Siege of La Rochelle (1572–73)

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For information about the 1627–1628 siege, see Siege of La Rochelle. For the World War II siege, see Allied siege of La Rochelle.
Siege of La Rochelle (1572–1573)
(Siège de La Rochelle 1572–1573)
Part of the French wars of religion
Le Siege de La Rochelle par le Duc d Anjou en 1573.jpg
The Siege of La Rochelle by the Duke of Anjou in 1573 ("History of Henry III" tapestry, completed in 1623).
Date 1572–1573
Location La Rochelle
Result Stalemate
Belligerents
Pavillon royal de la France.png Kingdom of France Blason de La Rochelle.png La Rochelle
 England (support)
Commanders and leaders
Pavillon royal de la France.png Duke of Anjou
Pavillon royal de la France.png Comte de Montgomery P.O.W
Strength
Siege army: 28,000. Defending army: 1,500.
Huguenot refugees.
Casualties and losses
Siege Army:
12,000 (including sickness and desertion)[1]
73% casualty rate among officers.[1]
Almost entire army and all refugees dead

The Siege of La Rochelle of 1572–1573 was a massive military assault on the Huguenot-held city of La Rochelle by Catholic troops during the fourth phase of the French Wars of Religion, following the August 1572 St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. The conflict began in November 1572 when inhabitants of the city refused to receive Armand de Gontaut, baron de Biron as royal governor. Beginning 11 February 1573, the siege was led by the Duke of Anjou (the future Henry III). Political considerations following the duke's election to the throne of Poland in May 1573 resulted in negotiations, culminating on 24 June 1573, that lifted the siege on 6 July 1573.[2] The Edict of Boulogne signed shortly thereafter brought an end to this phase of the civil war.

The siege of La Rochelle was contemporaneous with Catholic assaults on the cities of Sommières (led by Henri I de Montmorency) and Sancerre.

Background[edit]

La Rochelle at the time of the 1572–1573 siege

Since 1568, La Rochelle had been the main base of the Huguenots in France. A city of 20,000 inhabitants and a port of strategic importance with historic links to England, La Rochelle benefited from administrative autonomy (lack of seigneur, bishop or parlement) and had become overwhelmingly Huguenot (Calvinist).

As soon as 1571, the Royal fleet was more or less blockading the city, led by Captain Polin and Filippo di Piero Strozzi.[3]

After the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre and other massacres across France in the fall of 1572, numerous Huguenots fled to the city La Rochelle as a last refuge.[4] The city was well fortified, with access to the sea.

The Siege[edit]

The conflict started in November 1572 when inhabitants of the city refused to receive Armand de Gontaut, baron de Biron as royal governor. Charles IX ordered the city to be sieged. In the middle of November, François de la Noue, sent by Charles IX to negotiate with the city, was invited by the inhabitants to take up their defense. With the king's acceptance, La Noue joined the assieged city, but was unable to effect a solution to the crisis, and on 12 March 1573 he left the city, to watch the subsequent events from the royal camp.[5]

Western side of La Rochelle with remaining towers of Vauclair castle and filled moats (center), by Antonius Lafreri, Rome, circa 1573.
German print of the Siege of La Rochelle (1572–1573), with the city in the background, and the fleet of Montgomery in the upper left corner.

On 11 February 1573, the Duke of Anjou arrived to take command of the siege with 28,000 men. His massive resources – munitions, cannons, gunpowder, cannonballs, food – were gathered from Paris, Picardy, Normandy, Poitou, Saintonge and Angoumois.[5] The army included the Duke's brother François d'Alençon; the two former leaders of the Huguenots, Henry of Navarre and Henri I de Bourbon, prince de Condé (both recently converted to Catholicism); members of the Guise family, Charles of Lorraine, Duke of Mayenne, Claude, Duke of Aumale (killed on 21 February), Henry I, Duke of Guise; and other nobles including: Louis IV de Nevers, Guillaume de Thoré, Henri de la Tour d'Auvergne, Filippo di Piero Strozzi, Albert de Gondi, Blaise de Monluc, Artus de Cossé-Brissac, Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantôme, Armand de Gontaut. Among these nobles were some who remain suspicious of the present political tact or of the violence of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, and some who were sympathetic to the Protestant cause; political intrigues traversed the royal camp.[6]

Henry, Duke of Anjou in 1570. Painting by Jean de Court

Eight assaults of the city were waged from February to June. These attacks, along with cold winter, resulted in large the losses on the royal army's side. (Brantôme, who participated in the siege, exaggerated the death toll as 22,000 men; records show that of 155 commanders, 66 were killed and 47 were wounded.)[7] On 26 March 1573, 150 attackers were killed in an accidental explosion of a mine intended to destroy the ramparts. The Duke of Anjou was himself wounded several times during these conflicts. On 23 May 1573, 6,000 Swiss guard mercenaries arrived as reinforcements to the royal army, but the attack three days later was a disaster for the royal troops.

Gabriel de Lorges comte de Montgomery (1530–1574), by Feron Eloi Firmin.

The inhabitants of the city sent an ambassador to Queen Elizabeth I of England seeking her assistance, but Elizabeth – still bound by her 1572 treaty with France (the Treaty of Blois (1572)) – was only able to send a limited number of ships led by Gabriel, comte de Montgomery. Seven ships arrived in February 1573, but a larger group of ships were forced to turn back by the French navy in April 1573 (retreating to Belle Île and then Jersey). The majority of the city's dwindling resources were supplied through small naval raids on Catholic (principally Spanish) ships (which were also being attacked by the Dutch gueux de mer corsairs). To block La Rochelle's ships' access to the sea, the Duke of Nevers sank a large barge, with no effect.[8] (In the siege of 1627-28, Cardinal Richelieu would construct a massive sea barricade to block the city).

Entrance of the Polish delegates (winged Polish hussars depicted) in La Rochelle at the end of the siege in 1573.

At the end of May 1573, Henry of Anjou learned that he had been elected King of Poland, a country with a large Protestant minority, and political considerations forced him to negotiate an end the assault. An agreement was reached on 24 June 1573 and Catholic troops ended the siege on 6 July 1573.

Aftermath[edit]

The fourth phase of the Wars of Religion was brought to a close by the Edict of Boulogne signed in July 1573. La Rochelle was designated as one of the three cities in France where the Protestant faith was permitted, but only under strict conditions.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b The rise and fall of Renaissance France, 1483-1610 Robert Jean Knecht p.373
  2. ^ Jouanna, p.1391.
  3. ^ Memoirs of Maximilian de Bethune, duke of Sully p. 20
  4. ^ Jouanna, p.207.
  5. ^ a b Jouanna, p.209.
  6. ^ Jouanna, pp.211–2.
  7. ^ Jouanna, p.211.
  8. ^ Jouanna, p. 208.

References[edit]

  • (French) Arlette Jouanna and Jacqueline Boucher, Dominique Biloghi, Guy Thiec. Histoire et dictionnaire des Guerres de religion. Collection: Bouquins. Paris: Laffont, 1998. ISBN 2-221-07425-4
  • R. J. Knecht, The French Wars of Religion 1559–1598 (Seminar Studies in History) ISBN 0-582-28533-X
  • Portions of this article are based on a translation of the article Siège de La Rochelle (1573) from the French Wikipedia, retrieved on 16 March 2007.