Religious wars in France (1562-1598)

Religious wars in France (1562-1598)

If there is a period in the history of France that comes up regularly in the debate, probably with the Revolution, it is that of the religious wars. We talk about their pell-mell influence on the creation of the concept of secularism, on the affirmation of absolute monarchy and on that of nation-states, when we leave the Franco-French context to take an interest in Europe. What were the origins and how did it unfold?

The background: Reform and weakened royal power

It was in the 1520s, shortly after Luther "posted" his theses in the chapel of Wittenberg Castle, that the first tensions and persecutions began against those who adhered to his ideas; Luther's writings were condemned in France from 1521. This worsened during the years 1540-1550, with the policy of repression of Henry II, who created, for example, the Chambre ardente for trials in heresy. The brutal death of Henry II leaves the throne to François II for a short year, then to Charles IX in 1560. François II can do nothing against the first manifestation of future wars of religion, the conspiracy of Amboise, where he lacks be kidnapped by members of the Protestant party seeking to free it from the influence of the Guise. The repressions that follow herald the wars of religion, despite a relative lull at the end of his short reign and at the beginning of that of his brother. The country sees the royal power weak in the face of the influence of the regent Catherine de Medici, mother of young kings, and the rise of different noble parties, whether Protestants or Catholics.

From Wassy to Saint-Barthélémy

wars of religion in France "/> The edict of Saint-Germain on January 17, 1562 is supposed to ease tensions and offer a sign of openness to Protestants, but it has the effect of infuriating the Catholic party! that in March of the same year, soldiers of François de Guise massacred Protestants in the town of Wassy in Champagne, arguing that the latter had practiced Protestant worship in a forbidden place. This is the "official" beginning. of the war, with the raising of his armies by Louis de Condé. The Protestant armies, despite some Catholic successes in the North, advanced rapidly and were finally slowed down only in December at the Battle of Dreux, thanks to the Duke of Guise ( assassinated a little later, at the siege of Orleans).

In March 1563, Catherine de Medici imposed the Peace of Amboise, taking up the main lines of the edict of January 1562, while limiting it. With Charles IX, who has reached his majority, she undertakes a "tour de France" from January 1564 to May 1566 to appease conflicts by increasing symbolic acts. The edict of Crémieu (1564) or the ordinance of Moulins (1566) were thus decreed, the latter officially proclaiming reconciliation.

It is in part the international context that reignites the conflict in France, when Philip II of Spain decides to crush the Calvinist revolt in the Netherlands; the Huguenots seem to have played a role there, suspecting Charles IX of wanting to get closer to the Spanish sovereign. In September 1567, Louis de Condé's men tried to kidnap the king near Meaux ("the surprise of Meaux"), but this was unsuccessful. It was the start of the Second War of Religion, which however ended in March 1568 with the Peace of Longjumeau. The problem is still not resolved ...

Charles IX published in May 1568 the ordinance of Saint-Maur which, to sum up, made the Protestants responsible for the failure of the negotiations: the war resumed, in particular in the South-West, at the instigation of the Queen of Navarre , Jeanne d'Albret. The Catholic armies then won important victories, including one in Jarnac which saw the death of the Prince of Condé. Admiral de Coligny must eventually retreat to La Charité, remaining threatening throughout the Loire Valley. It was only the financial difficulties of the king which stopped the conflict again, with the peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye on August 8, 1570, rather favorable to the Protestants.

Obviously, the Catholic party was again unhappy, especially following Coligny's return to court at the end of 1571, where he tried to impose a policy hostile to Spain. The rapprochement between Charles IX and the Huguenots was confirmed with the marriage between Henri de Navarre, son of Jeanne d'Albret, and the king's sister, Marguerite de Valois on August 18, 1572. Four days later, Coligny was the victim of a attack, and it is in a Paris heated to white, as much by the hatred of the Huguenots as by the fear of reprisals on their part that the night of Saint Barthélemy broke out, August 24, 1572. Only in the capital it does about 3000 victims (over several days), of all sexes and ages, and even of all social conditions. The massacres have a "purifying" character, we disembowel the Huguenots to root out the demon from their bodies ... Violence spread over the following days in the rest of the country, and the cycle of war did not end until October, causing around 10,000 deaths.

The conflict gets bogged down, the war goes on

The direct consequences of this mass massacre are the flight of the Protestants from the kingdom, or else a dissimulation or even a denial of their faith (the “theory of refuge”). Thus, Henri de Condé and Henri de Navarre must abjure to save their lives. But it also causes a radicalization of Protestants and the development of pamphleteer currents, already existing for the most part, but which explode at this time: this is the case of the monarchomaques. The war goes on, the wars even, but without real gain, concentrating around cities like La Rochelle and Sancerre.

In December 1573, the United Provinces of the South were established, a sign of a real challenge to royal power with the creation of a "Huguenot state". In 1581, Henri de Navarre became its governor general, gradually transforming this “Republic” into a princely system.

From 1574 also appears the so-called “Malcontents” movement. Within the nobility, some suspect the king of wanting to exercise absolute power at their expense. This movement affects both Catholics and Protestants (including Henri de Condé and Henri de Navarre), and we thus see a Henri de Montmorency-Danville, Catholic, being recognized by the Protestants as governor of the Southern Provinces. The "Malcontents" were joined in 1574 by François d´Alençon, brother of Charles IX, who allied himself with the three Henri, causing a new conflict. The latter is therefore both confessional and political, and it intervenes at the very moment of the death of Charles IX, to which Henri III succeeded (in 1575). Peace was quickly signed in Beaulieu in May 1576.

The Holy League

Once again, the most radical Catholics are offended by the clauses of the peace of Beaulieu, considered too in favor of the Protestants. In 1576 a "Sainte Ligue" was founded in Péronne, in Picardy, the goal being to end the Beaulieu accords. Other cities took this example in subsequent years, across the kingdom. Logically, it was the Duke of Guise, and then especially Henri III, who took the lead of this "Catholic League" as the war resumed. It was the victory of the royal armies at La Charité, which imposed the Peace of Bergerac and the annulment of the Edict of Beaulieu which was replaced by that of Poitiers, clearly less favorable to the Huguenots (October 8, 1577). In the following years, the conflict resumed sporadically, at a local level, but it still caused Condé to flee to Germany.

Henri III and the Ligueurs

From the 1580s, the war resumed on a national scale, affecting the entire territory, and reaching its highest level of violence. It takes place in an eschatological atmosphere, the fervor of which touches even the king who enters a brotherhood of penitents, and introduces several into Paris. Henry III, with the help of his mother, also surrounded himself with competent men as fervent as himself, and reorganized the kingdom around the court and especially his person. This personal power, but also the financial difficulties of the kingdom and the image of a sovereign isolated from the people, made it gradually unpopular.

The death of François d'Alençon in 1584 does not help matters; it makes Henry of Navarre the legitimate successor of Henry III on the throne! Catholics react by creating a new League, seeing in the death of the heir a new sign of the coming of the Apocalypse. They decide to ally themselves with Spain, behind Henry III's back.

New Leagues flourish again, especially in the cities, and uprisings follow one another during the year 1585; Henry III took the lead in July of the same year, pledging to eliminate the Huguenot cult from the kingdom, even if he was not really favorable to the Ligueurs (many of whom were “Malcontents”, rejecting absolute monarchy). The fighting resumed with the Huguenots, who obtained victories, like that of Henri de Navarre in Coutras, on October 20, 1587.

The League quickly tends to want to gain the ascendancy over the king, who tries to disarm it in May 1588 on the day of the barricades; but it was a failure and Henri III had to flee Paris! The king still manages to gain time and negotiate with the Leaguers, biding his time. After keeping a low profile for several months, he succeeded in having the leaders of the Holy League arrested and executed, including Henri de Guise (whose body was to be dismembered and burned) on December 23 and 24, 1588, in Blois. However, the desired effect does not occur, on the contrary: the remnants of the League are radicalized against the king! Worse, in May 1589, the Pope excommunicated Henry III! Calls for regicide are increasing, the sovereign is now seen as the Antichrist ...

The advent of Henry IV and the end of the wars of religion

The king, rejected on all sides, decides to turn to Henri de Navarre. In April 1589, the two men joined forces to march on Paris, still in the hands of the Ligueurs. For the latter, it is the confirmation that the king is demonic: he is stabbed by the Dominican Jacques Clément in his camp in Saint-Cloud and dies of his wounds; before dying he designated Henri de Navarre as his successor.

He took advantage of the divisions between nobles and urban notables within the League to defeat them in Arques and Ivry, but he failed in front of Paris in 1590. He let his competitor to the throne, Charles de Bourbon, his uncle, die in captivity. Henri IV also failed to remove Rouen, still under the control of the Holy League, in 1591 and 1592.

However, the League saw its divisions worsen between, on the one hand, the more radical Catholics, ready to hand over the throne to Philip II, and on the other the supporters of Charles of Lorraine, Duke of Mayenne; the Holy Union split into two camps, part of which rallied to the king. The latter gradually appears as the symbol of a possible unity. For this, he knows that he must convert to the Catholic faith: he abjures his Calvinist faith on July 25, 1593, is consecrated in Chartres (Reims being a League) on February 24, 1594, and enters Paris the following month after tough negotiations.

The following years, Henry IV spent them in subjugating the last bastions of the League, using both force and negotiation. He also had to face the offensive of the Spaniards, which he managed to beat and on whom he imposed the peace of Vervins on May 2, 1598. A few weeks earlier, he had already sealed peace in his kingdom by promulgating on the 13th. April of the Edict of Nantes, which established freedom of worship and granted places of safety to the Huguenots. Civil wars against a background of religion are over in France.


- D. CROUZET, The warriors of God (violence at the time of religious disturbances, circa 1525-circa 1610), Champ-Vallon, 2009 (1time 1990 ed).

- A. JOUANNA, J. BOUCHER, D. BILOGHI, G. LE THIEC, History and dictionary of the wars of religion, Gallimard, 1998.

- W. KAISER (dir), L’Europe en conflicts (religious clashes and the genesis of modern Europe, circa 1500-circa 1650), Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2008.

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