6.3 French Wars of Religion

The French Wars of Religion was a decades long conflict between the Protestants and Catholics of France. The conflict began in 1562 and lasted until the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The war was in certain respects a conflict over religious differences between Protestants and Catholics; however, the wars were more or less a reflection of political considerations. For example, the Holy Roman Empire (Germany) was weakened by being split along Lutheran and Catholic lines. The French looked at what happened in Germany and refused to allow it to happen in France. The French reasoned the whole thing could be avoided by persecuting the Protestants vigorously.

Germany, unlike France, was not a single kingdom: it was a collection of smaller states cooperating as part of a larger empire. Quite unlike in France it was possible for different states to practice different types of Christianity. This was not possible in France. All of France was united under one king and one faith. In order to preserve the unity of the kingdom, the French king persecuted, expelled, and killed the Huguemots (French Calvinists). Catholicism held France together for nearly a thousand years before the Protestant Reformation; it was difficult for the French to imagine a kingdom remaining strong if it was divided in to multiple faiths. People also believed that if they did not practice the right faith, a faith pleasing to God who upheld the right order of things, disaster was sure to follow. Therefore, heresy and blasphemy were regarded as not only an offense to the Church but also as treason to the state.

In the 21st century we take religious freedom for granted. People weren't always so chill about religion. We still have some growing to do. Since 9/11 (and even before) many North Americans are willing to extend religious toleration to their fellow Christians; however, these same Christians often do not extend tolerance to Islam or other religions. Anyways, in the 16th century, religious toleration definitely was not widely practiced. Catholics hated Protestants, Protestants hated Catholics by definition. Obviously, not all Catholics or Protestants hated one another. But officially in the 16th it was unwise to associate with people not belonging to the right faith. Again, returning our focus back to the 21st century, the success or failure of a democracy isn't on how closely the people living in a country resemble one another. Instead, successful democracies are based on an idea coming out of the Age of Reason known as pluralism—a situation where people of multiple faiths, worldviews, or ethnicities, etc. peacefully co-exist and accept one another. The existence of pluralism in Canada, and the fact Canadian society isn't tearing itself apart, disproves the idea a society has to have one faith (or one of anything for that matter) to be either stable or strong.

Protestants were just as likely as Catholics to dislike innovators of new ideas about an established religion like Christianity. For example, during the Reformation people didn't just automatically sort themselves into either Lutheranism or Catholicism. Some people had radical ideas about abolishing private property or getting of the nobility. Society obviously wasn't ready for that. So, regardless of what denomination you belonged to, you were just as likely to freak out when some reform-minded person went too far in their challenges of tradition. Innovators, in a word, were trouble.

The Middle Ages was a period characterized by intellectual conformity. People conformed for at least two reasons: firstly, people thought anything worth knowing was known already. Technologically speaking, some medieval thinkers actually thought humankind couldn't progress any further. Secondly, people believed the world was corrupt and imperfect and unworthy of study; thus, it was best if a person just ignored the world and paid all of attention to the study and worship of God.

New ideas, as a rule, were believed dangerous; this is because new ideas led to anarchy and destruction. Even the "free thinkers" of the Renaissance didn't think they were innovating anything new; rather, humanists believed they were "re-discovering" something from a "purer" past; and in the case of Protestant reformers, they didn't believe they were making something new so much as returning the Church to a simpler, truer vision of itself.

When King Henry II died unexpectedly in 1559, France was plunged in to a period of uncertainty. Feudalism was still a factor in French politics in the 16th century: Henry II relied upon the loyalty of France's nobles to remain in power; there was always a chance his nobles could rebel; therefore, when Calvinism was introduced in to France the French king confronted a new source of potential problems. Keeping the nobles loyal was hard enough without introducing religious differences.

Some French nobles saw Calvinism as an opportunity to challenge the House of Valois. In the Holy Roman Empire, almost all of the princes of Northern Germany embraced Lutheranism to break the control of the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Emperor. This pattern repeated itself in France: some important French noble families like the Bourbons became Protestant mainly to challenge the Valois' control of the French throne.

Henry II of France belonged to the House of Valois. There were other powerful houses (families) who competed with the Valois for power. For example, there was the House of Guise, House of Lorraine, House of Montmorency, and the Bourbons. With Henry II's death France was ruled by a succession of kings who proved at times incapable of dealing with the political and religious division introduced into France by the Reformation.

The most powerful Bourbon princes like Louis de Bourbon became Protestants. The most powerful members of the House of Guise identified strongly as defenders of the Catholic faith. The Guise allied with the Montmorency to form an alliance against the Bourbons. The most powerful Protestant prince, Antoine de Bourbon, was a flip-flopper: at one time he would support the Catholics and then at another he'd support the Protestants. However, Antoine's wife, Jeanne d'Albret, the Queen of Navarre, consistently supported Protestantism in her domain.

The Queen Regent of France, Catherine de' Medici, tried to promote peace between Catholics and Protestants by issuing the Edict of Toleration in January of 1562. This edict temporarily legalized being a Protestant in France. French Protestants (called Huguenots) were now free to worship in open fields outside of Catholic cities. Catholics didn't like the edict at all.

THE FIRST WAR (1562-1563)
The first war fought over religion in France was provoked by the Massacre at Vassy in 1562. The Duc de Guise, travelling to his estates, stopped in Vassy on a Sunday and decided to go to Mass. A few of his servants got into a scuffle with some Huguenots who were attending a service of their own in a nearby building, and then the whole thing escalated until the Guise faction shot some of the unarmed Huguenots and set their church building on fire (just like Jesus would do). :P

Following the Massacre at Vassy, leadership in the Protestant movement moved away from pastors to Huguenot princes. Louis de Bourbon, a powerful Protestant noble, became the official defender of the faith. His leadership accelerated tensions between Protestant and Catholic nobles. Louis believed action had to be taken to protect reformers; therefore, he used his army to capture strategic towns, waterways, highways and crossroads in France. He also asked for financial and military assistance from German and English Protestant leaders.

Catholic forces in France were slow to respond to Louis' challenge. The Queen Regent, Catherine de' Medici, was forced to turn to her rival the Henry I, Duke of Guise, to deal with the new Protestant threat. However, the Catholics found it difficult to re-capture Huguenot controlled towns. Attempts at taking these towns were costly. There was only one pitched battle between Protestant and Catholic forces during the first war; the Catholics won this battle (Battle of Dreux in 1562). Despite the loss at Dreux, the Huguenots continued to control virtually all of southern France. The war was expensive so Queen Catherine negotiated the Peace of Amboise in 1563 with the Bourbons. The treaty officially ended the first of many such wars to follow. The treaty re-asserted the religious freedom of Protestants in France. Predictably, Catholics didn't like it.

THE SECOND WAR (1567-1568)
Four years war broke out between Protestants and Catholics again. During the peace Protestantism spread from France into neighboring Spanish-controlled Netherlands. (The Spanish were uber-Catholics by the way.) Queen Catherine allowed a Spanish army passage through her lands to fight the Calvinists in the Netherlands. This action on the part of Catherine made the Huguenots believe she was cooperating with Spain in violation of the Peace of Amboise.

In this atmosphere of tension, some Huguenot leaders attempted to kidnap Catherine's teenaged son, King Charles IX. The kidnappers were likely going to try and use the Catherine's son as leverage to keep the peace. The attempted kidnapping failed and led to another outbreak of war. This second phase ended much like the first one: people died needlessly on both sides and the Treaty of Longjumeau was signed.

THE THIRD WAR (1568-1570)
As soon as the Treaty of Longjumeau was signed, Catholics started looking for ways to end the peace. The third phase was quite different from the first two: time around there were a lot more kingdoms and foreign interests involved.

The Catholic faction wanted to finally break the Huguenots in France; therefore, there were plans hatched to capture or kill important Protestant leaders like Louis de Bourbon and Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. The Catholic side was made up of the French Crown, the House of Guise and the Spanish Crown. William of Orange (Netherlands) and Queen Elizabeth I (England) supported the Huguenots.

The Huguenots were outnumbered and surrounded by Spain in the south and the French Catholics in the north. In the beginning, the Huguenots fought a defensive war from behind the walls of their fortified towns in Southwest France; however, as financial and military aid from England arrived the Protestants went on the offensive by attacking several Catholic controlled cities; it was while the Huguenot army was out in the open that the Battle of Jarnac (1569) took place.

During the battle, of Jarnac, Louis de Bourbon was killed. The Catholic army used its cavalry to great effect. The Huguenots made a last stand but were ultimately defeated. Under the leadership of Gaspard de Coligny, however, a significant portion of the Protestant army managed to escape. Coligny took sole command of the Protestant forces on behalf of Louis' sixteen year old son, Henry of Navarre. Several more battles between the two Christian groups took place over the next few years; however, neither side was able to break the other. The wars were expensive and the French Crown sued for peace. The Peace of St. Germain was signed between the Protestant and Catholic factions on August 5, 1570.

The death of Louis de Bourbon was a huge setback for the Huguenot cause. However, Louis' son Henry of Navarre grew in to a capable Protestant leader. The Peace of St. Germain was signed by France's King Charles IX for the Catholics, and by Admiral Gaspard de Coligny for the Huguenots. The Huguenots were given control of four fortified towns, e.g. La Rochelle, Cognac, Montauban and La Charité.

Also, Protestants were henceforth allowed to hold public office in France, and Queen Regent Catherine de' Medici, mother of King Charles IX, promised to give her daughter Marguerite de Valois in marriage to Henry of Navarre. The peace established by the Peace of St. Germain was shortlived; it was broken by the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572.

After the Peace of St. Germain was signed, Catherine used her position to try and establish a lasting peace. Admiral de Coligny, now the chief military leader of the Huguenots, was welcomed into King Charles IX's council. The Anglican Protestant Queen Elizabeth of England even entertained the possibility of marrying one of King Charles' younger brothers. Also, Catherine negotiated with Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre, to marry her daughter Margeurite (Margot) to Henry de Navarre. Despite Catherine's work to put an end to the religious conflicts bankrupting France, most French Catholics and Protestants were not in favor of living in harmony with one another. Thus, tension between the two groups continued to grow in the towns and countryside.

Tension between Catholics and Protestants was not just the result of theological or doctrinal issues. On the contrary, there were also economic and social reasons for the two sides not getting along. For example, Protestants occupied a higher proportion of positions in lucrative trades like printing. Also, the Protestant emphasis on literacy (reading) as the basis for understanding the Bible made them comparatively a more educated group than the Catholics. Catholics continued to rely upon their priests to transmit Jesus' message to them.

Unlike Catholicism, Protestantism was more of an urban (city) than rural (countryside) phenomenon; this meant the majority of French merchants, businessmen and bankers were disproportionately Protestant. This was an advantage for Protestants: Catholics were obligated to not work on 100 or so feast days; however, Protestants didn't observe these feast days so they had more days to conduct business. This was viewed as unfair by Catholic businessmen. Catholics, likewise, feared the Huguenots because the Protestants tended to close themselves off from the rest of society. This led to the feeling among many Catholics the Protestants were up to something or secretly organizing.

Women, in the Huguenot churches, enjoyed a lot more freedom than Catholic women did. Huguenot women read and studied the Bible for themselves; they sang during religious celebrations; they sat with the men during the same church services; they enjoyed influence among the members of their congregations. Catholic authorities thought something was wrong with society if women were permitted to study and debate the meaning of scripture. Catholics viewed Protestants as heretics. Heresy was considered a terrible crime by Catholic authorities; it was a disease that could spread from person to person. In this atmosphere, it was hard for the more reasonable members on either the Catholic or Protestant side to argue for tolerance. Instead, priests and pastors alike spoke to their congregations about purgin (killing/removing) herectics from the country to restore social stability. The funny thing is the stability was caused by their intolerance of one another. If they had only the courage and wisdom to be pluralists and practice tolerance, peace and stability would certainly follow. But then again members of each side viewed the other as heretics; and since everyone already knew whatever was worth knowing people were confident enough in their convictions to justify killing their opponents.

Lastly, food, fuel and housing prices rose sharply. The higher prices for goods added another type of stress to French society. This stress of trying to make ends meet made it difficult for people to accept religious toleration as wise. Instead, people looked for others to blame for the misfortune. History repeated itself in Canada and the United States following the Great Recession in 2009. Unemployment soared in both countries and people grew increasingly intolerant of Muslims. (So much so there were even physical attacks against them.)

Appreciating all of this tension is essential to understanding the importance of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (August 23, 1572). At the feast of St. Bartholomew's, the 19 year-old Henry of Navarre and Margot de Valois were married in Paris on August 17. The marriage set the stage for Henry to eventually assume the throne of France. Margot was sister to the current French King Charlex IX. The feast was supposed to last a week long. To celebrate this turning point in Catholic and Protestant relations, the majority of the Huguenot leaders came to Paris. Henry himself brought 800 mounted noblemen in his train.

On August 22, as Admiral de Coligny was returning to his lodgings an assassin fired at but did not kill him. The Huguenots were outraged and demanded justice from King Charlex IX. Everyone suspected that the House of Guise was behind the attack. Huguenot leaders counselled Coligny to flee the city; he refused to leave because it would show a lack of trust in Charles IX.

At some point during the night of August 23, Charles IX and the Queen Mother Catherine decided to have Coligny killed. During the early hours of Sunday morning, a troop of soldiers came to Coligny's door. They killed the guard that opened the door and rushed through the house. Coligny was dragged from his bed, stabbed, and thrown out the window to the pavement below. Rumors ran thick and fast that the King had given the order to massacre all Protestants: the militia and the general Catholic population went on a rampage. Catholics identified themselves with white crosses on their hats and went around butchering Protestants. The neighborhood militias played a significant role in the general slaughter. The killing went on for three days with Paris's councillors and the King unable to bring the whole thing under control. The massacres spread throughout the rest of France over the next few months.

Henry of Navarre (pictured at right) was dragged before King Charles IX and threatened with death if he did not convert. Henry did not covert and remained a prisoner of the French Court for the next four years. He justifiably feared for his life during his entire imprisonment.

The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, as it came to be known, destroyed an entire generation of Huguenot leadership. Henry de Navarre was a prisoner. Coligny was dead. Although it was not evident at the time, this was the beginning of the end of Protestantism in France; it would take several more decades for the Huguenots to disappear entirely. Until their disappearance, the remaining Huguenots formed a "state within a state" organizing and defending themselves against the Catholics. There was no longer any desire whatsoever for Protestants to talk peace with Catholics.

The French Wars of Religion continued on through the years 1572 to 1598. There were several more French kings. There were some large and some small battles. Ultimately somewhere between two to four million people died during the decades long conflict. The wars weakened the French monarchy; and, interestingly enough, due to Salic Law Henry of Navarre eventually became the king of France. His title changed to Henry IV of France.

Henry IV then made the decision to convert to Catholicism for the sake of unifying the country. He renounced Protestantism famously proclaiming "Paris is well worth a Mass." He gained the resentment of French Huguenots and his former ally Queen Elizabeth I of England. Henry's acceptance of Catholicism secured for him the allegiance of the vast majority of his subjects. He did not forget the Huguenots though; they didn't like the fact he became a Catholic; however, by becoming France's king Henry IV's power increased so much so he was able to issue the Edict of Nantes (1598). The Edict granted Protestants the legal right to exist and the freedom to practice their faith without fear of persecution.

The Edict granted the Huguenots (Calvinists) of France substantial rights in a nation still considered to be essentially Catholic. Henry IV used the Edict to promote civil unity (and he was temporarily successfull, in that, this law did put an end to the Wars of Religion). The Edict promoted civil unity while allowing the simultaneous existence of religious diversity.

Also, the Edict created a climate where Protestants were no longer just viewed as heretics or enemies of the Church; instead, this law opened a path for both the growth of secularism and religious tolerance. The Edict reinstated the civil rights of Protestants and allowed for the Huguenots to be able to work in the King's civil service.

Regrettably, less than a hundred years later the Edict of Nantes was revoked in 1685 by then France's King Louis XIV (Henry IV's grandson). The revocation drove all of the remaining Huguenots to leave France once and for all.