Wars of Religion, French

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WARS OF RELIGION, FRENCH. The rapid growth of Protestantism in France that began in the 1530s reached a climax around 1560, when roughly one in every twenty French men and women had converted to the new faith. This extraordinary growth resulted in a predictable backlash by French Catholics, whose church and monarchy declared all Protestantsand in France they were overwhelmingly Calvinists, who came to be called Huguenotsto be heretics. For Catholics, Protestants living in their midst not only threatened their eternal souls, but were believed to threaten their earthly existence as well. In an age when every major outbreak of plague, famine, and disease tended to be interpreted as a sign of God's punishment for their sins, most French Catholics believed that heresy within their midst was an open invitation for God's wrath to be visited upon them. Thus, the majority of French Catholics were openly hostile to the Reformation. These popular feelings were reinforced by the French monarchy, as kings Henry II (ruled 15471559) and Francis II (ruled 15591560) sought to eliminate heresy in their kingdom via both persecution and prosecution. The surge in Protestant growth in the late 1550s, however, meant that the official royal policy of suppression was never likely to succeed. And when the Huguenots seized several major towns by force in 15611562, it was clear that suppression had not worked.

Moreover, by 1562 several key members of some prominent noble families such as the Bourbons and the Albrets had converted to the new religion, further exacerbating political tensions and rivalries at court. Their chief rivals, the Guise family, had long championed the Catholic cause; and since the young King Francis II's wife was Mary Stuart of Scotland, whose mother was Mary of Guise, the Guises found themselves in a position of authority during Francis's reign. When the king died of an ear abscess in December 1560, however, his successor was his nine-year-old brother, Charles IX (ruled 15601574). The unwritten French constitution required a regent to be appointed until the young king reached his fourteenth year, when he could then govern in his own right. Catherine de Médicis, Henry II's widow, as queen mother of both Francis II and Charles IX, accepted this position, and it was she who had to face the prospect of dealing with the Protestant problem, given that suppression as a policy had simply not worked. Although she was not in favor of religious toleration in principleindeed, it was very difficult in the sixteenth century even to imagine such a conceptCatherine attempted to work out some kind of limited coexistence. First, she called together leaders of both the Huguenot and Catholic churches at the Colloquy of Poissy in 1561 to see if a compromise were possible. But both the cardinal of Lorraine on the Catholic side and Théodore de Bèze, Calvin's lieutenant from Geneva on the Protestant side, recognized that significant compromise on either the doctrinal or liturgical issues that divided them was impossible. Despite the lack of success at Poissy, however, Catherine went ahead and issued an edict in January 1562, recognizing the legal right of French Protestants to exist and even worship in a few limited areas of the kingdom for the first time. This milestone was far from religious toleration, but it marked a sharp break with the previous royal policies of persecuting Protestants as heretics. French Catholics, however, refused either to accept or enforce the edict. When the prince of Condé, a Protestant member of the Bourbon family, raised troops to enforce the edict on his own, civil war was the result. Over the next thirty-six years, not only did French Huguenots and Catholics raise armies to fight each other on the battlefield, they also fought each other as civilians in towns and cities across the kingdom. Thus, violence in the streets among civilians became a hallmark of the French Wars of Religion for an extended period, imposing on France an experience unmatched by other territories affected by the Reformation: two generations of civil war.

The outbreak of civil war in the spring of 1562 began a long series of armed conflicts, followed by brief periods of siege or battlefield confrontation between the two armies, and concluded by extended peace negotiations and a peace treaty. Each of these successive civil wars followed a similar pattern. While one side might manage to defeat the other's army on the battlefield, there was no way that either could effectively administer a heavy enough defeat to disarm all the civilians and nobles on the other side, much less occupy its opponent's cities and towns. Thus, each successive peace treaty had to be a forced compromise, offering very limited rights and legal guarantees that were never enough to provide complete security and freedom of worship for French Protestants. But even limited rights were far too numerous for French Catholics, and each period of peace was soon followed by another outbreak of war. In all, France was to suffer through eight separate civil wars between 1562 and 1598.


The first major turning point in the religious wars came in August 1572 with the massacres in Paris that began in the early morning hours of 24 August, St. Bartholomew's Day. Two days earlier, members of the Guise family, probably with the tacit support of Catherine de Médicis, had come to the decision to assassinate Gaspard de Coligny, admiral of France and the military leader of the Huguenots, because of fears of a Huguenot military reprisal in Paris, where many Protestant nobles had gathered for the royal wedding between the king's sister Margaret and Henry of Navarre, son of the Protestants Anthony de Bourbon and Jeanne d'Albret, king and queen of Navarre. Though there was no Protestant coup being planned by Coligny, the assassination attempt nevertheless took place. Because it failed, however, only seriously wounding Coligny, the many Huguenot nobles in Paris began to fear for their lives. This only exacerbated the fears of the Guise family and the queen mother, who managed to persuade the king, Charles IX, and the rest of his council on 23 August to undertake another murder attempt on Coligny, this time accompanied by the killing of roughly two dozen of the leading Huguenot nobles in Paris. When these murders were duly carried out in the early morning hours of 24 August, the feast day of St. Bartholomew, many Catholics in Paris misunderstood the killings as a sign that the king wished all Huguenots in Paris to be killed. Since there had already been violence between Protestants and Catholics in Paris the previous year, it did not take much to set off widespread attacks against all Huguenots in the capital. Over the next two days Parisian Catholics killed upwards of 2,000 French Protestants. The events in the capital sparked similar massacres in a dozen provincial towns across the kingdom over the next few weeks. By October 1572 as many as six to eight thousand Huguenots had been killed. These massacres marked an end to Protestant growth in France, not so much because of the loss of life, as considerable as it was, but because of the chilling symbolic impact of the massacres. It appeared to many that the crown had returned to a policy of cruel suppression, while many Huguenots saw the massacres as a sign that God had abandoned them. A significant number of them began to abjure their religion and convert to Catholicism as a result. Most Huguenots did not convert, however, and the intermittent cycle of war and peace soon commenced once again.


The second major watershed in the civil wars occurred in June 1584 when the last surviving Valois heir to the throne, Francis, duke of Anjou, died from tuberculosis at the age of 29. King Henry III (ruled 15741589), who had succeeded his brother Charles IX two years after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacres, was childless. The death of his younger brother Anjou, who was the last and youngest of Catherine de Médicis's and Henry II's four sons, meant that the next in line to the throne was Henry of Navarre, a Protestant. This unfortunate consequence resulted in the Guise family's organizing a Holy Catholic League, backed by money and troops from King Philip II of Spain, to pressure the king to disavow Navarre, who, despite his legitimacy as heir by birth, was rendered illegitimate because of his religion. The political pressure mounted by the league was so great, in fact, that in 1585 these militant Catholics even managed to get Henry III to issue an ordinance making it illegal to be Protestant in France, revoking all the limited rights of existence that Huguenots had won since Catherine de Médicis's original edict in January 1562. It certainly appeared that the policies of suppression of the 1550s had returned once again. Moreover, when Henry, duke of Guise, entered Paris against Henry III's will in May 1588, Guise's reception was so warm and his popularity among the Parisian people so great that the king was forced to flee his own capital. He gained his revenge by having Guise and his brother murdered in December 1588. Victory was only temporary, however, as Henry III himself was murdered the following August by a disgruntled Catholic monk. Thus, from August 1589 Henry of Navarre was recognized as the legitimate king of Franceas King Henry IV (ruled 15891610)only by French Protestants and a small minority of Catholics who were willing to place his legitimacy by birth above his Calvinist religion. The overwhelming majority of French Catholics, however, urged on by the league, refused to accept Navarre's claim to the throne and held out against him. The cycle of civil war was destined to continue.


The final watershed in the French Wars of Religion occurred in July 1593, after four long years of indecisive fighting between the armies of King Henry IV and the Catholic League. The city of Paris had been besieged by the royalist forces of the king in 1590, and some Parisians even starved to death in a long, ruinous summer. The turning point came when Henry made the decision to abjure his Protestant religion and take instruction in the Catholic faith. It was certainly not a cynical decision, as his enemies claimed, nor one made lightly. Henry had been a devout Calvinist ever since he was first instructed in the faith by his mother. He was forced to recognize, however, that the French constitution required the king to be Catholic. To resolve the long religious conflict and bring the disorders in the kingdom to an end, Henry publicly converted to Catholicism in the summer of 1593. When the pope formally absolved the king shortly thereafter, the many nobles and towns loyal to the league began to submit to his authority and accept him as their new monarch. But Henry IV still faced the same problem as all his predecessors: how to produce a peace treaty that was acceptable to both sides with a chance of survival. The Edict of Nantes, published in the spring of 1598, looked on paper to be very similar to many of the numerous earlier edicts of pacification, none of which had proved very durable. France had suffered horribly during the wars of the league, however, as increased warfare combined with economic and agrarian crises in the 1590s to create loud demands from within various elements of the population to stop the fighting. Bands of armed peasants in Burgundy, Perigord, and Limousin, some of whom may have been organized by elites, organized to keep soldiers out of their villages whether they were Huguenots or Catholics. Thus, the situation was very different from the earlier peace edicts, as the entire kingdom's resolve to continue to wage war in such dire economic circumstances began to waver.

Another principal difference between the Edict of Nantes and the seven earlier edicts of pacification is that Henry IV explicitly appealed to both sides. To the Catholic majority, he promised in the preamble of the edict that France would forever remain a Catholic country, and that one day God would bless his kingdom by reuniting all French men and women in the one true Catholic faith. The various articles of the edict spelled out that the monarchy, the state, and all French institutions would also remain Catholic, thus ensuring that Catholicism would never be jeopardized as the official religion of the kingdom. The edict also restored the Catholic Mass in all Protestant areas where it had been banned, introducing it into some areas for the first time in forty years. In addition, the edict required all Huguenots to begin paying the ecclesiastical tithe to the Catholic Church, just as their Catholic counterparts had always done, in order to provide for the salaries of parish priests throughout the kingdom. On the surface, then, the Edict of Nantes was meant to appease French Catholics, especially those former members of the league who had opposed the king prior to his conversion.

On the other side, the edict made clear that Huguenots had freedom of conscience in France, meaning they would not be persecuted for simply being Protestant. Their right to freedom of worship, however, was severely restricted, limited to those towns mainly in the south of France already under Huguenot control in August 1597. Moreover, all former Catholic churches in these areas were to be turned back over to the French Catholic Church. The Huguenots would have to build their own churches, or worship in private (meaning largely aristocratic) homes in the towns they controlled. But the king also granted the Huguenots concessions not made public in the edict. First, they were given a special subsidy to pay the salaries of their ministers, offsetting the ecclesiastical tithe required in the edict itself. More importantly, Henry granted the Huguenots the right to garrison troops in the towns they controlled, thereby guaranteeing their own safety and defense. Thus in a variety of ways, while the Edict of Nantes initiated a period of religious coexistence, it was far from a policy of religious toleration. And for most among the French Catholic majority, even this religious coexistence was thought to be only temporary, until those remaining Protestants might be won back to the true faith, following the example set by King Henry IV. For them, the future of France was as a kingdom of Catholic uniformity of religion. The Huguenots, however, recognized that their gains in the edict would last only as long as they were loyal to the crown and only as long as their newly converted king chose to enforce them. Henry's son Louis XIII (ruled 16101643) sought to dismantle the subsidies and military protection of the Huguenots, while Henry's grandson Louis XIV (ruled 16431715) revoked the Edict of Nantes altogether in 1685.

See also Catherine de Médicis ; Catholic League (France) ; Coligny Family ; Condé Family ; France ; Guise Family ; Henry IV (France) ; Huguenots ; Nantes, Edict of ; St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre .


Primary Source

Potter, David, ed. and trans. The French Wars of Religion: Selected Documents. New York, 1997.

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Mack P. Holt