Saturday, April 24, 2010

Siege of Sancerre

The French Wars of Religion comprise of a series of military conflicts between Roman Catholics and Huguenots from 1562-1598. The fourth war was set off by the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in August 1572 and lasted until the signing of the July 1573 Edict of Boulogne. This phase of the Wars of Religion is famous for three episodes in which the royalist Catholic forces besieged Huguenot cities at Sommières, La Rochelle and Sancerre.

Sommières capitulated after a siege which lasted from February to April 1573, during which the fortified city's defenders fought ferociously even pouring pots of boiling oil upon the heads of the attackers, and the terms of surrender were generous. Henry Baird writes that "the garrison capitulated on such favorable terms, that the Protestants were rather elated than discouraged" (History of the Rise of the Huguenots of France, Vol. 2, p. 589).

La Rochelle is a seaport and thus was not completely cut off by the massive consolidation of royalist forces, led by Henri, Duke of Anjou, which surrounded it. The conflict began there in November 1572, and the siege itself lasted from February to July 1573. Help was sought from Queen Elizabeth I of England, but she felt bound by an earlier peace treaty with France not to interfere beyond sending a small, ineffective relief convoy. (The famous Huguenot treatise, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos (Defense of Liberty Against Tyrants), which has an important section on the duty of foreign princes to aid Christian subject being persecuted by their tyrant ruler, was published seven years later.) The city suffered but held out until the siege was lifted following diplomatic negotiations which involved Poland.

The Siege of Sancerre became legendary. Like La Rochelle, the initial phase of the conflict began in November 1572, with a temporarily successful surprise attack launched by the royalist forces led by Honorat de Bueil, seigneur de Racan. Unlike La Rochelle, Sancerre is a fortified landlocked hilltop city. Troops returned in January 1573, and in March, Claude de La Châtre led a second attack with 7,000 men, which was bitterly repulsed. Royalist troops pounded the city's walls with cannon fire, but the Sancerreans fought back with trebuchets, which became known as the "arquebuses of Sancerre," one of the last times this type of weapon was used in a European military campaign. After the failed assault, Châtre instituted a blockade which lasted through the summer. He made the calculated decision to starve the defenders whom he could not take by force. The Huguenot citizens responded bravely, singing psalms throughout the siege. But the effects of the starvation were staggering to contemplate. Resupply was impossible; messengers who were sent from the city to find help were executed. The day-to-day events were recorded by Jean de Léry, the Huguenot minister who had himself survived privation at the Protestant colony of France Antarctique in the 1550's, and lived through the Siege of Sancerre too, teaching his fellow citizens how to eat leather to survive. He wrote Histoire memorable de la ville de Sancerre (1574), the tenth chapter of which Edward Smedley, History of the Reformed Religion in France, Vol. 3, p. 88, has termed a "Cookery Book for the Besieged," because of de Léry's attention to detail and personal efforts at survival learned in Brazil and shared with his fellow Frenchmen. While most of the citizens suffered honorably, subsisting on horses, dogs, rats, mice, leather, parchment, grass and roots, he faithfully and sadly records the unpleasant details surrounding one family's descent into cannibalism. The dramatic effects of hunger led many to compare this siege to that of Jerusalem, and the Siege of Sancerre became a Protestant cause célèbre throughout Europe. Over 600 royalist troops were killed in combat compared to only 84 Sancerreans, but over 500 citizens, many of them children under the age of 12, died of starvation. But the city held out until a diplomatic solution was worked out. The city was ultimately taken by Châtre in August after Henri, Duke of Anjou (later Henri III of France), was elected king of Poland, upon the condition that he ceased hostilities against French Protestants, which led to the signing of the aforementioned Edict of Boulogne. Thus was the siege lifted. A year to the day after the commencement of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, the last Sancerrean left the city freely, and shortly thereafter Châtre entered in triumph of sorts. One of the most horrific sieges in modern history ended in God's providence with mercy to its heroic citizens, if not the city's fortifications, which were leveled by Châtre. The courage of the Huguenot Sancerreans, and all those who suffered for the name of Jesus and the sake of the Protestant religion in France, must not be forgot.


  1. Andrew, I am always amazed at your research skills, and so respect your desire for historical accuracy!

  2. Very good article. I'm reading Myths about St. Bartholomew's Day Massacres, 1572-1576. By Robert M. Kingdon at the moment and have just read the section on this siege. Is Jean de Lery's book available in English. Check out the Assembly of the Desert on youtube, search under 'Mialet'. Looks like a great event.