In the midst of the French Wars of Religion, decadence flooded the royal court. Many blamed the queen of Henry II, Catherine de Medici, who had brought Italian fashion along with intrigue that fostered duels, poisonings, and her “Flying Squadron” league of female spies. Others saw it as the weakness of the new generation of sons, particularly Henry, who preferred art and reading to hunting and was the favorite of his mother, Catherine.
While his older brothers sat on the throne, first Francis II and then Charles IX, Henry performed the duties of a prince conducting treaties and fighting battles, primarily against the growing Protestant powers of northern Europe. Rumors planning his marriage to Elizabeth I of England circulated in 1570, though she was twice his age and he referred to her as “an old bag with a sore leg.” Instead, Henry preferred to spend his time with his friends in court, a wild party of handsome, affluent, and adventurous youths that their enemies had nicknamed “Les Mignons.” They wore the cutting edge of fashion: starched white ruffle collars that stretched past their shoulders, black velvet, and gold embroidery. Wherever the entourage went, they were raucous gamblers always looking for a new thrill.
There was another Henry at court, the young Duke of Guise, born one year before Henry III in 1550. Guise was a vehement Catholic in the Wars of Religion after his father was assassinated during the Siege of Orleans. Many believe that, at only twenty-two, he was one of the masterminds of the assassination of Gespard de Coligny, a Huguenot admiral, and the resulting St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre that wiped out thousands of Protestants in France. His many injuries in battles against Protestants and Turks earned him the nickname “Scarface” (“Le Balafré”), a name he kept with endearment as it had been his father’s as well. He went on to become the leader of the powerful Catholic League in France. While Henry III was seen as a degenerate out of touch with reality, the Duke of Guise was well loved for his generosity and good deeds.
The rivalry of the two groups came to a head in 1578. Five years before, Henry III had left France when he was elected King of Poland and Lithuania. He stayed there only a few months, irritated by the Polish political system, and left as soon as word arrived of the death of his brother Charles IX. Despite having given up the right to succession as part of his election, Henry returned to Paris as king and simply walked away from his kingship of Poland. The sudden arrival of a new king brought rapid changes. Some were technological, like the introduction of sewage lines to palaces and the dinner fork, but the most tumultuous were his Les Mignons.
In April 1578, members in the entourages of the two Henries determined to prove their finesse for dueling by recreating the Battle of the Horatii and Curiatii from antiquity. The famous battle pitted triplet brothers from ancient Rome against triplets from their rival, Alba Longa, with both cities agreeing their latest war would be settled by the six-man duel. Despite initially gaining the upper hand by killing two of the Horatii, the Curiatii were hunted and killed one at a time by the surviving brother, Publius.
Excitement rose through the court, but the Duke of Guise had a tinge of guilt due to the Church’s condemnation of dueling. He appealed to the king to stop the duel, saying, “Only your word could stop your men.” While some historians see the phrase as a reference to the sycophantic nature of his entourage, Henry III took it as praise of his great leadership. He canceled the duel, and Guise became a new favorite, even though he did not fit in with the king’s usual friends.
Their companionship was tested in 1584, when Henry III’s brother Francis, Duke of Anjou, died while campaigning in the Netherlands. Without a direct heir, the next in line to the throne was the distant cousin Henry of Navarre, a Protestant. Guise was able to convince Henry III to suspend Henry of Navarre and all Protestants from eligibility, naming his successor to be another cousin, Cardinal Charles du Bourbon. In return, Guise awarded Henry III a partnership in the Catholic League.
Twenty-eight years the king’s senior, Charles du Bourbon, and Henry III agreed to an electoral system as he had seen in Poland with roots deep in Church power. Upon his death, Henry III was succeeded by Richelieu, the first of many Cardinal-Kings to rule over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Huguenots were stamped out of France, but the era of Enlightenment brought a new wave of thinkers that spawned a secular revolution that tore France apart repeatedly over the nineteenth century in a new series of Wars of Religion.
In reality, the Duke of Guise had no qualms about fighting, and the duel went forward. Just as with the Roman battle, it left five men dead: two on the field and three heavily wounded passing one day, one month, and six weeks later. Rather than solving any rivalry, the battle led to further distance between Henry III and the Duke of Guise. In 1588, Guise entered Paris to such a grand ovation by the public that the king fled and joined forces with Henry of Navarre. The War of the Three Henries ultimately won the throne for Henry of Navarre, but only after his proclamation of conversion to Catholicism (and the assassination of the Duke of Guise by the king's order). Henry IV’s son and grandson would consolidate political power by exiling the Medicis, putting down revolt of nobles, and reducing influence of the Church.