Wars of Religion

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Wars of Religion

Between 1562 and 1598 France was torn apart by eight Wars of Religion. The conflicts began as a struggle between French Protestants who wanted freedom to practice their religion and Catholics who saw themselves as defenders of the true faith. The wars also had political roots in the rivalry among French nobles for royal patronage*.

The French monarchy was closely allied to the Roman Catholic Church, and kings of France took an oath to protect the faith and fight heresy*. When the church declared the teachings of Martin Luther to be heretical in 1521, the French monarch became the enemy of French Protestants. By the 1550s the more militant Protestantism of John Calvin had arrived in France, and King Henry II stepped up efforts to eliminate heresy. Henry's sudden death in 1559 put his son Francis II on the throne.

Francis was heavily influenced by his wife's uncles, the duke of Guise and cardinal of Lorraine, who were fervent defenders of the Catholic faith. Persecution of Protestants increased under Francis, particularly after the discovery of a plot by Calvinist nobles to kidnap the young king. When Francis died in 1560, the queen mother, Catherine de MÉdicis, declared herself regent* for the ten-year-old heir, Charles IX. Catherine's efforts to create a more tolerant atmosphere for religion led to even greater Catholic opposition. Violence against Huguenots* increased, and in 1562 Guise forces killed Protestants gathered for a service near the town of Wassy.

Catherine, torn between opposing factions, tried to maintain peace. The Peace of Amboise in 1563 allowed Protestants to worship openly in certain settings but imposed various restrictions. Many Catholics opposed the peace, and some of the king's advisers continued to call for persecution of Huguenots. This led to another plot to seize the king, which sparked a new war. Another unpopular and ineffective peace treaty followed in 1568.

New fighting erupted a few months later and lasted about a year. The treaty that followed expanded the religious rights of Protestants slightly and allowed them to hold certain fortified cities for their defense. Many Catholics reacted strongly against the terms of the treaty. In August 1572 they launched a wave of killings, called the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, that left 2,000 people dead in Paris and an unknown number in a dozen other towns. In southern France, Protestants drew up a constitution that separated them from the monarchy. They formed an alliance with moderate Catholics who wanted to end the fighting and who supported the Huguenots' calls for freedom of worship.

Charles IX's death in 1574 put his brother, Henry III, on the throne and raised Catholic hopes for victory. However, the crown's poor finances limited Henry's ability to raise an effective army, and he was forced to sign another peace with the Huguenots. The terms of the peace angered Catholic nobles, who formed the radical Holy League to fight for defense of the faith. The fighting continued, debts mounted, and Henry became increasingly unpopular. In 1585 the Holy League pressured him into taking back the privileges granted to the Huguenots and starting a new war against Protestantism.

In renewed fighting, Protestant forces won the Battle of Coutras in 1587, but a Guise army unexpectedly defeated German mercenaries* arriving to help the Huguenots. Meanwhile, Henry came to fear his allies in the Holy League more than the Protestants. The king ordered them not to come to Paris, where the league was very popular, but they came anyway. When Henry tried to restrain the league's enthusiastic supporters, Parisians drove him from the city. The king then had Henri de Guise and his brother assassinated, causing the league members to revolt and take control of Paris. Henry planned a siege* of the city but was assassinated in August 1589 before he could begin the campaign.

Because Henry left no heirs, the throne passed to Henry de Bourbon, king of Navarre, who took the name Henry IV. Henry IV started the siege of Paris in 1590. Although a Protestant, he converted to Catholicism in 1593 in an effort to reduce Catholic opposition to his rule. Paris surrendered the following year, and over the next few years many towns surrendered voluntarily or fell to Henry's forces. By 1598 the last Catholic noble had lain down his arms. In April of that year, Henry signed the Edict of Nantes, which granted freedom of worship to Protestants. Despite Catholic resistance to the edict, a period of peace and relative stability returned to France after nearly 40 years of war.

(See alsoCatholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation; France; Guise-Lorraine Family; Protestant Reformation. )

* patronage

support or financial sponsorship

* heresy

belief that is contrary to the doctrine of an established church

* regent

person who acts on behalf of a monarch who is too young or unable to rule

* Huguenot

French Protestant of the 1500 and 1600s, follower of John Calvin

* mercenary

hired soldier

* siege

prolonged effort to force a surrender by surrounding a fortress or town with armed troops, cutting the area off from aid