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French Wars of Religion
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 Related Terms
• John Calvin
• Huguenots

 

Definition:
The French Wars of Religion were a series of violent confrontations between French Catholics and French Protestants, known as Huguenots, between 1562 and 1598. Earlier in the 16th century, French Protestant John Calvin had developed a set of Protestant doctrines which were widely regarded as uniques French in nature - this helped lead to the widespread popularity of Calvin's band of Protestantism through France, even among powerful members of the nobility.

This did not sit well either with the secular or the religious rulers of the day. The secular rulers saw this development as a threat to the absolute power of the state while the religous rulers saw it as yet another heretical step in the destruction of the Church. Indeed, Catholic leaders will still hurting from the loss of Catholic power in England due to the actions of King Henry VIII. As a consequence, both banded together to fight the growing menace of Protestantism in France. Much of France was laid waste and the agricultural production of the countryside shut down as entire villages were slaughtered and armed bands sought out those who followed the "wrong" religion.


Edict of Toleration
One of the most powerful people involved in Wars of Religion was Catherine de Medici, Regent and Queen Mother during the reign of her sons Francis II, Charles IX, Henry III, Duke of Alencon. She was a Roman Catholic, but by and large she was more interested in preserving the integrity and authority of the royal power for the sake of her sons and family.

Thus, even after Huguenots plotted to usurp the power of an allied Catholic family in the Conspiracy of Ambroise, leading to the deaths of hundreds of Protestants in a preemptive attack, Catherine tried to give Huguenots religious rights by having the Edict of Toleration issued. This, however, infuriated many Catholics and percipitated a temporary coup during which more Huguenots were slaughtered.

Catherine proceeded to play both sides against each other in her effort to ensure that her family would, in some fashion, retain power. On the one hand, she arranged the marriage of her daughter margaret to Duke Henry of Nevarre, a Protestant from the House of Bourbon who had a claim to the throne of France after her family. On the other hand, she arranged the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre to occur after the wedding and made sure that her son Charles IX took care of it, leading to the deaths of at least 3,000 Huguenots in Prist and 20,000 more around France.

Many Protestants converted in order to avoid death, but later recanted because the oaths were made under duress. Just two months after the massacre new fighting broke out and Charles was forced to sign the Peace of La Rochelle. It permitted, but restricted, Huguenot worship. In practice, however, the restrictions were generally ignored and Huguenots did whatever they wanted.


Catholic League
King Henry III tried to take a more conciliatory line with the Protestants and signed a treaty with them which would give them basic religious and civil rights throughout France. These events were unacceptable to many powerful Catholic families. One, Duke of Guise, intended to take the French throne for himself and formed the Catholic League for the twin purposes of exterminating Protestantism from France and putting him on the throne instead of Henry. The League was fully supported by the Pope and by Philip II of Spain.

Because of the power and actions of the Catholic Leage, Henry III was forced to cancel the treaty entirely and the Wars of Religion began anew. After Catherine's son Henry III died, her fourth son Francois, Duke of Anjou, joined the Protestants with his own army. Around the same time. Duke Henry of Nevarre realized that he would be able to do more to help Protestantism as King than as a rebel and so converted to Catholicism. This in turn allowed him to be coronated as King Henry IV of France, establishing the Bourbon line of kings. The same year he signed Treaty of Vervins with Catholic leaders, requiring their principel backer Philip II of Spain to remove Spanish troops from France.

In the end, the Catholic League had to disband. Despite what they had done to France, Henry IV still sought to make peace with them and signed a treaty with them, despite the objections of Parliament. The power of the Catholic framilies was retained, but at the cost of their efforts to enforce that power over Protestants. In 1598 Henry issued the Edict of Nantes, giving partial religious freedom to the Huguenots. Although it was not full equality, it did end the French Wars of Religion.

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