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The French Religious Wars: Part II of III

The 1570 Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye had temporarily put a stop to the civil war between Catholics and the French Protestants known as Huguenots. Riots and sporadic violence continued, including periodic massacres of Huguenots at the hands of Catholic mobs. But these events were not perpetrated by the French government.

St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre by François Dubois

A Tenuous Peace

The leader of the Huguenot armies, Gaspard de Coligny, had found his way into the council of the young French king Charles IX (1560–1574). Coligny slowly manipulated Charles IX into siding with the Huguenot faction in his court and drove a wedge between the king, the king’s mother Catherine de Medici, and the Catholic Guise family, now led by Henry de Guise. Coligny would make a series of increasingly favorable demands on behalf of the Huguenots, including pursuing alliances with England and Dutch Protestant rebels. His growing power alarmed the Catholic Medici and Henry de Guise, who harbored a grudge against Coligny for the death of his father during the Huguenot siege of Orléans in 1562.

Despite these underlying tensions, the formal peace held through 1572. From the end of the last war in 1570, Catherine de Medici had arranged a series of marriages to preserve the Valois monarchy, maintain peace between Catholics and Huguenots, and keep the Guise family at bay. Charles IX married the daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Elisabeth, and the queen mother also sought to marry one of her two youngest sons, Francis and Henry, into the English royal dynasty. And, as an olive branch to the Huguenots, Catherine had her daughter Margeret betrothed to Henry of Navarre, the Bourbon prince whose uncle Louis de Bourbon had been succeeded by Coligny as leader of the Huguenots.

In the summer of 1572, the queen regent of Navarre, and Henry of Navarre’s mother, Jeanne d’Albret arrived in Paris to prepare for the wedding, along with a large party of Huguenot nobility. She was the spiritual and political leader of the Huguenots, and her presence in Paris, a heavily Catholic city, filled both religious factions with apprehension. On June 4, 1572, two months before the wedding was to take place, Jeanne returned home from a shopping excursion feeling ill. The next morning she woke up with a fever and complained of an ache in the upper right-hand side of her body. Five days later she died. Rumors spread that Jeanne had been poisoned by Catherine, dramatically escalating tensions between the monarchy and the Huguenots. Fearing reprisals, Henry de Guise plotted the assassination of Gaspard de Coligny with the other Catholic courtiers.

The wedding proceeded as planned on August 18, 1572 in the Notre-Dame cathedral. The marriage was very controversial among the Catholics in the king’s court, and Henry de Guise saw the marriage of Henry of Navarre into the royal family as a direct threat to his ambition for the crown. From Catherine’s viewpoint, the marriage was sufficient to keep the peace with the Huguenots, giving her more leverage to curb the influence of Admiral Coligny. King Phillip II of Spain also had reason to plot against the Huguenot leader, since Coligny had ordered a Huguenot army to conduct a campaign in the Spanish Netherlands. Three days after the wedding, Coligny was shot from an upstairs window while walking home. He was seriously injured, but not killed. The sponsor of the assassination plot is still unknown.

Aware of the danger of reprisals from the Huguenots, the king and his court visited Coligny on his sickbed and promised him that the culprits would be punished. Coligny’s brother-in-law led a 4,000-strong army camped just outside Paris and, although there is no evidence it was planning to attack, Catholics in the city feared it might take revenge on the Guise family or the city itself. The king and queen mother pre-empted this by eliminating the Huguenot leadership.

The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres

On August 24, Charles IX summoned the municipal authorities of Paris and ordered them to shut the city gates and arm Catholic citizens to prevent any attempt at a Huguenot uprising. The king’s Swiss mercenaries were given the task of killing the Huguenot leaders. They proceeded to Louvre castle, expelled the Huguenot nobles from the building, and murdered them in the streets. Another group led personally by Henry de Guise proceeded to Admiral Coligny’s bedroom, killed him, and threw his body from a window. Armed bands of Catholics fanned out across the city and killed Huguenots wherever they found them. This continued for three days.

These massacres are today known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacres. Only one Huguenot noble escaped death, Henry of Navarre. Henry de Guise had captured him, but Catherine ordered his release after he pledged to convert to Catholicism. Given his marriage to the king’s sister, he was forced to remain in the French court for the time being.

The violence spread beyond Paris as word of the massacres traveled. Twelve other French cities would experience massacres of Huguenots. All twelve had Catholic majorities, with sizable Huguenot minorities, and had fallen under Huguenot military control during the first religious civil war from 1562 to 1564. The king himself never ordered these massacres, but representatives of the Guise court faction and the king’s own younger brother, Henry de Anjou, wrote messages encouraging these actions. In most cities, the massacres were carried out by mobs against the wishes of the local authorities.

An exact death toll has never been calculated, but estimates suggest up to 30,000 Huguenots perished over three months, reducing their percentage of the French population from 10% to 7%. The official justification from the king for the massacres was to prevent an attempted Huguenot coup, a line of argument that would initially be adopted by the Catholic court faction, the church, and Catholic allies of France such as Spain. Concerning Protestant-aligned countries, the massacres triggered an international crisis, with condemnation coming from Elizabeth I of England and even Tsar Ivan the Terrible of Russia. But the result was very good for the Catholic court faction led by the Guise. The Huguenot nobility had been decimated, and those who remained had fled the court, the country, and even their religion.

Both sides of the conflict began arming for civil war. In an attempt to consolidate their gains, the Catholic armies besieged several Huguenot strongholds including La Rochelle. These sieges were led by the king’s brother Henry de Anjou. In a twist of fate, Henry was elected to the kingship of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth during the siege, an event negotiated by the French government in exchange for military support against Russia, diplomatic assistance with the Ottoman Empire, and financial support. This and other political considerations forced the Catholic armies of the king to stop military action against the Huguenots and negotiate peace. The result was the Edict of Boulogne in 1573, which granted amnesty to the Huguenots and limited religious rights in only three French cities and only in private.

The Huguenots Fight Back

The events around the St. Bartholemew’s Day massacre took a toll on Charles IX’s mental health, and the young king descended into madness. In the spring of 1574, he contracted tuberculosis and later died. Though he had just arrived in Kraków to take the throne of Poland, Henry de Anjou was declared Henry III of France (1574–1589). Catherine would again serve as queen regent during Henry’s three-month journey back to Paris.

In the meantime, the remaining Huguenots attempted to take advantage of the power vacuum, organizing a coup to free Henry of Navarre that coincided with armed uprisings across Normandy, the Rhône River valley, and Poitiers. Its believed that these actions were coordinated with Henry III’s youngest brother Francis, who was now Duke of Anjou. Francis’ strained relationship with his brother Charles IX had been exploited by the few Huguenots with some influence on the court, and the opportunistic Francis used it to increase his power.

Upon gaining the throne, Henry III sued for peace. But the Huguenots were reluctant to accept this without full religious rights, recalling the ruthlessness of the Guise family and the French Catholic monarchs. After a final falling out, Francis would escape the king’s court in September and join Henry de Conde and his Huguenot forces in southern France with his contingent of forces. Fearing a siege of Paris by a large and radicalized Huguenot army, Henry III immediately arranged a seven-month truce. The situation again escalated with the escape of Henry of Navarre from the king’s court in early 1576. He would also gather his forces and join the main Huguenot army.

Facing an overwhelming and very hostile force that could easily overthrow the monarchy, Henry III and his mother negotiated a peace with the Huguenot’s and the king’s brother, known as the Edict of Beaulieu. This peace gave in completely to all Huguenot demands. They were promised full freedom to worship publicly and privately, except for Paris and the king’s court. The French provincial courts were required to be evenly split between the two religious factions, and Huguenots were allowed to maintain independent military control of eight French cities. Finally, families of those harmed by the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre received full compensation and return to all titles and political positions that they had vacated.

Catholic nobility across France were horrified by the concessions. This immediately led to a backlash. Henry de Guise formed the Catholic League to provide political unity to the regions controlled by the Catholic nobility, independent of the French crown. Additionally, the Estates-General of France (it’s parliament) refused to endorse the edict, rendering it meaningless in regions under the control of the Catholic League.

To ensure enforcement of the edict, Henry of Navarre again took up arms, but this time the leverage was on the side of the newly organized Catholic League with support from Phillip II of Spain. This allowed Henry III to rescind most of his concessions to the Huguenots in 1577 without fear of losing his crown. The Huguenots could now only worship publicly in very limited areas.

Periodic conflicts between Catholic League and Huguenot forces would continue for another seven years, with both sides remaining armed and engaging in occasional hostilities with the justification of “self-defense”. The king’s brother, and heir, continued to make trouble for the throne, supporting a Dutch revolt against Spain, the king’s ally, and declaring himself a protector of the Huguenots. He remained heir to the throne, but this ended in 1584 when he succumbed to malaria. Because Henry III was believed incapable of having children, this ended the line of succession for the House of Valois.

By French custom, the male heir of the oldest cadet branch of the House of Valois was entitled to the throne. That cadet branch was the House of Bourbon, led by Henry of Navarre. Henry would not renounce his Protestantism, so the only option for the Catholic League, and Henry de Guise, to prevent the Huguenots from taking the throne of France was by force. Henry de Guise would conclude the Treaty of Joinville with Phillip II of Spain, which stated that Cardinal de Bourbon, the eldest Catholic member of the House of Bourbon was entitled to be heir to the French throne. In effect, the treat excluded all Huguenots from the succession.

With this action, the Catholic League had effectively made a play to take control of the French throne and turn the King of France into its puppet. But unable to make war against both the Huguenots and the Catholic League, Henry III capitulated and negotiated the Treaty of Nemours in 1585 with Henry de Guise. The treaty removed all Huguenots from public office and all previous concessions to the Huguenots were revoked. Essentially all forms of Protestantism were now illegal in France. In an attempt to gain leverage over the Catholic League, Henry III also promised to fund Catholic forces from the royal treasury. Pope Sixtus V sealed the treaty, in addition to excommunicating Henry of Navarre, stripping him of all titles and his right to the French throne, and invalidated all allegiances sworn to him. The Huguenots treated this as a declaration of war, setting the stage for a civil war with the Catholic League that the monarchy had been rendered impotent to stop.

Three factions were now fighting for control of France. Henry III, the true king supported by his court and religious moderates was one faction. The second faction was the Catholic League led by Henry de Guise with support from Phillip II of Spain. The League had effectively seized political control of the king’s court and northern and southeastern France, and Henry de Guise had made the throne his puppet. Opposing both and asserting his right as heir to the throne was Henry of Navarre, leader of the Huguenots and supported by Elizabeth I of England and the Protestant states of Germany. This set the stage for the last phase of the French Wars of Religion: The War of the Three Henrys.

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