The Duke of Anjou and the Spanish Rivalry
After 1577, relative peace from the French Wars of Religion provided Henri III a greater amount of freedom to consider foreign interests. When Henri III came to the throne in 1574, however, he was quickly embroiled in a series of domestic crises forcing the king to focus on domestic troubles. The actions of his own brother, François duke of Anjou, sparked the fifth civil war when he fled the court and aligned himself with the Protestants in 1575. The conflict concluded in May the next year with Peace of Monsieur. The king had to put his house in order before he could move forward. In 1577, Henri at the urging of the militant Catholics at court renewed the war against the Huguenots, but with a severe lack of funds ensuring that peace would come soon. Predictably, the conflict ended in September of that year with the Peace of Bergerac.
After a few years of peace, another short war broke out in 1580. Lasting from May to November, it was the least significant of all the religious wars in France. From 1577, the king was increasingly gaining a freer hand to consider France’s interests beyond its borders. There were popular uprisings in the south between the peace of Bergerac in 1577 and the Peace of Fleix in 1580, but these did not provide the same threat that the earlier two wars had.
The relative respite from political crisis after the Peace of Bergerac could not have come at a better time. The Netherlands revolted against their Spanish prince Philip II in 1566, and by 1576, they sought foreign intervention. After pursuing Queen Elizabeth and Henri III as protectors only to be denied, the States-General laid its sights on the French king’s brother and heir to the throne, the duke of Anjou. The Duke was all too willing to aid the Dutch as long as the terms were right. He was an ambitious man, perhaps beyond his abilities. His alignment with the Protestants that prompted war in 1575 was more an attempt to gain recognition, prestige, and further his career than his religious or ideological bent. His return to the royalist camp reflected as much. The Netherlands crisis was thus an ideal situation to further his political position and prestige even if the States-General of the Netherlands never intended to provide the Duke with any amount of real power to accompany the titles and offices they offered.
The actions of Anjou were not necessarily problematic for France, but the reprisals Henri and the queen mother, Catherine de Medici, feared they would provoke. The Franco-Spanish rivalry had not abated when the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis ended the long conflict between the two countries in 1559. Indeed, Henri’s predecessor, Charles IX, directed his foreign policy against Habsburg hegemony in Europe. Nevertheless, neither Charles nor Henri desired open war with Spain, and overt military support to the Dutch risked just that as Queen Elizabeth learned later. Spanish war was exactly what Anjou’s enterprise threatened. Henri made direct reassurances to Philip II to placate any consternation the Catholic King might have toward France in 1578 and 1577. In December 1576, Henri promised that he would undertake the best relations of friendship with the new governor Philip installed in the Netherlands. The next year, he wrote another letter to the Spanish king, this time more ostentatious, promising friendship between the two countries, and the good will Henri holds toward Spain.
While Henri was pledging his friendship with Spain, he was also trying to firm up his international position. It would have been folly not to strengthen France’s defensive position when the duke of Anjou showed that his actions were rash, unmanageable, and could easily bring the weight of Spain on beleaguered France. The marriage negotiations between the duke of Anjou and Elizabeth are the most discussed aspects of this policy. In 1578, Catherine de Medici reopened the marriage negotiations with Elizabeth as a means not just to divert Anjou’s attention away from the Netherlands, but also as a way of gaining the support of England if Spain attacked France due to Anjou’s enterprise. Indeed both parties viewed the marriage as a means of supporting the revolt in the Netherlands, but Elizabeth remained much more suspect of the affair. In the end, she knew that she was unwilling to commit to the marriage, but continued the negotiations as a means of ensuring Henri would continue to support his brother’s project in the early 1580s.
The crown also started to reinforce its political relationship with the Grand Seigneur. From the beginning of Henri’s reign, he knew the value of the Ottoman threat in the Mediterranean as a counterbalance to Spanish aggrandizement. Philip’s Sicilian and Neapolitan domains were especially susceptible to an attack from Turkish fleet as well as the Ottoman lands in North Africa. During the 1560s, Philip’s priorities privileged the threat from the Grand Seigneur in the Mediterranean even over that of the rebellion in the Netherlands. It is not a coincidence that Spain’s significant victories against the Dutch came in the last three years of the decade when the Mediterranean remained quiet. The same trend continued into the 1570s. The Battle of Lepanto (1572) and the Ottoman siege of Tunis (1574) drew important funds away from the Netherlands when the Dutch rebelled again in 1572. It became increasingly clear to Philip that he could not sustain war in the Mediterranean and the Netherlands, and that fact became unavoidable when Spain fell into bankruptcy in 1575. As a result, Philip confirmed that he could only afford to fight on one front when he sought a truce with the sultan in 1577.
The relationship between the Mediterranean conflict and the Netherlands in Spanish policy—and all of Spain’s international pretensions for that matter—was no secret . One of the Dutch rebel leaders Maurice of Naussau Prince of Orange wrote to his brother in 1566 indicating as much: “The Turks are very threatening which will mean, we believe, that the king will not come [to the Netherlands] this year.” Frenchmen also understand the inverse; peace in the Mediterranean made Spain a greater threat on the continent. After the Turkish defeat at Lepanto, France’s ambassador at the Porte warned that if Charles made war openly with Spain, Philip would abandon his Mediterranean obligations to the Holy League since Philip “no longer fears the naval forces of the Turks.” Most importantly for our purposes, these concerns were brought directly to Henri’s attention when he came to the throne. In a letter to Henri III in 1574, his ambassador in the Netherlands explained that “this disaster of the loss of La Goletta may make Philip II more anxious to seek...[peace here] so that he will be able to turn all his forces and resources against the Turks in order to put up a better resistance to them, the war [in the Mediterranean] being of greater importance to him.”