Gabriel de Lorges, comte de Montgomery was a hero, rebel and killer of a king. Not all of this was by choice.
The son of Jacques, Duke of Montgomery, a Scottish nobleman with a sound career supporting the kings of France, Gabriel’s life should have been gilded and assured. In 1559 Gabriel was 29 and Lord of lands in Normandy. He was married to Isabeau de La Touche and had welcomed the first four of their eventual eight children. A favourite at court, Gabriel was captain of King Henry II’s Scottish Guard. Before he was 30 years old he would be an outcast.
The last joust of Henry II
30 June 1559 started as a day of magnificent courtly celebration. A peace treaty was being firmly sealed with the marriages of Henry II’s daughter Elizabeth with Philip II of Spain, and his sister Margaret to Emmanuel Philibert, Duke of Savoy.
Entertainment was lavish and included a royal joust. The queen Catherine de Medici sat impassively next to Diane de Poitiers as her husband took part in the tournament. It was no surprise to her that he wore Diane’s favour, a black and white ribbon, Diane had been his mistress for years.
King Henry was proud of his athleticism and expected his knights to fight hard and fair. He soon triumphed over his new brother-in-Law the Duke of Savoy but towards the end of the day, as no lance had broken, insisted on just one more joust. The queen was concerned her husband was tired but as usual her concerns were ignored.
A rather unwilling Gabriel was prepared for this final confrontation. As he faced the younger man, the 40 year old monarch was confident of success. Then Gabriel’s lance hit him hard, his lance shattering as the king’s helmet was forced open. Before Henry hit the ground it was clear something terrible had happened. A large shard from Gabriel’s lance had pierced the his right eye.
Henry was quick to clear Gabriel of any blame saying “do not worry you do not need forgiveness, having obeyed your king and performed acts of good and valiant knight of arms.” But Gabriel wisely left court that day.
It is said the king’s surgeon Ambroise Paré replicated Henry’s injury on prisoners condemned to death (reports on whether they were already dead or not are mixed), to better prepare for surgery on his King. However although Ambroise eventually removed the wooden shard the damage was too severe and Henry died on 10 July.
Gabriel Montgommery had killed the King of France.
Henry may have pardoned Gabriel but the queen would never forgive him; her children were too young and too feeble to take control of the country and their Valois family could lose the throne. She ensured he was stripped of his captaincy and banished from court. Catherine then set about ruling France through her sickly 15 year old son. Diane de Poitiers was the second person she cheerfully expelled.
Gabriel first went to Jersey then Venice, but everywhere he was known as the man who killed the king of France. By 1560 he was in rather more sympathetic London. The English court under Elizabeth I was a very different place to the French court he was used to. It was Protestant and catholic Gabriel, with time on his hands and no country to defend, studied this foreign religion. In France Protestants were persecuted. What he discovered impressed him greatly and when in 1562 an old adversary, the Duke of Guise, massacred 50 Protestants at Vassay, Gilbert formally converted.
In France, the young king backed by his mother Catherine de Medici was facing huge challenges to his throne. A growing number of powerful men were converting to Protestantism and challenging the crown and Catholic authority. While Catherine agreed to give the Protestants increased freedom, she faced opposition from her own Catholic nobility who raised armies to destroy the upstarts. The bitter ‘Wars of Religion’ were starting and would divide France for nearly 40 years at a cost of 3 million lives.
Back in France and preparing for battle
In 1562 Gabriel was back in Normandy. He allied himself to fellow convert, Louis I de Bourbon prince de Condé and prepared for battle. He quickly proved himself to be an astute commander.
Gabriel’s Protestant army took control of the town of Bourges without killing a single person. This was overshadowed by the destruction his soldiers then wreaked upon the city, destroying pictures and statues in all the churches. Next they were called to Rouen.
The Protestants had already taken Rouen on 15 April 1562, kicking out the King’s representative and enthusiastically smashing church statues. The invaders intimated the Catholic town council until they sensibly fled on 10 May. A large group of Catholics then captured the Fort of Saint Catherine overlooking the town. Both sides instigated campaigns of terror tactics throughout the summer. Catholic forces around Rouen increased until the Protestants were forced to ask for Queen Elizabeth of England for help. Her forces arrived, as did Gabriel and his army, in September.
Fight for Rouen
For two brave months Gabriel and the Protestant armies held Rouen, fighting off numerous attacks. Then on 26 October 1562 the Catholic royalist troops retook Rouen and pillaged it for three days. Gabriel and a handful of his closest lieutenants escaped by boat and headed along the Seine. Their ship was forced to a stop by a chain across the river at Caudebec, put in place to hold up English ships from the north. Taking to a row boat, Gabriel made it to Havre and on to England.
Back in France in 1563, Gabriel Montgomery put himself and his army in the service of highly respected Protestant leader Gaspard de Coligny, Seigneur de Châtillon. As they successfully fought for the rights (and growing power) of Protestants (also known as Huguenots) across France, Gaspard thanked him with the governorship of Lower Normandy.
Massacre of St. Bartholomew
The wedding of the Protestant Henry, King of Navarre, and Marguerite de Valois, King Charles IX’s sister in 1572 should have heralded peace. However tension was extremely high in Paris as many Protestant nobles and their entourages arrived to pay their respects. Gabriel, now perhaps one of the greatest Protestant commanders, was with them.
All was peaceful until 22 August, the day after the end of wedding festivities. To the shock and anger of his supporters, Gaspard was shot in the street. It was quickly confirmed that the assassin was a man called Maurevert, shooting from a house belonging to powerful catholic noble de Guise. Fortunately Gaspard was only injured; the bullets tore a finger from his right hand and shattered his left elbow. Maurevet escaped.
The Protestants were in uproar, convinced Maurevet was in the pay of either the de Guise family, Catherine de Medici (Charles IX’s mother) or the duke of Alba on behalf of the King of Philip II of Spain.
Wanting peace and fearing a battle in Paris, King sent his own physician to treat Gaspard. He even visited and tried to speak with Gaspard, a man he knew and admired, but was prevented from any private conversation by his mother.
Catholic nobles in Paris claimed to be terrified of Protestant retaliation and planned a pre-emptive strike. First the Duke of Guise and his uncle the Duke of Aumale were put in charge of the military and, with the excuse of wanting to avoid an uprising, the doors of Paris closed. They would not have so many of their enemy in one, poorly guarded place again and swore not to waste this opportunity.
On the night of 24 August a group of de Guise’s most loyal and lethal soldiers attacked Gaspard’s lodgings. They killed his entourage, plunged a sword into Gaspard’s heart and threw him out of the window where his body landed at de Guise’s feet. Gaspard was still alive as one of de Guise’s men cut off his head. The murder was the signal to begin a massacre of all Protestant nobles in Paris. Throughout the night they were dragged out of their beds and killed. In the morning a horrified Charles IX tried ineffectually to stop the massacre. But soon no Protestant was safe and the slaughter lasted days, spreading beyond Paris.
Catherine de Medici singled out Gabriel as a particular target but he was staying on the other side of the Seine in Faubourg Saint-Germain, away from the early onslaught. One of his supporters, injured in the attack, swam across the Seine to warn his compatriots what was happening.
Gabriel and his men immediately fled at full speed, pursued by two hundred horsemen led by de Guise, Aumale and the Duke of Angoulême, bastard brother of the King. They got away.
A large bounty was put on Gabriel’s head. First he took refuge with his family on the island of Jersey but it was not secure and they made their way to England.
Catherine de Medici repeatedly demanded that Queen Elizabeth I return Gabriel to the French court. Elizabeth, rather fond of Gabriel and knowing this would be signing his death warrant, refused.
Failure at La Rochelle
In just a few months word reached England about a terrible siege at La Rochelle. The town had been a Protestant stronghold for years so was of course now seen as a threat to the Catholics, particularly those who like flexing their power. The siege was led by the Duke of Anjou. Gathering a huge force of ships and Protestant supporters, in April 1573 Gabriel confidently sailed for La Rochelle. He underestimated Anjou and despite great bravery he and his navy were repulsed.
Furious, Gabriel sailed north with the remains of his fleet and briefly captured the island of Belle-Île. It was not long before he was dislodged and back in England.
Back for more war
Gabriel was soon back in Jersey, planning a bold return to France. By March 1574 he was back in Normandy with an army of 5,000 men. They set about making their presence felt, burning, looting and killing their way across Cotentin, but could not shift Catholic Marshall Matignon and his army of 8,000 from Cherbourg. Catherine de Medici had awarded skillful soldier Matignon the lieutenant generalship of lower Normandy and made it clear it was his responsibility to kill the man who murdered her husband. Matignon and his army went after Gabriel.
Matignon caught up with Gabriel and his depleted forces at St Lo and started to organise a siege. Before St Lo was secured Gabriel, on horseback with a cavalry of around 70 of his best men, managed to force their way past Matignon’s surprised guard and escape under a shower of musket bullets.
He didn’t lose a single man.
The siege of Domfront
His cavalry split and Gabriel arrived at Domfront on 8 May 1574 with 20 men. They intended to stay just long enough to take on supplies and more recruits. He was joined by a company of 40 on horseback. In total a garrison of 150 stood ill prepared in Domfront as Matignon launched a surprise and vicious attack.
Over the next few weeks as Domfront ran out of food, water and munitions, Matignon kept up a fierce onslaught, shooting, sending burning waste over the battlements and attempting to breach the walls. His forces grew as Gabriel’s fell, either through death or desertion.
High on Domfront hill Gabriel would have seen soldiers marching towards the siege from miles around. Soldiers who all supported Matignon.
Gabriel and his remaining handful of men were forced back into the castle as Domfront town fell and Matignon kept up a constant heavy artillery assault. At the last, after a particularly fierce battle over 5 hours, Gabriel knew they could go on no longer.
Surrender and a lie
On 27 May, assured by Matignon he and his men would not be killed, they surrendered. Of course Matignon was not telling the truth.
Gabriel was taken straight to Paris into the unforgiving custody of Catherine de Medici. Charlies IX had died that year and she had claimed regency, her next son being too young to rule.
With high treason his crime, torture was mandatory. Being Gabriel de Montgomery, he gave nothing away. Sentenced to death Gabriel refused to confess his sins or receive a catholic priest’s last rights.
Brave end and a curse
In front of great, baying Catholic crowds Gabriel de Lorges, comte de Montgomery was led to the scaffold on 26 June 1574. He appeared infuriatingly serene. A royal edict was read to him; his land was to be confiscated and his children would not inherit his titles.
Still unbowed Gabriel shouted “tell my children, if they are not able to reclaim their position, I curse them from the grave!”
And then they cut off his head.
One of his sons, held under the scaffold, was sprayed with his blood. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this terrible day would be far from the end of the Montgomery family, in Normandy.
Read ‘The life and times of Ambrose Paré ’ by Francis R Packard 1921, with details of King Henry II’s injury and surgery
Domfront castle was considered a danger to kings for many years after this siege and finally destroyed on the orders of the duc de Sully in 1608. The old castle ruins are now a part of a beautiful park and you can walk here in the footsteps of Gabriel de Montgomery, for free.
- More about the Montgomery family in Normandy here