Saturday, May 26, 2012

May 26, 2012

 The Battle of Coutras, Eighth French War of Religion, 1587

It had been fifteen years since the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and France’s Catholics and Protestants had long since reached the boiling point. Decades of bloodshed and mutual enmity had led to the eighth War of Religion. The date was October 20, 1587. The predawn hours must have been horribly cold . . . I imagine that before the battle was joined, the Huguenot soldiers under Henri de Navarre were doing a variety of singing, praying, eating, drinking, and the like.

Coutras in the region of Gironde was a miniscule village with little to offer; there was a chateau, a park, and a forest just beyond, but that held scant value in the eyes of the Huguenot soldiers. They had only camped at Coutras because they believed the enemy was far behind them. When morning came, they gathered their accoutrements and prepare themselves for the icy Isle River swim that was required before they might move forward.

           ‘To arms! To arms! To arms!’

I can imagine the voices ringing out. 

Le armée du Duc de Joyeuse had arrived. Anne de Joyeuse (yes, a man) was the bane of every Huguenot warrior. This force to be reckoned with appeared on the field with no warning. Henri de Navarre brought his generals into his tent and desperately sought a solution. Was there a chance of survival? Could the Huguenots get into position in time? Could they flee without heavy casualties? 

There must have been snatches of Huguenot psalms, Psalm 68 (the “Battle Hymn” in the Wars of Religion) being the most prevalent. At such times the Calvinists seemed unstoppable. Henri de Navarre spoke a rousing speech to his men. Soldiers stood shoulder-to-shoulder, hearts soaring. The king of Navarre had a way of stirring hearts and filling Protestant souls with resolve, pride, and confidence.

              ‘Courage! There is none so lowly among you that henceforth he shall not be mounted on a fine charger and served on silver dishes. Who indeed could not be hopeful of victory on seeing you so heartened? They are ours; I swear to it as I see your eagerness to fight. Nevertheless, we must all believe that the outcome is in the hands of God, Who, knowing and favoring the righteousness of our cause, will allow us to see at our feet those who should hold us in honor rather than battling against us. Let us therefore pray to Him for help. This will be the finest deed we will ever accomplish – the glory belongs to God, the service to the king, our sovereign; the honor shall be ours, and we will bring salvation to the state.’

Many Catholic soldiers misunderstood the Huguenot soldiers’ fervent prayers.

              ‘They are trembling, the cowards; they are confessing their sins!’ one said.
But another man answered: 

              Monsieur, when the Huguenots go on like that, they are ready to put up a stiff fight.’

That was certainly the truth. 

There in the shadow of battle, it must have seemed as if the spirits of those Huguenots so senselessly butchered were looking on. Huguenot soldiers heard the frightening sound of enemy cavalry being pulled into proper formation. The Catholic banners had been lifted with great care, but while they seemed fascinated with getting into the perfect battle lines, Henri de Navarre’s warriors remained motionless. 

Until . . . a crash! The Huguenot army came to life. De Navarre’s men were positioned on a hill and their artillery could reach nearly anywhere on the field they might wish. The enemy did not have this position. Also, de Joyeuse’s army could not bring up to their artillery to a place where it might benefit them. The armies readied. Trumpets split the air. I imagine men must have felt the resonation throughout their entire bodies.

As soldiers fell on all sides --- fathers, sons, brothers, sweethearts, friends --- the horror might have shut down upon them that the forces of evil reveled in this violent dance with death. The soldiers, though, probably did not think upon such things. There was something about battle that kept men’s minds only on the all-important goal of staying alive and fighting the enemy perceived to be the root of all evil. The citizens of Coutras gathered at the sidelines. It must have seemed odd to see people watching the struggle as if it was any day in the park, for to the soldiers it must have been like a scene from a fantasy story. Horses’ hooves. Screaming soldiers. The sound of steel and the splashing of blood. Curses and praises. 

What could the Huguenots do as the battle raged on? Fight and pray. Though it is might have been difficult to tell while the engagement was being undertaken, the Huguenot army was reaching victory. Of a sudden, Joyeuse, fleeing the battlefield, implored that his enemies save his life. As his captors remembered an earlier massacre (Saint-Eloi) in which he had had hundreds of wounded Huguenots put to death, he found no mercy. And when the Protestants had proclaimed victory, Henri de Navarre, exhausted and triumphant, uttered a witty phrase that seems strange in its lightheartedness:

              ‘Well, at least now no one can say we Huguenots never win a battle.’

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

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