Common section

Chapter 7. Our Religion Is Better Than Your Religion

In This Chapter

Royal and religious tensions nearly tear apart France

The Netherlands cause some serious headaches

The aftermath of the English Reformation

• The invincible Armada

• The great witch hunts

The sixteenth century proved to be a time of both political and religious turmoil in France. In many instances, politics and religion were virtually indistinguishable. As France tried to recover from the plague and the Hundred Years’ War (see Chapter 1) that devastated the country less than a century earlier, the monarchy worked hard to centralize power under the crown and away from the nobles, creating tension between the monarchy and the aristocracy. To further complicate matters, many noble families in France jumped on the Protestant bandwagon, known in France as the Huguenots, which began as a small, fringe group but eventually numbered as many as two million souls despite persecution from the French government.

As if France didn’t have enough trouble on its hands, it spent the first half of the century embroiled in a conflict with the Habsburgs and eventually with the Holy Roman Emperor. Throughout these conflicts, the French economy teetered on the brink of disaster.

The Habsburgs and the Valois

The Habsburgs and the Valois were two of the most important and influential families in all of Europe. The Habsburg family traced its roots to medieval Switzerland. Over the few hundred years following the beginnings of the family’s local rule, the Habsburgs managed to take control of what is now Austria and parts of Germany. In the thirteenth century, electors chose a member of the Habsburg family as German king. The throne stayed in the family on and off for centuries, and by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Habsburgs had control of the Holy Roman Empire, which in theory was the secular kingdom that included all Catholics in Europe. The family’s sphere of influence split in 1556 when Emperor Charles V also Charles I of Spain, gave his Austrian holdings to his brother, Ferdinand, and Spain to his son, Philip. After this, there existed the Austrian Habsburgs and the Spanish Habsburgs.

As a Matter of Fact

The Habsburg Empire lasted in one form or another even into the twentieth century. Though the Habsburg family split into two groups, the Austrian Habsburgs and the Spanish Habsburgs, in the early sixteenth century, only the Austrian Habsburgs proved to have significant longevity. Despite the effective fall of the Holy Roman Empire after the Thirty Years' War, the Habsburg family remained intact in Austria and did not collapse until the family was deposed at the end of World War I.

The Valois family traced its roots back to Charles of Valois, whose descendants claimed the French throne ahead of the English King Edward III (see Chapter 1). The dispute over the French throne, won by the Valois, resulted in the Hundred Years’ War. The Valois succeeded the Capetian Dynasty in France, the first modern dynasty in France dating back to the Middle Ages. The Valois remained in power in France until 1589, when they gave way to the House of Bourbon.

The Habsburgs and Valois found themselves at odds beginning in 1494 when King Charles VIII of France invaded Italy, parts of which the Habsburgs asserted claims to. Italy took the physical brunt of these wars, which took place across Italy and left destroyed governments of Italian states in their wake. France suffered defeat after defeat and crushing treaty after crushing treaty. After more than 50 years of war, the fighting finally drew to an end in 1559 with the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis, which basically reaffirmed Spanish control over most of Italy and French ownership of Calais.

In the midst of the Habsburg-Valois Wars, a number of interesting things happened that set the stage for huge problems later in France. Young Francis I (1494-1547) took the throne in 1515. Unlike the two kings before him, Francis embraced the Renaissance ideals that had made their way out of Italy. Francis also did not seem to be obsessed with fighting in Italy the way his predecessors had been. That would change, though.

Francis had his eye on the Church in France and in 1516 signed the Concordat of Bologna with the pope. The concordat, or agreement, supported the pope against any conciliar movement (see Chapter 1), and in return the king of France got to appoint the high-ranking members of the clergy in France. This was good for the Church because it solidified the French stance for Catholicism and assured that the French wouldn’t become Protestant. It was good for France because the French king was assured the loyalty of those who made up the Church; he also maintained some independence from the pope. Unfortunately, the clergy he appointed were not interested in ministering or in spiritual affairs, so the Church in France entered a state of spiritual decline.

Would You Believe?

Francis and Henry VIII held a tournament to celebrate their alliance. The tournament was such a spectacle, with so many expensive tents erected, that the place became known as the Field of the Cloth of Gold. While the tournament was a smashing success, the alliance turned out to be practically meaningless.

In the years following his ascension to the throne, Francis vied for the position of Holy Roman Emperor, the secular ruler of Catholic lands in Europe. To become Holy Roman Emperor, one needed to receive votes from electors, or the German princes who had been designated to choose the Emperor (see Chapter 8). Charles I of Spain received the votes and became Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. After the election, Francis and Charles were archenemies.

Both wanted the Empire, both had interests in Italy, and they were neighbors. Francis followed in the footsteps of those before him and became obsessed with defeating Charles in Italy. While he carried on in France, Francis also allied with Protestants in Germany fighting against Charles V and with the young Henry VIII in England.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!