Table of Contents

The Reformation in France

Early Years

France came fairly close to becoming Protestant. It produced one of the major figures of the Reformation in John Calvin, and in the late 1590s it very nearly had a Protestant king. The French Protestants, known as Huguenots, were very strong, at one point controlling two hundred towns, mainly in southern France.

By the mid-17thc, though, Huguenot influence was waning and it was evident that France would remain Catholic. This did not prevent the country from siding Protestant powers during the Thirty Years War, but such alliances were purely political. As with other countries, the French endured decades of religious warfare and slowly learned to keep matters of religion from influencing too heavily matters of state.

The Catholic Church in France on the eve of the Reformation came closest to fitting the description of a national church. The Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges in 1438 made the king of France the head of the Gallican Church in nearly everything outside of matters of belief and ritual. The crown could and did tax the clergy, could try clerics in lay courts, and appoint bishops and abbots. At the same time, papal authority in these areas was circumscribed. Such rights were enjoyed by other monarchs, but piecemeal or sporadically. Had Francis I needed a divorce like Henry VIII, he would have found no end of willing bishops, with no need for a formal break from Rome. The French king pretty much already had the whole cake.

Francis I

The Reformation therefore presented a very real threat to royal authority and royal control. Abolition of Catholicism would have meant a substantial loss of authority, influence, and revenue. Francis was a sincere Catholic, but even had he not been, the political implications of Protestantism were too unsettling to consider. This would later find very specific expression in Henry IV.

Concordat of Bologna, 1516

As significant as the Pragmatic Sanction. Francis negotiated it in the wake of his victory at Marignano in 1515. By it, Francis agreed that the pope was not subject to a council. He also agreed the French clergy should again pay annates to Rome. In return, Francis got the right to tithe the clergy, and to nominate all archbishops, bishops, abbots, and priors. This ended the elective principal in France and there was some resistance. By the 17thc it was not at all unusual for an appointee never to take vows or orders, to serve at court in a strictly worldly capacity, while a prior or abbé en second performed the actual offices.

A number of prelates had the right to site in parlements. Bologna made the upper clergy royal creatures and at the same time extended royal influence upon high justice.

Trent, of course, was critical of such practices, so that while the crown steadfastly opposed Protestantism, it also had to guard against certain strands in the Catholic reform.

The king could tax the Church. At the same time, the local curé proclaimed royal taxes from the pulpit and heard tax-related disputes. Over the decades, the clergy in fiscal matters was nearly an extension of the secular arm. An aphorism of the time (16thc) declared: "the king levies, the clergy pays, and the pope keeps quiet."

Francis instituted administrative reforms. He created "masters of requests"—maîtres des requêtes—that served like the enquêteurs of Louis XI. In 1545 they were given the power to pursue heresy in France and in essence became a French inquisition. They had secular authority as well, and were important in maintaining royal authority in the provinces.

The French treasury was developed in these centuries. In 1500, royal income from the provinces went into ten separate provincial chests, each of which kept separate accounts. In 1523, Francis created a central chest called the Epargne, and later appointed a Treasurer to supervise it. In 1542, the kingdom was re-partitioned into sixteen financial districts and in 1551 Henri II created a general royal Treasurer. The position was reformed by Colbert in 1666.

Charles VIII

Charles died early in 1515, in the midst of preparations for another invasion of Italy.

Francis I

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Francis I, King of France

Francis was charismatic and capable, and he was lucky enough to have a long life. He was a true Renaissance prince, with a fine appreciation for learning and the arts. He was a reasonably good administrator who did not innovate but who made good use of the instruments of government he inherited. He also became the arch-enemy of Charles V (who became king of Spain in 1516 and Emperor in 1519), which tended to overshadow his concerns about religious reform.

Francis also inherited Charles' Italian policy and an army that was ready to march. So, in April 1515, Francis led the French back into Italy, winning a brilliant victory at Marignano. This victory so crushed the papal cause that it resulted in an agreement with Rome called the Concordat of Bologna. By it, the French king was essentially made the head of the Church in France. For example, legal cases involving clergy could not be appealed to Rome without royal approval. The king was also given permission to tax the clergy. Appointments to bishoprics had to meet royal approval. It gave the king so many rights with regard to the Church that the French crown never saw much reason to secularize the monasteries, or take other actions advocated by Protestant reformers. In practical, worldly terms at least, the reformers could offer little to the king of France.

Battle of Marignano, 1515

In 1519, Francis made a pretty good run at being emperor himself. When Maximilian died, he had asked the Estates choose his son Charles, but nothing was certain, and the Estates allowed themselves to consider candidates. That summer a fierce bidding war erupted and the king of French was pretty rich. He was out-bid in the end only because Charles borrowed massive amounts of money, with a very large chunk coming from the merchant house of the Fuggers of Augsburg.

Field of the Cloth of Gold

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Field of the Cloth of Gold

With the Hapsburgs on every side, Francis sought allies. He turned to another young, ambitious prince--King Henry VIII of England. In early summer 1520 the two struck an alliance and held a massive tournament to celebrate the occasion. Never had there been such splendor on such a scale. So many of the tents were so brilliantly decorated that it became known as the Field of Cloth of Gold. The great numbers of high nobility, along with the feasting and opulence, made the Field of the Cloth of Gold a landmark and benchmark for courtly life and tournaments. Neither it nor the alliance actually meant much in practical terms, however, and for modern historians the event is more symbolic of the passing of an age. There would still be tournaments, but the age of tourneys and of direct diplomacy between monarchs really belonged to the past, not the future.

Pavia

Despite the great victory at Marignano in 1515, the French managed to lose most of what they'd won over the next few years. Most notably, they lost Milan again. Since Francis had a claim (from his Angevin inheritance), he was determined to recover the city. He built another army and crossed the Alps in January 1525. An army of some imperial troops, supplemented by Swiss mercenaries, met him at Pavia, near Milan.

It was a catastrophe. Not only did the French lose heavily, Francis himself was captured and taken off to Spain. He spent six months as an imperial captive. Terms of his release included a huge indemnity and an alliance with Spain. He also agreed to give his two sons as hostages, and agreed to root out Lutheranism in his realm. As soon as he was freed, he got the Parlement of Paris to void all the terms of the Treaty of Madrid because Francis had agreed to it under duress. His two sons were still hostages, but Charles treated them well despite the betrayal.

Francis and the Protestants

It is important to keep these events in mind when looking at the course of the Reformation in these first few years of Francis' reign. As can be seen, he was completely preoccupied with foreign affairs: an invasion and great victory upon becoming king, then the attempt to be elected emperor, the English alliance, then the second invasion of Italy and the disaster of Pavia.

Lutheranism entered France while the king was occupied with Italy. The humanists Guillaume Farel (1489-1565) and Jacques Lefevre (1455-1536) were influential. The king's sister, Marguerite d'Angoulême, was another. She married Henri of Navarre. In 1531 she published Le Miroir de l'âme pécheresse. In 1548 the young Elizabeth Tudor translated it into English.

Once freed from Madrid, Francis had little interest in persecuting the reformers in France, even though by this time the Peasant Revolt in Germany was demonstrating that Luther's Cause could have social and political consequences. In large part this was because to persecute them at this point would have meant cooperating with the Emperor and the Pope, from whom he was struggling to keep free. Moreover, in the wake of Pavia (1525) and the sack of Rome (1527), all nations were becoming alarmed at the seemingly unbounded power of the Habsburgs. Francis was actually allying with Protestants in Germany; it wouldn't do to persecute Lutherans at home while seeking their friendship abroad.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that Francis for one moment admired or even tolerated Protestant ideas. The preaching of Lutheran doctrine and the dissemination of Lutheran literature was forbidden in France in 1525, first by papal bull and later the same year in a royal decree. A second papal bull came in 1533 and Francis again followed with his own decree. He issued a harsh edict in 1540. In general, he grew more ardent in his persecution of reformers later in life, largely in response to things done by the reformers themselves. in 1547 was created the chambre ardents to pursue heresy. In 1551, those accused of heresy were banned from municipal or judicial office.

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Henry II,
King of France

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Francis died in 1547 and was succeeded by Henri II, who proved to be a vigorous, though not particularly skillful, king. He persecuted the Huguenots to the best of his ability. Perhaps his chief contribution to France was his marriage to Catherine de' Medici (and that had been arranged when he was fourteen), for Catherine became the Queen Mother and regent for many years after her husband's death.

The Wars of Religion

Beginning in 1562, France experienced an entire generation of religious warfare. When you see the phrase "Wars of Religion", it applies specifically to the religious wars in France between Catholics and Huguenots. It's a somewhat misleading phrase in a couple of respects. First, the wars were actually more a combination of dynastic rivalries complete with maneuvering at court, punctuated by sometimes savage outbreaks of violence. Sometimes the fighting got close to Paris; sometimes the fighting was inside Paris; but as the 15th century had shown, even Paris could fall and yet the French monarchy could survive. In other words, the Wars of Religion were terribly disruptive, but they were not continuous and they were usually local to a few regions.

Secondly, the conflict between Huguenots and Catholics was by no means over by 1594, the traditional end-date for the Wars of Religion. Organized warfare would break out time and again, into the 1620s, and the Huguenots figured as a signficant (though declining) force in France on into the 1680s. You should picture the Wars of Religion as the most violent phase in the conflict, and as the high-water mark for Huguenot power, but nevertheless as only one phase in a longer and broader struggle between French Catholicism and French Protestantism.

Background

Protestantism became suddenly influential in the late 1550s as the result of two key developments. First, after John Calvin returned to Geneva, he began creating a system for producing missionaries. These began arriving in significant numbers at the end of the 1550s. They were educated, impassioned, and dedicated, and they spread a fairly consistent message. This is the form of Protestantism that spread throughout southern and western France.

The second key development was the conversion of noble families to Protestantism. The nobility of southern France was already accustomed to a certain independence anyway, and the local common folk had always looked to the nobility as their protectors. So, when the nobles converted to Calvinism, they were also able to protect the local Huguenot (Protestant) ministers and congregations, much the same as the protection of German nobles was critical to the success of Lutheranism in other countries.

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Admiral de Coligny,
Huguenot leader

One of the most important noble conversions was that of the Admiral de Coligny in 1557. Coligny converted to Calvinism while imprisoned in the Netherlands (he'd been captured in the Battle of St Quentin).

In that same year, evidence of the growing influence of Calvinism was evidenced in Paris. An assembly of about four hundred Huguenots was broken up and about a hundred and thirty were arrested. The following year, in May, four thousand Huguenots assembled on the Seine, to sing hymns and hear sermons. Among them was Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre, another recent convert. The meetings ran for three consecutive evenings.

The critical year, though, was 1559. Calvinist ministers were now pouring into France and their message was spreading like wildfire. The Huguenots drafted their first general confession. Its first article was that "no church can claim principality or dominion over another." Provincial synods were to look after the interests of the faithful--there was to be no general, central body. This congregationalist approach was ideal for the spread of an "underground" religion, for each congregation could be as independent as it needed to be. And the influence of the Genevan preachers helped keep the various congretations from deviating too far from the central message and practice.

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François II,
King of France

In July, King Henri II was killed in a joust. The Guise family had his son Francis declared of age and gave most power to a council headed by themselves. This was effectively a coup of a single family and it was resisted by others, regardless of religious preference. Louis of Bourbon, the king's uncle and the Prince of Condé, countered that Francis wasn't old enough and that there should be a regency, headed by Antoine of Navarre. He lost the argument.

Public authority eroded. In 1560, in Rouen, the royal commander had five thousand troops at his command. But when, in May, the people of Rouen attacked the scaffolds he'd set up for executions, they did so in such numbers that he did not even try to oppose them with his troops.

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Charles IX,
King of France

On 5 December 1560, Francis II died. Rule passed to his younger brother Charles, and so the regency continued under Catherine de' Medici.

In 1561, Odet de Coligny (the Admiral's brother) converted to Calvinism. He was at the time both the bishop of Beauvais and a cardinal. As had been done in some German territories, he refused to resign his office (which encompassed significant worldly powers), earning him the nickname of "the Protestant cardinal."

These were heady days for Protestants in France. Preachers were streaming out of the Academy in Geneva. Mobs of Calvinists set upon churches, turned out the Catholic clergy, stripped the churches, and held openly Calvinist ceremonies. They built their own houses of worship. And, ominously, they assembled in the fields for military exercises, under the command of a local seigneur.

Factions

Even in the best of times there were always factions, always rival families and dynasties, within any kingdom. France was a large country with ample room for families who'd established ancient traditions of independence and significant blocks of territory that could supply money and troops. Under a king like Francis I, these families would be co-opted, bribed, or coerced into remaining relatively quiet. From the death of Henry II in 1559, though, there was no strong king for quite a long time, and the factions came out in full flower.

On the Protestant side, the Bourbon family was most pre-eminent. Highest ranking was Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre. His commitment to Protestantism was tepid at best, but his wife (Jeanne d'Albret) was ardent to the cause. She raised her children to be Protestant and she gave protection and support to the Huguenot cause wherever she could. Louis de Bourbon was Prince de Condé and became the early military leader of the Huguenot armies. The other great Huguenot family was that of Châtillon, which produced both the Admiral de Coligny and the bishop of Beauvais.

On the Catholic side, the Guise were the most important. The Montmorency family was their major ally (one of them was the Constable of France at the time).

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Catherine de' Medici,
Queen of France

The House of Valois never wavered from the Catholic cause, but Queen Catherine was in a delicate situation. Her principal interest was to guard the interests of the crown on behalf of her sons--first Francis, then Charles, then Henri, each of whom was king for a time. While this would seem to mean opposing the Huguenots by every means, in practice she had to be very careful of the Guises. That family despised the "foreign" influence she represented, was related to the throne by blood, and at times spoke as if the Guises, not the Valois, should rule France. In other words, the Huguenots were a religious danger, but the Guises were a political danger. Catherine somehow had to find her way between the two.

First War of Religion

In January 1562, Catherine de' Medici issued an Edict of Toleration, hoping to gain Huguenot support and to keep the Guises from becoming too influential. The Edict allowed the Huguenots to practice their religion, but only in open fields outside of town, or on the estates of sympathetic nobles.

Duke of Guise

Duc François de Guise,
1519-1563

An assembly of Huguenots at Vassy was attacked and massacred by the Duke of Guise, with about 400 killed. He claimed they were conspirators plotting to seize the government, but his attack appears to have been almost spur of the moment. It was certainly ill-considered, with little regard for consequences. The duke took control of the young Charles IX, still claiming to see plots. France was in the hands of the Guises, and the first of the Wars of Religion in France had begun.

On 1 March 1562, the Duc de Guise was going from Paris to his estates. As ever, he travelled with an armed band of followers. It was Sunday and he stopped to hear Mass at the small town of Vassy. There was a Huguenot congregation in a nearby building. There was an encounter, a scuffle, and matters quickly escalated. Guise's men fired on the Huguenots (who were unarmed) and burned the building (it wasn't a church, it was just a building borrowed as a place of worship). A number of Huguenots were killed (estimates vary, but probably at least a couple hundred). The duke went on his way, claiming that the Huguenots had been plotting against the king.

The Huguenots were of course outraged, calling it the Massacre of Vassy. They met in assembly in Paris and asked the Prince de Condé to protect the Church (the Protestant Church, that is). He assembled own forces, took a number of key points in the Loire Valley, and set up a headquarters at Orléans. There was now something that could be called a Huguenot army. Condé called for support from Protestants in other countries, forcing those rulers to have to decide whether they should support their co-religionists and risk war with France, or ignore the calls and risk discontent at home.

It is both ironic and indicative of the difficulty of Catherine's positon that she had begun the year trying to win Huguenot support to counterbalance the Guise faction, yet now had to turn to that same family for defense of the realm. For the Huguenots now had a significant power base in the heart of France, within easy striking distance of Paris. Most royal forces were in garrisons in the east, because the great enemy had long been the Habsburgs, and were not readily available. Only the Guise could muster troops quickly enough who were loyal to the Catholic cause.

The Duke responded, of course, but his military task was not an easy one. The Huguenots had occupied strongly fortified positions, and siegework was costly of both men and money. The only significant open battle of the First War came at Dreux and it happened by accident. The Catholics won the day, but the commanders on both sides were captured by the other: Montmorency (not only seventy years old, but actually leading the cavalry charge) was captured by the Huguenots, while Condé (who had blundered into the battle in the first place) was captured by the Catholics. Coligny was forced to take command of the Huguenot forces, and he led them into winter quarters.

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Battle of Dreux,
1562

Reversal of fortune was one of the hallmarks of the Wars of Religion, and so was assassination. Here we get our first one. On 18 February 1563, the Duc de Guise was assassinated. Coligny was suspected but never accused. The murder hardened feelings on both sides. The Council of Trent concluded this year, which seemed to remove even further any chance of a general reconciliation. With the Duc de Guise dead, and Antoine de Bourbon dead as well (killed in a siege of Rouen), the Catholic side was spent. They agreed to a peace on 19 March 1563.

Second War of Religion

Meanwhile, it needs to be remembered, a Protestant insurrection was in full swing in the neighboring Low Countries, and England had just (1559) acquired a Protestant queen. All in all, the French Catholics had every reason to be concerned. Worse, their most logical ally was Spain, which was under the rule of France's strongest rival, the house of Habsburg. Nevertheless, in 1565, a meeting was arranged between Catherine de' Medici and Philip II's wife. The Huguenots readily made good use of this to claim that the Catholics were willing to sell out France to the Spanish.

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Duke of Alba

In 1567, the Duke of Alba marched from Italy to Holland, to take command of the deteriorating situation there. The Huguenots feared this was merely a ruse, to introduce Spanish troops into France. This fear was reinforced when the queen actually met with the duke during his march.

Panicked, in September 1567, Condé and Coligny launched a coup attempt, trying to capture the young King Charles while he was at Meaux. The attempt failed, however, and the commanders were driven to a second war, for which they were unprepared. Catherine at once turned to Alba, while John Casimir, son of the Elector Palatine, went to aid the Huguenots.

Actually, though, neither side was prepared. They were both short on men and money, and on 23 March 1568, a new peace was made (Peace of Longjumeau). During this campaign, the aged Montmorency died.

Third War of Religion

All that was needed, however, was for both sides to gain their breath, and the Third War broke out almost at once, in autumn 1568, when the Cardinal of Lorraine tried to capture Coligny and Condé. This war was much more hard-fought.

It was at just this point that William of Orange made a plea to the Huguenots for an alliance. It came at a propitious moment, so an agreement was struck. For a brief time, Protestants from southern France all the way to Amsterdam were in common cause. In retaliation, the Guises began their maneuverings centered around Queen Mary of Scotland, for if Elizabeth could be replaced by a Catholic, pro-French queen, the balance of power in France would be tipped decisively. The presence, influence, and money of foreign powers helped make the Third War longer and bloodier than the first two.

The Huguenots lost both the major battles of this war. At Jarnac, the Prince de Condé was killed, and Coligny lost a few months later at Moncontour. After that battle, he withdrew his army to southwestern France, which was the stronghold of the Huguenots, and so survived to fight another day. The end to this war was the Peace of St Germain, 8 August 1570.

The Huguenots gained certain rights as a result of this war, however. They won the right to garrison four towns: La Rochelle, Montaubaun, la Charité, and Cognac. In the wake of this, Catherine betrothed her daughter Margaret to Henry of Navarre (son of the staunchly Protestant Jeanne d'Albret), hoping to create a future alliance, and again hoping to counterbalance the influence of the Guise faction at court.

St Bartholomew's Day Massacre

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Massacres on St. Bartholomew's Day

The marriage of Henri of Navarre and Margaret de Valois took place in Paris on 17 August 1572. Conditions were alarming, for the Guises had brought their own forces into the city, while Henri had brought his own followers--about eight hundred mounted fighters. Plenty of other nobles, including Coligny, had brought their own followers as well. There were essentially two small armies in Paris that August, one Catholic and one Huguenot.

On 22 August 1572, Coligny was riding his horse through the streets when he was handed a letter. He stopped to read it. Someone fired on him from a window, wounding him in the arm (the shot actually shattered the bone). He was taken to his rooms, alive but badly wounded. The Huguenots naturally claimed the Guises were behind the assassination attempt and demanded the young King Charles IX do something at once.

Charles was still only a teenager, struggling to break free of the influence of his mother. But during the night he was visited by the queen mother and her advisers. They argued that the city was on the verge of a Huguenot insurrection and that action must be taken against the Protestant, not the Catholic faction. Some time during the night, Charles agreed that Coligny must be finished off, as being a mortal danger to the crown. Since Charles was still much under his mother's influence, many blame Catherine de' Medici for the decision.

Armed men were sent to Coligny's quarters. They dragged him from his bed and stabbed him to death, then hurled the body into the streets. At once word raced through the city that the king had declared open war on the Huguenots.

A massacre ensued as the people of Paris took matters into their own hands. Thousands of Huguenots were set upon and killed. Henri de Navarre was captured and held for the next four years.

Meanwhile, word that it was open season on Protestants spread across France, and massacres were repeated in city after city. It's extremely difficult to estimate numbers, but a figure of thirty thousand over the course of six months is not unreasonable.

More significant than exact numbers is the effects of the Massacre. While it certainly checked the spread of Protestantism for a time, those who remained formed a hardened core that could always point to the Massacre as a reason not to compromise. Other effects were more short-term, such as the loss of Henri de Navarre to captivity and the Prince de Condé to exile. They would return. But the Massacre also showed how deep anti-Protestant sentiment ran in much of France. No one knew it at the time, but the Huguenot movement would grow no more; this was its high-water mark.

Fourth War of Religion

As a result of St Bartholomew's Day, the Fourth War of Religion began. It consisted mostly of an unsuccessful siege of La Rochelle. It ended the following year when the Duke of Anjou, the principal commander of the Catholics, left to become King of Poland.

Warfare became endemic now, happening sporadically almost everywhere. Charles IX died in 1574, and the Duke of Anjou eagerly abandoned Poland to return home to become King Henri III.

Theories of Resistance

Especially after the killings of 1572, Huguenot literature made a powerful contribution to European ideas regarding civil disobedience and rebellion. Once Calvin had established the idea of the self-sufficient Christian community, the obvious question became: what ought that community do when faced with an ungodly ruler?

The answer for Luther had been simple and clear: obedience and suffering. The answer was less clear for the next generation. When the Lutherans of Magdeburg defied the Leipzig Interim of 1548, they found themselves attacked by fellow Lutherans. In this context, they put forward the thesis that if the ruler tried to destroy true religion, he could be resisted. Not by the general population, but by other magistrates who were officially charged with public responsibility. This was a convenient theory for Protestant princes defying a Catholic emperor.

The French elaborated on this principle. The Huguenots diverged from Geneva in that they instisted the laity must always participate in church business. In Geneva, the ministers held their own synods and could regulate the life of the community without approval from the civil government. In France, the ministers were never separated in this way and never held their own synods without lay participation.

It was easy, therefore, to speak of the right of resisting the ungodly ruler as applying to the whole community. They went further and argued that public officials, all the way up to the king, derived their right to rule from the ruled. Should the king become a heretic, he lost the right to rule God's people.

The doctrine was still limited. The Huguenots did not go so far as to suggest that all people had the right to resist, nor that even the religious could resist for non-religious reasons. But the literature of 1560-1580 markes a new voice in European political thought. It ws soon silenced. When Henry of Navarre became King of France, this strand in Huguenot writing stopped. It would be taken up again in the 17th century by the Jesuits.

On the other side, a group began to emerge who argued that the wars were so disruptive that the interests of the nation as a whole were jeopardized. They argued that religious differences needed to be subordinated to political interests, so they were called the politiques. The foremost noble who took up this argument was the Duc d'Alençon.

Now appear the politiques, in reaction to the horrors of religious war that no one seemed to know how to stop. Its political leader was the Duke of Alençon.

Fifth War of Religion

The Fifth War began looking like it would be a major engagement. Henri was now king and he had been the victor at Jarnac and Moncontour. On the other side, Condé had raised troops in Germany, and Henri de Montmonrency had raised an army in Languedoc, where he was governor. Finally, in February 1576, Henri de Navarre escaped from court and returned to his kingdom to raise his own army.

All three armies converged on Paris, and King Henri for his part was unable to respond in any kind of force. Yet, in the end, a treaty was negotiated without any major battle. Essentially it gave the Huguenots most of what they wanted. As it had been negotiated by the king's younger brother, it is often called the Peace of Monsieur. The terms included eight garrisoned Huguenot towns, representation in the parlements, and free exercise of their religion outside Paris and the residence of the court. In addition, the principal Huguenot leaders got lands and titles of great significance (for example, Henri de Navarre was made governor of Guyenne, a Huguenot stronghold).

Ardent French Catholics saw the Peace of Monsieur as a sell-out, and the Parlement of Paris refused to register the peace (making it technically not a legal document). The nobility disliked Henri, who was not strong despite his earlier military victories. They saw him as preferring peace at any cost, a dissolute man who furthered his favorites, and spent extravagantly. Catholics suspected him of being soft on Protestantism. Already, local Catholic leagues had formed. After 1576 they coalesced into a national League. Unlike earlier noble leagues, this one deliberately recruited clergy, townsmen, and even peasants.

Meanwhile, matters went from bad to worse. Spain plotted with Navarre. France plotted with Scotland. The taille doubled between 1576 and 1588, and the gabelle tripled. Henry III and the Guises were making themselves well-hated.

Sixth War of Religion

King Henri tried to head off the influence of the Catholic League by declaring himself the head of it. By co-opting it, he managed to field an army, which launched a march along the Loire River in 1577. It was hardly more than a show, for the Loire was no longer the center of Huguenot strength. Unable to do more, Henri settled for peace in July.

Seventh War of Religion

A few years of peace now ensued, as both sides were pretty much exhausted. A brief war broke out in 1580 but peace was made the same year. The Huguenots were solidly ensconced in the south, but it's also true that their movement had spent its strength. Not only were they not winning new converts, they were actually losing them. Most significantly, Huguenot nobles were converting back to Catholicism. Not in large numbers yet, but the trend was there. The Huguenots were too strong yet to dislodge, but they had made their bid for power, had come up short, and could no longer muster the strength for another try.

The Protestant King

Then Fortune seemed to cast one more opportunity their way. In 1584 the Duke of Anjou died. As Henri III was childless, King Henri of Navarre, leader of the Huguenot cause, was now the heir to the French crown. This galvanized the Catholics to re-form the Catholic League of 1576. Using tested tactics they gained control of a number of municipal governments. An elderly cardinal claimed to be a legitimate heir, though he was merely a tool of the Guises. The real leader of the Catholics was the Duc de Guise.

At the end of 1584, Philip II concluded the Treaty of Joinville, by which he agreed to recognize the Cardinal of Bourbon and to help eradicate heresy in France. In return, Philip was to get Navarre.

The treaty was only with the Guise faction, not with Henri III. An old fear was now realized: Spanish armies could invade France, claiming to be rescuing her. When Henri seemed inclined to ally with the League, Navarre decided he had no recourse available except to war. Moreover, in 1585, Henri III revoked all previous edicts of toleration and required that all Protestants convert to Catholicism within six months or face exile.

Guise had thrown in with Spain decisively, which had the immediate effect of freeing Philip to pursue his plans to invade England. In France it let the Huguenots pose as the true patriots while the Catholics connived with the Habsburgs. It made for effective political propaganda.

In 1587 a German army from the Palatinate invaded France but was defeated by the Duc de Guise. At the same time, the Duc de Joyeuse was sent south to deal with Henri de Navarre, but Navarre won a major victory at Coutras. Religious war again threatened to overwhelm France.

Revolution in Paris

Conditions teetered toward chaos. In Paris, the townspeople were fervently Catholic, so much so that they condemned any talk of compromise or toleration. The King was wrestling with Parlement over a complex set of issues regarding protocols and rights, which the common folk viewed as a threat to their liberties. In May, they suddenly put up barricades in the street to block what they believed was an imminent invasion by royal troops. Henri III had to flee the city, and Paris was now taken over by a Committee of Sixteen, which at once invited the Duc de Guise into the city.

When the Armada was defeated in August 1588, Henry III was able to put some distance between himself and the Guise faction. In September of that year he dismissed eight close advisers. The Estates General met in October (in Blois, for Paris was not safe), for the first time since 1576. The political situation was in delicate balance.

And then, on 23 December 1588, Guise was murdered at Blois, in the presence of the king himself. His brother, the cardinal, was arrested and murdered the next day. The Catholic League turned to another Guise, the Duc de Mayenne.

This rash act immediately turned public sentiment against the king. The Catholic League now openly rebelled against the crown, placing their own men in town governments, sometimes by force. The Leaguers found ready alliance with burghers and regional parlements seeking to assert their right against central authority.

Henry III soon discovered he was almost powerless and friendless. A Leaguer army was marching on his position when, in April 1589, he made common cause with Henry of Navarre. Together they besieged the capital. Then, on 1 August 1589, the friar Jacques Clément stabbed King Henry, mortally wounding him. Before he died, he designated Navarre as his successor, if the Bourbon would become Catholic.

The Wars of the League

Henri of Navarre was able at least to claim he was King of France, and he was still Protestant. He was, in fact, still under a papal ban of excommunication, which had been issued in 1584.

The Leaguers continued to claim the cardinal of Bourbon was the true king, calling him Charles X. Not many were fooled by this; they knew it would either be Henri de Navarre or the Duc de Mayenne. Henri understood this, too, and sought battle as soon as he could.

They met in September 1589 at Arques, which Navarre won. He moved through Normandy that winter, then met and defeated the Leaguers again at Ivry in March 1590. That spring the Cardinal of Bourbon died, removing that tenuous claim for the League. Worse, a variety of claimants now came forward, further fracturing the Catholic cause. Even Philip of Spain was making a claim, by virtue of his marriage to Elizabeth of Valois.

1590 saw the siege of Paris, still under the control of the Committee of Sixteen. He pressed the city so hard that the Duke of Parma was pulled from his campaign in the Netherlands. He was able to force Henri to withdraw.

The Committee of Sixteen finally went too far in Paris in 1591. It created a Committee of Public Safety to ferret out traitors, and went so far as to attack the Parlement in November. This led some to call in the Duc de Mayenne, who moved in December, arresting several of the Sixteen.

Spain continued to press its claims. Philip forced Mayenne to call an Estates General in 1593 and to put forward Philip's daughter as a candidate to the throne. This alienated everyone, including Mayenne, for the Spanish were arguing that Salic Law should be set aside, lest a heretic rule France. By this time it was enshrined in French popular understanding that they had fought and won the Hundred Years War in defense of Salic Law (specifically, that the crown could be inherited only through the male line), so Philip's suggestion was guaranteed to offend all.

The Conversion of Henri

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Henri IV,
King of France

It was just at this point that Henry IV publicly accepted Catholicism, in a grand ceremony at St Denis on 25 July 1593. It was a huge gamble. He did not know if the pope would lift the excommunication--which he'd have to respect, as a Catholic. He feared that his Huguenot soldiers would abandon him if he abandoned their faith, and they did--but not in great numbers.

In fact, much of France at once went over to Henry. He made it all the easier with generous gifts of money and offices. Paris held out, but it was isolated. The Duke of Parma died in December 1592 and Spanish troops refused to rescue Catholic Paris. Henry marched on the city a third time. It fell almost without a fight on 22 March 1594. There were no executions, no reprisals. A handful were banished, and they only for a little while.

In January 1595 Henry declared war on Spain. He was absolved of heresy by Pope Clement VIII in September. Mayenne made peace the next month. The war with Spain lasted until 1598 with little result, though most Frenchmen believed they had won a great victory because they had fought Spain and had not lost. Such was the reputation of the Spanish troops.

Henry's conversion had caused the Huguenots to close ranks. By 1598 it was obvious to most Catholics that they weren't going to destroy the Protestants by force. After long negotiations, Henry issued the Edict of Nantes.

The limits of Protestantism in France were now precisely defined. The Huguenots got one hundred towns they could garrison, mostly in the south. They got the right to hold public office. They got a special chamber in the parlement of Paris for hearing cases involving Protestants. They were allowed freedom of worship in all their current places outside of Paris. In return, the Huguenots had to allow Catholic worship in their communities.

Reign of Henri IV

Henry spent the next twelve years rebuilding France, both internally and along its borders. Then, on 14 May 1610, he was assassinated by the priest Ravaillac, a strange man who was steeped in classical tales of tyrannicide. Henry's son Louis was eight years old, and the government was placed in the hands of Marie de' Medici, Henry's wife.

To some, the country seemed to be in the grip of foreigners. Marie was Italian and Louis was in 1611 betrothed to Anne of Austria, the daughter of Philip II. Many of Marie's advisors were, quite naturally, Italians. Despite her best efforts, the nobility revolted in 1614.

It was not a long rebellion. Condé and others withdrew from the court in February and began raising private armies. An Estates General was called, which they expected to control, but Marie outfoxed them. Over the summer she took Louis on a tour of the provinces, stirring popular support, and had him declared of age on 2 October. When the Estates General met on 27 October, the nobles were no longer dominant. Little was accomplished, which is just what Marie wanted. When the king dissolved it after a short session, there were few protests. This turned out to be the last meeting of the Estates General until 1789.

King Louis XIII

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Louis XIII,
King of France

The next few years saw a struggle for power between the young Louis, a teenager, and his mother. Louis won the struggle in 1617 when Marie's chief advisor was shot to death in Paris. In the aftermath, Louis dismissed most of her ministers and exiled Marie herself to royal estates in Blois.

Louis' first choice of minister was Luynes, who did not do well and who died of a fever in 1621. He tried a few others before settling on Richelieu, whom he made a cardinal in 1624.

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Cardinal Richelieu

The two were a good match. Louis XIII was not a brilliant monarch, but he understood his limitations and he understood that Richelieu's strengths compensated for them. Louis was mistrustful of Richelieu at first because the man had been part of Marie's council, but the cardinal was so respected by the rest of the court that Louis reluctantly gave him a chance. He quickly discovered he liked and trusted the man.

Both men regarded the glory of the crown and the prestige of the nation as being of paramount importance. Religion, family, dynasty, the aristocracy, old allies and old enemies alike, everything could take second place at need behind the guiding principle of raison d'etat--the reason of State. While it's commonplace to speak of the initiatives of the 1630s and 1640s as belonging to Richelieu, in fact the king was in perfect harmony with them. Most of the ideas originated with the cardinal, but each one was placed before the king, often in the form of a report that carefully laid out multiple options.

Two goals informed their actions from the first: to crush heresy at home, and to curb the power of the Habsburgs abroad. These goals were somewhat contradictory, for the Habsburgs were the champions of the effort to eradicate heresy, and from time to time one goal was neglected in favor of the other.

An example can be seen in the rebellion of La Rochelle in 1626. The dev&ocircum;ts urged peace with the Habsburgs and even an alliance with Spain to go after the rebels. A plot against Richelieu was hatched that even included the king's brother, because Richelieu resisted the alliance with Habsburg. The plot was discovered and the king came to terms with both the Huguenots and the Habsburgs. One of the conspirators was executed. Richelieu won over Condé, then summoned an assembly of notables. They didn't get all their demands, but they got enough that the grumbling stopped. By 1630 Richelieu dominated the king's council.

La Rochelle fell in 1628, the last real strong Huguenot bastion. The last Huguenot duke went into exile in 1629. French Protestantism continued to exist, but only as a tolerated and largely disenfranchised minority, no longer a state within the state.