December 19: Ambush at St. Ghislain
Today’s video, Ambush at St. Ghislain, is a battle scene from “The Reversible Mask”, an Elizabethan Spy Novel by Loretta Goldberg. Loretta explains:
The battle occurred in July 1572, but its consequences rippled through Europe for months, as the letter from Elizabeth I to Sir Francis Walsingham, her ambassador to France, received 19 December 1572, reflects.
French King, Catholic Charles IX, gave a Huguenot (Protestant) captain, Jean Haguet de Genlis, rite-of-way through the king’s lands to enter the Spanish (Catholic) Netherlands and mount a surprise attack on Spanish force besieging Mons, then held by Dutch Protestant rebels. Goldberg’s protagonist, Edward Latham, at this time working for Spain against its Dutch Protestant rebels, discovered Genlis’ plot in Paris. He rushed a warning to the Spanish commander and was thrust into the front line.
Why Charles enabled Genlis’ idiotic escapade is mystifying. But he was trying to settle France’s civil war between Catholics and Huguenots; perhaps he thought that allowing a Hugenot adventure beyond his borders would cement their loyalty to him. It backfired. Genlis’ surprise became his own. He was captured with his papers and his army of 7,000 routed. During the ensuing diplomatic row, Spain threatened war against France. Meanwhile, Huguenots raised reinforcements for a bigger do-over.
Here’s where the video’s skirmish became significant. Charles turned on his Huguenots, ordering the assassination of their leaders in Paris. Known as the St. Bartholomew’s Eve massacre, it began on 24 August, St. Bartholomew’s Eve, just five weeks after the action at St. Ghislain. Bloodletting spread through French provinces with over 10,000 Huguenot innocents slaughtered.
The massacre chilled France’s new alliance with Protestant England, intended to counter Spain’s dominance. The French ambassador to England tried to mollify Elizabeth by claiming the massacre was an accident that got out of hand, the result of a Huguenot conspiracy (unproven) against Charles. Elizabeth’s feelings howl through the centuries. Her 19 December letter is worth excerpting:
“We are sorry to hear, first, the great slaughter made in France of noblemen and gentlemen, unconvicted and untried, so suddenly (as it is said by his commandment)…That being after excused by a conspiracy and treason…Yet that they were not brought to answer by law and judgment before being executed (those who were found guilty) we do hear it marvelously evil taken and as a thing of a terrible and dangerous example…But when more was added unto it—that women, children, maids, young infants and suckling babes were at the same time murdered and cast into the river (Seine)…and that liberty of execution was given to the vilest and basest sort of the popular, without punishment…increase our grief that he (Charles IX) should suffer himself to be led by such inhumane counselors…”*
This is Elizabeth at her rhetorical best, putting her finger on the savagery that lurks just beneath our fragile systems of laws and procedures. Her words still resonate, as our stronger institutions are stress-tested by turbulent social and economic change.
*Elizabeth I: Collected Works. Leah S. Marcus, Jane Mueller, Mary Beth Rose, editors. University of Chicago Press, May 1, 2002, P 215-217