense at the omission is noted, as is Épernon's bad fall off his horse on his way to rejoin the king in Lyon, "a sure omen that this affair would be a fatal precipice for our France." Then follows Pasquier's analysis of the origins of the League:

At first appearance there was never wiser counsel than to recall the king of Navarre, who, as much with the expectation of the crown as in order to be near the king could easily have been reconciled to our church. . . . Nevertheless, contrary to the opinion of all the worldly wise, this advice produced two opposite effects. On the one hand, the Lorraine princes, considering themselves abused, left court, very discontent, and on the other, the king of Navarre, . . . thinking that he was being lured to another trap, refused to come [to court], . . . with the result that the two parties we have today took form, especially that of the League.

Pasquier started to say that no man "of understanding" could avoid seeing what was happening but yet none had. Then he corrected himself: "What am I saying, nobody saw it? On the contrary, everyone put a bandage over his eyes so as to avoid recognizing it."[5] He tells how all winter long there were balls and masquerades. "This debauch ended only on the first day of


Lent, . . . as the monks were intoning their early morning prayers. . . . God saw to it that two days later the king learned . . . that the duc de Guise had seized the town of Châlons in Champagne in the name of the League. . . . When God wishes to execute an admirable stroke of vengeance on us, he bandages our eyes, stops our ears and blocks all our senses so that his blow will be felt rather than foreseen."[6]

Pasquier succinctly outlines the three grievances of the Guises, the fiscal excesses of the crown, the advancement of private gentlemen to the disadvantage of the princes, and finally, toleration of the new religion, which they demand be banished from France. As a result a state of war prevails,

In short, we have all become warriors in Paris. By day we guard the gates, by night we make regular patrols. . . . The Spaniard supplies the provisions for this war . . . saying that we troubled the Low Countries, like foxes, and he will now not hesitate to pay us back like a lion. As the king is arming, so is the League . . . [one cannot] judge whether the state is the real target, or the new religion. Some think it is a mixture of the two. As for me, I don't believe it, although I can well see that each of the [Guise] propositions has an appeal: the menu peuple is very happy that someone is fighting for its liberty; the princes likewise for their privileges and titles, . . . and everybody in general is not displeased to have the new religion exterminated. In any case, the king considers himself infinitely offended and takes all sorts of advice [in the attempt] to get the upper hand.[7]

In his treatment of the first League, in 1576, Jacques-Auguste de Thou makes a point of denying the ligueur insinuation that his father, premier président Christophe, secretly favored the League, with the connivance of the king himself.

Some who did not believe this went to consult président de Thou, and informed him of what was happening in the secret assemblies, begging him to say whether he approved and if it were true that the Court authorized them and that he himself gave it support?

This news startled M. de Thou into extreme astonishment. He replied at once, with his natural directness, that he had not heard of these enterprises, that he doubted they had His Majesty's approval, that he thought [those who asked his opinion] would be wise to renounce any such association, as it could not help but be contrary to the king's service and the state's tranquillity.


Knowing that he could obstruct their designs, "those of the League" were careful to keep any further information from de Thou. After his death in 1582, they did everything possible to blacken his name and cast doubt on his high reputation.[8] Christophe de Thou is alleged to have said:

All faction in a state leads necessarily to its ruin. . . . The real danger was not foreseen by those who advised the king to declare himself head of the dissident party [League]; on the contrary, by that move he deprived himself of . . . the right that the throne bestows, to have no equal, and lowered himself to the level of the meanest of his subjects, and divested himself of that supreme authority bestowed by God and his birth. . . . What other result can there be . . . if not to teach the French by this funereal example that another authority may exist, quite distinct from the king's, powerful enough to raise troops, pay them, demand an oath of loyalty, make war, and with impunity create in the heart of the kingdom that monstrous thing, a new state. . . . For myself, consulted only when the evil is beyond remedy, I would add only that I foresee that these troops enlisted under the banner of religion will inevitably turn their arms against the very person of the monarch. . . . Once the people have arms without the authorization of their sovereign . . . [they] will no longer obey his orders to lay them down.

In a peroration, the premier président calls on the Almighty to avert the disaster and to falsify his fears. Coming down to earth again, he opines that the wisest course for the king under the present circumstances is to try to make peace, to issue a new edict, plus raisonnable (than the Peace of Monsieur, which was widely disregarded). He believes that Protestants would welcome a letup in the fighting. As for the League, the sovereign should "arrest some of the less powerful, and punish them with the utmost rigor, to make them an example . . . at the same time all assemblies and associations without royal authorization should be forbidden under pain of the severest penalties." Henri III is said to have expressed regret that he did not consult the premier président sooner, and to have resolved to follow his concluding advice, which was to be kept secret even from the queen mother.[9]

When historian de Thou comes to the second League in 1585, he announces to the reader that it is the beginning of a new, and dreadful epoch. "Ce fut alors qu'on vit allumer dans le coeur de l'état un nouvel incendie, qui, après avoir desolé un des plus florrisants royaumes, après avoir causé la perte du Prince infortuné qui le gouvernait, devint presque également fatal aux vainqueurs et aux vaincus, et qui ne put enfin être éteint que par un coup du Ciel." He sees the veil that had covered the conspiracy earlier,


torn aside. "On les vit alors marcher la tête levée . . . et soutenir hautement leurs prétensions, surtout étant appuyés de l'autorité des papes." The initiative he attributes squarely to Henri, duc de Guise, who had inherited his father's valor and prestige and his uncle's "designs," and whose ambition and "naturally troublemaking spirit" inspired him to "thrust the kingdom into renewed turmoil."[10]

Origins of the Parisian League, as distinct from the Guisard League, de Thou attributes to Pierre Hennequin, président in the Parlement, and to Étienne de Neuilly, who then chose men "burdened with debts and crimes, who needed a civil war to reestablish themselves," the first of whom was Charles Hotman, sieur de la Rocheblond—who is generally acknowledged to be the real founder of the Sixteen. The mismanagement of the kingdom he cites as a cause, but especially the defense of the Catholic religion, which was endangered by the "indolence and indulgence" of the king, who was dominated by his favorites. Jean Prévost, celebrated theologian of the Sorbonne and high priest of St-Séverin, was said to have been the first to sign, followed by Jean Boucher, curé of St-Benoît, a man "of good birth and great learning, but seditious to the point of fury," and Matthieu de Launay, an apostate from Calvinism. The roll of the Sixteen is then given, factually matching League sources and the account of Nicolas Poulain, the double spy, but with unabashed politique characterizations.[11] Recent scholarship has added depth and awareness of complexity to our understanding of the radical Parisian group known as the Sixteen, especially with regard to its social composition, the motivations of its members, and its changes over time. The fundamental fact for our purposes—that members of Parlement were strikingly few—has not been modified, as the well known and reliable primary sources leave no doubt on the matter.[12] Of the forty-eight identified ligueurs in the early, clandestine phase, only six were members of the sovereign courts, two from the Parlement itself, an infinitesimal minority. Five were merchants, five middle-echelon officers, ten avocats and procureurs, five lower clergy, eleven minor functionaries, two artisans and shop-


keepers, the rest undetermined. The question is, what socioeconomic, political, and ideological factors brought about this situation?

In complementary studies, Élie Barnavi and Robert Descimon have recently established the following points.[13] First, there was a greater differentiation of levels within the Parisian bourgeoisie than previously recognized, and the bourgeoisie première , officers who constituted the upper crust of the urban oligarchy through their service to the crown, was more distant from the others both in their own eyes and those of others.[14] Second, the League had "social equilibrium," that is, every group (except the very lowest) was represented, de haut en bas , as Barnavi says. Third, the League ideal was urban unity, but the tensions and conflicts among and within the various component elements increasingly functioned as disintegrating forces as one crisis followed another. Fourth, the basic division in the League, as in the city itself, separated those whose prime loyalty lay with the state, the ever more powerful monarchy, from those whose loyalty or interest was attached to the city alone. This cleavage clearly cuts off the sovereign courts from the others. Their interests, institutionally and individually, were tied to the crown. A fifth conclusion is that as the unity of the state became the overriding concern, and unity in religion had proved to be unattainable, une foi was overshadowed by un roi, une loi , and the traditional harmony between religious and secular elements destroyed. The founders of the League then appropriated the—in their eyes abandoned—religious factor and declared it to be the essential cement of the nation. According to these authors, it follows that religion was not a cover or "mask" for political motives but rather the true motivating force of the League, with the corollary that the ultramontane position was a logical one, also sincere, and not deliberately antinational. Philip of Spain was not chosen, he volunteered, and he was the only available secular and armed ally. (Nothing in the new studies challenges the obvious and long-recognized fact that intervention in France served Spain's national purposes well.)

Furthermore, while certain traditional political ideas—such as the Ar-


istotelian contrast between the true king and the tyrant, and the claim of the Estates General to be the successor of the curia regis —were easily adaptable to League purposes, in down-to-earth terms the Sixteen extremists sought to turn the established criteria of leadership, that is, birth and royal service, upside down. Barnavi cites Bussy-Leclerc's career as the paradigm.[15]

A final important point is the gradual emergence of a class struggle, with the lower levels embracing more extreme positions and the upper levels feeling increasingly threatened. Ligueurs used the word peuple in a laudatory tone to mean Catholics united in the League, whereas the politique use became sharply pejorative. One of many examples from L'Estoile is a heading at the end of December 1585: "Le peuple, au lieu de murmurer contre la Ligue, murmure contre son Roy, tant il est sot" (Brunet 2:221). Members of the second bourgeoisie became uncomfortable and formed the backbone of the moderate or Mayenniste faction after the parlementaire murders. This antagonism toward the extremists, and toward social inferiors, contributed to forging a bond between moderate ligueurs and politiques that proved to be decisive in 1593, when despite many differences, both approved negotiations with the king, favored his conversion, and rallied to the defense of the Salic law and legal succession even of a heretic king. This differed sharply from opinion among the lower-level robins , the stronghold of jusqu'au-boutisme .[16] We have already remarked on the belief of Denis Richet that the elites, across confessional and political lines, were agreed on the necessity of promoting purer and more moral ideas in the lower orders and cooperated implicitly in attempting to impose them.

Descimon has a few reservations vis-à-vis Barnavi, who, he believes, tends to equate ligueur accomplishments with their desires. He finds the takeover on the municipal level less complete and slower than Barnavi would have it and believes that there were many neutrals, or undecideds, throughout the League years who served as a brake on the operations of the Sixteen. He does not agree that the evolution was from a secret conspiracy to a "party," but rather from uncoordinated intrigue to institution-alization.[17] In my opinion, Descimon's less clear-cut description is more


convincing, although (or perhaps because) it allows for nonideological factors.

The position of Parlement under the League as pictured in the cool analysis of these twentieth-century scholars is the same as in the indignant prose of the parlementaires themselves; purged, humiliated, helpless until 1593, "which testified even more to the desolation of the state than [to the desolation] of the influence of Parlement." This judgment by de Thou is cited by Barnavi as a pithy summary of the situation.[18]

In an astute analysis of the influence of their financial status on the political choices of the dukes of Nevers, Denis Crouzet has made another significant point. Louis de Gonzague, duc de Nevers, incurred crushing debts in the early League years and temporarily strayed from allegiance to the crown to collaborate with the Guises. The excessive fiscal demands of Henri III, his policy of concessions to the Huguenots, and the prominence of the mignons all played a part in this change. But he was "bailed out" by Catherine de Médicis—at considerable cost—and then "returned to his obedience." Later years found him supporting the "heretic king," even though Nevers was an activist in the cause some called "a Catholic reconquest" of France. The most important of Nevers's creditors were associated with the Parlement, from ranking présidents like the Séguiers, down to avocats de la cour . Crouzet poses a leading question: "Dans quelle mesure la modération du Parlement dans le Paris ligueur ne s'explique-t-elle pas par la structure d'une fortune placée dans les rentes?"[19]

previous chapter
11 The Buildup, 1585 to May 1588
next sub-section