The background to the French Wars in Religion have to be known to explain the course of the wars between 1562 and 1598. The role of individuals – such as Catherine de Medici – before 1562 are important in understanding the complexities that evolved during the wars.

Henry II died in 1559. 


“His death was like the sluice gates damning up a flood. By his death the waters were released.” (N. Sutherland)


The short reign of Francis II was dominated by court and family intrigue. Francis was never in good health and this was taken advantage of. His wife, Mary, Queen of Scots, ensured that the Guise family was influential at court. However, the king’s mother, Catherine de Medici, wanted to ensure that the Medici family’s influence remained strong. During the reign of Henry II, Catherine had stayed in the background like a dutiful wife. Now when her son was king she asserted herself – least of all was she going to allow her family to be superseded by the Guise family. Catherine lived in an era when no noble family could be trusted. Her sole aim was to protect her children but the position of the royal family had been severely dented by the untimely death of Henry II. In protecting her ailing son, she showed courage and resourcefulness.

Catherine wanted to end the influence of the Guise family. The Guise family itself was challenged by the Bourbon family. Anthony of Bourbon felt that as King Consort of Navarre he should be made regent of France. However, he lacked the necessary personality to assert himself and his younger brother Condé concluded that only force would work.

At the start of 1559 the monarchy under Henry II was strong and his position was untouchable. The nobles knew where their place was even if they did not like this position !

At the end of 1560, the monarchy not only looked weak – it was weak. The three major noble families used this opportunity to re-assert their old power and influence.

The Montmorency family had been removed from court and their influence had been ended. They wanted to redress this.The Guise family was having their status at court challenged by the Medici and Bourbon families. The Bourbon family wanted to maintain their status as France’s senior noble family but in Anthony de Bourbon they had a weak leader. In Louis, Prince of Condé , they had a potentially more charismatic leader…….but he was an unpredictable hot-head.

In 1560 it was planned that armed Huguenots would concentrate at the chateau at Amboise where Francis II was staying. The plot had two aims ;

to kill all the Guises who were in residence there to kidnap Francis II and use him as a bargaining chip to get all religious grievances redressed and to get the surviving Guises formally removed from court.

Condé wanted to be seen as a leader of religious toleration and religious liberty. His main aim however, was to assert himself at court and on the monarchy and make himself the most influential person at court.

In March 1560, the plot was ready. It had one major failing. How do you move around a large group of armed horsemen at night without attracting attention ? The plan was a disaster and it failed. The men were duly rounded up and some of the men were hanged at Amboise or drowned in its moat. After an equally unsuccessful second attempt by Condé , Anthony was ordered to bring his brother to court. He was put on trial and sentenced to death in November 1560. Such an incident would have been unthinkable under Henry II but in the space of just a year, the power and mystique of the monarchy had started to deteriorate.

In December 1560, Francis II died and Condé escaped punishment. The death of Francis transformed an already fragile situation for the monarchy. The new king was Charles IX – he was only 9 years of age and once again a regent was needed. Anthony of Bourbon and Catherine put themselves forward. The Guise family would not tolerate a Bourbon regent and Catherine was not prepared to replace the Guise family with the Bourbon’s.

Anthony was persuaded to renounce his claim and he accepted the title of Lord -Lieutenant of France while Louis received a formal pardon. Catherine was appointed regent and she summoned the Estates-General to meet in Orleans – a rare move in France. There are probably two reasons why she did this :

she wanted the religious problems of France settled. she wanted a large subsidy to pay off royal debts.

The meeting backfired for Catherine as the Third Estate refused to vote for any money to be given to the crown pointing out that though the crown might be poor the Catholic Church was very rich in France. The Third Estate called for religious toleration which would be formulated by a national council. Catherine was an advocate of religious toleration and though she was a catholic, she felt that the Council of Trent had made the religious situation of western Europe worse by its rigidity and that its rulings did not allow for the reconciliation of Christians. Catherine wanted a religious settlement for France alone as a wholesale European one appeared to be unattainable. Her position did not please the pope, Pius IV.

Catherine called on the representatives of the Huguenots and Catholics to meet at Poissy in September 1561. They met until October 1561. Out of the meeting came the Poissy Colloquy. The meeting’s task was to reconcile – but it failed. The two groups argued on fundamental issues such as the role of the sacraments, the value of relics etc. and a gulf occurred between the two which could not be breached. Poissy failed and if anything it probably served to make the religious issue worse and the meeting seemed to emphasise what separated the two sides as opposed to what linked them.

Despite this setback, Catherine believed that a settlement with the Huguenots was essential for the stability of France. Political stability in France was far more important to Catherine than her own personal beliefs. She was a politique – someone who put their country first and personal beliefs second. Her main aim was to increase and strengthen royal authority and the threat of civil war quite obviously undermined this. Her desire for religious toleration was in stark contrast to the bigotry that riddled French society. 


“When I see those poor people burnt, beaten and tormented, simply for upholding their religious opinions…….I am forced to believe that there is something in this which transcends human understanding.” (Catherine de Medici)


Her enlightened attitude is best shown by her long discussions with Theodore Beza, rector of Geneva Academy which had been established by Calvin. Beza had been invited to attend Poissy. Her meetings with him were to discuss religious issues but they were interpreted differently by the senior Catholic noble families. There was a real fear that the Regent of France was about to convert to Calvinism (the Huguenots) even before Poissy and in response to this ‘threat’, Guise and Montmorency dropped their traditional rivalry and with a leading military commander, Marshal Saint-André , they formed the Triumvirate in the Spring of 1561. Their aim was simple – to preserve the Catholic Church even from the crown if needs be. They even considered help from Spain if it was necessary. Thus the traditional enmity that existed between France and Spain was dropped in a very quick time – such was the speed with which the situation was changing in France. The Poissy meeting seemed to confirm what they feared.

The ending in failure of the Poissy meeting should have allayed their fears but if anything it reinforced them as Beza was allowed to stay at court for another two months. To show their anger at the whole logic behind Poissy and the presence at the royal court of Beza, Guise, Montmorency and Saint-André withdrew from court taking their followers with them. Though this was no more than a gesture, it had very serious implications for the monarchy.

They were joined by a fourth person – Anthony of Bourbon. He allied himself to the Triumvirate as he now felt that he should be the country’s regent. Guise and Montmorency had also made it plain that they supported Anthony’s wife in her claim for Spanish Navarre – thus drawing the groups even more together.

How did Catherine respond to the three most powerful men withdrawing from court ?

She called on representatives of the Royal Council and Parlément to produce a religious settlement that would end disputes once and for all. This lead to the Edict of Saint Germain in January 1562. This stated that ;

the Huguenots were guaranteed freedom of conscience and private worship public worship in town centres was forbidden (as it could cause public disorder) but allowed in the suburbs. the Huguenots were given permission to create synods and consistories. the Edict formally recognised the existence of the Huguenots.

The privileged position of the Catholic Church was not threatened.

However, the Edict pleased no-one. The Huguenots wanted more than they were given while the Catholics believed that it was the start of the break up of the Catholic Church in France. This attempt by Catherine to gain stability and toleration in France failed simply because of the fact that the Catholics did not want compromise and the Huguenots wanted a lot more than they were offered.

Guise refused to recognise the Edict of Saint Germain and by doing so he was effectively stating that he refused to accept royal authority as the initiative had come from Catherine. She realised that she was isolated without the support of the three main families in France and she asked Beza and Coligny to sound out Huguenot military strength.

In 1562, the Huguenots had 2,150 congregations with money and men. It is now felt by historians that the Huguenots interpreted Catherine’s actions as a commitment to side with them. In the spring of 1562, the stability of France was very fragile. All it needed was one incident which could spark off civil war and this happened with the “Massacre of Vassy”. Guise along with some of his armed supporters came across some Huguenots worshipping in public – which was illegal. He ordered that they stop which they refused to do. A fight followed and about 30 Huguenots were killed and about 100 were injured. When the news reached Condé , he ordered that all Huguenot soldiers should meet him at Orleans. The Triumvirate marched on Paris.

Catherine appealed to Condé for help. This he refused to give as he preferred a situation whereby the monarchy appeared to be weak as this best suited his intentions. Catherine was left with no choice but to side with Guise and the other members of the Triumvirate.