Louis XIII inherited a difficult situation with regards to religion. His mother, Marie de Medici, was a dévot, an ardent Roman Catholic, and she must have shaped his beliefs in his formative years. His father, Henry IV, had been a Huguenot who had converted to the Roman Catholic Church to bring religious stability to France.
Henry's conversion seemed to have been genuine because as king, he was very harsh on the Huguenots. They were forbidden from rebuilding or repairing strongholds damaged in war and he did what he could to stop Huguenots achieving government positions. Henry also encouraged Roman Catholic missionaries to go into Huguenot strongholds.
From 1550 to 1600, the Huguenots had made great gains in France. The dislocation caused by the French Wars of Religion had given them an opportunity to make gains. This peaked when Henry IV became the legitimate king of France. He had been a Huguenot, but Henry had converted to Roman Catholicism to satisfy 90% of the French population.
Louis attempted to stem the flow of Huguenot expansion. The Counter-Reformation had made an impact in France and in the early days of the reign of Louis, the Huguenots developed a defensive mentality. This was probably because the regency was dominated by the dévot Marie de Medici. It is also possible that they were very wary about Galigai and Concini who dominated the royal court – both were Roman Catholic.
The early Seventeenth Century France also witnessed a better quality of Roman Catholic clergy. They were now better educated and the abuses in the Roman Catholic Church that had sparked off the revolt by Martin Luther were less obvious now.
In 1611, the Oratory had been established by Pierre Berulle. This order put itself at the disposal of bishops who were in charge of the education that the clergy received in their see. The laity responded to the improvement in the Roman Catholic Church clergy and the number of French people who converted to the Huguenots probably never exceeded 10% of the population.
The Jesuits also made an impact on the quality of spiritual leadership given to the laity. Francis I had seen the Jesuits as a threat to his power in France but under the Regency of Marie and from 1617 on when Louis XIII had power, the Jesuits made their mark in France.
In 1604, the Ursulines opened their first convent in France that was dedicated to educating women.
By the time Louis assumed full power in France, the Roman Catholic Church was in a much better shape – but that still left the Huguenots.
In 1598, the Edict of Nantes had guaranteed the legal status of the Huguenots in France and their political rights had been guaranteed in later acts. Though he helped to formulate Nantes, Henry IV tried not to keep to its terms.
The Huguenots and the magnates had allied in the early 1600’s. The magnates saw the move as an opportunity to re-assert themselves while the Huguenots wanted to re-claim their religious rights. They formed "circles" in the south and the west of France and each circle had its own army and military leader. They acted like independent states and they were a clear threat to Louis XIII and his rule in France.
Louis had inherited this problem from Henry IV. Henry had promised Rome, after his conversion to the Roman Catholic faith, that Navarre and Bearn, the Huguenot strongholds, would return to the Roman Catholic Church confiscated Catholic property. As the Huguenot Henry of Navarre, all of this confiscated property belonged to Henry. After he succeeded as king of France, this property remained with the crown. Louis XIII inherited them in 1610.
Henry had not carried out his promise to Rome probably because Navarre and Bearn were too far away to really trouble him. However, Louis decided that the promise must be kept. In June 1617, a royal council ordered the restoration of Roman Catholic property in Navarre and Bearn. Those owners who were affected were to receive generous financial compensation. However, they refused to co-operate and Louis XIII decided that he had to enforce his authority in the two regions.
Why did he decide on this course of action when his father had appeared less than concerned about the two regions? First, Louis always felt that he had to prove himself. Possibly because he was ill so often (at least, so he thought he was), Louis felt that he had to be as dynamic as his father had been. Second, the number of dévots at court was growing and he had to satisfy them as well. Third, it is known that Louis enjoyed leading his army so he may have done it simply because it gave him the opportunity to be with his army.
By the end of 1619, both Navarre and Bearn had been brought to heel. But as soon as Louis returned to Paris, trouble started again. This time Louis showed little mercy. He occupied both areas with a royal army. Huguenots leaders were forced to leave. Former Roman Catholic property was handed back to the Catholic Church and Huguenot cemeteries were vandalised.
These acts horrified the Huguenot community. Those that could met at an assembly in La Rochelle in November 1620. They were lead by the Duke of Rohan who planned on a defensive campaign of survival. The Huguenots owned 100 fortified places and many of the remaining Huguenot congregations lived near the coast and mountains.
Louis took the advice of Luynes who believed that internal security and stability was needed if France was to embark on a successful foreign policy. In the spring of 1621, Louis lead a campaign against Rohan. He was adamant that he did not want a long campaign as he had ideas for a grand foreign policy to secure for France status she had not enjoyed for many years.
The campaign was not a success in that the two main towns of the Huguenots did not surrender. Louis, therefore, agreed to the Peace of Montpellier in October 1622 which upheld the Treaty of Nantes (1598). Rohan was pardoned and the Huguenots were allowed to keep their forts.
The Montpellier agreement was not what Louis wanted. He appeared weak in that he had not achieved what he had intended to do. However, far worse for Louis was the death of Luynes who accompanied the king during the campaign. The Peace of Montpellier solved nothing and it only delayed another campaign organised by the formidable Richelieu. This time the days of Huguenot resistance were numbered.