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The French Religious Wars: Part I of III

The French Wars of Religion were another prominent and extended chapter of the waves of religious wars that plagued Europe in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. The particular conflict in France was between the French Catholics and a group of Protestants known as the Huguenots. Their battles raged from 1562 to 1598 and claimed an estimated 30 million lives, making it the second deadliest religious war in Europe.

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Looting of the Churches of Lyon by the Calvinists, in 1562, Antoine Carot

The Fomenting of Rebellion

It was the Italian Renaissance that would produce the intellectual environment for the French Reformation. Francis I of France (1515–1547) was a patron of the Italian revival of classical learning. This patronage contributed to the spread of humanist ideas in France. Humanist scholarship emphasized the critical and objective study of religious texts. Eventually, a generation of religious scholar was raised who would question Catholic doctrine. These humanist religious scholars would organize into circles of learning, the most prominent being Meaux Circle in the commune of Meaux outside of Paris. The development of the printing press allowed for mass dissemination of the ideas of the French humanists. This allowed the critical approach of the Meaux Circle, and their emphasis on a literal interpretation of religious texts, to influence religious leaders across Europe, including Martin Luther himself.

Lutheranism was introduced to France during the reign of Francis I. Though Roman Catholicism was firmly tied to the monarchy in France, it was not obvious to French authorities which doctrines of Lutheranism were hearsay and which were not. The result was a middle course, with a lax approach to enforcing religious conformity. A new form of Protestantism would also be introduced by John Calvin.

John Calvin was a French theologian who was seminal in the development of a system of Protestant doctrine that would be named Calvinism. His central doctrine was of predestination and the complete sovereignty of God. He was a humanist lawyer who did not break with the Catholic church until 1530. He would write a series of legal and religious commentaries and, in 1533, begin to openly call for political reform within the Church to combat corruption. This naturally led to tension between the more conservative catholic clergy and the more open-minded reformers and foreshadowed the later rift that would occur between the Catholics and the French Protestants, known as Huguenots.

In January 1535, Catholic authorities decided to quell the rising disagreements, despite the more accommodating approach of political authorities. Lutheranism was defined as heretical, essentially banning it within the Kingdom of France. This action was instigated by the Affair of the Placards in 1534, in which “radical” supporters of Swiss protestant Huldrych Zwingli placed provocative posters around Paris directly attacking the Catholic Church and doctrines surrounding the practice of communion. The posters were seen as a severe insult to Catholics, even leading the formerly accommodating Francis I to publicly affirm his faith and to arrest the perpetrators and burn them at the stake. The religious reformers, including John Calvin, fled.

Intrigue in the King’s Court

From this point, the French government would openly persecute Protestants in France, including a massacre of an estimated thousand Frenchmen in the village of Merindol in 1545. Francis I son, Henry II (1547–1559), would ascend the throne in 1547 and continue the hardline policies. In 1551, he would issue the Edict of Châteaubriant, which sharply curtailed Protestant rights to worship or even discuss religion in public and in private. But this would not prevent the spread of French Calvinism.

After fleeing France in 1535, Calvin had traveled to Geneva en route to the German city of Strasbourg. He was eventually convinced to stay in Geneva for a time to work on reforming the Church there. He was initially successful in doing this, but religious disagreements with other Swiss cities led to Calvin being asked to leave Geneva in 1537. Calvin would be invited to lead a church created by French Calvinist refugees in Strasbourg. While there, he preached extensively and developed an extensive and systematic theology. After being recalled to Geneva, he would propose a series of reforms adopted by the Geneva city council that closely merged secular and ecclesiastical authority. The organization of the Geneva Calvinist church would galvanize the French Protestants, who began to meet in secret. Eventually, the French nobility would begin to convert to Calvinism, until roughly half the nobility were Protestants by 1560. These French Calvinist nobles and their armies would come to be known as “Huguenots”. Given the close alignment of the French crown with the Catholic church, the Huguenots were a major threat to the monarchy.

Henry II was of the House of Valois, a branch of the Capet family that had held the French throne for six hundred years. His main concern was protecting the power of the monarchy, and his family, above all else. This was threatened by the rise of the Huguenots. The most prominent Huguenot royal house was the House of Bourbon, led by Antoine de Bourbon, which at the time held the throne of the Kingdom of Navarre. Antonie’s brother, French general Louis I de Bourbon, prince de Condé, was the head of the new Condé branch of the House of Bourbon. Louise would become the most important Huguenot military leader. The House of Bourbon was itself a cadet branch of the House of Capet, meaning that the leaders of this house were the legal successors to the French throne if the leader of the House of Capet did not produce a male heir.

This did not sit well with the leaders of the House of Guise, the most powerful French family aligned with the Catholic Church. The Guise family claimed descent from Charlemagne and had designs on the throne of France. The family was led by two brothers: Francis, the Duke of Guise, and Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine. Francis was a prominent military commander in the royal army, and Charles functioned as an advisor in the king’s court and diplomat. Eventually, they would persuade Henry II to betroth his son and heir Francis II to the Guise’s niece, Mary, Queen of Scots. This gave the Guise brothers unrivaled influence in the king’s court.

Henry II would die in a jousting accident in 1559, making the 15-year-old Francis king. The Guise family used the ascent of a young and inexperienced king as the perfect opportunity to consolidate power and marginalize the Bourbons, transforming what was nominally a religious dispute into a dynastic struggle for control of the French throne. Francis II would delegate most of his governing authority to the Guise brothers, with Francis de Guise taking control of the army and Charles assuming control of finance, the courts, and foreign affairs. They effectively became custodians of the kingdom of France. According to French law, Francis was an adult who did not need a regent, which limited the formal role of his mother and Henry II’s widow, Catherine de Medici. But she would attempt to use her influence to curb the ambition of the Guise and balance the different factions vying for the French throne to protect the monarchy.

Antoine de Bourbon believed the Guise family had usurped the throne and attempted to assert his right to be a senior advisor to the king, given his family’s kinship with the House of Capet. When this failed, and the Guise’s continued Henry II harsh policies of persecuting the Huguenots, Protestant French noblemen organized a coup, known as the Amboise conspiracy. The coup, which involved an attempted kidnapping of Francis II and arrest of the Guise brothers, was poorly organized and quickly thwarted. At the direction of the queen mother, a policy of conciliation was begun towards the Protestants to ease the tensions. This did not stop the arrest of Louise de Bourbon, whose arrest was ordered by the king on suspicion in his involvement in the coup plot.

Francis II would die in December of 1560 due to ill health. Since his younger brother, Charles IX (1560–1574), was too young to rule, the queen mother became queen regent. Her first actions as ruler of France were designed to ease tensions between Catholic and Protestant noble houses and stop an imminent civil war. She released Louise de Condé from prison and granted him leniency, in exchange for Antoine de Bourbon renouncing his claim to the regency. Antoine was made a lieutenant general in the French army, providing a balance to the Guise brothers’ influence on the court. Then, she convened a national council of the clergy to resolve doctrinal differences between the Catholic Church and the Huguenots. Additionally, at the urging of the Bourbon leaders, Catherine issued the Edict of Saint Germain, which acknowledged Catholicism as the state religion but forbade any form of religious persecution.

These actions were good first steps to preventing religious civil war. However, the ambition of the Guise brothers would not tolerate this accommodation of the Huguenots and their Bourbon leaders. Catherine’s attempts at accommodation would prove to be a band-aid on a wound too deep to suture.

The War Begins

In 1562, mercenary retainers of the Guise family attacked a group of Huguenots in Champagne, who were participating in a worship service per Catherine’s edict on religious toleration. Another massacre under similar circumstances later that month, in Vassy, France, led to open warfare between the Huguenots and the House of Guise. Huguenot nobles began to organize, and a faction led by Louise de Conde would seize the city of Orleans. Louise would declare himself as protector of his religious faction and led uprisings across central France. Massacres and riots occurred in cities where there was strong resistance to the Huguenots. The Queen would revoke her edict with pressure from the Guise and the crown engaged in open warfare with the rebels.

After Francis de Guise was assassinated on the orders of a Huguenot nobleman and admiral, Gaspard de Coligny, and Louise de Condé was captured by a Guise army, both sides sued for peace. Catherine would mediate and issue another edict granting limited rights to privately worship to the Huguenots. The peace was tenuous, as the Guise faction saw any concessions to the “heretics” as a bridge too far. However, the monarchy’s hands had been tied by the Treaty of Hampton Court between the Huguenots and Elizabeth I of England, which had given England control of the port city of Le Havre in Normandy. The English were expelled in 1563.

Later that year, Charles IX was declared to be “of age”, removing Catherine from her position as regent. The king’s initial actions as an independent ruler showed favoritism to the Catholic faction in his court. At the urging of Charles de Guise, Charles IX brought in reinforcements from Phillip II of Spain to secure the Rhine River corridor and protect it from Huguenot armies. In response, the Huguenots organized an attack on Charles IX and his court and took control of yet more French cities. Another tenuous peace ensued. But the court faction representing the Huguenots fell completely out of favor with the king, forcing them to flee. Protections for the Huguenots would be revoked by the French crown in 1568. Huguenot armies gathered in south-central France and brought in foreign reinforcements from a contingent of German protestants with financial support from the crown of England. The king’s younger brother, Henry, Duke of Anjou, would lead Catholic forces against the Huguenots with reinforcements from Spain, the Papal States, and the Kingdom of Tuscany.

The Huguenot army laid siege to several cities on the southwest coast of France, in an attempt to protect their coastal stronghold at La Rochelle. At the Battle of Jarnac in March 1569, Louis de Condé was killed, forcing Gaspard de Coligny to take command of the Huguenot forces, nominally on behalf of Condé’s 15-year-old son Henry de Condé. Officially, the leadership of Huguenot forces had passed on to the next generation. Antoine de Bourbon had died in battle in 1562, and the Kingdom of Navarre was ruled by his widow, Jeanne d’Albret, on behalf of his son, who came to be known as Henry of Navarre. Jeanne would promote the two Henrys as the legitimate leaders of the Huguenot cause against royal authority and the usurping Guise family.

The Huguenots continued to battle for southwestern France but were forced to retreat south after failing to seize Poitiers. Gaspard de Coligny and his Huguenot army retreated to the south-west and regrouped for the winter. In the spring of 1570, they pillaged Toulouse in south-central France and cut a path northward up the Rhône river valley. Fighting battles against the persistent Hugueonots exhausted the royal treasury, and Charles IX decided to find a peaceful solution. The resulting Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye was negotiated by Jeanne d’Albret and reinstituted earlier concessions made to the Huguenots. Riots and sporadic violence continued, but armed insurrections led by Huguenot leaders stopped for the time being. . . .

Continued in The French Religious Wars: Part II

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