The death of the second Duc de Guise and power shifts of Renaissance France

Claude, 2nd Duc de Guise, by Clouet

Being the Duc de Guise rarely meant a quiet death in bed, surrounded by one’s relatives. The second Duc, Francis, met a sudden end in an ambush, an act witnessed by his young son, the third Duc. By 1562, Francis of Lorraine, current Duc de Guise was a political and military powerhouse in France, having routed the Protestant forces who tried to forcibly take over influence of the boy king, Charles IX and his middle aged mother, Catherine de Medici.

The Protestants weren’t merely power hungry—the previous King, Francis II was completely influenced by Guise and his relatives, and the Protestants feared for their lives if the Guise maintained the same control over the new King. By 1562, the two sides were furiously attacking across France, including an impending Guise victory over the Protestant stronghold of Orleans. Guise had the city surrounded in February of 1563, and little could to done to stop Guise domination.

Enter Jean de Poltrot, a low level (and thus not readily recognizable as a spy) Protestant nobleman. By February, he had managed to disguise himself as a Catholic and make his way into Guise’s inner circle. As Guise walked towards camp after an evening of inspecting his troops, Poltrot lay in the bushes and shot Guise from behind. His son and heir, Henry witnessed the event, and accounts state that he had to be restrained to keep him from running after his father.

Guise lingered for four more days as surgeons worked unsuccessfully to find the bullet. On February 26, Guise was dead, and his handsome son, Henry, was the new Duc. The Catholic forces halted their siege of Orleans, sparing the Protestants of the city. The captured Poltrot told under torture that Admiral Coligny, Guise’s political and religious rival, had paid him to assassinate the elder Guise. Coligny denied doing so, and in the wake of the murder, Catherine de Medici did little to try to investigate Coligny’s role.

During Francis II’s rule, the Guise had run roughshod over Catherine, depriving her of the role of regent for her elder son. Determined to check Guise power while Charles was a minor, she decided to favor Protestants in her regency. The Guise took this as a bitter insult, depriving them of justice. The Guise would stew for almost a decade, considering Coligny their enemy. It would be 1572 during the wedding of Margot Valois and Henry of Navarre that they would decide to take their revenge.