Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

A Game of Cat and Mouse: Henri De Navarre and the Huguenot Campaigns of 1584-89

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

A Game of Cat and Mouse: Henri De Navarre and the Huguenot Campaigns of 1584-89

Article excerpt

In the eighteenth century, King Frederick II "the Great" of Prussia once commented that "the business of war is too important to be left to generals." His statement applies especially to the period between 1584 and 1589, during the last of the French wars of religion, when the Huguenot struggle for survival under the leadership of Henri de Navarre involved two concurrent, yet interdependent campaigns against the joint strength of the Valois Crown and a Guise-led Catholic League dedicated to their destruction. One was military. Partly because they lacked the resources necessary for offensive action, the Calvinists waged a defensive war designed to blunt the enemy attack, frustrate Catholic movements, exhaust their means and buy valuable time until events allowed the Huguenots to seize the military initiative. They played, in short, a tactical game of"cat and mouse," led by Navarre, as they manoeuvred to evade the claws of their more powerful adversaries and reduce the precariousness of their own position. But this defensive posture was compelled partly also by a second, more vital political campaign of cat and mouse, likewise directed by Navarre, in which the Huguenots were the predators this time, and not the prey. Its specific objective was to separate Henri III from his uneasy alliance with the over-mighty Guise faction, and then to unite the Calvinists and the Crown against that common foe.

Key to Huguenot success in both campaigns, therefore, was Henri de Navarre's ability to manoeuvre across the treacherous political and military landscape. At a moment when the majority of Frenchmen, including the Valois king, were alarmed at the ill-prospect of the Calvinist leader's succession to a traditionally Catholic throne, Navarre needed to mute the religious controversy which had reignited the civil war if he were to win over Henri III. To achieve that end, he waged an effective propaganda campaign on behalf of the Huguenots that appealed to patriotism, religious toleration, fundamental law and the ancient bonds of loyalty which united all Frenchmen to their sovereign. His goal was to project an image of himself and the Calvinists not as rebels against royal authority, but as loyal servants of the monarchy and state against the Guises who (he charged) sought to overthrow both. But to sustain that image, Navarre recognized the necessity of supporting his words with deeds, and specifically that Huguenot military efforts had to be defensive in character, whatever the state of the party's resources. For he sensed that an offensive attack upon Henri III's forces, and thus implicitly upon Henri himself, would drive the wavering king irretrievably into the arms of the Guises, with potentially deadly consequences for both the future of the monarchy and for Huguenot survival in France.

It was here that the Calvinists' military and political campaigns converged. What Navarre evidently understood even before the outset of a new civil war in 1585 was that Huguenot success depended not just upon the purely tactical matters of winning battles, seizing strongpoints, or manoeuvring troops to gain a territorial advantage -- the usual business of generals. Rather, it depended upon his careful formulation of a broader strategy that combined the military and political elements of the conflict, in order to define the appropriate rules of engagement. Although, in the short term, this reduced Huguenot prospects for battlefield victories by confining them to a defensive posture, in the long term it gained them political advantage -- and thus military advantage, too -- when Navarre finally secured the long-hoped-for alliance with Henri III in April 1589, against the League. This is what Frederick "the Great" meant by his famous statement about generalship, and what Carl von Clausewitz later called "limited" as opposed to total war. Yet long before either man gave expression to these concepts, they were understood clearly and practised effectively by Henri de Navarre and the Huguenots. …

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