The French Wars of Religion


Introduction: A sad weakness of Christianity and its practitioners is the inability to compromise on matters of the heart. The end result has been relentless bloodshed in the name of religion, often the result of violence against other Christians. Few Christians have historically displayed a willingness to tolerate a diversity of opinions on religious matters; violence rather than compromise has often been the rule. Post Reformation Europe was no exception to this sad fact.

For many people in early modern Europe, to tolerate other opinions on matters of faith was a sign of weak religious conviction or even an indication of heresy. There was a tendency on the part of many prominent individuals to declare themselves correct on matters of church doctrine and to declare their opponents not only wrong, but perhaps malevolently so. Martin Luther was no exception. He regularly referred to the pope as "the devil incarnate" and "a brothel keeper."

Political leaders of the day were no less emphatic in expressing (and following policies of) intolerance of the religious practices of others. A prime example is Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, who once referred to the Protestant Reformation as an "evil movement which seduces the people with false doctrines and incites rebellion." Although many political authorities, particularly within the Empire, saw the Reformation as an opportunity to seize Church property and authority, others saw it as a threat to law and order and their own power. Charles’ son, Philip II, King of Spain believed firmly that the only way to prevent souls from eternal damnation was to force them to convert (or re-convert) to Catholicism. Both sides of the debate did not hesitate to use force to coerce solutions. The end result was a wave of warfare that devastated Europe Best estimates are that almost one third the population died as a result of religious violence; a number that rivals the Black Death.-

War within the Empire: A group of Protestant leaders met in the town of Schmalkald in December, 1530, and formed the Schmalkaldic League, whereby they agreed to defend each other in the event of war with the Catholic Charles V. Charles was preoccupied elsewhere, as the Ottoman Turks under Suleiman the Magnificent had invaded the empire and had reached the gates of Vienna. To the great shock of many in Europe, the French King, Francis I, signed at treaty with the Turks which gave France the right to trade within the Empire. The most appalling circumstance was that a Catholic King of Europe had signed a treaty with an infidel (Muslim) ruler at war with another Catholic monarch.

Peace was finally established in 1538, and Charles turned his attention to religious problems within the empire. He had hoped that the Council of Trent would resolve differences with the Protestants, but when this was not forthcoming, he decided on the military option.

The conflict, known as the Schmalkaldic War, was finally resolved by the Peace of Augsburg, in 1555. The terms kept peace within the empire until 1618 and the outbreak of the thirty years war. Under the terms of the Diet, Local princes could determine the religion of their subjects. Lutheran areas of the Empire were given legal recognition and allowed to retain any territory they had acquired. Lutheran areas had to guarantee protection of Catholics and allow them to worship as they chose. However, only Lutheranism and Catholicism were recognized. There was no place or provision for Calvinists or Anabaptists. Following the implementation of the peace, hundreds of thousands of families left home and traveled to other areas where their religion was accepted.


The years of conflict were too much for Charles V. In 1556, he became the first Holy Roman Emperor to abdicate. He named his son Philip (Philip II) as king of Spain, and his brother, Ferdinand II as Holy Roman Emperor over the remaining empire.

Origin of Difficulties: The Hapsburg-Valois Wars had been expensive for France at a time when its King, Francis I, lavished himself with Renaissance paintings and architecture; far more than the nation’s budget could afford. In order to raise funds, Francis sold public offices which were traditionally held by nobility. The offices sold tended to become hereditary, which created a new class known as the "nobility of the robe." They were exempt from paying taxes. In addition, Francis secured a treaty with the Pope, the Concordat of Bologna, under the terms of which France accepted the supremacy of the Pope over a church council; in return for which the French Crown gained the right to appoint all French Bishops and Abbots. The Concordat essentially established Catholicism as the State religion of France, and effectively prevented any possibility of France becoming Protestant.

Despite Francis’ efforts to keep France Catholic, Calvinism won many converts in the country. It offered a tempting alternative to many noblemen who were resisting the extension of the King’s power. As many as 40% of the French nobility may have converted to Calvinism, not so much from religious conviction than as a means of political opposition to the King. Although the immediate issue that led to the French Wars of Religion was the Protestant struggle for freedom of worship and the right of establishment, it also was a struggle for power between the crown and the great French nobles, as well as between several prominent noble families for control of the crown itself. The prominent Catholic family was the House of Guise.

Francis was succeeded by his son, Henry II, (r. 1547-1559) who was even less tolerant of the French Huguenots. (French Protestants called themselves Huguenots. The origin of the term is one of some debate.) In 1547 he created a special committee to suppress heresy which became known as the "burning chamber." Rather then discourage Protestantism, his actions had the opposite effect, as those executed for heresy became martyrs for the cause. He was married to Catherine de Medici, daughter of Lorenzo de Medici (of Italian Renaissance fame), who was often reviled by the nobles as a "shopkeeper’s daughter."

In 1559, Henry signed a treaty of peace with Spain, (The Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis) which guaranteed a "perpetual peace" between the two countries, and ended the Hapsburg-Valois Wars fought by Charles V. To seal the deal, Henry’s daughter, Elizabeth of Valois, married Philip II of Spain. (Philip was recently widowed, as his wife, Mary I of England had died). In June 1559, a great tournament was held to celebrate the wedding. Henry, a veteran jouster, participated. In the last joust of the day, his opponent’s lance shattered and struck Henry in the eye. He died twelve days later from complications from his wound.

Henry was succeeded by his son, Francis II, a sickly fifteen year old boy, whose regent was his determined mother, Catherine de Medici. Catherine tried unsuccessfully to strike a balance between the Catholic and Protestant nobles. The Catholic Guise faction were increasingly fanatical about eliminating any Protestant influence, and rumors spread that they planned to kidnap the King and recognize their religion as official or abdicate.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre: Francis II died unexpectedly in December, 1560, and was succeeded by his younger brother, Charles IX (r. 1560-1574). Again, Catherine was regent. Although she attempted to sponsor discussions between Catholics and Protestants, her efforts were unsuccessful. The intense hatred each side felt for the other resulted in fighting that lasted for ten years. In 1572, both sides appeared to be ready to stop the bloodletting, and a celebration was planned for Saint Bartholomew’s Day, August 24, 1572. Hopes for peace were high, as the King’s sister, Marguerite of Valois, had married Henry Navarre (later Henry IV), a Huguenot prince. It was believed that this marriage would end the religious warfare.

Thousands of Huguenots attended the celebration in Paris, including their most influential leader, Gaspard de Coligny, admiral of France. The negotiations leading up to the wedding celebration had stated that the Huguenots would be unarmed, which they were; however the King’s Guise advisors (perhaps with his Mother’s approval) convinced him that the only way to prevent a general Protestant uprising was to strike brutally against the Huguenots.

On the morning of St. Bartholomew’s Day, a detachment of the King’s Swiss Guard led by the duke of Guise broke down the door to Coligny’s house. Coligny was murdered, his corpse battered and castrated, and thrown into the street where it was dragged through the streets by a mob of street urchins. The duke of Guise urged his troops to kill others, shouting, "Kill them, kill them all, it is the King’s command!" Over 2,000 Protestants were slaughtered in Paris alone, and a judicial court in the area issued a decree making it legal for anyone to kill a "heretic." Ten thousand Protestants were also massacred outside Paris. Henry of Navarre was captured, and only escaped death by promising to convert to Catholicism.

When news of the massacre reached Spain, Philip II, usually humorless, could not resist smiling to himself. In Rome, the Pope held a celebratory Mass to commemorate the event.

Even so, many Catholics felt that the matter had gone to far, and were appalled at the hatred and violence committed in the name of religion.

Henry III: Charles IX died in 1574 at the age of twenty four, and was succeeded by the next brother, Henry III (r.1574-1589. At his coronation, the crown slipped twice from his head, a bad omen in a time of superstition. Openly homosexual, Henry enjoyed dressing up as a woman and spending money with abandon on a group of handsome young men who gathered around him. In religious matters, he was more tolerant of Protestantism than had been his father or two brothers, and agreed to a truce that recognized the legality of Protestantism. His display of toleration greatly disturbed the hard-line Catholics who had been determined to rid the country of Huguenots. Flagellants reappeared in France in numbers not seen since the Black Death.

The War of the Three Henries: In June, 1584, Henry’s younger brother, the last of the Valois line, died. Henry had no children of his own (obviously!) and the next in line was Henry of Navarre, the Huguenot who had presumably converted under pressure following the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, but had since recanted.

With the possibility of a Huguenot King, France soon erupted into Civil War. It was known as the War of the Three Henries after its three major participants: Henry III (Valois); Henry of Navarre, the Huguenot and heir presumptive, and Henry of Guise, the Catholic champion. The war raged for two years.

Henry III learned of the defeat of the Spanish Armada and decided it was best to rid himself of Henry of Guise who had Spanish support. He invited Guise and his brother to a secret meeting to discuss peace, and then had them murdered. He was denounced as a traitor by the Catholics, and fled to the camp of Henry of Navarre, the Protestant. He planned to retake Paris but was assassinated on August 1, 1589 by a friar who thought the King was a traitor for being willing to accept a Protestant as his successor.

With the death of Henry III, Henry of Navarre became Henry IV. The new king, who "knew hot to fight, to make love, and to drink," was pragmatic enough to see that a fifth conversion, this time back to Catholicism, was in order. He wanted a strong, united France, and knew that the majority of Frenchmen were Roman Catholic. So, stating that "Paris is worth a mass," he embraced Catholicism. His willingness to sacrifice his religious convictions for political expediency saved France from further bloodshed and possible disintegration of the nation.

In 1598, Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes which granted religious liberty to the Huguenots. They would be allowed seventy five fortified towns plus other fortified places n which to exercise freedom of religion. They were declared eligible for public office and guaranteed the right to use schools and other facilities on an equal basis with Catholics. The Edict also declared Catholicism to be the official state Church of France, and restored all of the church’s former income and property. Although the Edict did not satisfy the extremists, it did provide a strong measure of Peace in a land long devastated by war.

Although a good King, Henry’s personal life was less than exemplary. He had six illegitimate children by three mistresses along with three children born to his queen. He proudly referred to his nine children as his "herd." On one occasion, he formally introduced one of his mistresses to his wife, demanding that the latter repeat her curtsy so that she bow a little lower, and the three dined together in a meal that had to be anything but comfortable.

Henry IV launched a major economic reform program, hoping to improve the life of the peasants. He remarked that he hoped every peasant family would have a chicken in the pot for Sunday dinner. He did make the effort, but was largely unsuccessful. It is remarkable only in that most rulers cared little about the welfare of the peasantry. The French people revered him to the extent that he was called "Henry le Grande." In 1610, a Monk who doubted the sincerity of Henry’s conversion to Catholicism murdered him.

Henry was succeeded by Louis XIII, who went very far to bring absolute rule to France, an issue discussed elsewhere.