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The Battle of St. Denis, November 10, 1567

The Only Battle of the Second 'Time of Troubles'

From a wargamer's perspective, the Battle of St. Denis almost doesn't count: Conde, in his usual style, attempted the impossible - he faced odds of nearly five to one. It was only due to the death of the Catholic commander and the total ineptitude of his opponents (and perhaps the quality of his cavalry) that he was not annihilated. When the generals are replaced with wargamers, the victory conditions must be particularly favorable to the Hugenot side in order to make the contest a meaningful one. (Basically, the criteria for Hugenot victory is survival, with perhaps some requirements for inflicting a modicum of damage on the Catholics.)

Despite this, a more even-sided "what if" scenario can be created: although they did not participate in the battle, there was a force of 1000 foot and 800 horse under Dandelot outside of Paris at the time (Conde had counted on total inactivity on the part of the Catholics inside Paris when he divided his forces.) Another smaller force was sent to seize Pontoise, under Montgomery, at the same time. Had these troops been present at St. Denis, the odds, while still heavily in favor of the Catholics, would have been a little less lopsided.

Background

There were four years of relative quiet between the Peace of Amboise (March 19, 1563) and the start of the 'Second Troubles' in September of 1567. The terms of the Peace were not honored by Catherine de Medici (still the effective ruler of France) with any sincerity, and when civil war again broke out, it was not long before Conde sat outside the walls of Paris, having established his headquarters at St. Denis. Low-level fighting took place all over France, and both sides prepared to raise armies equal to a larger struggle. The Catholics within Paris awaited a force to arrive from the Netherlands, under the Duke of Alva. The Hugenots expected the arrival of a huge force of German reiters (estimates put it as high as 8000 men) and additional French forces from the South.

More than a month went by, during which the Constable Montmorency sat inside the walls of Paris, waiting for reinforcements. Conde sat outside, unable to do anything more decisive: without any artillery, and with only about 6000 men, the Hugenots had few options. It was the despatch of Montgomery's troops to Pontoise, key to the Ilse-de-France, that finally caused the old Constable to take action. Marching forth from the Porte St. Denis and the Porte St. Martin, past Montmartre, the Constable hoped to take Conde by surprise. The ploy worked only partly - Conde had time to draw his troops up into battle array, but was not able to pull in his detachments. His willingness to enagage the numerically superior Catholic forces at all is a testament to his typical bravery (spelled f-o-o-l-h-a-r-d-i-n-e-s-s).

Deployments

The map below shows the basic Catholic deployment: four main bodies of infantry are preceded by a line of mixed infantry and cavalry, with a couple of small cavalry detachments in the rear. This force formed up right outside the walls and advanced in columns toward the Hugenot position between St. Ouen and Aubervilliers, in front of St. Denis. Apparently the ground was uneven, and there were some buildings in the way - it was not until early afternoon that the battle was joined.

Conde was at least prepared to give the advancing Catholics as warm a reception as possible. He had placed the majority of his arquebusiers in concealed positions on the flanks of his main line, entrenched on the edges of St. Ouen and Aubervilliers. When the Catholics advanced to attack him, he intended for them to fall prey to this ambush. Otherwise, his deployment was simple - three equal bodies of cavalry were placed in a single line ("en haye") to cover the broad front, with the main body of infantry drawn up before his headquarters at St. Denis.

Orders of Battle

Information on the Hugenot forces for this battle is fairly exact; information for the Catholic forces is much less so. Strength of the Hugenot forces have been given using the highest plausible totals - it is possible that there were as few as 1000 horse and a similar number of foot (La Noue gives the smaller numbers). Proportions and dispositions are correct, however.

This is much less true for the Catholics. While the strength of the Swiss foot, recently hired by Catharine, is known to be at the figure given, other totals and proportions are merely educated guesses. The number of guns deployed with the Swiss is not known - I assume it was a fairly small number of light pieces. The strength of the Paris militia is similarly unknown. Proportions of horse to foot are approximate; the proportions of light to heavy horse are similarly typical of the period, but not at all definite (it is known that they were all deployed in the location depicted on the map, however). The proportion of arquebusiers to pikes is also an unknown, and it is likely that the Paris militia was poorly armed. (One of the French regiments in this battle - deployed in the first line - was commanded by Strozzi, an early proponent of the musket over the arquebus. It is conceivable that the musket was carried by his troops.)

Hugenot Forces

(I have assumed that the flanking arquebusiers are under the command of the leader of the main body on their respective flanks.)

Conde's Troops- Prince of Conde is overall commander

Main Body of Infantry: 200 arquebusiers and 1000 pikes

500 Gendarmes, deployed en haye

Genlis' Troops

400 Arquebusiers, entrenched in concealed positions

500 Gendarmes, deployed en haye

Coligny's Troops

400 Arquebusiers, entrenched in concealed positions

500 Gendarmes, deployed en haye

Total: 2000 foot, 1500 horse

Note: While the French cavalry generally used the lance - and it must be assumed that the Hugenot gentry were still doing so at the time of this battle - they were already wearing the white "cassocks" that later earned them the sobriquet of "millers." We learn this from a representative of the Turkish throne who watched the battle, who purportedly said that "if his master the Sultan had only a thousand of those 'white coats' to put at the head of each of his armies, he could become master of the universe." (Oman, The Art of War in the Sixteenth Century)

Catholic Forces

Overall Commander: The Constable Montmorency

5000 Swiss foot (probably 85% or more pikes), with some artillery (probably a few light or medium guns)

500 Light horse - argolets and horse arquebusiers (Sansac)

500 Gendarmes (Longueville)

750 Gendarmes of the Compaignies d'Ordonnance, with the Constable Montmorency

1000 French ("regular") foot (probably 75%-80% pikes)(Strozzi)

1000 French ("regular") foot (probably 75%-80% pikes)(Brissac)

500 Gendarmes (Cosse)

500 Gendarmes (Marshall Montmorency)

500 Gendarmes (Biron)

3000 Paris militia, in two bodies - very poor troops in terms of armaments, morale, and training

2000 French ("regular") foot (probably 75%-80% pikes)(Montpensier)

250 Gendarmes, in reserve (Damville)

250 Gendarmes, in reserve (d'Aumale, the younger Guise)

Total: 10,000 foot, 3750 horse, ??? artillery

The Battlefield

The Seine is basically impassible in terms of the scope of the battle. All roads on the map are major roads. Paris lies to the South of the depicted battlefield (off bottom of map).

Description of the Battle

The Catholic Advance and Inital Actions

The Catholic advance was, as noted above, quite slow. Whether this was the result of the uneven and slightly built-up ground or a lack of order among the Paris militia we do not know. Some artillery fire was directed at the Genlis' Hugenot horse, causing light casualties. When the Hugenot forces came in sight, the Catholics attempted a double envelopment: Sansac and Longueville tried to outflank Coligny's visible troopers, and Biron attempted to outflank Genlis'. In each case, the concealed arquebusiers fired at a range of 50 yards, throwing the advancing horsemen into disorder.

Coligny responded with a countercharge into the disordered Catholic horse in front of him: he swept them before him, driving them into the Paris militia. The militia, seeing the gendarmes defeated, turned and fled back toward Montmartre, in which they were joined by the defeated horse.

On the Catholic right, Longueville was forced back against the French foot of Montpensier. These troops held firm, allowing Cosse's horse to entry the fray in support. Genlis' attack was stopped cold.

Battle is Fully Joined

With both flanks engaged, Conde now launched an attack against the Catholic center with his own horse. They contacted the Constable's horse and broke them. The Constable himself was called upon to surrender, but he replied only by slamming his sword hilt into the teeth of his would-be captor, who proceeded to shoot him with a pistol. The wound proved mortal. The Marshall de Montmorency (the Constable's eldest son) led a charge into the flank of Conde's troopers, and an extensive cavalry melee ensued.

Meanwhile, Genlis' cavalry came under attack from the reserve squadron of d'Aumale, and the now re-formed squadrons of Biron. Genlis was thrown back. On the other flank, Coligny had gotten entangled by the reserve under Damville (the Constable's second son). When Conde saw what was happening to Genlis, he called the retreat - Coligny made his way back to St. Denis with little loss, and the other horse reformed on the main body of Hugenot infantry in front of St. Denis. The Catholics, apparently paralyzed by the Constable's death, did not pursue. The entire action had taken only an hour or less, but the sun would soon set.

Results of the Battle

Technically, the battle was a Catholic victory, but their lack of pursuit allowed the Hugenot army to avoid certain annihilation. The following day, with Dandelot's detached corps added to his strength, Conde offered battle again, but the Catholics declined: the generals were all too busy attending the old Constable's funeral (and fighting over who got to take his place!)

The only heavy casualties suffered by the Hugenots were among the arquebusiers on Coligny's flank, who were effectively cut off when the horse pulled back to regroup around St. Denis. Catholic casualties were not particularly heavy: the biggest effect of the battle was to fill the Catholic gendarmes with a dread of their Hugenot counterparts.

On November 14, Conde departed from before the gates of Paris, marching east to join up with additional French forces. The Duke of Alva was soon to arrive, and Conde had little hope of taking the city. Although tentatively followed by the Catholic army through Champagne and Lorraine, Conde was joined by the Elector Palatine's large body of German reiters (as many as 8000) early in January at Pont-a-Mousson.

The direct result was the early end of the war: the Queen feared a general action against the now-considerable Hugenot army. In the following Peace of Longjumeau (March 23, 1568) the Treaty of Amboise was restored, in it's original form, by the Queen. The dreaded reiters departed, and, as Coligny had warned, the Catholics proceeded to ignore the peace. Low-level hostilities continued throughout France, although the 'Second Time of Troubles' was at an end.


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