The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10

Author: Maximilian de Béthune  | Date: A.D. 1593

Henry of Navarre Accepts Catholicism;
He is Acknowledged King of France

A.D. 1593


Few periods in French history are of greater interest and importance than that of which Sully treats in the following pages. Henry of Navarre is regarded by the French people as the most brilliant of all their kings in personal qualities and achievements; and his great accomplishment of ending the terrible religious wars of his country is one of the most conspicuous of the happier results in modern annals. Sully, whose account of these matters stands alone among those of contemporary narrators, was the friend and companion of Henry of Navarre, with whom he served in the wars. He also became famous as King Henry’s minister of finance.

After the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, the "Wars of the Huguenots" in France continued with fury. In 1573, the year following the massacre, by the Peace of La Rochelle Charles IX granted to the Protestants partial toleration. By the Peace of Monsieur, in 1576, Henry III granted them free exercise of their religion in all France except Paris. Among French Roman Catholics this treaty caused deep dissatisfaction, and in the same year they formed the Holy League—also called the Catholic League—for the purpose of wiping out the Huguenot party and raising the Guises to the throne. The League made an alliance with Philip II of Spain.

Henry of Navarre, head of the Huguenot party after the death of Cond in 1569, became heir-presumptive to the throne of France in 1584. The Holy League, refusing to recognize his title, proclaimed the cardinal Charles de Bourbon heir-presumptive. On the death of Henry III, successor of Charles IX, in 1589, the League proclaimed Bourbon as king, under the title of Charles X. In the following year Henry of Navarre signally defeated the League at Ivry, but still the war went on. Battles and sieges, widespread intrigues, and frequent assassinations kept the kingdom in a condition of tumult and alarm. Disputes between the contending parties proved futile, debates in the States or legislative assembly of Paris availed nothing, and the successive "treaties" of the long war period failed to bring lasting peace.

At length Henry decided to abjure the Protestant faith, and his abjuration was followed by the surrender to him of the chief cities of the kingdom (1593), including Paris.

Still, although the King secured the general recognition of the Roman Catholics, and was crowned, as Henry IV, in July, 1594, war was continued by the League and its Spanish allies. In April, 1598, Henry issued the famous Edict of Nantes, whereby Huguenots were granted the political rights enjoyed by Catholics, and religious, military, and judicial concessions were made to the Protestants. This edict ended the long religious wars, and in May the Peace of Vervins with Spain and the League was concluded. The central event selected for this work is the securing by Henry of the sovereign power, whereby the end of these prolonged troubles was finally reached.

Alternate succession of war and debates lasted all the time that the States of Paris continued to be held, and even till the day that the King abjured the Protestant religion. His intention of changing his religion now became daily more certain: many causes urged him to adopt this resolution, the principal of which (not to mention his conscience, of which he alone could be the true judge) were his grief for the miseries to which the people would still be exposed; his dread of the Catholics about his person; the powerful and subtle theological arguments of M. du Perron, added to his sweet and agreeable conversation; the artful connivance of some of the ministers and Huguenots in the cabinet, who were willing to profit by the times at any rate; the faithless ambition of many of the most powerful and distinguished among the Protestants, at the mercy of whom he dreaded falling, should the Catholics resolve to abandon him; the contempt which he had conceived against some of the zealous Catholics (and particularly M. d’O), on account of the insolent language they had used toward him; his desire of getting rid of them, and of one day making them suffer for their temerity; his dread lest the States, still sitting in Paris, might elect the Cardinal of Bourbon king, and marry him to the Infanta of Spain; finally, the fatigue and troubles he had endured from his youth, the hope of enjoying a life of ease and tranquillity for the future, added to the persuasions of some of his most faithful servants, among whom may be also reckoned his mistress,1

the one by tears andsupplications, the other by remonstrances: all these circumstances, I say, fixed him in his resolution of embracing the Catholic religion.

While these things were under consideration a great number of the larger towns, and Paris in particular, which were in the party of the League, being no longer able to endure the inconveniences and privations which the confusion of the times had occasioned—all commerce, internal as well as external, being at a stand, on account of the prohibitions against trading with the places in the King’s interest—disturbances broke out among the people, who at last compelled their leaders to send a deputation to the King to request liberty to trade: M. de Belin was accordingly appointed for this purpose, and came to the King when he was either at Mantes or Vernon; but, notwithstanding all his arguments, the whole council opposed his request. There was not a Protestant there who appeared willing that he should grant it; and, what is still more surprising, it met with equal opposition from the Catholics, without their being able to assign a lawful, or even a plausible, reason for such a conduct.

All these persons were perplexed in their debates, and perceived plainly that their opinion would signify nothing, yet could not prevail upon themselves to alter it. The King looking at me that moment, "Monsieur de Rosny," said he, "what makes you so thoughtful? Will not you speak your mind absolutely any more than the others?" I then began, and was not afraid to declare myself against all those who had voted, by maintaining that it was necessary not to hesitate a moment, but to endeavor to gain the affections of the people by kind treatment, as experience had proved that harsh measures were productive of no good consequences whatever. I therefore advised the King to grant them not only the liberty of trade, which they requested, but also a general truce, if, as the Count de Belin seemed to hint, they should desire it. To these I added many other reasons; but they only excited against me the hatred or contempt of most of the council, to whose decision the King was obliged to yield, and the Count de Belin returned without being able to gain anything.

Henry, reflecting upon this refusal and judging that there wanted but little more of the same nature to alienate the people’saffections from him without a possibility of regaining them, and to induce them to go over to the party of his enemies, he resolved to defer his abjuration no longer. He was now convinced that there was no probability of his subduing the reluctance of several of the Protestants, or of ever obtaining their free consent to this proceeding;2 but that it was necessary to act independently of them, and hazard some murmurs, which would end in nothing. As for the Catholics of his party, the King endeavored only to remove their fears that, looking upon them as persons of whom he was already secure, he would apply himself wholly to gaining the rest by bestowing all rewards upon them. He therefore at last declared publicly that on July 20, 1593, he would perform his abjuration, and named the Church of St. Denis for this ceremony.

This declaration threw the League into confusion, and filled the hearts of the people and the Catholics of the royal party with joy. The Protestants, although they had expected it, discovered their discontent by signs and low murmurs, and did, for form’s sake, all that such a juncture required of them, but they did not go beyond the bounds of obedience. All the ecclesiastics, with Du Perron, intoxicated with his triumph, at their head, flocked together; everyone was desirous of a share in this work. Du Perron, for whom I had obtained the bishopric of Evreux, thought he could not show his gratitude for it in a better manner than by exercising his functions of converter upon me. He accosted me with the air of a conqueror, and proposed to me to be present at a ceremony where he flattered himself he should shine with such powers of reasoning as would dissipate the profoundest darkness. "Sir," I replied, "all I have to do by being present at your disputes is to examine which side produces the strongest and most effectual arguments. The state of affairs, your number and your riches, require that yours should prevail." In effect they did. There was a numerous court at St. Denis, and all was conducted with great pomp and splendor. I may be excused from dwelling upon the description of this ceremony here, since the Catholic historians have been so prolix upon the subject.

I did not imagine I could be of any use at this time, therefore kept myself retired, as one who had no interest in the show that was preparing, when I was visited by Du Perron, whom the Cardinal of Bourbon had sent to me to decide a dispute that had arisen on occasion of the terms in which the King’s profession of faith should be conceived. The Catholic priests and doctors loaded it with all the trifles their heads were filled with, and were going to make it ridiculous, instead of a grave and solemn composition. The Protestant ministers, and the King himself, disapproved of the puerilities and trifles with which they had stuffed this instrument; and it occasioned debates which had like to have thrown everything again into confusion. I went immediately with Du Perron to the Cardinal of Bourbon, with whom it was agreed that those articles of faith which were disputed by the two churches should be admitted, but that all the rest should be suppressed as useless. The parties approved of this regulation; and the instument was drawn up in such a manner that the King there acknowledged all the Roman tenets upon the Holy Scripture: the Church, the number and ceremonies of the sacraments, the sacrifices of othe mass, transubstantiation, the doctrine of justification, the invocation of saints, the worship of relics and images, purgatory, indulgences, and the supremacy and power of the pope3, after which the satisfaction was general.4

The ceremony of the King’s abjuration was followed by a deputation of the Duke of Nevers to Rome, who, together with the Cardinal de Gondy and the Marquis de Pisany, was to offer the Pope the submission usual in such cases. Although this change was a mortal blow for the League, yet the Spaniards and the Duke of Mayenne still held out; they endeavored to persuade their partisans that there still remained resources capable of making it ineffectual; but they spoke at that time contrary to thier own opinion, and this feigned confidence was only designed to obtain greater advantages from the King before he was securely fixed on the throne.

This is not a mere conjecture, at least with regard to the King of Spain, since it is certain that he ordered Taxis and Stuniga to offer the King forces sufficient to reduce all the chiefs of the League and the Protestant party, without annexing any other condition to this offer than a strict alliance between the two crowns, and an agreement that the King should give no assistance to the rebels in the Low Countries. Philip II judged of Henry by himself, and considered his conversion only as the principle of a new political system, which made it necessary for him to break through his former engagements. It may not, perhaps, be useless to mention here an observation I have made on the conduct of Spain, which is, that although before and after the death of Catherine de’ Medicis she had put a thousand different springs in motion, changed parties and interests as she thought most expedient to draw advantages from the divisions that shook this kingdom, yet the Protestant party was the only one to which she never made any application: she had often publicly protested that she never had the least intention to gain or suffer their alliance.

It is by an effect of this very antipathy that the Spaniards have constantly refused the Reformed religion admission into their states—an antipathy which cannot be attributed to anything but the republican principles the Protestants are accused of having imbibed. The King being fully convinced that, to stifle the seeds of schism in his kingdom, it was necessary to give none of the different factions occasion to boast that his power was at their disposal, and that to reduce all parties he must be partial to none, he therefore steadily rejected these offers from Spain, and those which the Duke of Mayenne made him to the same purpose, but at that very time appeared willing to treat with any of the chiefs or cities of the League which would surrender, and to reward them in proportion to their readiness and services; and it was this prudent medium that he was resolved to persist in.

Although he now professed the same religion as the League, yet his aversion to the spirit which actuated that party, and to the maxims by which they were governed, was not lessened; the very name only of the League was sufficient to kindle his anger. The Catholic Leaguers, supposing that his abjuration authorized them to abolish in those cities which depended upon them the edicts that were favorable to the Huguenots, the King caused them to be restored; and though in some places the Leaguers had obtained the consent even of the Huguenots themselves—determined to purchase peace at any price—for this purpose, yet, the Protestant party murmuring at it, Henry cancelled all that had been done to that effect,5 and showed that it was his design to keep the balance even.

The Duke of Mayenne, finding that in this last scheme, which he had believed infallible, he was disappointed as well as in the rest, placed all his future dependence upon his old friends the Parisians, and neglected no method by which he might awaken their mutinous disposition; but so far was he from succeeding in this attempt that he could not hinder them from discovering their joy at what had just passed at St. Denis. They talked publicly of peace, and even in his presence; and he had the mortification to hear a proposal to send deputies to the Kingto demand a truce for six months, and they obliged him to give his consent to it. The truce for three months, which had been granted them at Surêne, had only inspired them with an inclination for a longer one.

The King gave audience to the deputies in full council. The greatest number of those who composed it, listening to nothing but their jealousy of the Duke of Mayenne, whom they feared as a man that had the means in his power of purchasing favor and rewards, were of the opinion that no attention ought to be paid to this demand of the deputies, because the person who sent them persisted in his revolt against the King, even after his abjuration. Notwithstanding the justice of not confounding the Duke of Mayenne with the Parisians, I saw this advice was likely to be followed, and it certainly might have produced some very bad consequence. I therefore insisted so strongly upon the advantage of letting the people, already recovered from their first terrors, taste the sweets of a peace which would interest them still more in the King’s favor, that this Prince declared he would grant the truce they demanded of him, but for the months of August, September, and October only.

The next day a prodigious concourse of the populace of Paris assembled at St. Denis. The King showed himself to the people and assisted publicly at mass; wherever he turned his steps the crowd was so great that it was sometimes impossible to pierce through it, while every moment a million of voices cried, "Long live the King!" Everyone returned, charmed with the gracefulness of his person, his condescension, and that engaging manner which was natural to him. "God bless him!" said they, with tears in their eyes, "and grant that he may soon do the same in our Church of Notre Dame in Paris." I observed to the King this disposition of the people with regard to him; tender and sensible as he was, he could not behold this spectacle without strong emotions.

Some months later, while on a mission for the King, I received from his majesty a letter, which concluded with these words: "Come to me at Senlis on the 20th of March, or at St. Denis on the 21st, that you may help to cry, ’Long live the King!’ in Paris, and afterward we will do the same at Rouen."

It was upon some correspondence the King carried on in Paristhat he founded his hopes of being soon admitted there, and he was on his way thither from St. Denis when I joined him. His party in that city was so firmly united, and so many persons of equal courage and fidelity had joined it, that it was almost impossible but that it should succeed. Ever since the battle of Arques, when the Count of Belin was taken prisoner by the King’s forces, and had an opportunity of discovering the great qualities of Henry contrasted with the weakness of his enemies, the Duke of Mayenne perceived the inclinations of the count to lean secretly toward the King. Full of this suspicion, he did not hesitate a moment about depriving him of the government of so considerable a city as Paris, and, seeking for a man whose fidelity to himself and the League could be depended upon, to whom he might intrust the care of this great city at a time when the necessity of his affairs obliged him to repair to the frontier of Picardy, he fixed upon Brissac and made him governor.

Brissac, at first, answered his purposes perfectly well. The study of Roman history had inspired this officer, who valued himself greatly upon his penetration and judgment, with a very singular project, which was to form France into a republic upon the model of ancient Rome, and make Paris the capital of this new state. Had Brissac descended ever so little from these lofty ideas to an attention to particular applications, which in the greatest designs it is necessary to have some regard to, he would have perceived that there are circumstances under which a scheme, however happily imagined, may, by the nature of the obstacles which oppose it, by the difference of the genius and character of the people, by the force of those laws they have adopted, and by long custom, which, as it were, stamps a seal upon them, become alike chimerical and impracticable. Time only and long experience can bring remedies to defects in the customs of a state whose form is already determined; and this ought always to be attempted with a view to the plan of its original constitution: this is so certain that, whenever we see a state conducted by measures contrary to those made use of in its foundation, we may be assured a great revolution is at hand; nor does the application of the best remedies operate upon diseases that resist their force.

Brissac did not go so far; he could not for a long time comprehend from whence the general opposition his designs met with proceeded, for he had explained himself freely to the nobles and all the chief partisans of the League; at last he began to be apprehensive for his own safety lest, while, without any assistance, he was laboring to bring his project to perfection, the King should destroy it entirely by seizing his capital. Possessed with this fear, the Roman ideas quickly gave place to the French spirit of those times, which was to be solicitous only for his own advantage. When self-interested motives are strengthened by the apprehension of any danger, there are few persons who will not be induced by them to betray even their best friend. Thus Brissac acted: he entered into the Count of Belin’s resolutions, though from a motive far less noble and generous, and thought of nothing but of making the King purchase at the highest price the treachery he meditated against the Duke of Mayenne in his absence. St. Luc, his brother-in-law, undertook to negotiate with the King in his name, and having procured very advantageous conditions, Brissac agreed to admit Henry with his army into Paris in spite of the Spaniards. The troops of the League were absolutely at his disposal, and there was no reason to apprehend any opposition from the people.

D’O lost no time in making application for the government of Paris and the Isle of France, and obtained his request; but now a conflict between his interest and ambition so perplexed this superintendent that, notwithstanding his new dignity, the reduction of Paris was among the number of those things he most feared should happen: he would have had it believed that the true motive of this fear was, lest the finances should become a prey to the men of the sword and gown, by whom, he said, the King, as soon as he was possessed of Paris, would be oppressed for the payment of pensions, appointments, and rewards. But this discourse deceived none but those who were ignorant of the advantage he found in keeping the affairs of the finances in their present state of confusion, and with what success he had hitherto labored for that purpose.

The King, upon this occasion, put all the friends of the Count of Belin in motion, on whom he had no less dependence than upon Brissac, and at nine o’clock in the morning presented himself, at the head of eight thousand men, before the Porte Neuve,

Henry IV (of Navarre) enters Paris at the head of his victorious army

where the Mayor of Paris and the other magistrates received him in form. He went immediately and took possession of the Louvre, the Palace, the Great and Little Châtelet, and, finding no opposition anywhere, he proceeded even to the Church of Notre Dame, which he entered to return thanks to God for his success. His soldiers, on their part, fulfilled with such exactness the orders and intentions of their master that no one throughout this great city complained of having received any outrage from them. They took possession of all the squares and crossways in the street, where they drew up in order of battle. Everything was quiet, and from that day the shops were opened with all the security which a long-continued peace could have given.

The Spaniards had now only the Bastille, the Temple, and the quarters of St. Anthony and St. Martin in their possession; and there they fortified themselves, being about four thousand in number, with the Duc de Feria and Don Diego d’Evora at their head, all greatly astonished at such unexpected news, and firmly resolved to defend themselves to the last extremity, if any attempts were made to force them from those advantageous posts. The King relieved them from their perplexity by sending to tell them that they might leave Paris and retreat in full security. He treated the Cardinals of Placentia and Pelleve with the same gentleness, notwithstanding the resentment he still retained for their conduct with regard to him. Soissons was the place whither these enemies of the King retired,6 protected by a strong escort. His majesty then published a general pardon for all the French who had borne arms against him. When this sacrifice is not extorted by necessity, but, on the contrary, made at a time when vengeance has full liberty to satiate itself, it is not one of the least marks of a truly royal disposition.

1The Marchioness de Monceaux, who, D’Aubign says, acted this part in the hope of becoming queen herself if Henry should be declared king.

2Henry IV was always sensible that his abjuration would expose him to great dangers, which made him write in this manner to Mademoiselle d’ Estres: "On Sunday I shall take a dangerous leap. While I am writing to you I have a hundred troublesome people about me, which makes me detest St. Denis as much as you do Mantes," etc.

3Another act of equal validity, by which Henry IV acknowledged the pope’s authority, is the declaration which he made after his conversion, that it was necessity and the confusion of affairs which obliged him to receive absolution from the prelates of France rather than from those of the Holy Father.

4It was Renauld, or Beaune de Samblanai, Archbishop of Bourges, who received the Kings’s abjuration; the Cardinal of Bourbon, who was not a priest, and nine other bishops assisted at the ceremony. Henry IV entering the Chapel of St. Denis, the Archbishop said to him, "Who are you?" Henry replied, "I am the King." "What is your request?" said the Archbishop. "To be received," said the King, "into the pale of the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church." "Do you desire it?" added the prelate. "Yes, I do desire it," replied the King. Then, kneeling, he said: "I protest and swear, in the presence of Almighty God, to live and die in the Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman religion; to protect and defend it against all its enemies, at the hazard of my blood and life, renouncing all heresies contrary to this Catholic, Apostolic, and Roman Church." He afterward put this same confession in writing into the hands of the Archbishop, who presented him his ring to kiss, giving him absolution with a loud voice, during which Te Deum was sung, etc.

5The King, on the 12th of December this year, held an assembly of the Protestants at Mantes, in which he publicly declared that his changing his religion should make no alteration in the affairs of the Protestants. And, the Calvanists having asked many things of him, he told them he could not comply with their requests, but that he would tolerate them.

6The King had a mind to see them march out, and viewed them from a window over St. Denis’ gate. They all saluted him with their hats off, bowing profoundly low. The King, with great politeness, returned the salute to the principal officers, adding these words: "Remember me to your master; go, I permit you, but return no more." This anecdote agrees with that in the Memoirs for the History of France, but is contradicted by the Journal written by the same author.


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Chicago: Maximilian de Béthune, "Henry of Navarre Accepts Catholicism; He Is Acknowledged King of France," The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10 in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. Rossiter Johnson (Harrogate, TN: The National Alunmi, 1926), 277–287. Original Sources, accessed February 23, 2024,

MLA: de Béthune, Maximilian. "Henry of Navarre Accepts Catholicism; He Is Acknowledged King of France." The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10, in The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, edited by Rossiter Johnson, Harrogate, TN, The National Alunmi, 1926, pp. 277–287. Original Sources. 23 Feb. 2024.

Harvard: de Béthune, M, 'Henry of Navarre Accepts Catholicism; He Is Acknowledged King of France' in The Great Events by Famous Historians, Vol 10. cited in 1926, The Great Events by Famous Historians. Lincoln Memorial University Edition, ed. , The National Alunmi, Harrogate, TN, pp.277–287. Original Sources, retrieved 23 February 2024, from