The Battle of Coutras
, fought on 20 October 1587, was a major engagement in the eighth and final war of the French Religious Wars
The French Wars of Religion is the name given to a period of civil infighting and military operations, primarily fought between French Catholics and Protestants . The conflict involved the factional disputes between the aristocratic houses of France, such as the House of Bourbon and House of Guise...
between an army under Henry of Navarre (the future King Henry IV of France
Henry IV , Henri-Quatre, was King of France from 1589 to 1610 and King of Navarre from 1572 to 1610. He was the first monarch of the Bourbon branch of the Capetian dynasty in France....
) and a royal army led by Anne, Duke of Joyeuse. Henry of Navarre was victorious.
On the night of 19-20 October the Royal (Catholic
The word catholic comes from the Greek phrase , meaning "on the whole," "according to the whole" or "in general", and is a combination of the Greek words meaning "about" and meaning "whole"...
) army under Anne, Duc de Joyeuse had trapped Henry's Huguenot
The Huguenots were members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France during the 16th and 17th centuries. Since the 17th century, people who formerly would have been called Huguenots have instead simply been called French Protestants, a title suggested by their German co-religionists, the...
Henry had been leading an elite army of the Huguenot cause in a strategic attempt to lead the royal army south, into Huguenot-controlled lands, and destroy it through attrition; fighting a hundred petty skirmishes over the summer.
In October, Henry's intelligence failed him: He led his army to the small town of Coutras
Coutras is a commune in the Gironde department in Aquitaine in southwestern France.-History:The Battle of Coutras, one of the most important battles of the French Wars of Religion, was fought there on 20 October 1587.-Population:-References:*...
, hoping to slip across the bridge there. Coutras was a small twisty town of one cobbled street, a fortified château
A château is a manor house or residence of the lord of the manor or a country house of nobility or gentry, with or without fortifications, originally—and still most frequently—in French-speaking regions...
with a park
A park is a protected area, in its natural or semi-natural state, or planted, and set aside for human recreation and enjoyment, or for the protection of wildlife or natural habitats. It may consist of rocks, soil, water, flora and fauna and grass areas. Many parks are legally protected by...
A domestic warren is an artificial, enclosed establishment of animal husbandry dedicated to the raising of rabbits for meat and fur. It evolved from the Anglo-Norman concept of free warren, which had been, essentially, the equivalent of a hunting license for a given woodland.-Architecture of the...
attached, and one narrow bridge across the river Isle.
Believing the Royal army to be twenty miles away, the Huguenots did not cross the bridge, but encamped for the night, sleeping in the chateau's park or the small buildings of the village, leaving the light horse under Trémoille for pickets
In military terminology, a picket refers to soldiers or troops placed on a line forward of a position to warn against an enemy advance. It can also refer to any unit performing a similar function...
The Royal army was only ten miles away. They marched through the night along back-roads and bridle paths, often single-file to arrive at Coutras just before dawn.
Lavardin, the Catholic second-in-command, led the Catholic light horse in the pre-dawn, driving in the surprised Huguenot pickets with little difficulty.
The Huguenots, meanwhile, had just begun crossing the Isle river; their artillery (three bronze guns) and some of the infantry were already across, the rest of their army hurriedly assembled for battle: Their main line was cramped and broken, with the right flank on the chateau, their left in the Pallard marsh, and infantry fortified in the town across the center.
Prince Henry, upon awaking, was faced with a desperate situation: there was enough time for the cavalry, a few infantry and the Huguenot leaders to escape or to gamble all in battle against the far stronger Royal army now decamping onto the field in front of Coutras.
If Henry felt dismayed, he concealed it from his subordinates, and gave the impression that he could not have chosen a better time and place to fight: he said to the Prince of Condé
The Most Serene House of Condé is a historical French house, a noble lineage of descent from a single ancestor...
and Charles, Count of Soissons
Charles de Bourbon was a French prince du sang and military commander during the struggles over religion and the throne in late 16th century France. A first cousin of King Henry IV of France, he was the son of the Huguenot leader Louis I de Bourbon, prince de Condé and his second wife, Françoise...
: 'You see, my cousins, it is to our family that everyone turns. It would not be reasonable for this fine dancer [Joyeuse] and the darlings of the court to chop off the three principal heads that God has guarded in order to protect the others and the state. This quarrel is the same for us all; the outcome of this day will bring down on us more envy than maliciousness; we will share mutually in its honor.' He led the army out from the village onto the field opposite the Catholics.
Both forces were in great disarray, and, as if by mutual consent, virtually ignored each other until both armies were in order:
The Huguenots were well-disposed: Henry had placed his infantry
Infantrymen are soldiers who are specifically trained for the role of fighting on foot to engage the enemy face to face and have historically borne the brunt of the casualties of combat in wars. As the oldest branch of combat arms, they are the backbone of armies...
on the flanks: a scratch regiment
A regiment is a major tactical military unit, composed of variable numbers of batteries, squadrons or battalions, commanded by a colonel or lieutenant colonel...
on his left flank, drawn back behind a marshy brook, and on the right, three battalions; they were placed in the warren attached to the chateau where it mattered less that they were short of pike
A pike is a pole weapon, a very long thrusting spear used extensively by infantry both for attacks on enemy foot soldiers and as a counter-measure against cavalry assaults. Unlike many similar weapons, the pike is not intended to be thrown. Pikes were used regularly in European warfare from the...
s. Across the center were the Huguenot cavalry
Cavalry or horsemen were soldiers or warriors who fought mounted on horseback. Cavalry were historically the third oldest and the most mobile of the combat arms...
; on the right, attached to the warren; the light horse, under Turenne and la Trémoille, and across the center, the Huguenot medium cavalry, drawn up in three columns and companies of arquebus
The arquebus , or "hook tube", is an early muzzle-loaded firearm used in the 15th to 17th centuries. The word was originally modeled on the German hakenbüchse; this produced haquebute...
The Catholics were drawn up in a similar, though simpler line: Joyeuse placed two regiments of Royal infantry on each flank, the force on the left at least as strong as the Huguenot force in the warren, the one on the right much stronger than the scratch regiment behind the brook. Lavardin's light horse opposite Trémoille's, and opposite the Huguenot horse, the Gens d'armes d'ordannance (gendarme
A gendarme was a heavy cavalryman of noble birth, primarily serving in the French army from the Late Medieval to the Early Modern periods of European History...
): the royal heavy Cavalry, deployed 'en Haye': in one long glittering line.
There was a period of quiet while the opponents faced each other: the Catholic heavy cavalry were bright and glittering like some medieval host: The Gens d'armes wore armor, from cuirass
A cuirass is a piece of armour, formed of a single or multiple pieces of metal or other rigid material, which covers the front of the torso...
Morion may refer to:* Morion , a type of military helmet* Morion , a variety of smoky quartz formerly Empire Fang, an Empire F type coaster...
A gorget originally was a steel or leather collar designed to protect the throat. It was a feature of older types of armour and intended to protect against swords and other non-projectile weapons...
s, covered with gold leaf.
The Huguenots opposite them, by contrast, wore greasy leather and grime-encrusted armor: their armor consisted of cuirass and morion and they were armed with swords and pistols; The Catholic line rippled as the lords (many of whom served in the front rank) manoeuvered for position; by contrast the Huguenots, tough partisan troops, the veterans of a hundred petty skirmishes, sat still in their compact squadrons.
It was at this time that the Huguenot artillery, deploying later than the royal forces on the field but first into position, opened fire: they were ensconced on a small knoll of minor elevation, but placed so as to command the entire field. Served by veterans and commanded by a master gunner, the Huguenots managed eighteen deadly shots for six ineffectual ones from the royal battery: hitting the Royal cavalry almost at an enfilading angle, they caused near-chaos in the Catholic ranks.
Lavardin, cried: 'we lose by waiting!' and Joyeuse called for the charge: the trumpet was sounded and the Catholic host surged forward.
Lavardin's light horse was first off the mark: they crashed into Trémoille's light troops opposite, bowling them over and sending some fleeing through the town; eighteen recently joined Scottish
Scotland is a country that is part of the United Kingdom. Occupying the northern third of the island of Great Britain, it shares a border with England to the south and is bounded by the North Sea to the east, the Atlantic Ocean to the north and west, and the North Channel and Irish Sea to the...
volunteers formed a solid core in Trémoille's force and aided by the artillery, quickly brought Lavardin to a halt.
The Catholic townsfolk, seeing the light troopers fleeing, began cheering and crying 'Victory!'
The Huguenot infantry on the left, hearing the cries, and believing they might as well die attacking as attacked, charged forward over the brook, falling on the surprised Royal troops unexpectedly, dragging pikes aside or rolling under them, they closed in hand-to-hand combat and the left side of the battlefield dissolved into a melee
Melee , generally refers to disorganized close combat involving a group of fighters. A melee ensues when groups become locked together in combat with no regard to group tactics or fighting as an organized unit; each participant fights as an individual....
The infantry on the right were hotly engaged, but were able to spare some vollies
Volley is the simultaneous firing of a number of missiles.Volley may also refer to:In sports:*Volley , in tennis is a shot that is hit before the ball bounces on the ground*Volley , an air-borne strike in association football...
for Lavardin's horse, the Royal infantry continued fighting until the battle was over, bravely charging the warren again and again.
But it was in the center that the battle was decided: at the trumpet-call, the entire Catholic line, still rippling and unsteady, lowered their lances and went to the gallop.
The Huguenots began walking their horses, conserving them for the fight; as they speeded to the trot, they raised their voices in the battle hymn
A hymn is a type of song, usually religious, specifically written for the purpose of praise, adoration or prayer, and typically addressed to a deity or deities, or to a prominent figure or personification...
of their party: "This is the day which the Lord hath made, we will rejoice and be glad in it..." One lord, on Joyeuse's right cried: "Ha! the cowards! They are confessing themselves!" Lieutenant Vaux, on the duke's left, a veteran with much experience against the Huguenots replied: "M'sieur, when the Huguenots make those noises, they are prepared to fight hard."
It could not have been much after that thet the Arqubusiers between the Huguenot squadrons fired and the Huguenots spurred to the gallop.
The Catholic line was shattered into fragments and rolled up from the flank; Joyeuse took to his heels and was cornered by a group of Huguenot cavalry. He threw down his sword and called: "My ransom is a hundred thousand franc
The franc is the name of several currency units, most notably the Swiss franc, still a major world currency today due to the prominence of Swiss financial institutions and the former currency of France, the French franc until the Euro was adopted in 1999...
s!" his reward was a shot in the head: for the commander who had ordered Huguenot wounded to be killed on the field and who had butchered garrisons that had surrendered relying on the laws of honest warfare, there could be no quarter.
Until Henry intervened, little quarter was given to any of the Royal army, and dozens of nobles and over three thousand common soldiers were killed.
Totaling up the day's work, Henry said: "Well, at least now no one can say we Huguenots never win a battle."
The battle of Coutras ended the Catholic League's last hope for eradicating the Huguenots; and the death of Joyeuse undoubtedly helped Henry III throw off the league's chains, and after the execution of Henri, duc de Guise, at Blois, the Huguenots and Royalists took the field again, this time as allies against their mutual enemy, the League.