Battle of St.-Denis, 10 November 1567

The battle of Saint-Denis (10 November 1567) was the only major battle of the Second War of Religion (1567-68) and was a drawn conflict in which a much larger Royal army was unable to defeat the smaller Huguenot army that was blockading Paris from the north.

The Second War of Religion was triggered by a Huguenot plot, the 'Surprise of Meaux'. Their aim was to force King Charles IX to dismiss his most ardently anti-Protestant councillors and gain freedom of worship, but news of the plot reached the Court just in time, and the attempted surprise failed.  

After the failure of the Surprise of Meaux, Charles IX and his court safely reached Paris. Condé followed, and on 2 October took up a position at Saint Denis, to the north of the city. From there he could block many of the supply routes into Paris, and he hoped that a lack of supplies would force the court to negotiation. To make his intention clear Condé burnt some windmills outside the north gate of Paris.

Soon after Condé appeared at Saint Denis negotiations began. A delegation led by some of the more moderate members of the court was sent out to his camp, but the Huguenot's demands were too extreme. Charles was to dismiss all foreign troops, confirm the Edict of Amboise, which had ended the First War of Religion, call the states general, and remove a number of taxes. Charles responded on 7 October with a proclamation in which Condé, Coligny and a number of other Huguenot leader were ordered to lay down their arms. The Huguenots responded by moderating their demands, restricting them to a call of religious freedom, but it was too late. The Crown had raised a strong army under the command of the Constable, Anne, duke of Montmorency, and on 10 November they offered battle. Despite being badly outnumbered Condé and the Huguenots accepted the challenge. 

Montmorency commanded a sizable army by 10 November, with 16,000 infantry (including 6,000 Swiss pike men), 3,000 cavalry and 18 cannon.

Condé was badly outnumbered. Most sources give him 1,500 cavalry and 1,200 infantry on the day, with another 1,300 men absent from the battle. The Huguenots were outnumbered by around seven-to-one. 

The Huguenots were spread out in a single line, with Coligny on the right in front of the village of Saint Onen and the left near to Aubervilliers.

After a preliminary artillery duel the battle began with a Huguenot cavalry charge. Montmorency responded by ordering his own army to advance. Coligny's men broke the left wing of the Royal army, which was made up of troops from Paris, while Condé's charge broke through the centre of the Royal line. Montmorency was fatally wounded in the melee, probably by a Scot called Robert Stuart, and was taken back to Paris where he died on the following day. Condé's impetous charge almost ended with him falling into captivity for a second time (just as at Dreux during the First War of Religion), but he was rescued. Despite their dramatic successes the Huguenot army was simply too small to achieve a significant victory, and the battle ended at nightfall with both sides returning roughly to their starting positions.

Condé remained outside Paris for four more days, finally breaking camp on 14 November. On the royal side the aftermath of the battle saw the rise to prominence of two of the three Henrys of the later wars - Henry, duke of Anjou (the future Henry III), who was given overall command of the Royal armies, and Henry, duke of Guise, who commanded the army that followed Condé as he moved east.

After leaving Paris Condé moved east in an attempt to join up with an army of German reiters which was advancing into France under the command of John Casimir, the son of the Elector Palatinate. The Duke of Guise was sent after him, but Condé managed to elude him at Chalons-sur-Marne on 22 November, and the Huguenot army reached Lorraine by the end of the year. Casimir, with 6,500 cavalry and 3,000 infantry, joined them at Pont-à-Mousson.

The Royal army, now under Anjou, camped at Vitry-le-François, from where it watched the Huguenots as they marched towards Orleans. As the army marched peace negotiations were resumed. Condé then decided to attack Chartres, arriving outside the city on 24 February 1568. The siege was cut short by peace negotiations, and on 23 March the Edict of Longjumeau ended the war. This would be a very short peace, and by the end of the year the Third War of Religion had broken out.

The French Religious Wars 1562-1598, Robert Jean Knecht. A useful guide to the complex series of nine French Wars of Religion, including an examination of who the wars began and the main players on both sides, narrative accounts of the wars, overviews of the most important battles and sieges. Also looks at the impact of the wars on France’s neighbours, many of whom got dragged into the conflict, and on a selection of soldiers and civilians. Supported by a series of maps that help show how complex the conflict was
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (24 January 2011), Battle of St.-Denis, 10 November 1567 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/battles_st_denis.html

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