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The Assassination of Henry III

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'For sale, our tyrant King! Five shillings and you can string him up'. Mark Greengrass probes the motives behind and reaction to the murder of France's last Valois monarch.

What a contrast between the way historians have treated the two great political assassinations of French history! That of the first Bourbon king, Henry IV, in 1610 became the focus for a powerful political legend which dominated the rest of the ancien regime. Reactions to his assassination were sufficient, it seems, to act as a powerful amalgam of royalist sentiments in early Bourbon France. Absolutist notions of the divinity which must hedge a king, and of kingship as a holy office with accountability to God alone, became imperative to protect a future king from the sacrilege of regicide. Hence the remarkable clause along those lines proposed by the third estate at the estates – general of the realm in 1614.

The treatment of the assassination, twenty-five years previously, of Henry IV's immediate predecessor as king of France, Henry III, was very different. Embarrassing at the time and since, the last Valois' death has evoked little sympathy. Even his body was left in its temporary resting-place in the church at Compiegne, never to he transferred to St Denis, the mausoleum of the kings of France. There is still no modern study of the event and its context. Yet it was of capital importance, the first regicide in the history of the French monarchy, the end of the Valois dynasty, the central political occurrence in the later wars of religion. If Henry III had died in his bed there might have been no wholesale takeover of power in France by the Catholic League for any length of time, and none of the multiple questioning of established and accepted verities of French political life which inevitably flowed from a radical political movement at the centre of power in a kingdom. Henry IV might even have assumed the throne of France later on without a fight, and that might have had incalculable effects upon the direction of the Bourbon monarchy, even (although it is unlikely) upon its religious direction. The enormous groundswell of reaction to Henry IV’s assassination was precisely because it was the second time such a thing had happened within living memory - and, with it, therefore, came the reawakening of all the collective guilts surrounding the first regicide.

What happened at St Cloud on August 1st, 1589? The last Valois king had spent the week with his military high command at St Cloud (now a suburb of Paris). He was the guest of a prominent financier at his court, Jerome de Gondi, who had a house there (it no longer survives). He was planning the next stage in an elaborate military strategy to overawe, by a show of military force, his capital city from which he had been forced to withdraw in haste, following the famous Day of Barricades in May of the previous year.

Henry III, the victor of one of the few military successes of the civil wars, the bloody battle of Jarnac of l 569, was, in reality, no great military strategist and he had studiously eschewed leading royal armies once he acceded to the throne in 1574. But with the uprising of Paris transformed into one involving a majority of the provincial cities of France after the assassinations of the Duke of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal of Guise, in December 1588, he had to fight for the reimposition of his authority. In the last week of July 1589, there was every sign that he would succeed. He had overwhelmed Poissy, secured the river Seine on June 28th and then moved on to take Pontoise and the crossing of the Oise. His guards reported Parisians as saying that morale in the capital was crumbling. There were royalist plots inside the capital, food was scarce. Jean de Monluc, sieur de Balagny, one of the League's commanders thought Paris could hold out less than a fortnight. If this was so, then it was in large measure because, encamped a short distance away at Meudon, lay the additional armed might of Henry of Bourbon, King of Navarre, which had finally marched north and was still riding high after its victories of 1587. Making necessity a virtue, the last Valois had accepted a purely military understanding with Navarre in order to subdue the rebellion in his kingdom. With these forces he had 40,000 men as against a bare 5,000 French infantry and a couple of regiments of Walloons and Germans on which Paris could call.

Billeted armies in the sixteenth century were always greeted with alarm by civilians and it was in order to protect his seigneurial investments at Vanves that the king's solicitor-general, Jacques de la Guesle, was on horseback west of Paris on Monday July 3lst. A loyal officer of the king, he had escaped from Paris in his entourage on May 13th, 1588, and subsequently helped the king to establish new sovereign law-courts loyal to him outside the capital at Tours. On his journey, La Guesle met a Dominican by the name of Jacques Clement, being guarded by two royal soldiers, who told him he had important business with the king. La Guesle would have handled sensitive intelligence before and known what to do. Cross-questioning Clement, he discovered that he carried a letter for the president of the Paris parlement, Achille de Harlay, to the king, as well as a valid passport in the name of Jacques Clement, student of the University of Paris, and dated July 29th, I 589.

The letter no longer survives, although La Guesle scrutinised it carefully and would have easily recognised Harlay's handwriting. He would have known that Harlay had been virtually under house-arrest in Paris since the assassinations at Blois. There was every reason, given the tension in the capital provoked by the military manoeuvres on its outskirts, to imagine that Harlay might have been trying to act as a go-between, trying to establish the basis for a dialogue between the king and the leaders of the Paris revolt, the Seize, or Sixteen. This was how La Guesle interpreted Clement's reference to 'une belle occasion' which he wished to put before the king.

So La Guesle escorted Clement to St Cloud, seating him astride his brother's horse and arranging for his entry to the king's lever on the morning of August 1st. It was rarely difficult to gain access to a French king. One of the bases of French kingship was its accessibility, represented in the ceremonial of the lever or the office of maitres des requetes; those who were supposed to act as recipients of petitions to he presented to the privy council.

Henry III had reorganised the ceremonial of the court, increasing its formalities, restricting to some extent this accessibility. He was the first French monarch to have the equivalent of an altar rail installed in his bedroom apartments so that the lever was more formal. His reliance upon favourites, according to his critics, made it much more difficult to know whether petitions would he considered. And the creation of a personal bodyguard, the quarante – cinq, also made him more remote and isolated, But in his last letter, written to the queen after being stabbed, the king reminded her of 'the freedom of access and audience that I give to all monks and churchmen when they would speak with me'.

At about 8a.m. Clement climbed the stairs from Jerome de Gondi's magnificent garden to the first floor, 'a l'etage', where the French king customarily had his apartments, past the bodyguards and into the king's cabinet. He was introduced to the king, seated upon his commode, in the presence of the all-important first gentleman of the chamber, in this instance, Roger de St Lary, sieur de Bellegarde. Clement begged leave to present his business in private and the king motioned to Bellegarde to stand to one side. As the king inclined his right ear, Clement, standing to that side of him, appeared to search for his papers but, in reality, produced a dagger, about a foot long, with a black handle, and stabbed the king in the abdomen, below the left ventricle. La Guesle rushed forward to aid the king whilst Bellegarde manhandled the monk to the anti-room, intending his arrest. But the guards from the quarante-cinq heard the commotion and one of them, the brother to the assassin of the Duke of Guise, stabbed Clement repeatedly before, with the help of another guard, heaving the body out of the window to the courtyard below.

The king lived another nineteen hours or so, long enough to make the necessary dispositions of what remained of his authority – of great symbolic and propaganda importance to his military ally, Navarre. But his surgeon knew that it was only a brief respite and the king died at about 3 o'clock on the following morning.

Who was Jacques Clement? Although he was never cross-examined under torture like Henri IV's assassin, Ravaillac, we actually know rather more about him and his state of mind, thanks to two related trials. The Provincial of his religious order and the head of Clement's own house in Paris, Edme (Edmond) Bourgoin, was captured by royalists some three months later, put on trial at Tours, tortured, and eventually convicted of treason in a shabby show trial. A fellow student and friend of Clement, Michel Mergey, was also captured and put on trial, this time before the parlement of Chalons. From the evidence of these two cases, we can piece together something of Clement's career.

He was born around 1566 in a village some ten miles from Sens, on the borders of the province of Champagne, of a peasant family. He grew up, most likely, in the intense Catholic environment of Champagne in the civil wars, the province of the great processions blanches to assuage God's wrath towards France. Here was how a local diarist remembered them:

This year [1583] the people of France, and principally in this country [Champagne], were strongly moved by devotion, with the result that there were numerous great processions through its towns and villages. They began in mid-July and continued until the end of October, the people being dressed in white linen and very orderly about it. During these occasions, the Host was processed and all kinds of hymns, prayers, litanies, psalms and verses... were recited... with the remarkable result that many Catholics grosso modo and of little devotion, thereby became zealous.

At about this time, Clement became a Dominican novice at Sens and then transferred to the Dominican college in the rue St Jacques in the Latin quarter of Paris to study theology. He was already in residence in 1588 and spent Christmas that year in the city.

The possibility of a plot comes to mind first of all. Are not the French wars of religion full of overmighty subjects challenging royal authority? Was not this assassination Guisard vengeance against the murder of the two leading members of their family by the king, the year before at Blois? The family had, after all, known all about blood feud after the assassination of the first Duke of Guise at the beginning of the civil wars in 1562. Suspecting Coligny of being behind the murder, they vowed vengeance, in Old Testament fashion, 'even unto the fourth generation'. Coligny's own assassination ten years later on the eve of St Bartholomew's Day massacres, was a direct result of that feud and it would he surprising to discover that Clement had been a stooge?

But there is not a scrap of even circumstantial evidence to suggest that the murder was the result of a political plot and much which indicates the reverse. Firstly, neither Bourgoing nor Mergey, even under cross-examination and torture, revealed anything of a conspiracy. Secondly, the head of the Guise house in France after the murder of his brothers was Henri de Mayenne. Shrewd, patient, prudent, he was not the sort to commit himself to royal assassination, even in the extraordinary circumstances of 1589. Nor would he want to launch himself on the uncharted waters of a succession crisis with an enfeebled octogenarian cardinal from the rival family of Bourbon as the only plausible Catholic claimant to the throne as against the king of Navarre.

It was no time for a revenge killing, however much he might have wanted it, and none (of the ambassadors in France even bothered to consider the possibility. Would the Lorraine house – or Spain for that matter – entrust their future to the uncertain hands of this young, unknown, monk anyway? If there had been a conspiracy, some rumours or evidence would have come to light and it would have been most certainly in Henry IV's own interests to advertise whatever was discovered. In this respect, it is quite unlike Henry IV's own assassination where individuals do come forward a year or so later to offer evidence that it was an aristocratic conspiracy, only to be smothered into silence with unwholesome speed by a regency government anxious not to provoke aristocratic unease.

So what had driven Clement on? Here is where the conventional historiography inconveniently telescopes the chronology of public debate during the League to provide us with a convenient set of explanations which may not, however, be complete. What we are told is that there was a spontaneous explosion of emotion in Paris after the news of the Guise murders broke in the city on Christmas Eve, 1588. Henry III was de facto deposed as king, excommunicated by the Sorbonne, declared thereby a non-person and regicide becomes openly talked about on the streets of Paris to the extent that this young, simple and impressionable Dominican from the provinces becomes convinced that he was God's chosen instrument of providence.

There is no doubt as to the spontaneous explosion of fury on and after Christmas Eve 1588 in Paris and around the realm. The Guise murders constituted a political miscalculation of gigantic proportions by the French king. The Day of Barricades, when he had been forced to leave his capital under the threat of popular insurrection, had been a setback, but it could be, and was, contained. With the deaths of Blois, things were very different. It was the equivalent to the Second Civil War for Charles I, and Henry of Valois became the 'Man of Blood'. Even the royalist president Achille de Harlay signed the declaration of the parlement of Paris, along with other sovereign court judges (some even dipping their quills into blood from their own veins), on January 26th, 1589, promising to hold to the Roman Catholic religion and bring to justice those responsible for the Guise murders. The seizure of power in Paris by the Seize, changing the composition of the city corporations, constituted a revolution in French politics which was an essential backcloth to the assassination by Jacques Clement and its political importance.

There is no doubting, either, the importance of the decision of a meeting of the faculty of theology on January 7th to excommunicate the king and to seek papal approval for that declaration. Placards 'full of insults and slander against the king's honour' appeared on the streets, anagrams calling him 'Vilain Herodes' were heard. People refused to pray for him or even to refer to him as their king: ‘Nous n'avons plus de Roy'. Processions involving little children carrying lighted candles to the cemetery of the Holy Innocents took place; there they extinguished them under their foot with the words: 'le Roy est heretique et excommunie'.

The king's portrait was torn down from churches, the tombs of his former favourites defiled, the property of his ministers endangered. Books listed litanies of the king's errors of omission and commission, sexual, moral, civil and ecclesiastical, all of which could he mapped onto the already coherent image of what constituted a tyrant in sixteenth-century France.

The political revolution in Paris and the provinces provided the right temperature and soil conditions for the propagation of notions of a tyrant king. The Protestants in France and the Netherlands and Catholics in England had already sown the seeds. There is little doubt that Jacques Clement had participated in this theatre of popular fury. One contemporary document talks of his parading the streets of Paris holding up the king's portrait shouting: 'Notre tyran de roi a vendre, 5 sols pour lui acheter un licol' (For sale, our tyrant king, 5 shillings and you can string him up) and that he participated in processions 'bare down to his feet, wearing only a tunic'. But who talked of regicide? For all that the king was proclaimed a tyrant, excommunicated, he was still king. Regicidal murder was still an offence against the Fifth Commandment and the rupture of the stereotype of the king as the image of God. An analysis of the surviving pamphlets between December 1588 and August 1589 in the Bibliotheque Nationale shows that the polemic is, for the most part, limited to invocation of divine vengeance against the vilain Herodis and, more rarely, to the possibility of putting the king on trial or, even less plausible, in a hermitage. The biblical references were to those already quarried by Protestants to justify resistance to a tyrant prince, and not to his summary despatch.

The great League preacher, Jean Boucher, is signiticant in this regard. In his hook La Vie et Faits Notables d'Henri de Valois (The Life of and Notable Facts concerning Henry of Valois), published in the first half of 1589, there is not a single reference to regicide. Only after the assassination did he publish his great tyrannicide text, the De justa Henrici tertii abdicatione (The Just Renunciation of Henry III) – although, even in this, the possibility that God would send an avenging minister of his providence to enact a regicidal murder appears as though it was inserted at a late stage, which it probably was.

Of course, we do not know what was said in pulpits. But the invaluable Parisian diarist, Pierre de l'Estoile (who had no reason to hide scandalous preaching in his diary, for he was a royalist) refers to eight sermons in this period and in no case does he make a note of any incitement to regicide. What we do have, however, is evidence of private discourse, of market talk, of whispered, guilty, hesitant, daring snatches of conversation. L'Estoile reports a conversation between the radical preacher Guincestre and one of his parishioners, an adherent of the Seize who had declined to make his Easter observance because he had such feelings of vengeance against the king. To this, Guincestre replied: 'qu'il faisoit conscience de rien, attendu qu'eux tous et lui-meme le premier qui consacrait chacun jour en la sainte Messe... n'eut fait conscience de la tuer' (that this was to he in bad conscience about nothing, seeing that everyone, including himself prominently – and he celebrated the Mass daily – had in conscience thought of killing him).

Clement had experienced private mystic visions, according to Bourgoing, behind the great altar of the Dominican convent church. An angel, brandishing an unsheathed sword, had come to him, saying: 'I am a messenger of the all-powerful God who comes to tell you that, by thy hand, the Tyrant of France must he put to death...' At the refectory table, Clement once said that the king would die by his hand and his fellow Jacobins, according to Michel Mergey, teased him: 'Marche: faire ce coup! ' (Go on then: do it! ). He even went to the seniors of the convent to ask how he should resist the pressure of his strong inner compulsion and advised: 'C'etait faute de prier Dieu et de foi' (It was because he had not prayed to God and lacked faith). Clement had apparently said to his closer friends that he had dreamt of being torn apart by four charging horses (the punishment for lese-majeste') 'without feeling the least discomfort'.

Before he began his journey from Paris, Clement fasted for twelve days, according to Bourgoing and, once on his way, was 'moved on by the special and providential will of God...' All contemporaries referred to the monk's 'simplicity', references nearly always taken as signs of his stupidity. An alternative explanation is, of course, that Clement consciously adopted the childlike innocence which he believed requisite for an individual charged with a divine mission. Regicide was, in the months and weeks before August 1st, 1589, the crime which dared not speak its name; secret, mystical, requiring God's miracle to come to pass. It would be a providential act which mystically would be transmuted from the wishes of the multitude, through God's power, to one chosen individual.

The comparison with the public discourse after the assassinations of Henry IIl is revealing. Once the miracle had taken place, once providence had spoken, it was possible to talk about regicide as something not just justified but enacted by God on behalf of his people. Pamphlets proclaimed Clement as a saint through whom God had strengthened the covenant between himself and his people. The king's death was miraculous, 'admirable'. Others came forward, like the priest brought before the town council in Nimes in 1594, to say that, not only had Clement done right to kill the king but that they too would have liked to have had a hand in it and helped him.

Clement's action, once it had taken place, inevitably opened the floodgates of speculation of all sorts. Both Protestant and Catholic theologians had always accepted that God could, if he so chose, intervene in the affairs of men and remove a tyrant king. In no time, arguments over what instruments he might choose to undertake that intervention led directly towards the right of individuals, in certain circumstances, to kill kings. There were debates in the theology schools in Paris, among Jesuits, and elsewhere. It was this challenge which led eventually to more positive and logically powerful arguments in favour of the responsibility of kings to God alone which form the starting-point for what is often called absolutism in seventeenth-century France.

But I doubt if Clement had seen things in anything like the theoretical terms presented by Jean Boucher or by others after his death. As a student of theology in Paris in the late 1580s he might possibly have come across the controversy over the rights and wrongs of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots by Elizabeth I – legalised regicide as some had called it and an issue which had been given a public airing in Paris pulpits, churchyards and the popular press in 1587, 1588, and still remembered in 1589, but all he would have read would have been in condemnation of the 'English Jezebel' for what she had done. League pamphlets and poems were fond of taking readers back to the Old Testament, to Jehu and Jezabel and the rest. What more natural, then, than that Clement would find himself studying the classic regicidal murder in the Old Testament, the assassination of Egdon, king of Moab, by Ehud? This is how the passage in Judges III reads:

The children of Israel served Egdon, the king of Moab eighteen years. But when the children of Israel cried unto the Lord, the Lord raised them up a deliverer, Ehud, the son of Gena, a Benjamite, a man left-handed; and, by him, the children of Israel sent a present unto Eglon... But Ehud made him a dagger which had 2 edges of a cubit length and did gird it under his raiment upon his left thigh and he brought the present... And said I have a secret carried unto thee 0 king; who said, keep silence. And all that stood by him went out from him... And Ehud came forth unto him and he was sitting... And Ehud put forth his left hand and took the dagger... and thrust it into his belly.

The parallels with the manner of Henry Ill's death are striking. Was this passage not in the minds of Jacques Clement and Michel Mergey as they purchased the two-edged dagger, about a font long, shortly before the assassination? Had not the preachers encouraged their congregation to conceive of Paris as a holy city, a holy people, enabling Clement to imagine himself as a latter-day Ehud? Had not the Bible even given him a lesson in how to bring about the event? In which case, this assassination demonstrated more than any other in the sixteenth century that divinity did not inevitably hedge a king.

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