Catholics vs Huguenots: your guide to the French Wars of Religion
In the late-16th century, France was torn apart by a series of violent religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants, with several noble families competing for mastery over the kingdom’s salvation. Danny Bird explores the decades-long wars and the effects it had on a post-Reformation France
What were the French Wars of Religion?
Beginning in 1562, the French Wars of Religion were a series of eight civil wars fought between Roman Catholics and Protestants (or Huguenots) that engulfed the country for 36 years. With the arrival of Protestantism into France, a kingdom whose population was overwhelmingly Catholic, earlier that century with the Reformation, years of mounting suspicion and sporadic violence between the two faiths soon divided society.
Efforts by the Crown to tolerate the Huguenots were tentative, although the Edict of Saint-Germain, adopted in January 1562, granted them limited rights. Nevertheless, fervent Catholics, such as the noble Guise family, believed Protestantism to be heresy and rejected the edict.
Two months later, while travelling through Wassy, a town on his estate, Francis, 2nd Duke of Guise and his troops were outraged to discover Huguenots at worship inside a barn. A standoff ensued and quickly descended into a bloodbath, which left about 50 Huguenots dead, including several women and a child. It was the event that triggered the Wars of Religion.
Who were the Huguenots?
A generation before the conflict broke out, Protestantism had gained a footing in France through a creed known as Calvinism. Derived from the teachings of French theologian and reformer John Calvin, among its central tenets were the pre-eminence of biblical scripture and of predestination (the notion that God has already determined the fate of all souls).
Labelled as Huguenots – the origin of the name is disputed - by their opponents, its adherents identified as réformés (reformed). Huguenot influence began to tip the balance of power after several nobles converted, and devout congregations prospered across France.
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But their emergence fomented tensions and inflamed regional rivalries. The Affair of the Placards in 1534, during which anti-Catholic posters appeared in Paris and other cities, and even on the king’s bedchamber door, ended with the mass execution of Huguenots. The sectarian division only deepened as a result.
What role did the French monarchy play in the Wars of Religion?
The monarchy’s capacity to unify the realm had been severely compromised in 1559 after Henry II was fatally wounded during a jousting tournament. His successor, the teenage Francis II, became the target of an abortive kidnapping plot by Huguenot nobles, who aspired to displace the Guises’ influence at court.
Shortly thereafter, Francis’s sudden death in December 1560 saw his 10-year-old brother accede as Charles IX. His mother, Catherine de Medici, became regent, and strove to accommodate France’s burgeoning Huguenot faithful, while upholding the monarchy’s Catholic underpinnings
What happened at the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre?
The Wars of Religion’s most notorious incident occurred in August 1572, two years after an uneasy peace had been brokered. Catherine, recognising both Huguenot control over key cities and the bleak economic legacy of France’s expansionist policies half a century before, resolved to entrench the ceasefire through marriage.
On 18 August, her daughter, Margaret, married King Henry III of Navarre, the bride’s Huguenot second cousin. With thousands of Huguenots gathered in the capital to celebrate the nuptials, tensions remained high before and after the wedding, while outside Paris a 4,000-strong Huguenot army was camped.
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Four days later, an assailant shot at and injured the highly respected Huguenot Admiral Gaspard II de Coligny as he walked down the street. Appalled, Huguenot nobles implored Charles IX to punish those responsible, with suspicions falling squarely on the Guises. The young king vowed that justice would prevail, all the while as key suspects planned to slip out of the city.
Following a series of crisis meetings, a decision was made to cull the Huguenot leadership on the night of 23 August, the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day. Henry, 3rd Duke of Guise led a group to Coligny’s quarters, whereupon he was murdered and his body defiled by a Catholic mob. Ordinary people turned on their neighbours to butcher Huguenot men, women and children. The bloodletting continued for weeks, spreading to the provinces.
Catherine has long been blamed for inciting the bloodbath, despite little evidence to support this. Indeed, she took an active role in tending to Coligny’s recovery and in protecting Huguenots at risk. Although estimates of those killed varies significantly – with as many as 2,000 in Paris alone and up to 20,000 or 30,000 nationwide – hundreds of bodies were later dredged up from the River Seine.
How did the French Wars of Religion end?
Henry of Navarre was forced to renounce his faith and became a prisoner of the French court. He escaped in 1576 and led a rebellion against the crown, but when he became heir presumptive to the French throne in 1584, the Guises formed the Catholic League to prevent the accession of a ‘heretic’ monarch.
A year later, the Treaty of Nemours revoked all previous edicts, expelled Huguenots from public office, and blocked them from the royal succession. The resulting War of the Three Henrys was the final act in the Wars of Religion. Horrified by the League’s growing power, Henry III of France had the Duke of Guise assassinated in December 1588 and allied himself to his Huguenot cousin and heir, Henry of Navarre.
The League exacted vengeance by killing Henry III, the last Valois king. With his death, Henry of Navarre became Henry IV of France in 1589, its only Protestant monarch. Determined to bring the wars to a decisive end, the new king embraced Catholicism in 1593, which won over royalist support, before capturing Paris from the League the following year.
Supported by Philip II of Spain, the League denounced Henry’s conversion as expedient and refused to recognise him as their sovereign, leading to war between the two kingdoms in 1595.
What did the Edict of Nantes enact?
In 1598, nearly 40 years of war finally came to an end. Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes, acclaiming the primacy of Roman Catholicism in France while conferring freedom of conscience and worship. Huguenots were absolved of past crimes and granted access to public office and control over certain garrisons. The edict endured until 1685, when Louis XIV had it revoked, which sparked a mass exodus of Huguenots overseas.
This article was first published in the February 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine. Danny Bird is the Staff Writer at BBC History Magazine and previously held the same role on BBC History Revealed. He joined the brand in 2022. Fascinated with the past since childhood, Danny completed his History BA at the University of Sheffield, developing a special interest in the Spanish Civil War and the Paris Commune. He subsequently gained his History MA from University College London, studying at its School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)