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Henri IV - An unfinished reign

The Peace of Vervins (2 May 1598)

Section 1/3

  When Henri IV declared war on Spain on 17 January 1595, the kingdom of France was battered and exhausted in the wake of the endless Wars of Religion. Declaring war was a risky move, but it showed Henri's political skills as well as his daring. It was daring because the Spanish infantry formations, the renowned tercios, had long proven their effectiveness on the battlefields of Europe, and they constituted a real danger for Henri's armies. It was a politically savvy move, however, because in declaring war on Spain, Henri IV was killing two birds with one stone – he brought together Frenchmen who had been divided by civil strife to fight a common enemy, and he was able to make the Leaguers who had not rallied to him look like traitors.

The early part of the conflict went well for the French. They defeated the Spanish – who had been joined by Mayenne's League troops – at Fontaine-Française on 5 June 1595. Despite having a much smaller force, Henri showed great audacity. As he accompanied his scouts early one morning, they came across a vanguard of Spanish troops and attacked them with light horse. His victory, which cost him very little in terms of men, created a considerable stir. The king took advantage of this, emphasising in several letters how certain he was that he was under divine protection. An initial message to his sister Catherine de Bourbon mentioned "the grace that God given [him] in combat". A second, addressed to the Parlement of Paris, explained his victory in similar terms, since "glory had to be given to God, from whose hand this great good has come". This initial victory was completed by the conquest of Ham by the troops of Henri de Turenne, maréchal de France, and it allowed Henri to make a triumphal entry into Lyon in September 1595.

Related multimedia

Title: The Spanish leaving by the Porte Saint-Denis

The Spanish leaving by the Porte Saint-Denis
© Musée national du château de Pau / Jean-Yves Chermeux
Caption:
The Spanish leaving by the Porte Saint-Denis on 22 March 1594, engraving by Léon Gaultier, 1606. Musée national du château de Pau, Inv. P.54.12.1.3.

Title: Philippe II, king of Spain

Portrait of Philippe II, king of Spain
© BnF
Caption:
Philip II, king of Spain. Département des estampes et de la photographie de la BnF, Inv. Qb. 1589 Hennin 920

Section 2/3

Things then turned against the French and the war began to bog down. Under the leadership of the Count of Fuentes, the new governor of the Netherlands, the Spanish won battle after battle. Between 1595 and 1596, they beat the French twice at Doullens (on 24 and 31 July 1595), and captured both Cambrai (October 1595) and Calais (April 1596). Despite the capture of La Fère after a very costly siege (November 1595–May 1596), and despite alliances with Elizabeth I of England (signed at Greenwich in May 1596) and the United Provinces, the situation was delicate for Henri.

Things took a turn for the worse on 11 March 1597. To everyone's great surprise, the Spanish captured Amiens, disguised as walnut merchants. This was a rude shock, because Amiens was strategic to the defence of Paris. Henri IV, overwhelmed, exclaimed, "I have been king of France long enough; now it's time to be the king of Navarre!" He was determined to retake the city at all costs. On 12 March, Henri IV left Paris to lay siege to Amiens. In the wings, Maximilien de Béthune , the future Sully, set about procuring funds and organising the intendancy. The siege lasted five months, at the end of which Amiens surrendered. The war with Spain was as good as won.

Related multimedia

Title: Henri IV and the allegories of Victory and France

Henri IV and the allegories of Victory and France
© Musée national du château de Pau / Jean-Yves Chermeux
Caption:
Henri IV and the allegories of Victory and France, engraving by Thomas de Leu, 1600. Musée national du château de Pau, Inv. P. 934.

Title: Henri IV laying siege to Amiens in 1597

Henri IV laying siege to Amiens in 1597
Caption:
Henri IV laying siege to Amiens in 1597, engraving.

Title: Henri IV's line of siege of Amiens

Aerial photograph showing Henri IV's line of siege of Amiens
© Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication / Roger Agache
Caption:
Aerial photograph showing Henri IV's line of siege of Amiens (Note: the zigzag line to the left are trenches from World War I)

Title: Site of a small earth bastion

Aerial photograph showing a star-shaped grove
© Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication / Roger Agache
Caption:
This star-shaped grove north of Amiens is the site of a small earth bastion from the early 17th century (Henri IV's siege of Amiens)

Title: Equestrian portrait of Henri IV

Equestrian portrait of Henri IV
© Musée national du château de Pau / Jean-Yves Chermeux
Caption:
Equestrian portrait of Henri IV, engraving by Thomas de Leu, 1596. Musée national du château de Pau, P937

Title: Saint George slaying the dragon

Saint George slaying the dragon
© Région Pays de la Loire - Inventaire général / François Lasa
Comment:
Saint George is wearing the armour of a gentleman from the era of Henri IV. This consists of a breastplate with a high collar, articulated brassards and cuisses, a helmet topped with a plume and fitted with a neck protector, visor and chin strap.
Caption:
Saint George slaying the dragon with the Princess of Trebizond, sculpture, 1597–1598

Title: Elizabeth I of England

Portrait of Elizabeth I of England
© Musée national du château de Pau / Jean-Yves Chermeux
Caption:
Elizabeth I of England (English School, 17th c., oil on canvas), Musée national du château de Pau, Inv. DP. 53-2-59.

Section 3/3

Saddled by troubles that were both domestic (financial, economic and social difficulties) and external in nature (the de facto independence of the Calvinist republic of the Netherlands, the fall of Amiens and the burning of the Spanish fleet in the port of Cadiz), Philip II was forced to sue for peace.

The negotiations took place at Vervins-en-Vermandois, under the aegis of pope Clément VIII. Under the terms of the peace treaty, which was signed on 2 May 1598, Spain forfeited all of its recent conquests with the exception of Cambrai. It signalled the return to the situation at it had existed at the time of the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis , in 1559.

The Peace of Vervins opportunely completed Henri IV's efforts to pacify his kingdom, and it gave France a welcome "springtime of peace" (Janine Garrisson). Having ended his country's civil wars, Henri IV put an end to four decades of more or less direct conflict with Spain. To a certain extent, one could remark that he ended the Wars of Religion by a foreign war, symbolised by the taking of Amiens by Mayenne, the Leaguer who had been "pardoned". The peace was seen as a genuine triumph, and it was celebrated across France with bonfires, processions and Te Deum.

Related multimedia

Title: Philippe II, king of Spain

Portrait of Philippe II, king of Spain
© BnF
Caption:
Philip II, king of Spain. Département des estampes et de la photographie de la BnF, Inv. Qb. 1589 Hennin 920
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