French Wars of Religion


The Wars of Religion in France were a series of civil confrontations that took place in the kingdom of France and the kingdom of Navarre during the second half of the 16th century. There are up to eight different wars that took place between 1562 and 1598, although violence was constant throughout the period.

The trigger for the Wars of Religion were religious disputes between Catholics and Calvinist Protestants, known as Huguenots, exacerbated by disputes between the noble houses that led these religious factions, especially the Bourbons and the Guises.

In addition, the French Civil War had international dimensions, involving in the struggle the Protestant power of the time, the England of Elizabeth I, with the greatest defender of Catholicism and the greatest power of the time, the Spain of Philip II. Because of it, the conflict influenced in a determining way in the success of the rebellion of the United Provinces against the Spanish dominion and in the expansion of the Protestant confessions in the Holy Roman Empire, governed by the uncle of Felipe II, the emperor Fernando I of Habsburgo.

The conflict ended with the extinction of the Valois-Angoulême dynasty and the rise to power of Henry IV of Bourbon, who after his conversion to Catholicism promulgated the Edict of Nantes in 1598, guaranteeing a certain religious tolerance towards Protestants. However, conflicts between the Crown and the Huguenots flared up periodically, until Henry IV”s grandson, Louis XIV, revoked this tolerance with the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685, outlawing all religion except Catholicism, which led to the exile of more than 200,000 Huguenots.

Religious discord

Since the end of the 14th century, and especially with the Renaissance, a reformist current had been developing that questioned the traditional principles of the Catholic religion, as well as the authority of the Church of Rome, its relationship with the secular powers and the wealth, political influence and privileges accumulated by the clergy.

Disputes began between 1540 and 1550 due to iconoclastic destructions committed by Protestants of Roman ritual objects that Catholics considered sacred: relics, monstrances and statues of saints. At the end of Henry II”s reign, the conflict became politicized and when the king died in 1559, the religious parties organized to prepare their military structures. The wars of religion began in 1562 and continued, with intervals of peace, until 1598, with the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes.

These religious disturbances are particularly difficult to study because of their complexity. In addition to religious differences, there were political confrontations, social struggles, cultural divergences and, finally, a tense European context.

Weakening of real power

By the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century, the French monarchy had greatly expanded the bases of its territorial, financial, economic and military power, establishing a somewhat centralized government. The balance between nobility and monarchy was maintained during the reigns of Francis I and Henry II, who relied on the nobility to govern, seeking their advice and assistance, but without allowing themselves to be dominated and without tolerating any opposition to their power.

A new high nobility had prospered under the protection of the monarchy after the disappearance of the grand duchies of Burgundy and Brittany. The most important noble families of the time were the Guises, the Bourbons and the Montmorencies, who fought against each other during the Wars of Religion. These three great families exercised control of the central government, through the King”s favor, and the local government, through a network of clienteles. This balance was broken when Henry II died in 1559. As Kings Francis II and Charles IX were too incapable or too young to reign, the nobility”s competition for the king”s favor became a struggle for control of royal power.

On the other hand, the attempts of the queen mother Catherine de Medici and her chancellor Michel de L”Hospital to create a true professional administration of the Crown, made up of members of the bourgeoisie and the lower nobility, provoked the discontent of the high nobility, who saw this as a marginalization of their traditional advisory role. The attempt to weather the situation and maintain the continuity of the State through religious tolerance only caused both factions to feel aggrieved with the actions of the Crown. All this combined with religious disunity in a movement that would shake the monarchy and plunge the country into a long period of infighting.

The immediate result was the rupture of the balance of political power, since the house of Montmorency, opposed beforehand to royal politics, was firmly united among itself and with other groups by religion, which made possible the formation of real political parties, so powerful that they came to take power. The explanation of why these wars in France lasted 36 years lies precisely in the transformation of the confessions into parties: the Huguenot Party and the Catholic League. The former appeared as a consequence of the politicization of the Reformed Church, and in defense of its chosen faith against Catholic attempts to curb its expansion, and the latter as a reaction to the successes and excesses of the Huguenots, already in full struggle for power between the House of Bourbon and the House of Guise-Lorraine.

Throughout the Wars of Religion, the monarchy, whose existence was never questioned, lost control of the situation and found itself unable to repress or put an end to the party struggle, the efforts of the last two Valois (Charles IX, Henry III and his mother Catherine de Medici) to preserve the royal power in the face of the collapse of the political order proving futile.

Finally, it is worth noting the broad social participation, as the Wars of Religion involved all social strata, from the elites to the popular masses. All this reflects a massive social reaction to the progress of the construction of the authoritarian and unified state, with the rebels trying to restore and revitalize old institutions or to project new ones.

The insubordination of the French was modeled on the behavior of princes and great lords, who took up arms without the permission of the monarch. The feudalism that still exists in France is revealed by the progressive autonomy of the lords and their supporters. The convocation of the Estates General, which took place three times during the Wars of Religion, bears clear witness to the weakening of royal authority. The kings needed the support of their subjects to be able to adopt decisions that would be respected; even the royal power came to be questioned by those who also wanted the king to bend to the will of these consultative bodies.

Key players

The ruling royal house in France was a minor branch of the Valois dynasty, itself a minor branch of the Capeto. It consisted of the queen mother Catherine de Medici, widow of Henry II, her sons (Francis II, Charles IX, Henry III and Francis of Alençon) and daughters (Isabella, Claudia and Margot or Marguerite).

Direct descendants of Saint Louis IX, the Bourbons were princes of blood and heirs of the Valois. They were divided between Catholics and Protestants, and they will have difficulties to raise a real leader. Louis de Condé and his son Henri de Condé, Antoine de Bourbon and his son Henri IV championed the cause of the Huguenots, against Cardinal de Bourbon. Finally, Henry IV would manage to impose himself with difficulties, and at the death of Henry III would assume the crown of France.

Cousins of Duke Charles III of Lorraine, they rose politically thanks to Claudius and Francis of Lorraine (the first two Dukes of Guise) and the marriage of Mary of Guise with James V of Scotland, from whom Mary Stuart was born, Queen of Scotland and wife of Francis II. The Cardinal of Lorraine, Duke Henry of Guise and Charles of Mayena also belonged to the family.

The Guises led French Catholicism, were immensely popular and supported the faltering Valois dynasty, and although because of their intransigence the queen mother occasionally marginalized them, they triumphantly returned to the political forefront thanks to their popularity and the support of Spain. King Henry III tried to get rid of the interference of the Guises by assassinating them, but he only succeeded in gaining the universal contempt of the Catholics. In 1588 the Catholic League took Paris and expelled the King, who surrendered to the Protestants and was finally assassinated by a Catholic fanatic. In spite of their defeat and their final submission to Henry IV, they enjoyed enough power that the king preferred to make a pact with them rather than destroy them.

One of the families with more ancestry and power in France. The Constable Anne de Montmorency was enlarged by Francis I, who named him Duke and Constable. Although he later lost the favor of this king, he exerted a great influence on Henry II, obtaining an immense fortune. In this family are Francis of Montmorency and the Châtillon brothers: the cardinal of Châtillon François d”Andelot and Gaspar II of Coligny. Divided between Catholics and Protestants, the Montmorencies united against the growing influence of their rivals the Guises. Their struggle for power made the first phase of the Wars of Religion largely a private war between the two families.

The Montmorency were the great losers of the conflict, since almost all their members were killed in combat, assassinated, imprisoned or exiled. They re-emerged with Henry IV of Bourbon, with Henry de Montmorency-Damville.

Involvement of neighboring countries

The wars of religion in France are also the consequence of the intervention of neighboring countries that try to weaken it. When France was defeated at the Battle of St. Quentin in 1557 and signed the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, it lost its hegemony to Spain, the victor in that battle. However, despite its decline during the second half of the 16th century, France remained a great European power. The queen of England, Elizabeth I, intervened in support of the Protestants, and the king of Spain, Philip II, supported the Guisa clan, intransigent Catholics. During the religious wars, France was thus divided into two factions supported financially and militarily by foreign powers. During the 1580s, England and Spain will confront each other using France as a stage.

But there are also territorial claims. England wants to recover Calais, lost in 1558, and Spain tries to recover the northern part of Navarre. For its part, Savoy, allied with Spain, wants to recover the Italian cities occupied by France after the Italian Wars.

The wars of religion in France depended very much on the European context. This is especially significant in the case of the Spanish Netherlands, where political and religious unrest became more pronounced from 1566 onwards. The war in Flanders automatically had repercussions on French conflicts and vice versa.

Also the king of France resorts to foreign armies to re-establish his authority. He calls on Swiss and Italian contingents, sent by the Pope. Both sides called on German reiters. The Spanish also used Flemish troops.


The first religious problems appeared under the reign of Francis I (1515-1547). Purely religious motives aside, the king of France believed that Protestant doctrine was harmful to his authority. He categorically opposed them when the first iconoclastic attacks on religious images and relics took place. From the “affair of the pasquins”, which consisted of the Huguenots putting up propagandistic pasquins all over the country, even reaching the King”s bedroom, on October 18, 1534, the persecution of the Protestants began, publishing the first condemnatory edicts.

It was during the reign of his son Henry II (1547-1559) that religious tensions increased dangerously. Even more intolerant than his father, Henry II relentlessly harassed heretics. He multiplied edicts and created courts known as “burning chambers” to condemn them to the stake. Despite this persecution, this is also the time of Protestantism”s greatest boom. Under the guidance of intelligent leaders, such as John Calvin, Protestantism was gaining followers. Urban environments (artisans and bourgeoisie) and the nobility were the most favorable terrain for its growth. Its dynamism and success provoked fierce hatred among the most fervent Catholics. Both confessions considered themselves in possession of the truth about the faith. The country was on the verge of a religious crisis, and only the strong authority of the King kept France united during its wars against Spain. The tragic death of Henry II following an accident during a tournament in 1559 opened a period of uncertainty.

The reign of Francis II (1559-1560)

The firstborn of Henry II of France and Catherine de Medici succeeded his father at the age of 16. Although he was of age and could reign, he abandoned the government in the hands of the uncles of his wife Mary Stuart, the Guisa brothers, standard-bearers of Catholicism. The Guises occupied the best rooms of the Louvre Palace, thus having control and access to the King”s person. With the Treasury ruined by successive defeats against the Spanish arms and the Crown faltering, the dowager Queen Catherine decided to rely on the Guises, who quickly took over the key positions. Duke Francis I was given command of the armies, and his brother Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, took charge of the finances and affairs of the Church. In order to clean up the royal treasury, public spending was drastically cut, which led to numerous protests, which were harshly repressed.

With the delicate balance broken, rivalries among the high nobility became more pronounced, but the Montmorency were appeased, at least temporarily, by being guaranteed their offices and privileges.

For its part, the House of Bourbon, the most prominent in the kingdom, was eager to regain its preponderance, lost after the rupture between Francis I and the Constable of Bourbon in 1523. As princes of royal blood, the Bourbons should have held the presidency of the Royal Council, but the Cardinal of Lorraine took control of it. Antonio de Borbón, king of Navarre (understand: Of French Navarre, north of the Pyrenees, since the kingdom had been annexed by Ferdinand II of Aragon, with less right, although later confirmed by the Cortes in which his opponents were not present, when Charles I, following the recommendations of the Duke of Alba, who considered them indefensible, abandoned those territories), was neutralized by dispatching him to Spain to accompany Isabella of Valois to the residence of her husband Philip II, after their wedding by proxy in Paris, in which he was represented by the Duke of Alba.

The religious persecution initiated by the Cardinal of Lorraine, who was also Grand Inquisitor of France, aggravated the religious problem, and in spite of the mediating attempts of Queen Catherine, the Calvinists sought protection and leadership in the person of Louis of Bourbon, Prince of Condé, brother of Anthony of Bourbon, who in his condition of second-in-command considered that the religious cause could allow him to ascend to the summit of power.

The result of all this was the Conspiracy of Amboise in 1560, the first serious incident of the Wars of Religion, which was intended to seize the person of the King and remove him from the influence of the Guise brothers, who would be removed from power and prosecuted. However, to avoid direct involvement in the plot, Condé left the execution of the plan in the hands of a minor nobleman, Lord de la Renaudie, whose incompetence resulted in the discovery of the plot. The king moved to the fortress of Amboise, and the conspirators were captured and executed.

It soon became clear that the only thing that an important sector of the Huguenots wanted was to put an end to the Guises, and that they would be appeased if they were replaced by a Royal Council led by the Bourbons. Talks were held, and around the Queen Mother and Chancellor Michel de L”Hospital a “political” party emerged at the Court, whose aim was to achieve a peaceful solution to the religious problem and the reestablishment of the royal supremacy. The assembly held at Catherine”s request at Fontainebleau in August 1560 strengthened the Queen Mother”s position, but was unable to put an end to the dominance of the Guises.

Faced with the impossibility of eliminating the Guisa, the Bourbons leaned towards Calvinism. The decision was also influenced by the objective of conquering Navarre, whose crown they sought, from the most Catholic Spain. Keeping to the Catholic orthodoxy, and with the Guisa family in power, the rupture with Spain was impossible. For their part, the Montmorency favored unrest, even if they were not allied with the Bourbons. The Huguenots thus prepared for war, attacking important cities in the south and southwest of France. Civil war seemed imminent when the queen mother summoned Condé and Antoine de Bourbon to Orléans to answer for their illegal military levy. Cowed, the king of Navarre obeyed, whereupon Condé was arrested, tried and condemned to death by the Guisa.

The situation seemed to be at a standstill when Francis II, after 16 months of reign, fell seriously ill in November 1560, shortly before the meeting of the Estates General in Orleans. Catherine took advantage of the occasion to reconcile her enemies, pardoning the Bourbons and offering them a position of privilege. In exchange she obtained the regency of her son Charles, and guaranteed the Guises that they would not be punished for their excesses. Francis died on December 5, so Mary Stuart returned to Scotland, and Catherine became queen regent, having neutralized and reconciled, at least nominally, the houses of Bourbon and Guise.

The reign of Charles IX (1560-1574)

Catherine de Medici, now de facto ruler of the kingdom, set about the task of trying to end internal divisions, secure royal authority and restore the power of the French monarchy. Charles IX was 10 years old, so the queen had a minimum of 4 years to carry out her plans. First of all, Anthony of Bourbon was appointed lieutenant general of the kingdom and Condé was released. The Cardinal de Lorraine was removed from power, but François de Guise was confirmed at the head of the army. For their part, the Montmorency decided that they could prosper in the new reign. Thus, the Royal House and the leading families of the nobility managed to present a united front at the Estates General convened in December 1560. The desperate lack of revenue for the Treasury was not resolved, but judicial abuses were ended, internal customs were eliminated and weights and measures were unified. It was also agreed that the States would meet at least once every five years.

The queen also failed to unite the divided kingdom. The policy of tolerance outlined by Chancellor Michel de L”Hospital altered the situation. The edict of Ramoritin (January 1560), which was intended to alleviate the situation of the Protestants, did not come into force, and Catherine”s conciliatory policy only served to make her appear weak in the eyes of the Calvinists, who demanded more and more concessions, and to alarm the Catholics, who were increasingly hostile to her and to the Reformed. Thus, the Guises joined the Montmorency and Marshal de Saint-André in April 1561, supported by Spain, to preserve the Catholic faith and launch a crusade against Protestantism. By then, Calvinism was at its peak: it had more than two million followers, increasingly politicized, irritated and violent. The situation worsened in the eyes of the Catholics when, after the meeting of the States General in Pontoise, they demanded religious freedom, the confiscation of ecclesiastical property and the establishment of high taxes for the clergy. The attempt at negotiation, known as the colloquy of Poissy, generated even more division and discontent, leading to new riots in Paris and the south of France. Catholics and Protestants armed themselves, and violence multiplied throughout the kingdom.

As a result, Catherine de Medici promulgated the Edict of Saint-Germain (January 17, 1562), a last attempt at a peaceful solution to religious discord. Huguenots were allowed to worship outside the cities and in their private homes. They could also meet in synods, subject to royal authorization. Reformed ministers were recognized and, finally, Huguenots could also form religious corporations. As for the nobles, they were allowed absolute freedom of conscience. But the civil toleration introduced by the queen had the opposite effect to the one intended. The Protestants rejected a second-class citizenship, the Catholics were furious and the Parliament refused to ratify it. Under pressure, Antoine de Bourbon decided to abandon Protestantism and join the Guises and Montmorencies.

On March 18, the Duke of Guise and his men killed in obscure circumstances 23 Protestants gathered in a farmhouse for worship. It was the so-called Wassy massacre. Upon returning to Paris, the Duke was received as a hero by the people, who called for a crusade against the Huguenots. Queen Catherine made a last attempt to keep the peace, but the Duke put pressure on the regent by appearing with his troops at Fontainebleau, where the Court was located. The young king and his mother were forced to follow him to Paris with the excuse of protecting them from the Protestants, thus forcing them to side with the Catholics. In Sens a hundred Calvinists were beheaded. In Paris, the houses of the rich Huguenots were plundered. In Tours, the Protestants were kept locked up for three days without food, then they were taken to the banks of the Loire and killed. For his part, Condé left the capital, joining forces with Coligny and put himself at the head of the Calvinists, seizing the city of Orleans. The Huguenots in arms proclaimed their loyalty to the King, affirming that they only wanted to get rid of the Guisa and to make respect the edict that granted them the freedom of their cult. They beheaded some Catholics, especially priests, ransacked the churches and destroyed the altars, crucifixes, ornaments, relics, pictures and statues of the saints they called idols, which then seemed a worse crime than murder. The Wars of Religion had begun.

The Protestant Offensive (1560-1570)

In the first phase of the wars, Protestantism was gaining strength among the nobility and in the cities. The growing number of followers triggered an enthusiastic impulse in the Protestants that led them to believe in the possibility of converting the whole country. After several clashes, the St. Bartholomew”s Massacre in 1572 drastically cut short the development of the movement and put a definitive end to the illusions of the Protestants.

As soon as the war began, the Huguenots asked for help from Geneva, England and the Protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire, while the queen and her nobles did the same with Spain and the Italian states. By the treaty of Hampton Court, Condé obtained the support of the queen of England, while Philip II sent his troops to fight for the royalists.

There were several scenarios in this first war. The most important was the one around the Loire and in Normandy. The second combat zone was in the southeast, especially in Languedoc, and the third combat zone was in the southwest, where Blaise de Montluc relentlessly repressed the Protestants, whom he defeated at the battle of Vergt. In the midst of the terrible cruelties of both sides, within a month the Calvinists managed to seize a large number of cities, some of them very important, such as Lyon, Orleans or Rouen, the second city of the country. In each conquest, the Protestants looted and destroyed the churches. The Catholics suffered enormous losses, but the Huguenots did not manage to take Toulouse or Bordeaux, and soon the royalist forces took the offensive, starting a long campaign of sieges to try to recover the lost cities. One by one Tours, Poitiers, Angers and Bourges were recaptured. Finally, in the siege of Rouen died Anthony of Bourbon, leaving as heir to his young son Henry, who would be educated by Joan of Navarre in Calvinism.

The battle of Dreux (December 19, 1562) gave advantage to the royal army. Condé was taken prisoner, but the Catholic side also suffered the death of Marshal de Saint-André and the capture of Constable Anne de Montmorency. Duke François de Guise also died within a couple of months, killed in February 1563, during the siege of Orleans, apparently at the behest of Coligny, which would begin the bitter desire for revenge of the Guises.

With Guise dead and Condé a prisoner, and both sides disbanded, Queen Catherine was able to undertake peace talks, which culminated in the Edict of Amboise (March 19, 1563), by which the cities of Rouen, Orleans and Lyon returned to Catholic control. Freedom of conscience was guaranteed to the Huguenots and Protestant worship was authorized indoors for the common people, and openly on the estates of the nobles, thus opening a period of civil tolerance. Paris and its surroundings remained, however, forbidden to Protestants.

This war had harsh consequences. Because of the violence suffered, cities such as Rouen, Orleans and Lyon became the seat of the most intransigent Catholicism. The end of the war induced many Catholics to take revenge on the Protestants. During 1563, many lawsuits were filed to try to condemn the Huguenots who had plundered the churches. In the end, the peace imposed by the queen mother proved to be very precarious. The hatred of the Catholics towards the Protestants increased because of the terrible destruction they had caused in the cities. As for the Calvinists, they remained convinced that they were subjected to a subordinate position and that it was necessary to reform France. Despite the peace, neither party disarmed, and grudges and desires for revenge resulted in numerous murders. Each side accused the other of not respecting the peace. In order to cement the peace and ensure the loyalty of the nobles to the Crown, King Charles IX was declared of age in August 1563.

After four years of peace, the kingdom was once again on the brink of armed conflict. The resumption of hostilities in 1567 had three reasons: the failure of the application of the edict of Amboise in the provinces, international tensions and court rivalry between the Prince of Condé and the young brother of the king, Henry, Duke of Anjou, barely sixteen years old. The ascension of the young prince aroused the misgivings of the ambitious Condé, who left the Court to make his disagreement clear.

In 1566, a violent iconoclastic wave fell on churches and convents in the Low Countries. The Spanish army sent from the Milanese to the Low Countries to suppress the revolt moved along the border with France. The proximity of this potentially hostile host rekindled both the fears of the Huguenots and those of the king of France, who, to protect himself against a possible Spanish attack, recruited an army of Swiss mercenaries. The hiring of the Swiss in turn multiplied the fears of the Huguenots who began to prepare for a new war. Faced with the repression of the Duke of Alba in the Netherlands, agitation spread among the Huguenots led by Coligny, who demanded French support for the rebels. However, Queen Catherine was unwilling to declare war on her powerful son-in-law, and when it became clear that she would not tolerate the Reformed who violently attacked the Catholics, the Huguenots began to fear that the Queen Mother would ally with the Spanish in order to put an end to Protestantism.

The second war broke out on September 28, 1567 when the Huguenot leaders, led by Condé, attempted to seize the royal family and the Cardinal of Lorraine in a coup d”état, the so-called Surprise of Meaux. The queen mother, confident in her policy of concord, felt outraged by Condé”s attack and decided to punish the traitors harshly. The two armies clashed again and again the Protestants were defeated on November 10 at the Battle of Saint-Denis, but the Constable de Montmorency fell in the battle. The queen mother then appointed her beloved son Henry of Anjou lieutenant general of the army, despite protests. The 16-year-old was unable to stop the Huguenot advance. Finally, the weakening of the two sides led to the signing of the Peace at Longjumeau on March 22, 1568. In exchange for licensing the Swiss mercenaries and re-imposing the Edict of Amboise without restrictions, the Huguenots undertook to withdraw from the conquered territory.

The peace of Longjumeau did not bring an end to the fighting, as the Protestants refused to abandon the squares they had conquered. As violence multiplied throughout the kingdom, it became clear that the fragile peace was not worth the paper it was written on. A few months after the truce, the queen mother tried to anticipate the enemy and ordered the arrest of the prince of Condé (July 28, 1568), who, warned, fled with Coligny. Waiting for the outbreak of war, the queen made public the Declaration of Saint-Maur, which revoked all the concessions of the Edict of Amboise and forbade any religion other than Catholicism. Around the same time, her daughter Isabella of Valois, wife of Philip II, died, and the alliance between Spain and France began to waver.

Catherine bribed the Prince of Orange to leave France and to refrain from helping the Huguenots. The royalist army, placed again under the command of Henry of Anjou, defeated the Protestant troops in the battle of Jarnac, on March 15, 1569. The Huguenots suffered heavy losses, including the death of Condé. Gaspar de Coligny then became the leader of the Huguenots. He recovered the remnants of the army and headed south to recruit more troops. He also took under his protection the sons of Anthony of Bourbon and Condé: Henry of Navarre and Henry of Condé.

With the support of the Protestant princes of the Holy Roman Empire, the Huguenots soon went on the offensive. However, the royalists defeated them once again at the battle of Moncontour (October 3, 1569), whereupon the Huguenots fortified themselves around their stronghold of La Rochelle. The difficulties to reduce the rebels, the lack of funds, the jealousy between the King and his brother of the Duke of Anjou, and the divergences between the royalist nobility ended up neutralizing their progress and led the queen mother to try a new pacification. Coligny formed the so-called “army of the viscounts”, with nobles from Languedoc, and regained the military initiative. The Admiral was again marching towards Paris when a new truce was signed, the Peace of Saint-Germain of August 8, 1570. This treaty reinstated freedom of conscience and worship and made La Rochelle, Cognac, Montauban and La Charité free places for the Huguenots. The properties seized from the Huguenots would be returned to them and discrimination on religious grounds in administrative positions and state institutions would end. Neither side was happy with this new peace.

The War of the Discontents (1572-1580)

In this period the Wars of Religion seem more like a political conflict led by a moderate Catholic party, dissatisfied with the strengthening of royal power. At the head of this movement was the king”s own brother, François d”Alençon, together with the Catholic nobility.

The Queen Mother may well have been well aware of the fragility of the Peace of Saint-Germain, but it provided her with precious time to shore up the kingdom and lay the foundations of a long-term strategy that would allow the Valois dynasty to survive the wars of religion and the onslaught of the Levantine nobility. The King”s sister, Margot, became a key player in the political strategy of the kingdom. For his part, Charles IX married Elizabeth of Austria, daughter of Emperor Maximilian II. As for Henry of Anjou, his planned marriage to Isabella of England was a failure, but when the Polish throne became vacant, Catherine de Medici began to explore the possibilities of making her favorite son king of Poland. The queen also tried to arrange an advantageous marriage for Margot, despite the efforts of the Cardinal of Lorraine to marry her to his nephew Henry of Guise (with whom Margot was already having a passionate affair). In the first place it was intended to marry her to Sebastian I of Portugal, but almost immediately the project arose to link her with Henry of Navarre, the son of Antonio of Bourbon, prince of blood. Queen Joan III of Navarre, who flatly rejected such an engagement, died soon after, apparently of tuberculosis, although legend has it that Catherine poisoned her with perfumed gloves.

As a result of the Peace of Saint-Germain, the Huguenot leader Gaspar de Coligny became a member of the Royal Council. He soon won the will of the young King Charles, eager to shake off his mother”s rule. In order to unite the French in a common enterprise that would put an end to the civil strife, Coligny proposed renouncing the alliance with Spain and intervening in the Low Countries in defense of his brothers of faith, the Dutch rebels. He began to clandestinely aid the Orangemen with arms and money, and when a Huguenot army secretly crossed the Artois frontier, it became clear that the admiral would provoke war on his own to force the King to break with Spain, despite the refusal of the rest of the Council. It became clear to the Queen Mother that suppressing Coligny was essential to ensure peace with the Habsburgs and the survival of the kingdom. Likewise, the marriage between Henry of Navarre and Margot, which should have served to consolidate peace between the two religious parties, only exacerbated tensions. Catholics and Protestants made clear their outright rejection of the marriage of a princess of France to the king of Navarre. The court was in tension, and Catherine de Medici failed to obtain the Pope”s permission for this exceptional marriage with a heretic. The French prelates hesitated, not knowing what attitude to take. The queen mother used all her cunning to convince the Cardinal de Bourbon to officiate at the wedding, finally succeeding by a ruse. Margot, however, did not consent to the marriage with a Protestant, so unattractive to boot, and it was the King himself who had to force her to nod her head.

For his part, Coligny continued to recruit troops to wage war as soon as the wedding was consummated. Catherine had succeeded in distancing her weak son from the Admiral and his planned war. On August 22, 1572, Coligny was the victim of an attack orchestrated by the queen mother, Anjou and the Guises, losing his left arm with an arquebus. This attack inflamed the thousands of Huguenots crowded in the capital that hot month of August. Aware of the Protestant danger, the king, unaware of his mother”s involvement, met with Coligny to assure him of royal protection. Tension continued to mount, and soon Catholic and Protestant factious factiousness began to clash. On the night of August 23, a crowd of Huguenots appeared before the Louvre and the residences of the Guises clamoring for revenge and assuring that they would soon strike back. The Huguenot threat and the investigation initiated by the king to clarify the facts that, unfailingly, led to Catherine de Medici, frightened her, who acted in desperation. Fearing for her life and for the survival of her dynasty, Catherine met with the king and informed him of the plot that was being prepared, assuring him that only by disbanding the Huguenots could a civil war be avoided. Charles IX decided to eliminate the Protestant ringleaders, except for his brother-in-law Henry of Navarre and the Prince of Condé. But what should have been a surgical operation escaped the designs of its authors and became a terrible slaughter, the Slaughter of St. Bartholomew, from which only a few Huguenots escaped. The massacre lasted 3 days, during which the royal family, unable to stop the murders, barricaded themselves in the Louvre, fearing for their lives. Such a terrible massacre, welcomed with joy by the Pope (misinformed by the Queen Mother) and Catholic Europe, did not totally destroy the Huguenot movement, although it did alter the attitude of the party towards the Valois. Queen Catherine had to face the fact that she and her sons had earned the eternal hatred of the Protestants. The Huguenot leaders, Condé and Henry of Navarre, hostages at court, were forced to abjure their religion. Even so, civil war had broken out again.

The events in Paris triggered similar actions in Rouen, Orleans, Bordeaux and Toulouse, with a toll of 10,000 to 15,000 Calvinists killed, forcing the Huguenot party to reorganize in the southern and western provinces, and to start a movement of rapprochement towards the “political party”, which believed in tolerance as an indispensable means to achieve peace. The failure of the siege of La Rochelle by the royal army brings this war to an end relatively soon. The queen mother and Charles IX worked to ensure the election of Henry of Anjou as king of Poland, although for completely different reasons: the queen mother, out of love for her son, and the king and his brothers, out of hatred and envy. All this contributed to the signing in July 1573 of a new peace treaty, the Edict of Boulogne, by which the Huguenots regained freedom of conscience throughout the kingdom, as well as freedom of worship in the squares of La Rochelle, Nîmes and Montauban.

Henry of Anjou was finally elected King of Poland on May 11, 1573. However, when he reluctantly left the Court for a strange land, it was already clear that King Charles, whose health had always been appalling, was dying. Amid a climate of conspiracies, the queen mother Catherine had the king recognize Anjou as his heir presumptive, so as to avoid any move by his brothers. The King”s younger brother, the Duke of Alençon, coveted the throne and formed a clique that included his sister Margot, the Montmorencies, Condé and Henry of Navarre. But Alençon”s talents were no match for his ambitions, becoming a mere tool of sharper politicians determined to use the prince to do away with Queen Catherine. Foiled by a clumsy attempt by this clique to seize the King”s person, Charles launched an offensive against the Montmorency, arresting the family leaders, resulting in the emergence of a new anti-Crown party, the “politicians”. Finally, Charles IX died on May 30, 1574.

While Henry III was fleeing Poland in haste to occupy the throne of his late brother, the Fifth War of Religion began, with the escape of Condé from the Court where he had been on probation since the Slaughter of St. Bartholomew. The new King was solemnly crowned in Reims on February 13, 1575 with the name of Henry III, and on February 15 he married Louise of Lorraine. Although he aroused the suspicions of his contemporaries as a homosexual and extremely effeminate, Henry was an experienced politician who began to rule with vigor, adopting a policy of repression against the Huguenots, who, following the example of La Rochelle, had formed an independent state in Languedoc. However, the alliance of the Huguenots with the party of the “politicians” proved disastrous for the new monarch. Condé invaded the country from the border with the Holy Roman Empire in command of a mercenary army lent by the Count Palatine of the Rhine, John Casimir, while the King”s own brother, Alençon, defected. The defection was followed by the flight of Henry of Navarre to his estates. With the kingdom on the verge of disintegration, the Fifth War ended on May 6, 1576, when the king agreed to sign the humiliating Edict of Beaulieu in order to retain the throne. Henry III put all the blame for such a catastrophe on his mother and brother, and he would never forgive them. The 63 articles were the greatest triumph of the Huguenots to date. Alençon, whose defection put King Henry in check, received numerous titles and properties, including the duchy of Anjou. The slaughter of St. Bartholomew was condemned, and Coligny and the slain Huguenots rehabilitated. Their widows and orphans received royal pensions for 6 years. The Protestants were given eight strongholds, and Henry of Navarre received the lieutenancy of Guiana. France undertook to pay the soldiers of Condé”s mercenaries, and the Count Palatine of the Rhine received property in France and an allowance of 40,000 livres a year. Finally, the king undertook to convene the Estates General within six months.

Feeling humiliated and betrayed by the King”s weakness, the Catholics formed a real political party, the Catholic League, which imitated the organization and tactics employed so successfully by the Huguenots. On the eve of the meeting of the Estates General, their aim was to force the King to subordinate himself to their dictates. But seeing that the three estates represented would be dominated by Catholic fanatics, both the Huguenots and the “politicians” refused to consider the meeting valid. Henry of Guise, who had tacitly supported the League, began to be considered by the Catholics as their champion, and as a direct descendant of Charlemagne, the best man to end the corrupt Valois dynasty, occupy the throne of France and put an end to heresy. However, this propaganda proved counterproductive, serving only to reconcile the King with his brother Alençon, now Duke of Anjou, who appeased their mutual hatred to avoid the hegemony of the Guisa.

At the meeting of the Estates General, the king decided to place himself at the head of the League, pledging, in his capacity as “Most Christian King”, to fight against the Huguenots. The monarch also refused to accept the demands of the States or to cede one iota of his sovereignty. But for their part, the States would not give the King a penny to finance the war, so Henry invited the Huguenot leaders to discuss the situation in vain. The Sixth War was brief, but the Duke of Anjou distinguished himself by his massacres earning the eternal hatred of the Huguenots, to the satisfaction of the King and Queen Mother, aware that the heir presumptive to the throne could never again join their former allies. Finally, the conflict ended with the Peace of Bergerac of September 17, 1577 and with the Edict of Poitiers of October 8, which confirmed the Peace of Bergerac, restricted the conditions of Protestant worship and ended the most notable humiliations of the Edict of Beaulieu.

While the queen mother undertook a journey of appeasement in the south of France, King Henry and his brother took the opportunity to renew their enmity. Anjou intended to become king of the Netherlands, which would have meant war with Spain, and violent quarrels between the supporters of both bloodied the Court. Finally, in 1578, Anjou staged a futile and ignominious incursion into the Netherlands, which indisposed Philip II of Spain with the king of France. Finally, the projected wedding of Anjou with Isabel of England failed momentarily, before the rejection of the people and the Court.

In 1579 conflict broke out again, fortunately with low intensity, when the sexual scandals of Margot, the wife of Henry of Navarre in Nérac, reached the ears of King Henry, who removed the wound with his sarcastic comments. These provocations and the continuous Catholic incursions provoked the offensive of the Protestants dissatisfied with the last peace. The brief and absurd war ended, amid general indifference, with the capture of Cahors by Henry of Navarre and the Peace of Fleix, on November 26, 1580, which extended the privileges of the Protestant strongholds for six years.

Meanwhile, the death of King Sebastian of Portugal cooled relations with Spain as Catherine claimed the Spanish throne over the succession rights of Philip II. Anjou, proclaimed “protector of the freedom of the Netherlands”, convinced Henry III to help the rebels besieged in Cambrai, while trying to openly involve England in the conflict. After failing definitively in his plans to marry Elizabeth I, Francis of Anjou entered Antwerp as the new lord of the Low Countries. His unpopularity was only surpassed by his frustration at being a dispossessed sovereign, a powerless figurehead in the hands of William of Orange. After attempting to take his own capital by force, and failing miserably against the Spanish tercios led by Alexander Farnese, Anjou fell ill and returned to Paris, reconciling with Henry III before dying on June 19, 1584. Meanwhile, the expeditions sent by the queen mother to expel the Spanish from Portugal were another complete failure.

The Catholic Offensive (1580-1598)

In the third and last period the Catholics, allied with Spain, tried to expel the Protestants from the kingdom. The last phase of the Wars of Religion was the bloodiest of all, a true full-scale war, with the direct intervention of foreign powers and continuous massacres fuelled by the accumulated hatreds of 20 years of conflict.

The situation became even more complicated when it became clear that Henry III would have no descendants. When Anjou died, a terrible dynastic crisis arose, since the crown legitimately corresponded to the Huguenot Henry of Navarre, in his condition of cousin of Henry III in the twenty-first degree and direct descendant of Robert of Clermont, sixth son of Louis IX of France. Henry III made it clear that he recognized the Bourbon as his successor (hoping that he would reconvert to Catholicism), but the Catholic League did not recognize his rights, but those of his uncle, the elderly Cardinal de Bourbon.

The longest and fiercest of all the Wars of Religion broke out, known as the “War of the Three Enriques”, since it was fought by Henry III, Henry of Navarre and Henry of Guise. Against the Huguenots allied with the Crown, the Catholic League had the military and financial support of Spain and, after the failure of the Queen Mother”s attempt to negotiate with Guise, the League soon took control of all of northern and northwestern France, threatening Paris. Henry III, trapped, agreed to sign the Treaty of Nemours on July 7, 1585, revoking all previous edicts of toleration and banning Protestantism. Henry of Navarre, being a heretic, was excluded from the succession to the throne. In addition, the League seized numerous cities.

Henry of Navarre, supported militarily by the Palatinate and Denmark, became convinced that only a decisive victory over the Guises could restore his place in the succession. The conflict was exacerbated by the execution of Mary Stuart in February 1587. Determined to do away with England, Philip II needed a pacified France to launch his campaign against Elizabeth Tudor. However, the Catholic forces led by the King”s favorites were defeated, and the League demanded the implementation of what had been agreed at Nemours, as well as the publication of the conciliar provisions of Trent, the introduction of the Inquisition and the confiscation of Protestant property to pay for the war. The clashes between Catholics and Huguenots hardened with the alliance between the Protestants and the Dutch rebels against Spain, and that of the Catholics of the League with Philip II of Spain. Despised by Spain and the League, Henry III was unable to maintain his authority and had to flee Paris after the Day of the Barricades on May 12, 1588. Guise took control of the capital, supported by the population. Finally, Henry III accepted the demands of the League (July 5, 1588) in exchange for immediately breaking his alliance with Spain. The Act of Union published on July 21 amnestied the participants in the “Day of the Barricades”, recognized the Cardinal of Bourbon as heir to the kingdom, named Guisa lieutenant general and granted lands and benefits to the clan and its supporters.

But the failure of the Invincible Armada instilled new courage in the king and the party of the “politicians”, while the Guises suffered a severe setback. Henry III, emboldened, tried to subdue the League and ordered the assassination of Henry of Guise during the meeting of the States in Blois. Guise died on December 23, 1588 at the hands of the royal guard, followed by the imprisonment of the Duke”s brother, Cardinal Louis II of Guise (assassinated shortly thereafter) and his entire clique. The corpses of the Guisa family were burned in a stove in the Château de Blois to prevent the tombs of the “martyrs” from becoming an object of veneration for the Catholic League. A few days later, on January 5, 1589, the queen mother Catherine de” Medici died and the king allied again with Henry of Navarre to fight against the Guisa. After several months of bloody conflict, on August 1, Henry III was assassinated by the Dominican friar Jacques Clement while trying to occupy Paris. The leader of the Huguenots, Henry of Navarre, thus became king of France under the name of Henry IV.

With the violent disappearance of the monarch, the French civil war entered its final stage: the struggle for the succession to the throne of France and the reconquest of the kingdom. The League proclaimed Cardinal de Bourbon as Charles X, but soon after he was captured by Henry IV. The roles were reversed, and the Huguenots became legitimists, going on to defend the hereditary right and royal authority, united with the politiques and royalists who supported Bourbon, exalting the sovereignty of the king and the need for obedience. The League, on the other hand, adopted the themes of the right of resistance and popular sovereignty spread by the Huguenots. Spain intervened actively, determined to prevent the accession to the French throne of a heretic and to promote the candidacy of the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia, daughter of Philip II and Isabella of Valois. After four years of struggle, the conversion of Henry IV to Catholicism in July 1593, where he pronounced the famous phrase “Paris is worth a mass”, opened the gates of Paris on March 22, 1594 and allowed him to reach a truce with the League. Henry IV still maintained a war against Philip II, which began with some Spanish victories, such as Siege of Doullens and the Siege of Calais (1596), but the Spanish defeat at Amiens in 1597. It brought about the Peace of Vervins on May 2, 1598. The religious problem was settled with the Edict of Nantes, on April 13, 1598, which included all the provisions on religious tolerance that had been previously agreed upon, and which finally came into full force.



  1. Guerras de religión de Francia
  2. French Wars of Religion