The Battle of Arques, September 1589
For those who are interested in both Christian and 16th century history, the French “Wars of Religion” provide a tapestry of people, places, and events that will not soon leave the mind. Though the major battles, Ivry, Coutras, and others, are fairly well-known, there were many other battles, sieges and smaller engagements that are seldom discussed. One of these is the Battle of Arques. This battle, which took place in September 1589, featured rivals Henri IV de Navarre (Protestant) and the Duc de Mayenne (Catholic).
The battle began as the result of distrust. As Henri IV was a Huguenot and hated by the majority of Catholic France, even his oath to keep Catholicism as the only “endorsed” religion did not satisfy the people. In return, those same distrustful people took up with the Catholic League --- the scourge of European Protestants --- and declared they would never allow a ‘heretic’ leader. Tensions boiled over. Naturally these tensions morphed into the Battle of Arques.
The war had gone on for twenty-seven years, except for a few relatively peaceful but still bloody years. Henri de Navarre needed to resupply and could not. The Duc de Mayenne was feeling confident. Henri believed it was particularly important to guard Dieppe, which was an invaluable Huguenot asset and possibly the most famous port in France. (This is the place from which the fated Huguenot expedition to La Florida set sail in 1565). Charles de Mayenne naturally wanted the city for himself. Henri pondered and consulted. Finally he went to Arques. There would be no blood shed at Dieppe --- this time.
The enemies met on the 15th of September. Both armies could boast artillery that rarely missed its mark, and, as de Mayenne’s men were on the lower ground, they were raked with cannon-fire. Yet they managed to leave damage as well. The royal army and de Mayenne’s army found themselves heavily wounded and nearing defeat. It seemed as it might be a draw. Then came a change. Henri IV was disturbed by his army’s dwindling gunpowder supply and wondered if defeat was in his future. But fate intervened when England, a Protestant country long known as a friend to the Huguenots, managed to bring up a few thousand troops to aid the Huguenot army.
The Duc de Mayenne was not happy to see this.
Viewing another attack is improbable and wanting to regroup in a situation where he might have the upper hand, de Mayenne and his army faded away to their next port of call. The Huguenots had won this round. It would be nine more years of warfare before the Edict of Nantes would put an end to the carnage. One wonders if the soldiers had any idea how long it would last. They would have fought forever if need be. The killings at Vassy in 1562, the event that had set off the first War of Religion, were one thing . . . but the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 was another thing entirely. Many of the soldiers had lost friends, family, or both in that horrific butchery of Protestant citizens. They would not forget.
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