The Edict of Nantes is an edict of tolerance promulgated in April 1598 by King Henry IV of France, to put an end to the Wars of Religion that had ravaged the kingdom of France since 1562, and particularly to the eighth war, which began in 1585.
This edict granted Protestants religious, civil and political rights in certain parts of the kingdom and, in appendices called “patents,” granted them a number of places of refuge, including some sixty places of safety, and guaranteed them an annual subsidy from the royal treasury.
The first version of the edict, actually signed and sealed in Nantes, is lost and is only known by a copy kept in the Library of Geneva. It is therefore the second version, probably written later, but still dated April 1598, which constitutes the authentic text sent to the parliaments for registration.
The Edict of Nantes was revoked by Louis XIV in October 1685 (Edict of Fontainebleau), but its application had already been restricted, notably under Louis XIII, following the crisis of 1627-1629 marked by the siege of La Rochelle and concluded by the peace of Ales; and under Louis XIV, because of the policy of conversion of Protestants carried out from 1661.
The previous edicts of pacification
The Edict of Nantes, whose purpose was to bring the troubled period of the Wars of Religion to an end in France, was not the first text of its kind. Following the troubles that had arisen since the introduction of the Reformation in the 1520s, Charles IX signed the Edict of Saint-Germain (also known as the Edict of January) on January 17, 1562, which granted freedom of worship to Protestants in the suburbs of the cities. But on March 1, 1562, Protestants were massacred for worshipping in a town (Wassy), which triggered the first War of Religion. This war ended with the Peace of Amboise, which reserved freedom of worship for noble Protestants.
We can also note the peace of Saint-Germain (at the end of the third war of religion, which grants the Protestants freedom of conscience, freedom of worship and four strongholds: La Rochelle, Cognac, Montauban and La Charité-sur-Loire.
On May 6, 1576, Henry III signed the Edict of Beaulieu to end the Fifth War of Religion, but it was not properly implemented, so hostilities resumed in May 1577.
The difference between these texts and the Edict of Nantes is that the latter was actually enforced thanks to the authority that Henry IV had managed to conquer during the eighth war of religion.
The Eighth War of Religion (1585-1598)
This was particularly long and bitter because in the mid-1580s it became clear that Henry III would have no children, and therefore his successor (according to the Salic Law) would be Henry of Navarre, leader of the Protestant party. Also, the more extreme Catholics formed a party, the Catholic League, led by Duke Henri de Guise, which advocated, among other things, regicide and alliance with the Catholic powers, especially Spain.
Henri de Guise was assassinated in 1588 on the orders of Henri III, who was in turn assassinated in 1589 by a monk from the Ligers. Henri de Navarre then had to engage in the conquest of his kingdom, which he achieved through his military successes, but also through his conversion to Catholicism in 1593 and his coronation in Chartres in February 1594. He then gradually obtained the support of the major cities of the kingdom.
By the end of 1597, the League had only Brittany left, including the city of Nantes, held by the governor of the province, the Duke of Mercoeur, Philippe-Emmanuel de Lorraine, one of the main League leaders. But France was also at war with Spain, an ally of the League.
The military operations and negotiations of 1597-1598
In 1597, the city of Amiens was retaken from the Spaniards. Henri IV could turn all his forces towards the last bastion of the League. The situation of the Duke of Mercoeur was no longer tenable in the face of a king who controlled almost the entire kingdom.
In the early days of 1598, the king set out along the Loire Valley. Thousands of soldiers converged on Anjou and Angers became a garrison town. The Sieur de La Rochepot, governor of the town, organized with the population and the local officials the reception and the stay of the king of France, from March 7 to April 12, 1598. It was perhaps at this time that the drafting of the future Edict of Nantes began.
When he arrived in Angers, Henri IV made a number of symbolic gestures to rally Catholics who were in favor of the League. He went to the cathedral to hear mass. He received the bishop”s blessing on his knees at the entrance to the church. A few days later, he followed the Palm Sunday procession with a palm in his hand and his collar of the Order of the Holy Spirit on his shoulders. He washed the feet of thirteen poor people in the episcopal palace, and touched the sick of écrouelles on the square of the cathedral according to the royal tradition. Finally, he laid the first stone of the Capuchin convent.
Part of Brittany rose up against its governor and Mercœur lost several strongholds that rallied the king of France, notably Dinan, where the population, helped by the Malouins, shouted “Long live the King”, “Long live public freedom”.
The duke of Mercœur delegated his wife, Marie de Luxembourg, accompanied by her representatives, to the king to negotiate his submission. Henri IV refused to welcome the Duchess of Mercœur to Angers. She was sent back to Les Ponts-de-Cé, a suburb located on the Loire River south of the city. Nevertheless she met the king”s mistress, Gabrielle d”Estrées. The two women agree on a marriage between the only daughter of Mercœur, Françoise, and César de Vendôme, natural son of the king and Gabrielle d”Estrées. After this meeting, Henri IV is convinced by his mistress and finally agrees to receive in Angers the duchess of Mercœur, as well as the delegates sent by her husband.
An agreement was signed with Mercœur”s emissaries on March 20: Mercœur renounced his government of Brittany in exchange for an important indemnity (he had to agree to the marriage of his daughter with César de Vendôme.
On March 28, the Duke of Mercœur met Henri IV in Briollay, at the home of the Duke of Rohan, with whom the king liked to hunt. Mercœur threw himself at the feet of the king and swore to be faithful to him. Duplessis-Mornay, a faithful friend of Henri IV, is present at this maneuver of Mercœur. The king is not fooled, but he accepts this submission with good grace. It is true that Mercœur still possessed military forces, notably 2,000 Spaniards stationed at Pellerin along the Loire downstream from Nantes and 5,000 others on the Blavet, under the command of Don Juan d”Aguila.
Henri IV left Angers for Nantes on April 12, 1598, leaving his grand council at the Jacobin convent in Angers to finalize the drafting of the edict whose official name at the time was the “edict of pacification.
Henry IV received ambassadors from England and the United Provinces who tried to persuade him to continue the war against Spain, but Henry IV refused, wanting to put an end to so many years of suffering, misfortune and calamity in his kingdom, as reported by Sully.
On May 2, 1598, the peace of Vervins was signed between France and Spain. The kingdom recovered all its possessions in the north of the country and the Spanish troops left Le Pellerin and the Blavet.
The peace of Véretz
Another version places the place where the Edict of Nantes was written at the castle of Véretz.
Indeed, Henri IV had offered Philippe-Emmanuel de Lorraine, Duke of Mercœur and Penthièvre, Marquis of Nomeny, Baron of Ancenis and Governor of Brittany, a deal which, with the forgetting of his rebellion, allowed him to keep all his possessions except the government of Brittany and to unite his only daughter, heiress of the titles and possessions of Penthièvre, to César de Vendôme, son of Henri IV and Gabrielle d”Estrées in return for his submission. The duke accepted this offer and made his submission in the spring of 1598.
In order to smooth the way for the union of Françoise de Lorraine with César de Vendôme, Henri IV came to the banks of the Loire and the Cher on his way to Nantes. It is known that he was received, with Gabrielle d”Estrées, at the castle of Chenonceau by Louise de Vaudemont, widow of Henri III and sister of Philippe-Emmanuel de Lorraine, in January 1598. It would seem that it was there that the king laid the foundations of the edict that he considered necessary for the religious and moral pacification of the kingdom and known as the Edict of Nantes.
In order to settle the terms of the edict in a way that would satisfy both Catholics and Protestants, Henri IV chose Pierre Forget de Fresnes, baron of Véretz, and Daniel Chamier, pastor, deputy of the Dauphiné and minister to the king, both of whom were known for their consummate prudence and each of whom enjoyed the confidence of their parties. The two men met at the castle of Véretz, a few kilometers from Chenonceaux and opposite the castle of La Bourdaisière, the fief of the family of Gabrielle d”Estrées, where she was born and where Georges Babou de la Bourdaisière, her uncle, lived.
Once the edict was written and reread, the text was signed jointly by Pierre Forget and Daniel Chamier as attested by the parish register of Véretz. To commemorate this important event in his fief, Pierre Forget offered a new bell to the church which was baptized on August 2, 1598 and whose act bears in the margin: “the year that peace was signed at the castle of Veretz”.
Circumstances of the promulgation
The Edict of Nantes is dated April 1598. The seal of the copy sent to the Parliament of Paris for registration is now brown, and some 19th century historians saw it as yellow: it was therefore believed that it had not been sealed with green wax, used for perpetual edicts, but with yellow wax, as a temporary edict, despite the sources of the time (in particular the register of registration at the Parliament). Studies of the chemical composition of the seal show, however, that it does contain a green pigment: it seems that the wax used by the chancellery at that time was of poor quality. The thesis of political calculation is therefore excluded.
There is no evidence that it was promulgated in the castle of the Dukes of Brittany, where the king was staying, but this assertion is taken up by several historians, while others say, without more evidence, but relying on popular tradition, that it could have been signed in a house called Maison des Tourelles, located at No. 4 of the Quai de la Fosse (at the level of rue Maréchal-de-Lattre-de-Tassigny), the private mansion of the richest merchant of the city, André Rhuys. This residence was destroyed after being damaged during the bombings of the Second World War.
Content of the edict
The text of the edict includes 92 (XCII) articles, then 56 (LVI) “particular articles”, as well as two “patents”, one of April 3, the second of April 30.
The formula systematically used to designate Protestantism is: “the so-called Reformed Religion” (52 occurrences).
Guaranteeing freedom of conscience throughout the kingdom, the edict granted freedom of worship in places where Protestantism was established before 1597, as well as in 3,500 castles of justiciary lords and in two localities per bailiwick.
In some cities, notably Bordeaux, Grenoble, and Castres, Protestants were judged by courts half of which were Protestants. In several cities, Protestant worship was forbidden (Paris, Rouen, Dijon, Toulouse and Lyon), but in others it was the opposite (Saumur, Sedan, La Rochelle, Montauban and Montpellier). Pierre Miquel tells us that Catholics “who wanted to keep the faith of their fathers could not go to church: it was destroyed, or the door was barred by pickets, on the orders of a Protestant leader.
The reformed recovered their civil rights, had access to offices and dignities and could open academies and institutes of higher learning. An endowment of 45,000 ecus was provided for pastors.
Approximately 150 places of refuge were given to the Protestants for a period of 8 years, including 51 places of safety (notably La Rochelle, Royan, Niort, Cognac, Saumur, Bergerac, Montauban, Montpellier, Nîmes, Alès, Briançon), 16 places of marriage as well as 80 private places belonging to Protestant nobles. These places could be defended by a potential army of 30,000 soldiers.
The difficulties of registration by Parliaments
The edict was badly perceived when it was proclaimed. Indeed, the Protestants complained that they had obtained little, while the Catholics were indignant that the king was granting advantages to the Protestants, so much so that this text aroused the hostility of almost all the parliaments of the kingdom, starting with that of Paris, which refused to register it on January 2, 1599, obliging the king to convene parliamentarians in the Louvre on January 7, urging them to obey in order to restore the state, in a speech that has remained famous, and asserting his determination to apply the treaty and to impose it on the parliaments. The parliamentarians persisted, however, and demanded changes to the composition of the Chamber of the Edict and the second city of worship per bailiwick. They obtained a rewriting of the edict on these two points. It was registered on February 25, 1599 by the Parliament of Paris. Most of the parliaments of the states registered the edict in 1600 (the king had to send a letter of jussion to the parliament of Aix and two to the parliament of Rennes) and the parliament of Normandy only registered the edict in 1609.
Points of view on the Edict of Nantes
The Edict of Nantes “was not a gracious act, due to the will of the king, in the fullness of his sovereignty, but a treaty whose articles were debated as with belligerents.”
The idea of tolerance does not appear in the edict. At that time, this word had a negative connotation. It was synonymous with “to endure” or “to bear”. “If what we call tolerance means to accept the thought of the other as true as one”s own opinion, this is perfectly impossible in the 16th century. In the religious field, everyone is sure to have the truth. Knowing this truth, knowing that the other is in error and playing out his eternal destiny, it would be criminal to abandon him and to renounce what we will call a right of interference to save him, including by force. In 1586, Catherine de Médicis spoke to the viscount of Turenne: “the king only wants one religion in his States”. To which the viscount replied “So do we. But let it be ours.
In the eyes of Catholics and Protestants, this edict allowed for a transitional state. In practice, the Edict of Nantes marked a turning point in the history of mentalities: its signature marked the distinction between the political subject, who had to obey the king”s law, whatever his confession, and the believer, who was free to make his own religious choices, henceforth confined to the private sphere.
For Pierre Joxe, this text, commonly presented as founding tolerance, did not benefit Protestants as much as is believed. For some contemporary researchers, the edict would have ratified Catholic dominance, limiting Protestant worship in certain places while authorizing Catholicism throughout the kingdom. This would have created the conditions for a recatholicization of France. Moreover, the edict would have founded absolutism around the state religion, of which the sovereign was the pivot. Its outcome would have been a true royal religion, which would culminate with Louis XIV.
Henri IV succeeded in maintaining both religions in his kingdom. But he disappeared, assassinated, in 1610. Marie de Médicis did not have the political skill of her husband, and the Wars of Religion were soon to resume. But Richelieu succeeded in preventing France from returning to chaos by force. Richelieu not being eternal, the kingdom, because of the Parliaments, then the princes, will sink into a dark and disastrous period: the Fronde. Mazarin and Anne of Austria, who ensured the regency, were the winners of this period.
The first period of application (1598-1629)
The Edict of Nantes, signed in 1598 by Henri IV, put an end to 36 years of religious wars. A period of true peace followed.
France, along with Navarre, is one of the few countries in Europe that officially admits both Catholicism and Protestantism.
Once the edict was signed, Henri IV demanded that it be promulgated. The Catholic authorities tried to prevent it. The parliaments, unable to admit that there were two “religions” in the state, refused to register the edict. The parliament of Paris gave in only after one year, in 1599, and those of Toulouse, Dijon, Aix and Rennes after two years, while that of Rouen did not register the edict until 1609, after eleven years.
The revocation of the military clauses (1629)
The military aspect of the Edict of Nantes, namely the possibility for Protestants to maintain military strongholds, was revoked under the reign of Louis XIII, by the promulgation of the Edict of Grace of Ales (28 June 1629).
This edict was the consequence of the victory won by Cardinal Richelieu at the end of the siege of La Rochelle in 1628.
The Edict of Ales forbade political assemblies and abolished Protestant safe houses, but maintained freedom of worship throughout the kingdom, except in Paris.
After the peace of Alès (1629-1661)
On June 17, 1629, the besieged Alès surrendered to Louis XIII. Negotiations between Cardinal de Richelieu, the deputies of the Reformed Churches of France and the Duke of Rohan concluded on June 27, 1629 with the signing of the Grace of Ales, which confirmed the freedoms of conscience and worship granted by the Edict of Nantes in 1598, but which abolished the political and military privileges of the Huguenots. This act put an end to the civil wars, known as the Wars of Religion, which had bloodied the kingdom of France from 1562 to 1598, and to a lesser extent from 1621 to 1629.
By recalling that only obedience to the sovereign by all subjects, regardless of their religion, could guarantee civil concord, Louis XIII and Richelieu consolidated royal authority and strengthened the nascent absolute state. At the same time, the end of the “Huguenot party” placed the religious minority in a position of weakness that the strict application of the Edict of Nantes under Louis XIV would only worsen until its revocation – which was also the revocation of the Grace of Ales – in 1685.
The period of vigilant moderation (1661-1679)
This phase consisted in convincing Protestants to convert to the official religion of the State, Catholicism. The State relied on a very strict interpretation of the Edict of Nantes: it was careful to ensure that what was authorized was respected, but everything that was not explicitly authorized, i.e., written down, was prohibited. The monarchy had investigations carried out and proceeded to prohibitions (destruction of temples built without authorization). These prohibitions were accompanied by a whole series of restrictive legislation, in other words a publication of decrees that explained what was no longer possible for Protestants (2 waves: 1661-1663, and 1670-1671). For example, in 1671, a decree was issued in the field of education. The State forbade the teaching of the Bible in Protestant schools, and teachers were only allowed to teach writing, reading and arithmetic. This measure did not prevent Protestant school teachers from promoting Protestantism.
This phase, which can be described as moderate, failed. The Protestants resisted these prohibitions very well, as shown by the absence of massive conversions, especially in the regions of Dauphiné, Languedoc, Normandy, Poitou-Aunis, and also in Paris, the main Protestant centers.
The hardening (1679-1685)
It was during these six years that the royal power, having experienced the failure of its moderate policy, really took action. The policy of decrees that tended to ban everything from Protestants intensified (1685: 52 decrees). It was a very severe restriction (Protestants were henceforth excluded from the offices and professions, marriages between Catholics and Protestants were forbidden, Protestant children were converted by authority from the age of 7 without their parents” authorization). From 1679 onwards, French Protestants began to emigrate to the main Protestant countries, namely England and the United Provinces.
In addition to legal violence, there was physical violence, that is, military violence. Louis XIV used a troop known for its cruelty, the dragons, who carried out dragonnades. The inhabitants were obliged by law to house these passing soldiers. Louis XIV made them stay with the wealthiest Protestants, who went broke maintaining these dragoons who had no respect for those who housed them. When this was not enough, they used physical violence against family members. This method is applied in all the provinces of the kingdom. Under the effect of the fear provoked by the arrival of the dragons, conversions multiplied.
This apparent success pushed Louis XIV to go through with his idea, that is, to revoke definitively the edict that his grandfather had promulgated.
The revocation: the edict of Fontainebleau (1685)
To complete this important policy, Louis XIV revoked the religious side of the Edict of Nantes by signing the Edict of Fontainebleau, countersigned by the chancellor Michel Le Tellier, and registered at the Parliament of Paris on October 22, 1685. Protestantism was then forbidden on the French territory (except in Alsace where the Edict of Nantes was never applied, this region being integrated to the kingdom only in 1648).
A declaration of the king, dated July 1, 1686, tightened the measures already taken. Any man who gave shelter to a Protestant minister of religion was to be punished by the galleys, while women were to be “shaved and locked up”; the holding of assemblies was punishable by death; any denunciation leading “to the capture of a minister .
This revocation led to the exile of at least 200,000 Protestants (out of the 800,000 in the kingdom at the end of the 17th century). The revocation of the Edict of Nantes can be considered as a mistake committed by Louis XIV, which contributed to impoverish and weaken even more the country already ravaged at the end of his reign by natural calamities that affected the crops and by the cost of the wars engaged. This decision not only had dramatic human consequences, but its cost in wars and armed uprisings of Protestants, such as the war of the Camisards in the Cevennes, was high. Following these events, the number of Protestants living in France experienced a very strong erosion, through massacre, assassination, flight, exile or progressive conversion to Catholicism.
In addition to the fact that the foreign powers were all scandalized by this edict, it did not settle the Protestant question, because there were many facade conversions, which the Catholic clergy denounced to a Louis XIV who was overwhelmed by this Protestant question. This revocation only complicated the situation because now the Protestants were hiding. In 1698, Louis XIV recommended avoiding violence in order to respect the Edict of Fontainebleau. He implicitly recognized that Protestantism still existed.
Great voices were raised against the perverse effects of such a policy. Vauban addressed a memorandum to Louvois as well as to Mme de Maintenon; Saint-Simon denounced “this awful plot which depopulated a quarter of the kingdom, which ruined its trade, which weakened it in all its parts, etc.”
Under the successors of Louis XIV, Protestantism remained forbidden, but the ban was applied in a progressively less militant manner, and many Protestant communities were able to survive.
It was not until 1787 that Louis XVI instituted the Edict of Versailles, the Edict of Toleration, which officially put an end to the persecution of the Protestant religion in France. The French Revolution of 1789 gave full citizenship to Protestants and restored French nationality to those who had lost it when they left the kingdom to escape persecution.
The Huguenot cross was created, according to several sources, by the goldsmith Maystre from Nimes, three years after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.