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The French Religious Wars: Part III of III

Henry IV at the Battle of Arques

The Stage is Set

The final phase of the French Religious Wars was known as the War of the Three Henrys (1587–1589) and was a raw struggle for power between three political factions. The monarchists, religious moderates, and the political class all continued to support the French king Henry III of the House of Valois. Henry, Duke of Guise led the Catholic League, which was a coalition of Catholic French nobles who had effectively usurped control of the French crown. Henry de Guise sought to crush all other religious factions and prevent the rise of Henry of Navarre, leader of the Huguenots, and rightful heir to the throne.

The coalescing of the religious factions into distinct political blocks transformed a civil war into a European geopolitical struggle for influence in the French kingdom. The Catholic League was supported by Phillip II of Spain , several Catholic German kingdoms, and the pope himself. The Huguenots were financially supported by Elizabeth I of England and militarily supported by a coalition of Protestant German kingdoms and the Spanish Netherlands (modern Belgium), which was in rebellion against Spanish rule.

At the outset of this final struggle, the Catholic League, and Henry de Guise, were acting as effective rulers of France and Henry III was merely a puppet serving at its pleasure. This was due to a peace treaty between the French Kingdom and the Catholic League specifying that only the eldest Catholic male of the House of Bourbon, to which Henry of Navarre belonged, was the true heir to the French throne. In this case, that was Cardinal de Bourbon. This was known as the Treaty of Nemours, and it essentially outlawed all forms of Protestantism within the Kingdom of France. The Huguenots and their leader, the true heir to the French throne, were outlaws.

The Fighting in Earnest

The Catholic League in alliance with the royalists began with the initiative in 1587, since French law now authorized the use of royal forces to suppress the Huguenots. Royal forces steadily advanced southwestward from Paris into Huguenot held territory in southern France. This royal army was led by Anne de Joyeuse, a favored military leader of Henry III. The Huguenots finally achieved a reversal with victory at the Battle of Coutras in 1587, in which Anne was killed.

In the meantime, Catholic League forces led by Henry de Guise defended the northern frontier of Catholic-held territory northeast of Paris. Separate armies of Swiss and German Protestants proceeded into northern France and confronted Catholic forces. The Swiss army had secretly been invited by Henry III to fight the Catholic League and free him from subjection, despite the king’s protests to the contrary.

His public stance undermined the confidence of the Swiss, who returned home. The German Protestants were not a large enough force to defeat the Catholic League alone. Henry de Guise rode out to fight the Protestants at Vimory northeast of Paris in October of 1587, and routed them.

Rumors of the king’s invitation to the Swiss swirled, and they were spread deliberately by the Catholic League to undermine the king and shore up support for Henry de Guise. The rift between the royalists and Catholics grew wider when the king denied claims by Henry de Guise for personal control of territories won from the Huguenots, including Normandy. Henry de Guise mobilized Catholic forces to resist royal governors for these territories and was prohibited from entering Paris by the king in response.

In a show of open defiance, Henry de Guise proceeded with his army to Paris and marched in triumph against the opposition of the king, who fled to Chartres. Cornered, the king capitulated further to the Catholic League through the Edict of Union, which elevated Henry de Guise to lieutenant-general of the French kingdom and again reaffirmed that no heretic (i.e. Protestant) could hold the throne. Henry de Guise was one step closer to usurpation.

Regicide Foiled

In 1588, the Spanish Armada was famously defeated by English forces in the English Channel during an attempted invasion of England as part of the wider, undeclared Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604). This crippled the Catholic League’s most essential ally, and Henry III saw this as a perfect opportunity to stop the plots of Henry de Guise, who, seeing the loss of his most valuable ally, was determined to move swiftly to murder the king and usurp the throne.

The king called a meeting of the Estates-General to ensure as many leaders of the Catholic League were at the king’s court as possible. On 22 December 1588, Guise spent the night with his current mistress Charlotte de Sauve, a member of a group of female spies known as the “Flying Squadron”. With knowledge of Henry de Guises’s plot for regicide, the king struck first. The next morning, Henry de Guise and his uncle, Cardinal de Guise, were summoned to the king’s court. The king’s guard, known as The Forty-Five, assassinated the Guise in the king’s presence.

This outraged the Catholic League and the new Catholic leader, Charles of Mayenne, the murdered Henry’s younger brother, effectively declared war on the monarchy and attempted to seize power by force. In the spring of 1589, the nearly powerless king fled his court and put himself under the protection of his heir Henry of Navarre in a last-ditch effort to preserve the monarchy from usurpation. He then declared a revocation of the Treaty of Union and the Edict of Neymours, which meant that Huguenots were no longer “heretics” and had all rights and privileges of French subjects.

So the interests of the Huguenots in ending religious persecution and the royalist interest in preserving the throne and its succession coincided, and they united against the ultra-Catholic and now openly anti-royalist Catholic League. This juxtaposition had negative consequences for the coalition of Catholic forces. With their Spanish patrons neutralized, it became clear the time was not on the Catholic’s side. Catholic royalists shifted their allegiance back to the king, and the opportunistic Swiss rejoined his coalition.

Now the head of an army of 40,000, the newly empowered king proceeded to march on Paris in August of 1589 to terminate the power of the Catholic League. Sensing a change in circumstance, the German Protestant armies again entered northeastern France. With this united front between the Crown and the Huguenots, the Catholic League fell back to Paris in retreat from the royalists. Desperate, the League had few options. This changed when a fanatical monk named Jacques Clement assassinated Henry III.

Having been the key to the Huguenot royalist alliance, Henry III’s death meant the Catholic royalists would refuse to fight for the Huguenots and clear the way for a Protestant heir to the throne, Henry of Navarre. He was the only legitimate heir alive and had received the blessing of Henry III on his deathbed. But without control of Paris and the support of the royalist faction, he could not be declared king.

A Battle for Succession

With the death of Henry de Guise and Henry III and their claims to the throne of France, Henry of Navarre, now nominally Henry IV of France, set about securing his crown in what would be a four year war of succession. With Catholic forces neutered and royalists demoralized, he faced only token opposition. He secured the northern flank of Huguenot controlled lands by defeating resistance within Normandy, and proceeded to lay siege to Paris.

The Catholic League controlled large areas of northern France, including the area around Paris, and had even declared a pretender to the throne in Henry’s Catholic uncle Charles de Bourbon. The issue with that was he had been imprisoned by Henry III during his assassination of Henry de Guise, and Henry IV had assumed control of this captive. Charles would die in captivity in May of 1590. During this time, Paris had achieved independence both from the crown and the Catholic League, and had become an island of neutrality.

Desperate to prevent the ascension of a Huguenot king, Catholic League officials scoured their history for a precedent for an elective king rather than a hereditary one. The argument advanced was that the Estates-General had the authority to elect a king, and a new session was summoned for this task. This motion had little support among royalists, and internal quarreling over the election opened rifts within the leadership of the Catholic League. Despite this lack of a rival king, Henry found it impossible to consolidate support from Catholic royalists, who wanted the papacy’s blessing. However, Henry IV had been excommunicated by the pope in 1585, which made opposition to his rule spiritually legitimate. And so the civil war persisted.

With the election approaching in 1592, Phillip II of Spain sought to secure the throne for his daughter in defiance of French tradition against non-male rulers. To get around this, Phillip II proposed a marriage between his daughter and the Hapsburg Archduke Ernest of Austria. This was rejected by the Estates-General. In a well-timed move that was both a betrayal of his Huguenot followers and the one thing to ensure he could be placed on the throne and ensure their rights, Henry IV declared his intent to convert to Catholicism. The Estates-General met with representatives of Henry IV, and satisfied, they adjourned.

Henry Consolidates Power

On July 25, 1593, Henry IV abjured the Protestant faith and declared himself Catholic. The following year, he was anointed and crowned King of France at Chartres cathedral. In July of 1595, Pope Clement VIII lifted his ex-communication, and Henry IV was given the blessing of the Church. These events ended organized opposition to his rule and solidified the alliance of the royalists and the Huguenots. The leaders of the Catholic League began to make their peace. The Duke of Mayenne would surrender in 1596, and the final surrender of holdouts occurred in 1598. Henry of Navarre was now indisputably the King of France.

In 1598, Henry IV would issue Edict of Nantes, recognizing the freedom of religion of the Huguenots and allowing for their self-government within the regions of France they controlled. The edict was one of the first laws establishing religious tolerance in Europe, granting religious rights to France’s Protestant minority. It granted freedom of conscience and public worship, full civil rights, a neutral tribunal for disputes arising from the edict, and limited state support of Protestant churches. Though it created special rights for the Huguenots, it did not end the antipathy of the Catholics to this group, or to the king himself.

The intent of the edict was to promote civil unity and end the French Wars of Religion, a 36-year conflict between Catholics and Huguenots that had left up to three million people dead from a combination of violence, famine, and disease. It was the second deadliest of the European religious wars, surpassed only by the 30 Years’ War five decades later. Given this, the act may be seen as a military truce rather then a sign of genuine toleration. However, it was a landmark document in the historical development of the right to freedom of worship.

Henrys actions earned him the moniker “Good King Henry”. A strong administrator, his rule led to a restoration of the authority of the French monarchy that had waned under the weak rule of Henry II’s sons from the House of Valois. Over time, the edict was slowly undone. A protestant revolt in 1622 led to the blockade of the city of La Rochelle by French minister Cardinal Richelieu, who viewed the edict as a threat to the French state. The edict was formally revoked by Louis XIV in 1685, making the practice of Protestantism again illegal in France. Persecution of French Protestants did not formally end until 1787 with the signing of the Edict of Versailles by Louis XVI.


We have come a long way in the recognition of rights of minority groups. It has been a hard fought struggle through history to arrive at that point, with innumerable wars leading to millions of deaths simply because the identity of one group did not align with that of another. The many rights that we take for granted, such as freedom of speech, freedom of worship, and freedom of assembly are not simply abstract concepts that some very intelligent but impractical men pulled down from the sky and imposed on us. They are essential guardrails that prevent the descent of society into the conflict and madness that have too often afflicted it. The following quote from GK Chesterton is instructive:

“There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer . . . says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.””

Some questions upon closer inspection might justify tearing down that fence. This inspection of the French Civil Wars shows what happens in the absence of the fence provided by the fundamental human rights listed in the First Ammendment of the United States Constitution, and a society that respects those rights. Those modern reformers would do well to refresh their historical memory, and reinforce the fenceposts.

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