War of the Three Henrys Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The War of the Three Henrys represented an important turning point in the broader French Wars of Religion. When it was over, the royal authority of King Henry III had been thoroughly questioned, the powerful leader of the Catholic League was dead, and the Protestant Henry of Navarre was positioned to become the next king of France.

Summary of Event

France fought a series of religious civil wars between 1562 and 1598. Arguably the climactic war of the series was the War of the Three Henrys (1585-1588), which inaugurated the conflict known as the War of the Catholic League (1585-1598) Catholic League, War of the (1585-1598) . The War of the Three Henrys was fought between the factions and armies of three political leaders: Henry III, king of France; Henry I of Lorraine, duke of Guise, head of a Catholic alliance of nobles and cities called the Catholic League; and Henry of Navarre, head of the Protestants in France, who were known as the Huguenots Huguenots . The War of the Three Henrys brought France into the bloodiest and most extreme period of collective violence experienced during the religious wars. Both Henry I of Lorraine and Henry III lost their lives in 1588-1589, while Henry of Navarre emerged victorious as King Henry IV. Three Henrys, War of the (1585-1588) Henry III (1551- 1589) Guise, Henry I of Lorraine, duke of Henry IV (1553- 1610) Catherine de Médicis François Philip II (1527-1598) Henry III (king of France) Guise, Henry I of Lorraine, duke of Henry IV (king of France) Anjou, François, duke of Philip II (king of Spain) Catherine de Médicis Clément, Jacques

The assassination of the duke of Guise, leader of the Catholic League, by guards of the French king, Henry III, ended the War of the Three Henrys.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Circumstances leading to the War of the Three Henrys became critical in June of 1584, when Henry III’s youngest brother, François, duke of Anjou, died unexpectedly with no heir. The last Valois king, Henry III was also childless, and a crisis of succession ensued. Succession questions in France were dictated by the Salic Law, which failed to recognize inheritance through females. This meant that if a French king died without a son, the throne passed to the king’s closest surviving male relative. In 1584, the Salic Law made a Protestant, King Henry of Navarre, the presumptive heir to the throne. Even so, most French men and women refused to recognize a Protestant as a possible king of Catholic France.

After Anjou’s death, an alliance of Catholics Catholicism;France committed to keeping Henry of Navarre from the throne took shape. The Catholic League was made up of Catholic nobles and urban elites who used their influence throughout cities and towns to convince the Catholic masses that Henry of Navarre was an evil heretic. They preached that France could expect God’s punishment if Navarre ascended the throne. The very popular Henry, duke of Guise, quickly assumed the leadership of the Catholic League and represented himself as the defender of Catholicism. In December of 1584, he signed a secret agreement, the Treaty of Joinville, Joinville, Treaty of (1584) with Spain’s King Philip II. Philip pledged to give Guise financial and military support.

The three Henrys knew one another well but could not have been more different. Henry III was Queen Catherine de Médicis’s most intelligent and dedicated son. Even so, his enemies attacked him for his alleged homosexuality and accused him of extravagance and corruption. Henry was extremely religious and often participated as a penitent in religious processions. The sight of the king in penitent garb shocked many French men and women, who rejected him without his symbols of sovereignty.

The king’s persona contrasted sharply with the other two Henrys. Henry of Guise was considered the most handsome man in France. He was called “the Scarred” (le Balafré) because of a sabre wound on his cheek that gave him a virile appearance. Henry of Navarre was a superb military leader famous for his courage in battle and infamous for his pursuit of women. His one failing in the eyes of the French was his Protestant Protestantism;France faith. Guise was strong in northern France, while Navarre’s support came from the south.

In March of 1585, the Catholic League issued a manifesto rejecting Navarre as heir to the throne and recognizing his aged cousin, the cardinal of Bourbon, as Henry III’s successor. Henry III tried to manipulate the League and put himself at its head at the urging of his mother, Catherine de Médicis. On July 7, 1585, Henry III signed the Treaty of Nemours. Nemours, Treaty of (1585) The treaty revoked all edicts of pacification granted formerly to the French Protestants and forbade the practice of Protestantism. The Huguenots were ordered to abjure their faith or be exiled. With the Treaty of Nemours, the wars of religion resumed, as Guise and his league forces tried to enforce the treaty throughout France.

Henry III and Henry of Guise made poor allies, just as their French Catholic followers seldom agreed on the proper course of action. In 1587, the king tried to discredit Guise by sending him with inadequate forces to battle German supporters of Henry of Navarre. Guise succeeded, however, and his popularity rose. Afterward, Henry III feared Guise might depose him and forbade the duke to enter Paris. Hoping to make a show of strength in May of 1588, the king ordered five thousand Swiss troops to stand ready near Paris to defend his royal power. The king’s plan backfired, however, as Paris had always enjoyed an exemption from billeting troops. The Swiss guards only angered the populace, who turned against Henry III.

The Parisians took to the streets and put up barricades. A group of radical league leaders in the city known as the Sixteen, along with Guise’s supporters and clients, incited Paris’s inhabitants to violence. A Spanish ambassador suggested Guise occupy Paris to divert attention from the sailing of the Spanish Armada. Guise arrived on May 9 as a Catholic hero. Several days later, on May 12, 1588, the king ordered his troops into Paris, and the populace revolted. On this Day of the Barricades Day of the Barricades (1588) , Henry III’s authority was no longer recognized, and he fled Paris. The monarchy had reached a new low.

Henry III’s revenge came several months later at a meeting of the States-General in Blois. The meeting was dominated by zealous leaguers, and the king felt threatened. He wrongly believed his problems would end if he could do away with Guise. On December 23, 1588, he ordered Guise to his chamber in the Château and had him murdered by his guards. Queen Catherine de Médicis was supposedly in a nearby room and heard the misdeed. Guise’s brother, Louis II of Lorraine, the archbishop of Reims, was also arrested and killed the next day.


The assassination of the duke of Guise effectively ended the War of the Three Henrys, but the War of the Catholic League continued until 1598. Guise’s murder had serious consequences. It radicalized the league throughout France and caused many urban centers to declare their loyalties for the league. Catholic theorists also began to call Henry III a tyrant and advocated rebellion. Violence engulfed the country. In April of 1589, Henry III was forced into an alliance with Henry of Navarre, and the two began an armed attack on Paris. The alliance ended in August with Henry III’s death. A Catholic extremist, Jacques Clément, stabbed the king, who died on August 2, 1589.

Henry of Navarre became King Henry IV, the first Bourbon king of France, but he continued to fight for his throne for many years. Navarre owed a great debt to Henry III and not just because the last Valois king named Navarre his successor. By killing Guise, Henry III had done away with Navarre’s chief rival while taking all the blame for the assassination upon himself. With Guise dead, the Catholic League no longer had a charismatic leader. When the cardinal of Bourbon died in 1590, the league was left without a French heir to the throne as well.

Henry IV reconverted to Catholicism in 1593 and won over most of Catholic France in 1594-1595. He made peace with the Catholic League and Spain in 1598 and attempted to settle France’s religious conflicts by granting Protestants limited religious freedom in the Edict of Nantes. Yet, Protestants living inside France continued to be the focus of problems for years to come. Extreme measures were once more taken against the Protestants in the succeeding reigns of Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643) and Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715), demonstrating the difficulty of eliminating religious anxiety and intolerance by royal decree.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baumgartner, Frederic J. France in the Sixteenth Century. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995. Offers a detailed history of the sixteenth century for advanced undergraduates. The Guise family and the Catholic League are considered in chapter 14.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, David A. “Unmasking a King: The Political Uses of Popular Literature Under the French Catholic League, 1588-1589.” Sixteenth Century Journal 20 (1998): 371-386. Provides a detailed account of Henry III’s erratic behavior and how his enemies used it to undermine his authority and prestige.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carroll, Stuart. “The Guise Affinity and Popular Protest During the Wars of Religion.” French History 9 (June, 1995): 125-152. Carroll reconstructs the duke of Guise’s circle of supporters to explain how members of this “affinity” promoted popular protest during the Wars of Religion.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conner, Philip. Huguenot Heartland: Montauban and Southern French Calvinism During the Wars of Religion. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002. Study of the Wars of Religion, especially of the differences between the experiences of Southern and Northern France during the wars. Focuses on the southern town of Montauban as a case study of the larger religious, cultural, and political upheavals. Includes maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Finley-Croswhite, S. Annette. Henry IV and the Towns: The Pursuit of Legitimacy in French Urban Society, 1589-1610. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Study of Henry’s labors to win support from his new subjects, focusing on his courtship of the urban population and the consolidation of his claims to legitimate sovereignty. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frieda, Leonie. Catherine de Medici. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003. Extensively researched, well-written attempt to rejuvenate Catherine’s reputation and produce a balanced evaluation of her place in history. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, Mack P. The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A comprehensive examination of the religious wars designed for undergraduates and general readers. Holt discusses Henry of Guise and the Catholic League in chapter 5.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Love, Ronald S. Blood and Religion: The Conscience of Henri IV, 1553-1593. Ithaca, N.Y.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. An assessment of Henry IV’s reign against the background of civil war and religious strife. Concludes with a discussion of Henry’s perception of the conflicting requirements of his crown and his soul, and his 1593 conversion to Catholicism. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Racaut, Luc. Hatred in Print: Catholic Propaganda and Protestant Identity During the French Wars of Religion. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002. Rare study of the pro-Catholic pamphleteers in France. Analyzes the strategies, production, and impact of pro-Catholic propaganda of the period. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Roelker, Nancy Lyman. The Paris of Henry of Navarre as Seen by Pierre de l’Estoile: Selections from His Mémoires-Journaux. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958. The author provides translated excerpts from the journal of a sixteenth century man. The entries for 1588 cover Henry of Guise’s triumphs and death.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Salmon, J. H. M. Society in Crisis: France in the Sixteenth Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975. A prominent scholar offers advanced readers an in-depth investigation of the religious wars to 1598.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sutherland, N. M. “Henri III, the Guises, and the Huguenots.” In From Valois to Bourbon Dynasty: State and Society in Early Modern France, edited by Keith Cameron. Exeter, Devon, England: University of Exeter, 1989. Sutherland provides information on Henry, the duke of Guise, and his impact on Huguenot history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sutherland, N. M. Henry IV of France and the Politics of Religion, 1572-1596. 2 vols. Bristol, Avon, England: Elm Bank, 2002. Extremely detailed account of the role of religion in France’s monarchy and political sphere during the late sixteenth century. Each chapter discusses a specific political event or issue from the point of view of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Includes illustrations, map, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, James B. The King’s Army: Warfare, Soldiers, and Society During the Wars of Religion in France, 1562-1576. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. An in-depth look at the military campaigns of Charles IX and Henry III. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Mid-16th cent.: Development of the Caracole Maneuver

Mar., 1562-May 2, 1598: French Wars of Religion

1568-1648: Dutch Wars of Independence

Aug. 24-25, 1572: St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

July 31-Aug. 8, 1588: Defeat of the Spanish Armada

Aug. 2, 1589: Henry IV Ascends the Throne of France

Apr. 13, 1598: Edict of Nantes

May 2, 1598: Treaty of Vervins

Categories: History