The Battle of Coutras

1587 was a critical year in the Counter Reformation. Protestant Queen Elizabeth I of England was funding and supporting the Dutch revolt against the Catholic Spanish in Eighty Years War in Flanders and the Spanish Netherlands. When Elizabeth beheaded Mary Stuart in February, it deprived English Catholics of a leader to rally around, and Phillip II of Spain decided that the only way England could be brought back into the Catholic fold was to invade. Phillip authorized “the Enterprise”, the Spanish Armada, to invade England that summer. The plan was for the Armada to defeat the English at sea, then convoy the Duke of Parma’s army, then in Flanders, to seize London, with the support of England’s beleaguered Catholics. Upon the news, Elizabeth’s most devoted champion, Francis Drake, immediately put to sea, and raided the Spanish anchorage of Cadiz. He destroyed thirty Spanish ships destined for the Armada, including the Marquis of Santa Cruz’ flagship. As devastating as this was, it paled to Drake’s subsequent raids off of Portuagal’s Cape St Vincent where Drake destroyed nearly a year’s production of barrel staves, without which the Armada was delayed a year. But before these consequences were realized, the Duke of Parma masterfully seized the port of Sluys on the North Sea for an embarkation point. But Sluys was suboptimal, what would be even better was a French port on the English Channel.

France was caught in the middle of the Anglo-Spanish War and the Counter Reformation in general. France’s Catholics were fighting the Protestant Huguenots in France’s “Wars of Religion” but in reality the conflict was a complicated three sided civil war known as the “War of the Three Henrys”. The first Henry was Henry De Guise, an influential French noble and an ardent Catholic. He was France’s most vocal member of the Holy League who took his instructions more from Spain and the Pope than the French monarch. The next was the last of the House of Valois and current French King, Henry III. Henry III was Catholic, and former King of Poland-Lithuania (long story), and a French nationalist. However, he was opposed to Habsburg hegemony through Spain and the Holy Roman Empire, and secretly thought that an alliance with England was the best way to prevent this. However, as a Catholic he had to officially oppose the third Henry, Henry of Navarre, the leader of Huguenot resistance in France. Henry, the King of Navarre, was next in line for the throne, but was a Protestant. In 1587, on behalf of France’s semi-independent Protestant nobles, he fought both Henry III’s ideas of a centralized monarchy and De Guise’s militant Catholicism. On the morning of 20 October 1587, the normally very competent and professional Henry of Navarre found himself surprised by a Catholic army under one of Henry III’s dandies, Anne de Joyeuse.

But Joyeuse wasn’t any ordinary courtier of the French king. Though an amateur, Joyeuse threw himself into warfare with as much enthusiasm as he did court politics.  Joyeeuse’s superior force stole a night march on Henry and cornered him at the village of Coutras. The village was in a cul de sac between two rivers and Henry planned only to stay long enough to water his horses and rest for the night. However, he misjudged how far Joyneuse’s army was away, and was surprised to hear his pickets firing on the morning of 20 October 1587. Henry’s first thought was escape as a pitched battle would risk the entirety of the Huguenot leadership. And the village was a decidedly bad place to defend. However, he could possibly get away with the leadership and the cavalry, but the bulk of the army would have to be sacrificed. All he had was his reputation as a leader of men, and if he abandoned his army, that would never survive.

Henry began organizing his men in the field outside the town when Joyeuse’s army broke through the woods into the clearing opposite him. Fortunately both sides were equally disorganized, as the night march wreaked havoc on Joyeuse’s formation. By what seemed mutual agreement, both sides spent the next two hours forming battle lines. Joyeuses’ army was larger and better equipped. She had the crème of Catholic French nobility, the Gendarme, and the best troops De Guise’s money could buy. But Henry’s men were solid professionals and veterans of a hundred skirmishes and battles.

On the left, Henry’s cannon, masked by a marsh, were in place first and savaged the Catholic formation, forcing Joyeuse into a premature attack. Though on Henry’s right the tired light cavalry fell back, any Catholic advance was stopped amidst bitter fighting in the town. On the far right, Henry’s arquebusiers held strong along a shallow ravine. But these didn’t matter, the battle was decided in the center.

A thousand Catholic armoured knights in full plate and mail began at a walk, then a trot, then about a third of the way across the field, at a charge. It was too soon. The timing of a charge is a delicate matter: too late, and the knights were not at full speed, too soon, and the formation was ragged as the lesser horses couldn’t keep up. There was no such problem among Henry’s veteran heavy cavalry. They smashed the Catholic charge with a well-timed counter charge of their own. A massacre ensued. Joyeuse surrendered and offered a hundred thousand gold pieces in ransom, but was summarily shot though the head seconds later.

In 1587, there was no love lost between Catholic and Protestant in France. The Catholic French nobility was slaughtered, and the power of De Guise was diminished. More important, there would be no French Catholic support for a Spanish invasion of England. But Henry was also a nationalist, and didn’t want to see a weak French monarchy at the mercy of powerful French dukes. The slaughter of the radical French Catholics at Coutras directly led to the rise of nationalism at the expense of religion in France during the Thirty Years War (See Cardinal Richelieu). The Battle of Coutras kept France out of the Anglo-Spanish War, and two years later Henry III was assassinated by a Dominican monk who thought Henry III was not doing enough against the Huguenots. By Salic law, Henry of Navarre was crowned King of France, the first of the Bourbon line.

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