What were the Forty-Five Guards?

Introduction

The Forty-five guards were recruited by the Jean Louis de Nogaret de La Valette, Duke of Épernon to provide Henry III of France with trusted protection in the midst of the War of the Three Henrys (1587-1589).

Background

The Forty-five were noblemen of lesser nobility (many from Gascony) with little more than a horse, a sword, and a few acres to live on. In the king’s service, they were paid a lavish wage (by their standards). In return, 15 of them were to be on duty, day or night, ready at the king’s call.

After the Catholic League revolt in Paris, King Henry III was forced to flee to Blois, there, he staged a coup, regaining control of the Estates-General by employing the Forty-five to kill Henry I, Duke of Guise when he came to meet the king at the Château de Blois on 23 December 1588, and his brother, Louis II, Cardinal of Guise, the following day.

After the king was assassinated by Jacques Clément, the crown of France passed to Henry IV of Navarre; the Forty-five also passed to him and served him faithfully until his death, which was also by assassination – ironically in a conspiracy in which Épernon may have been involved.

The exploits of Henry III and the Forty-five are the subject of The Forty-Five Guardsmen by Alexandre Dumas.

In Popular Culture

The Forty-Five Guardsmen (Les Quarante-cinq in French) is a historical novel by Alexandre Dumas, written between 1847 and 1848 in collaboration with Auguste Maquet. Set in 1585 and 1586 during the French Wars of Religion, it is the third and final work in his Valois trilogy, concluding the events of La Reine Margot and La Dame de Monsoreau, and again featuring Chicot the Jester.

It tells the story of Diane de Méridor’s quest for revenge upon Duc d’Anjou – for his betrayal of Bussy d’Amboise. The novel features Forty-five guards – lesser nobility recruited by the Jean Louis de Nogaret de La Valette, Duke of Épernon to provide Henry III of France with trusted protection in the midst of the War of the Three Henrys.

The story opens thirteen years after the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and ten years into the reign of Henry III as he tries to calm the religious and political intrigues dividing the kingdom. Dumas fictionalised the action, including Henry of Navarre’s capture of Cahors (which actually occurred in 1580) and the attack on Antwerp (re-dated by Dumas from 1583 to 1585 or 1586) and including William the Silent (who had actually been assassinated in 1584) and the Duke of Anjou (who historically died of TB in 1584 but who Dumas shows being encouraged to covet the crown of the Low Countries by William and fulfilling a prediction by Côme Ruggieri in La Reine Margot). He also makes count Henri du Bouchage’s retreat from the world to become a Capuchin friar a result of the coldness of Diane de Méridor, whereas historically he did so from grief for his wife’s death.

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