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The Many Wars of Religion

While Francis I occupied his time fighting in Italy and competing with Charles V, Protestantism made its way into France. While Lutheranism did have some followers within French borders, Calvinism had the bigger impact in France. Francis unquestionably opposed Protestantism, but he was too busy to do much about it. Twice he followed the pope in declaring Protestant preaching and literature illegal in France, but he never actively persecuted the Protestants in France.

Francis died in 1547 and Henry II (1519-1559) took the throne. Henry pursued the Huguenots much more aggressively. Furthermore, Henry’s wife, Catherine de’ Medici (1519-1589), who would eventually become Queen Mother and regent of France, really went after the Huguenots, persecuting them with imprisonment, torture, and even execution. Interestingly, Catherine was the great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent, one of the great Florentine Medicis of the Renaissance. Henry died in 1559 shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Cateau- Cambresis. Henry enjoyed tournaments, so he took part in one celebrating the treaty. In a joust, a splinter of his opponent’s lance pierced his eye and went into his brain. He died shortly thereafter. Catherine became regent and ruled for her son, who was not yet old enough.

Continental Quotes

Nostradamus, the legendary predictor of future events predicted the death of Henry when he said, “He (Henry) will pierce his eye through a golden cage ... then he dies a cruel death."

Beginning in 1562, France found itself embroiled in what has come to be known as the Wars of Religion. While fighting certainly took place many times during the 32 years or so of the Wars, actual warfare was only intermittent during the era. The Wars of Religion were more like a longstanding feud between dynastic houses. Catherine led the Valois against the intrigues of the House of Guise, all of whom were Catholics. Also in the mix was the House of Bourbon led by Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre. Antoine had little interest in Protestantism but his wife and children supported the Huguenots. Catherine found herself in a sticky situation: the Huguenots posed a religious threat but the Guises posed a political threat. Catherine had to balance the two threats in such a way that her children remained in line for the throne.

In 1562, the first War of Religion broke out when Catherine, acting as regent, issued an edict that gave some toleration to Huguenots by allowing them to gather in open fields; she hoped to garner some support from Huguenots against the hated Guises. The Duke of Guise, in response, burned a building that housed probably hundreds of Huguenots. The Huguenots responded and the fighting went on until the following year. Such “wars” continued for 10 more years. Just as one side seemed to have the upper hand, the other would win momentum and then fortunes were reversed. The historical context of these wars helps explain the high tensions on the part of both Catholics and Huguenots in France during the latter half of the 1600s. England had just become Protestant and Protestantism swept over Europe. Likewise, Catholic monarchs were clamping down on the rise of Protestantism across Europe. Neither side was sure who ultimately would come out on top.

As a Matter of Fact

The House of Guise and the House of Bourbon were two of the most powerful families in France during the sixteenth century. They often vied for power in and around the royal court. The Guises were staunchly Catholic while the Bourbons were Protestant. The two families eventually become entangled in the affairs of Catherine de' Medici. Though Catherine was Catholic, she despised the Guises more than Protestantism.

War of the Three Henrys

Following a Huguenot victory over Catholic forces in 1570, Catherine made a calculated move in her continuing battle against the Guises. She agreed to marry her daughter to the Protestant Henry of Navarre (1553-1610), son of the now-dead Antoine de Bourbon, in hopes that this would create an anti-Guise alliance. Henry married Margaret de Valois in August, 1572, in Paris. At the time of the marriage, both Catholic and Huguenot forces had gathered in Paris just in case trouble broke out between the Catholics and Huguenots.

Just days after the marriage, an attempt was made on the life of a Huguenot noble, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. The Huguenots blamed the Guises and demanded that something be done. In an interesting move that dashed whatever peace she hoped to make with the marriage of Henry and Margaret, Catherine convinced her son, the young King Charles IX, to finish off Coligny and act against the Huguenots for fear that the Huguenots would stage a revolution in Paris. As a result, Coligny was stolen from his room, stabbed, and then flung into the streets. Catherine had turned on the Huguenots she once used as allies against her enemy, the House of Guise.

In the minds of the Parisians, the king had just declared war on the Huguenots and Parisians were more than happy to lend a hand. In what became known as St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, Catholics found and executed thousands of Huguenots.

Catholics took Henry of Navarre prisoner. Massacres broke out all over France. This led to a war in the following decade known as the War of the Three Henrys.

The War of the Three Henrys marked the final chapter in the French Wars of Religion. The war dragged on and on between three contenders: King Henry III (of the House of Valois) of France, who had ascended to the throne in 1573 on the death of Charles IX; Henry of Guise; and Henry of Navarre, the only Protestant among them.

The war brought chaos down on France. The rivals had allies of all sorts and from places outside France. The Catholic League and Habsburg Spain supported Henry of Guise, the Huguenots and other Protestant nations supported Henry of Navarre. Almost no one supported King Henry III. The frightening possibility arose that Spain could invade France to “liberate” the Catholics. Henry III managed to have Henry of Guise murdered, but the Catholic League still opposed Henry III and so did many Frenchmen.

When Henry III realized that he was on the brink of defeat, he joined forces with Henry of Navarre against the Catholic League. A friar stabbed Henry III, who, just before he died, said that Henry of Navarre should be king, provided he would become Catholic. Henry of Navarre still had fighting left to do, but he eventually won the throne.

Paris Is Worth a Mass

A Catholic nation that had been fighting against Protestants for years now had its very own Protestant king. That presented all sorts of religious and political problems. In 1593, in a momentous ceremony at St. Denis, Henry of Navarre, now King Henry IV converted to Catholicism. Henry knew that he had no choice if he were to rule a nation united instead of a nation divided. He reasoned, “Paris is worth a mass.” Although he feared his Huguenot supporters would turn on him and that the pope would make life difficult for him, he did what he believed would be best for the people of France. For the most part, France accepted Henry right away. Some of his followers did turn away, but not all of them.

Continental Quotes

“I want there to be no peasant in my kingdom so poor that he cannot have a chicken in his pot every Sunday."

—King Henry IV of France

In a show of good faith and in an attempt to end any further civil war, Henry issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The Edict extended some limited toleration to Huguenots.

Would You Believe?

Henry IV fell victim to a crazy assassin named Ravaillac. For his crime, Ravaillac suffered horrible torture including be burned by hot sulphur and boiling oil before he was drawn and quartered, or pulled apart by horses. Ravaillac's family was forbidden to ever use the family name again.

Huguenots were allowed to worship and were allowed to live in certain cities. In return, the Huguenots were to stay quiet, leave Catholics alone, and basically stay out of trouble. Henry IV worked to rebuild the nation, both physically and economically, during his reign. He worked hard for his people and he possessed a genuine concern for their welfare. He is remembered in France even today as le bon roi Henry, or “the good King Henry.”

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