The French Wars of Religion (1562 to 1598) between French Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots) involved both civil infighting and military operations. The wars also involved a struggle between the House of Bourbon and the powerful House of Guise (Lorraine) allied with the Catholic League. In addition, they may also be considered a war by proxy between King Philip II of Spain and Queen Elizabeth I of England. The wars concluded with the issuing of the Edict of Nantes by Henry IV of France, which granted a degree of religious toleration to Protestants.
Lutheranism was introduced in France after about 1520. Initially, King Francis I was tolerant of religious reformers, but after the Affair of the Placards in 1534, he began to view Protestants as a threat and openly moved against them. One French Protestant, John Calvin, found refuge in Geneva, where he came to hold great influence on the reform movement. During the reign of Henry II (1547 - 1559), Calvinism gained numerous converts in France among the French nobility, the middle class, and the intelligentsia. Although Huguenots accounted for only a small fraction of the French population, their wealth, influence and anti-Catholic proselytizing began to cause resentment.
In 1559, delegates from 66 Calvinist congregations in France met secretly at Paris in a national synod which drew up a confession of faith and a book of discipline. Thus was organized the first national Protestant church of France.
The first instances of Protestant destruction of images and statues in Catholic churches occurred in Rouen and La Rochelle in 1560. The following year, these disturbances extended to over twenty cities and towns, and would, in turn, incite Catholic urban groups to bloody reprisals in Sens, Cahors, Carcassonne, Tours and other cities.
In December 1560, Francis II died, and his mother Catherine de' Medici became regent for her second son Charles IX. Inexperienced and lacking financial support, Catherine felt that she had to steer the throne carefully between the powerful and conflicting interests that surrounded it, embodied by the powerful aristocrats who led essentially private armies. Although she was a sincere Roman Catholic, she was prepared to deal favourably with the Huguenot House of Bourbon in order to have a counterweight against the overmighty House of Guise. She nominated a moderate chancellor, Michel de l'Hôpital, who urged a number of measures providing for toleration of the Huguenots.
She therefore was led to support religious toleration in the shape of the Edict of Saint-Germain (January 1562), which allowed the Huguenots to worship publicly outside of towns and privately inside of them. On March 1, however, a faction of the Guise family's retainers attacked a Calvinist service in Wassy-sur-Blaise in Champagne and massacred the worshippers. As hostilities broke out, the Edict was revoked, under pressure from the Guise faction. The Huguenot Jean de la Fontaine put it this way:
"The Protestants were engaged in prayer outside the walls, in conformity with the king's edict, when the Duke of Guise approached. Some of his suite insulted the worshippers, and from insults they proceeded to blows, and the Duke himself was accidentally wounded in the cheek. The sight of his blood enraged his followers, and a general massacre of the inhabitants of Vassy ensued.
This provoked the First War. The Bourbons, led by Louis I de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, organised a kind of protectorate over the Protestant churches and began to seize and garrison strategic towns along the Loire. Here, at Dreux and at Orléans, occurred the first major engagements; at Dreux, Condé was captured by the Guises and Montmorency, the governor general, by the Bourbons. In February 1563, at Orléans, Francis, Duke of Guise was assassinated, and Catherine's fears that the war might drag on led her to mediate a truce and the Edict of Amboise (1563).
This was generally regarded as unsatisfactory by all concerned, the Guise faction being particularly opposed to what they saw as dangerous concessions to heretics. The political temperature of the surrounding lands was rising, as unrest grew in the Netherlands. The Huguenots became suspicious of Spanish intentions when King Philip II of Spain reinforced the strategic corridor from Italy north along the Rhine. Protestant troops then made an unsuccessful attempt to capture and take control of King Charles IX in the Surprise of Meaux, and Catholic priests were massacred the following day in Nimes in the Michelade. This provoked a further outburst of hostilities (the Second War) which ended in another unsatisfactory truce, the Peace of Longjumeau (March 1568).
In September of that year, war again broke out (the Third War). Catherine and Charles decided this time to ally themselves with the House of Guise. Religious toleration was once more at an end, and the Huguenot army, under the command of Louis I de Bourbon, prince de Condé and aided by forces from south-eastern France led by Paul de Mouvans and a contingent of fellow Protestant militias from Germany — including 14,000 mercenary reiters led by the Calvinist Duke of Zweibrücken. After the Duke was killed in action, he was succeeded by the Count of Mansfeld and the Dutch William of Orange and his brothers Louis and Henry. Much of the Huguenots' financing came from Queen Elizabeth of England, who was likely influenced in the matter by Sir Francis Walsingham. The Catholics were commanded by the Duke d'Anjou (later King Henry III) and assisted by troops from Spain, the Papal States and the Grand Duchy of Tuscany.
The Protestant army laid siege to several cities in the Poitou and Saintonge regions (to protect La Rochelle), and then Angoulême and Cognac. At the Battle of Jarnac (16 March 1569), the Prince de Condé was killed, forcing Admiral de Coligny to take command of the Protestant forces. The Battle of La Roche-l'Abeille was a nominal victory for the Calvinists, but they were unable to seize control of Poitiers and were soundly defeated at the Battle of Moncontour (October 30 1569). Coligny and his troops retreated to the south-west and regrouped with Gabriel, comte de Montgomery, and in spring of 1570 they pillaged Toulouse, cut a path through the south of France and went up the Rhone valley up to La Charité-sur-Loire. The staggering royal debt and Charles IX's desire to seek a peaceful solution led to the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye (8 August 1570), which once more allowed some concessions to the Huguenots.
Despite this shaky truce, Anti-Protestant massacres of Huguenots at the hands of Catholic mobs continued, in cities such as Rouen, Orange and Paris. Matters at Court were further complicated thereafter as King Charles IX openly allied himself with the Huguenot leaders — especially Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. Meanwhile, the Queen Mother became increasingly fearful of the unchecked power wielded by Coligny and his supporters, especially when it became clear that Coligny was bent on forcing an alliance with England and the Dutch rebels.
Coligny along with many other wealthy and powerful Calvinists arrived in Paris for the wedding of the Catholic Princess Marguerite de Valois to the Protestant Henry of Navarre on August 18. On August 22, an assassin made a failed attempt on Coligny's life, shooting him in the street from a window. The bullets went astray, causing merely the loss of a finger on his right hand and a broken left arm. While historians have suggested a likely identity to the assassin (Charles de Louvier, sieur de Maurevert), the source of the order to assassinate Coligny has never been determined (it is improbable that the order came from Catherine). Catherine and her supporters believed the Huguenots might stage a coup, so they decided in the small royal council (in the afternoon and night of 23 August), with the approval of the King, to make a preemptive strike by assassinating a limited number of the most powerful Huguenots who might organize a counterattack. In the early morning of August 24, the Duke de Guise arrived at the lodging of Coligny, and there Coligny and several of his men were killed; Coligny's body was thrown from the window into the street, and was subsequently mutilated, castrated, dragged through the mud, thrown in the river and finally suspended on a gallows and burned by the Parisian crowd. For the next five days, the city degenerated into anarchy, erupting into full-scale murder of Calvinist men, women and children, and the looting of their houses, a massacre that was neither approved nor predicted by the king. Over the next few weeks it spread to more than a dozen cities across France. This event became known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Perhaps 2,000 Huguenots were slaughtered in Paris and, in the days that followed, thousands more in the provinces; in all, perhaps 10,000 people were killed.
Both Philip II of Spain and Pope Gregory XIII declared themselves pleased with the outcome, which naturally provoked horror and outrage by their religious opponents throughout Europe. In France, it all but decapitated Huguenot opposition to the crown.
The massacres set off the Fourth War, which included Catholic sieges of the cities of Sommières (by troops led by Henri I de Montmorency), Sancerre and the La Rochelle (by troops led by the Duke d'Anjou). The end of hostilities was brought on by the election (11 - 15 May 1573) of the Duke of Anjou to the throne of Poland and by the Edict of Boulogne (signed in July 1573) which severely curtailed many of the rights previously granted to French Protestants. Based on the terms of the treaty, all Huguenots were granted amnesty for their past actions and the freedom of belief. However, they were permitted the freedom to worship only within the three towns of La Rochelle, Montauban, and Nimes, and even then only within their own residences; Protestant aristocrats with the right of high-justice were permitted to celebrate marriages and baptisms, but only before an assembly limited to ten persons outside of their family.
Henry soon found himself in the difficult position of trying to maintain royal authority in the face of feuding warlords who refused to compromise. In 1576, the King signed the Edict of Beaulieu, granting many concessions to the Calvinists, but his action resulted in the ultra-Catholic, Henry I, Duke of Guise, forming the Catholic League. The Guise faction had the unwavering support of the Spanish Crown and were therefore in a very powerful position throughout the 1580s. The Huguenots, however, had the advantage of a strong power base in the southwest; they were also discreetly supported by outside Protestant governments, but in practice, England or the German states could provide few troops. At the end of the Sixth War (1576-1577), after much posturing and negotiations, Henry III was forced to rescind most of the concessions that had been made to the Protestants in the Edict of Beaulieu with the Treaty of Bergerac (also known as the "Edict of Poitiers"). Two years later, further hostilities — the Seventh War (1579-1580) — ended in the stalemate of the Treaty of Fleix.
The fragile compromise came to an end in 1584, when the King's youngest brother and heir presumptive, François, Duke of Anjou, died. As Henry III had no son, under Salic Law, the next heir to the throne was the Calvinist Prince Henri of Navarre, a descendant of Louis IX whom Pope Sixtus V had excommunicated along with his cousin, Henri Prince de Condé. Under pressure from the Duke of Guise, Henri III reluctantly issued an edict suppressing Protestantism and annulling Henri of Navarre's right to the throne.
In December 1584, the Duke of Guise signed the Treaty of Joinville on behalf of the League with Philip II of Spain, who supplied a considerable annual grant to the League over the following decade to maintain the civil war in France, with the hope of destroying the French Calvinists. The House of Guise had long been identified with the defense of the Roman Catholic Church and the Duke of Guise and his relations — the Duke of Mayenne, Duke of Aumale, Duke of Elboeuf, Duke of Mercoeur and the Duke of Lorraine — controlled extensive territories that were loyal to the League. The League also had a large following among the urban middle class.
The King at first tried to co-opt the head of the Catholic League and steer it towards a negotiated settlement. This was anathema to the Guise leaders, who wanted to bankrupt the Huguenots and divide their considerable assets with the King. The situation degenerated into the Eighth War (1585-1598), in which the initial phase (as the head of the Guise family was also a Henry) is sometimes called the "War of the Three Henrys".
Henry of Navarre again sought foreign aid from the German princes and Elizabeth I of England. Meanwhile, the solidly Catholic people of Paris, under the influence of the Committee of Sixteen were becoming dissatisfied with Henry III and his failure to defeat the Calvinists. On 12 May 1588, a popular uprising raised barricades on the streets of Paris, and Henry III fled the city. The Committee of Sixteen took complete control of the government and welcomed the Duke of Guise to Paris. The Guises then proposed a settlement with a cipher as heir and demanded a meeting of the Estates-General, which was to be held in Blois.
Viewing the House of Guise as a dangerous threat to the power of the Crown, King Henri decided to strike first. On December 23, 1588, at the Château de Blois, Henry of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal de Guise, were lured into a trap by the King's guards. The Duke arrived in the council chamber where his brother the Cardinal waited. The Duke was told that the King wished to see him in the private room adjoining the royal chambers. There guardsmen seized the duke and stabbed him in the heart, while others arrested the Cardinal who later died on the pikes of his escort. To make sure that no contender for the French throne was free to act against him, the King had the Duke's son imprisoned. The Duke of Guise had been highly popular in France, and the league declared open war against King Henry. The Parlement of Paris instituted criminal charges against the King, who now joined forces with his cousin, the Huguenot, Henry of Navarre, to war against the League.
It thus fell upon the younger brother of the Guise, the Duke of Mayenne, to become the leader of the Catholic League. The League presses began printing anti-royalist tracts under a variety of pseudonyms, while the Sorbonne proclaimed that it was just and necessary to depose Henri III, and that any private citizen was morally free to commit regicide, a declaration reminiscent of the Papal bull Regnans in Excelsis against Elizabeth I. In July 1589, in the royal camp at Saint-Cloud, a Dominican monk named Jacques Clément gained an audience with the King and drove a long knife into his spleen. Clément was killed on the spot, taking with him the information of who, if anyone, had hired him. On his deathbed, Henri III called for Henry of Navarre, and begged him, in the name of Statecraft, to become a Catholic, citing the brutal warfare that would ensue if he refused. In keeping with Salic Law, he named Henri as his heir.
The King knew that he had to take Paris if he stood any chance of ruling all of France. This, however, was no easy task. The Catholic League's presses and supporters continued to spread stories about atrocities committed against Catholic priests and the laity in Protestant England (see Forty Martyrs of England and Wales). The city prepared to fight to the death rather than accept a Calvinist king.
The Battle of Ivry, fought on March 14, 1590, was another decisive victory for Henry against forces led by the Duke of Mayenne. Henry's forces went on to lay siege to Paris, but the siege was broken by Spanish support. Realising that Henry III had been right and that there was no prospect of a Protestant king succeeding in resolutely Catholic Paris, Henry reputedly uttered the famous phrase Paris vaut bien une messe (Paris is well worth a Mass). He was formally received into the Roman Catholic Church in 1593 and was crowned at Chartres in 1594.
At the dawn of the 18th century, Protestants remained in significant numbers in the remote Cévennes region of the Massif Central. This population, known as the Camisards, revolted against the government in 1702, leading to fighting that continued intermittently until 1715, after which time the Camisards were largely left in peace.
Barbara B. Diefendorf, Beneath the Cross: Catholics and Huguenots in Sixteenth-Century Paris (Oxford, 1991).