Wars of Religion

Wars of Religion

Religion, Wars of, 1562-98, series of civil wars in France, also known as the Huguenot Wars.

The immediate issue was the French Protestants' struggle for freedom of worship and the right of establishment (see Huguenots). Of equal importance, however, was the struggle for power between the crown and the great nobles and the rivalry among the great nobles themselves for the control of the king. The foremost Protestant leaders were, successively, Louis I de Condé, Gaspard de Coligny, and Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV); the Catholic party was dominated by the house of Guise. A third party, called the Politiques and composed of moderate Catholics, sided with the Protestants, while Catherine de' Medici and her sons, Charles IX, Henry III, and Francis, duke of Alençon, vainly sought to maintain a balance of power by siding now with the Catholics, now with the Huguenots.

The Conspiracy of Amboise (1560), by which the Huguenots attempted to end the persecutions suffered at the hands of Francis II, was a prelude to the first three civil wars (1562-63, 1567-68, 1568-70). The Treaty of Saint-Germain (1570), ending the wars, gave the Protestants new liberties and the wardenship of four cities, including La Rochelle. The fourth civil war (1572-73) began with the massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day, a general slaughter of Protestants throughout France. The fifth civil war (1574-76) ended with the Peace of Monsieur (named for Francis of Alençon, who then sided with the Huguenots), which, ratified by the Edict of Beaulieu, granted freedom of worship throughout France except Paris.

When the Catholics retorted by forming the League (1576) and persuaded Henry III to repeal the edict of toleration (1577), the Huguenots revolted once more and sought the aid of foreign Protestant states. This sixth civil war ended with the Peace of Bergerac (1577), which renewed most of the terms of the Peace of Monsieur; this Henry III never carried out. A seventh war (1580) was inconsequential, but in 1584 the recognition by Henry III of the Protestant Henry of Navarre as his heir presumptive led to the renewal of the League by Henri de Guise and to the War of the Three Henrys (1585-89).

After the assassination of Henri de Guise (1588) and of Henry III (1589), the League, now headed by the duc de Mayenne, invoked the aid of Spain against Henry's successor, Henry IV. Henry, after his victories at Arques (1589) and Ivry (1590) and his conversion to Catholicism (1593), entered Paris in 1594.

With the Edict of Nantes (see Nantes, Edict of), which granted freedom of worship throughout France and established Protestantism in 200 towns, and with the Treaty of Vervins with Spain (both in 1598), Henry IV brought the Wars of Religion to as successful a conclusion as the Protestants could desire. This result, however, was completely reversed in the 17th cent. by Cardinal Richelieu, who broke the political power of the Protestants, and by Louis XIV, who destroyed their religious privileges by his revocation (1685) of the Edict of Nantes.

See study by J. W. Thompson (1958).

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.

Protestants in France

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 early conflicts

The accidental death of king Henry II in 1559 created a political vacuum that the faction around the powerful and ultra-catholic House of Guise was able to exploit and fill. (The niece of Francis, Duke of Guise -Mary, Queen of Scots -was queen to the new king Francis II. In March 1560, the "Amboise conspiracy", or "Tumult of Amboise", the attempt on the part of a group of disaffected nobles (led by Jean du Barry, seigneur de la Renaudie) to abduct the young king and eliminate the Guise faction, was foiled when their plans became discovered. Hundreds of plotters were executed. The Guise brothers suspected Louis I de Bourbon, prince de Condé of leading the plot, and he was arrested but eventually freed for lack of evidence, adding to the tensions of the period. (In the polemics that followed, the label "Huguenot" for France's Protestants came into widespread usage.)

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.

St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre

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 III

Three months after Henry of Anjou's coronation as King of Poland, his brother Charles IX died (May 1574). Henri secretly left Poland and returned via Venice to France, where he was crowned King Henry III in 1575, at Rheims, but hostilities – the Fifth War – had already flared up again.

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.

Henry IV

The situation on the ground in 1589 was that the new Henry IV of France, as Navarre had become, held the south and west, and the Catholic League the north and east. The leadership of the Catholic League had devolved to the Duke de Mayenne, who was appointed Lieutenant-General of the kingdom. He and his troops controlled most of rural Normandy. However, in September 1589, Henry inflicted a severe defeat on the Duke at the Battle of Arques. Henry's army swept through Normandy, taking town after town throughout the winter.

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.

War in Brittany

In 1582 Henry III, the last living male-line grandson of Claude, Duchess of Brittany, had made Philippe Emmanuel, Duke of Mercoeur, a leader of the Catholic League, governor of Brittany. Mercoeur put himself at the head of the Catholic League in Brittany, and had himself proclaimed protector of the Catholic Church in the province in 1588. Invoking the hereditary rights of his wife, Marie de Luxembourg, who was a descendant of the dukes of Brittany and heiress of the Blois-Brosse claim to the duchy as well as Duchess of Penthievre in Brittany, he endeavoured to make himself independent in that province, and organized a government at Nantes, proclaiming his son "prince and duke of Brittany". He allied with Philip II of Spain, who however sought to place his own daughter, infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, on the throne of Brittany. With the aid of the Spanish, Mercoeur defeated the Duke of Montpensier, whom Henry IV had sent against him, at Craon in 1592, but the royal troops, reinforced by English contingents, soon recovered the advantage. The king marched against Mercoeur in person, and received his submission at Angers on March 20, 1598. Mercoeur subsequently went to exile in Hungary. Mercoeur's daughter and heiress was married to the Duke of Vendôme, an illegitimate son of Henry IV.

Towards peace

Some members of the League fought on, but enough Catholics were won over by the King's conversion to make the diehards increasingly isolated. The Spanish withdrew from France under the terms of the Peace of Vervins. Henry was faced with the task of rebuilding a shattered and impoverished Kingdom and reuniting France under a single authority. The essential first step in this was the negotiation of the Edict of Nantes, which, rather than being a sign of genuine toleration, was in fact a kind of grudging truce between the religions, with guarantees for both sides. The Edict can be said to mark the end of the Wars of Religion.

Henry IV and his advisor, the duc de Sully continued the work of reconstruction and led France into a peaceful and prosperous age.

17th and 18th centuries

Although the Edict of Nantes brought the conflicts to a close, the political freedoms it granted to the Huguenots (seen by detractors as "a state within the state") became an increasing source of trouble during the 17th century. The decision of King Louis XIII to reintroduce Catholicism in a portion of southwestern France prompted a Huguenot revolt. By the Peace of Montpellier in 1622, the fortified Protestant towns were reduced to two: La Rochelle and Montauban. Another war followed, which concluded with the Siege of La Rochelle, in which royal forces led by Cardinal Richelieu blockaded the city for fourteen months. Under the 1629 Peace of La Rochelle, the brevets of the Edict (sections of the treaty which dealt with the military and pastoral clauses and which were renewable by letters patent) were entirely withdrawn, though Protestants retained their prewar religious freedoms. Over the remainder of Louis XIII's reign, and especially during the minority of Louis XIV, the implementation of the Edict varied year by year. In 1661 Louis XIV, who was particularly hostile to the Huguenots, assumed control of the French government and began to disregard some of the provisions of the Edict. In 1681 he instituted the policy of dragonnades, to intimidate Huguenot families to reconvert to Roman Catholicism or emigrate. Finally, in October 1685, Louis issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, which formally revoked the Edict and made the practice of Protestantism illegal in France. The revocation of the Edict had very damaging results for France. While it did not prompt renewed religious warfare, many Protestants chose to leave France rather than convert, with most moving to Great Britain, Prussia, the Dutch Republic and Switzerland.

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.


See also



Barbara B. Diefendorf, Beneath the Cross: Catholics and Huguenots in Sixteenth-Century Paris (Oxford, 1991).

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