The French Wars of Religion were a series of nine wars between 1562 and 1598. They saw the rise and fall of Catherine de Medici and ended with the accession to the throne of Henry IV.

The First War (April 1562 to March 1563)

England partially involved herself in this war when she openly sided with Condé . Why did she do this? Religion was obviously an issue and supporting a Protestant ‘colleague’ would have been seen as the right thing to do. Condé had also promised England Le Harve in exchange for Calais at the end of the war. In return, Condé had been promised English troops and a loan of 140,000 crowns.

The deal came to nothing as Guise defeated the Huguenots at the Battle of Dreux in December 1562. Condé was captured by the Catholics and Montmorency had been captured by the Huguenots. Guise was killed at Orléans and Anthony of Bourbon at Rouen. The removal of the main leaders of this was should have enabled a peace settlement to have been reached. It did allow Catherine de Medici to negotiate thePacification of Amboise in March 1563.

This allowed Huguenot nobles to worship freely but limited commoner worship to one town in each judicial district – though this did not include Paris. The English were driven out of Le Harve by both sides and Elizabeth abandoned her claim to Calais.

It would have appeared that the conflict was over as the main protagonists were gone or at least removed from power and the two sides had come together to fight the English.

But in the summer of 1565, Catherine met with her daughter Elizabeth of Spain. She also met and discussed issues with the Spanish Duke of Alva who was in the Spanish Netherlands putting down the rebelling Protestants there – with a degree of ferocity. This greatly worried the Huguenots who feared that Catherine was planning a joint Catholic French/Spanish campaign against them – Alva was considered one of Europe’s finest generals. He was also a devout Catholic. Rather than wait to be attacked, the Huguenots prepared for war which broke out in September 1567.

The Second War (September 1567 to March 1568)

This began with a botched attempt by the Huguenots to capture the king in the so-called Conspiracy of Meaux. This was followed with a general uprising by the Huguenots. Spain did aid the Catholics and the son of the Elector of the Palatinate (a Protestant) aided the Huguenots.

The released Condé marched on Paris but was beaten at Saint Denis in November 1567. Montmorency was killed at this battle. The Treaty of Longjumeau in March 1568, reinstated what was introduced with the Pacification of Amboise, but there was no trust between the two sides and fighting soon broke out again.

The Third War (August 1568 to 1570)

Condé was killed and the Huguenots were defeated at Jarnau in March 1569. In October, the Huguenots suffered another heavy defeat. They only survived as a group by the leadership of Coligny and he became the sole leader of them. Under his leadership, they re-established their strength in the south, and the government, in recognition of their growing strength and their own exhaustion, agreed to the Treaty of St Germain in 1570. This restored the position of previous years and allowed the Huguenots to garrison four towns (known as places de sureté ).

During this rest in fighting, the Guises left court and were replaced by the Huguenots lead by Coligny. He quickly became a favourite of Charles IX and he sounded out the king’s support for his idea of as campaign against Spain in the Spanish Netherlands which would unite the country against a common enemy and link France to the soon to be Protestant William of Orange in the Netherlands and Elizabeth of England. The Guise family were still the most senior Catholic noble family in France and they became more desperate as it became obvious that Coligny was gaining more and more of a hold over the king. Charles called Coligny “Mon Pere”.

Regardless of the relationship between Charles and Coligny, the situation for the Catholics in France looked bad. Louis of Nassau (the brother of William of Orange) was militarily successful in the Spanish Netherlands against catholic Spain. Coligny was openly talking about France giving aid to the Protestants in the Netherlands and the Politique movement in France was gaining ground. This desperate situation lead the Guise’s into the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

The nobility of France gathered in Paris in August 1572 for the wedding between Margaret of Valois, Catherine’s daughter, and Henry of Navarre, the son of Anthony of Bourbon. An attempt was made to murder Coligny but it failed. Catherine, having lost her influence over her son to Coligny, persuaded Charles that there was a plan to murder him and that they had to strike first or be murdered. Charles listened to his mother and what was meant to have been the selected killing of the Huguenot leaders, turned into a full scale massacre. The Guise family ensured that Coligny was successfully murdered and his death seems to have sparked off a spontaneous attack on the Huguenots in general and between August 23rd and 24th 1572, about 3,000 were murdered in Paris alone. Murder occurred throughout France. In total about 10,000 Huguenots were murdered.

This event polarised feelings. There could be no reconciliation between the two groups as the massacre had made it clear that toleration could not exist between the Catholics and the Protestants. Those who wanted a peaceful solution – the Politiques – found that their influence dwindled for a while. To protect themselves, the Huguenots created what was essentially a safe haven in the south of the country where they were less likely to be harassed by the Catholics in Paris. This area included Poitou, Languedoc, Bearn and Provence. The region was controlled by the Duke of Montmorency-Damville who, despite the massacre, remained a Politique.

The Huguenots in general became more anti-Paris and they formed their own army, law courts and system of taxation. They attracted to the region men who were not necessarily Huguenot but they were angered by the government in Paris. The king’s youngest brother, the Duke of Alençon went there as did Henry of Navarre. Henry had converted to Catholicism during the massacre to save his life but had converted back once he had returned south.

The Catholics protected themselves from this perceived threat by forming the Catholic League in 1576, which wanted aid from Spain, Savoy and Rome in its quest against the Huguenots. It also put out an anti-absolutist programme by calling for the defence of provincial liberties and representative institutions.

The Fourth War (December 1572 to June 1573)

This war is mainly famous for the siege of La Rochelle by the Duke of Anjou, the future Henry III. The people of La Rochelle refused to give access to a royal governor and this stimulated a response. La Rochelle was also a base for Hugenot privateers who were a problem to shipping in the Bay of Biscay. However, the siege ended when the Duke of Anjou went to Poland where he had been elected king – such was the fragility of loyalties in France. Henry signed the Treaty of La Rochelle in 1573 which re-introduced the terms of Saint Germain.

The Fifth War (December 1575 to May 1576)

This was essentially a confrontation between the new Henry III (Anjou had returned as king of Poland on the death of Charles in May 1574) and the Huguenots. He would tolerate a situation where he felt that his authority was being challenged as it clearly was by the Huguenots in Montmorency-Damille’s territory.

In December 1574 the Huguenots had effectively created an independent state in the south which is usually referred to Languedoc by historians. This was a direct act of defiance aimed at the crown. Whereas Charles had been nine when he became king, Henry was twenty three. The Guise family took up the cause of Henry and defeated an English financed German army under John Casimir at Dormans in 1575. However, this victory worried Henry who feared a resurgent Guise family in France which would threaten his position.

In what would have appeared to have been a major about turn, Henry granted the Huguenots far more concessions than they had ever had before. This was the Treaty of Monsieur of 1576.

The Hugenots were granted freedom o worship everywhere except in court and within a specified distance from Paris. They were also allowed to garrison eight places and were given special places in all the parlements (known as chambres-mi-parties) where cases arose which involved Protestants. Why did Henry grant these concessions? Henry was certainly worried about the rising power of the Guise family and a strong Huguenot contingent in France was a good counter-balance to this power. Equally as important was Henry’s inability to damage the defensive structure of Languedoc. His soft approach to them was born out of necessity rather than charity. The Catholics of France were furious with the treaty and another war was almost a certainty.

The Sixth War (March to December 1577)

The Guise family had formed the Catholic League (also known as the Holy League) in 1576. At a meeting of the Estates-General held at Blois in December 1576, a large majority of those present voted for the cancellation of Monsieur. The meeting was dominated by the presence of the Guise family.

This put Henry III in a very difficult position. His catholic support had rejected a treaty which he had agreed to and he was left exposed. Having apparently lost the support of the Catholics of France, he now looked more than ever to be in the hands of the Huguenots. However, they had clearly rejected his authority by effectively establishing their own base in the south.

To end his isolation, Henry III put himself at the head of the Catholic League which had been established to rid France of Huguenots and to give the Catholics of France some form of military back-up at times of confrontation. By putting himself at the head of the League, Henry was giving out a very clear message. His campaign against the Huguenots was successful and the Huguenot gains of Monsieur were withdrawn. The Treaty of Bergerac imposed Huguenot worship to the suburbs of one town in each judicial district.

After six wars neither side had got what it wanted. The Catholics still had to face a Huguenot presence in France while the Huguenots were now faced with great restrictions on their right to worship. Henry in a moment of decisiveness, ordered that all religious leagues were to be dissolved. From 1577 to 1584, France experienced relative peace except for the so-called Lovers War (the Seventh War from November 1579 to November 1580) when nothing of importance happened except that the treaty of Bergerac was confirmed though it was now known as the Edict of Poitiers. 1577 to 1584, also saw an increase in the influence of the Politiques who continued to strive for a long term settlement.

The Seventh War (November 1579 to November 1580)
see above.

The Eighth War (March 1585 to August 1589)

This war is frequently referred to as “The War of the Three Henries”.

In June 1584, the heir to the throne, the Duke of Alencon died leaving no heir to the throne from the line if Henry II. By law, the next legal heir was Henry of Navarre. Henry III recognised this as being so. Navarre was a Protestant who had briefly converted to Catholicism during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in an effort to save his life. He had quickly converted back to Protestantism when it was safe to do so. The Huguenots supported the belief in the divine right of kings while the Catholics supported the belief in the sovereignty of the people – an ironic turnaround in their previous stances.

In December 1584, the Duke of Guise signed a secret treaty with Spain which stated that both would put the claim of Navarre to one side and support the claim of the Cardinal de Bourbon – who was the Duke of Guise’s uncle. Spain would provide the Guise family with 50,000 escudos per month to wipe out heresy in France. The Catholic League was revived in 1585 and Guise hoped to tap into the anti-Huguenot feeling that existed in the cities, though primarily in Paris.

The urban masses were starting to become unpredictable. The working class was starting to suffer from economic depression and heavy taxation while the middle class was becoming more angry over the issue of the rich title holders selling offices to the highest bidder which meant that the able and educated men (but those who had come form the poorer families) could not afford to compete. They witnessed the less able taking the jobs they should have been doing. Those with ability were not being rewarded for having this ability.

The League was at its most extreme in Paris and the combination of lawyers, clerics and artisans (skilled workers) was a potentially dangerous one. The power of the League in Paris was demonstrated by the Sixteen. This was the name of a secret council that governed Paris (the League had divided Paris into sixteen districts). Agents from the League went into the provinces to stir up enthusiasm for their work. The work of the Sixteen was obviously treasonable and a threat to Henry III. In 1585, Henry had against him the Huguenots, the senior catholic nobility, the middle class, the skilled artisans and the poor. Combined to this is the part Spain may have been playing in stirring up issues.

Such a combination of forces was too much for Henry and in July 1585 he gave into the Guises and agreed to make the Cardinal de Bourbon his heir. He also took back all the concessions that had been given to the Huguenots. In September 1585, Henry of Navarre was excommunicated by the pope Sixtus V. This gave Henry of Navarre a very real reason to fight – he was now the legitimate target for any Catholic who was free to murder him without committing a sin.

Navarre had two armies. One of these was paid for by the English. In 1587, Navarre defeated Henry III at the Battle of Coutras but his army of mercenaries – paid for by the English – was beaten in the same year by an army of the Guise’s.

Henry III now lost control of affairs – even in Paris. Spain ordered Guise to stop France from damaging the Armada that was due to harbour at Calais during its venture in 1588. There is every chance that Henry III would have used the Armada’s weak position to his advantage; i.e. destroying what he could of it so that French naval power in the Mediterranean would have been untouchable. Against Henry III’s orders, Guise marched on Paris. Royal troops proved to be of no use as the Sixteen rose up in Paris in May 1588 on the Day of the Barricades. The king had to flee his capital.

In June 1588 he was forced to sign the Edict of Union. This once again recognised Bourbon as being the rightful heir to the throne. It also made Guise Lord-Lieutenant of France. The king’s weak position was very obvious and Savoy used this opportunity to take French fortresses in northern Italy. The lack of support for the king in the Estates-General convinced him that his only way forward was to kill Henry, Duke of Guise. Henry Guise and his brother were murdered at Blois during Xmas 1585. Bourbon was arrested. The youngest Guise, the Duke of Mayenne, took over the League so the attempt by Henry III to destroy the power of the Guise family failed. The League’s reaction to the killing of its leader was simple. Cities loyal to Henry of Guise rose up and removed royal representatives there, claiming that the king had become a tyrant and that it was the duty of loyal Frenchmen to overthrow him.

By the end of 1588, France was controlled by either the League or the Huguenots. The king’s power appeared to be minimal. Henry III sided with Henry of Navarre for an attack on Paris but the king was murdered by a young monk who had been promised canonisation as a reward for doing so.

The Ninth War (August 1589 to May 1598)

Navarre was now king. His sole aim initially was to defeat the League. His plan was to buy off support for the League and open combat. Henry IV had one major advantage over all his opponents – he was the legal and legitimate heir to the French throne. Those in the League were clearly not. In 1590, Bourbon died and so even this problem was removed. The League had no replacement for him who had been officially recognised as the heir to the throne. Henry also had two other advantages over the Guises.

The mobs in the cities greatly alarmed the middle and upper classes as it seemed as if they were getting out of control and that social order was being threatened. Mayenne proved to be a far less effective leader than his brother who could not keep control of the masses whereas Henry IV appeared to be an effective leader and one who could keep control.

Secondly, the League was tainted with Spain as it had accepted Spanish money and troops whereas Henry IV was not tainted in this manner and thus appealed to French patriotism. The fact that he received English help from 1590 to 1594 did not seem to worry the French as much as the Spanish help that the League had received. When Philip II of Spain claimed France for his daughter, the Infanta Clara Eugenia as she was the grand-daughter of Henry II and Catherine de Medici, the people of France gave Henry IV even more support. Henry’s only weakness was the fact that he was a Protestant. But he was also a politique who would eventually use religion for his own purposes.

Henry IV’s task looked impossible. Vast areas of the country were out of his control. The League held areas such as Brittany. Savoy invaded Provence and he had no control over the capital. Henry IV based himself in Tours. He defeated the League in 1589 and 1590. He then laid siege to Paris. The Sixteen were in desperate straits when the Spanish general Farnese came to their aid from the Netherlands and drove off Henry. By 1592, the Spanish had a garrison in Paris and Rouen was helped out in the same way by the Spanish when Henry laid siege to that city.

However, the Sixteen now started to fight amongst itself. The moderates members of the Paris Parlement were hanged while Mayenne ordered the execution of the extremist elements in the Sixteen and in December 1591, Mayenne disbanded the Sixteen. Those extremists who remained called for the Spanish Infanta to be made queen and suggested that it only required a change in the law. Moderate members of the League called for a deal to be made with Henry. They were supported by the Parlement de Paris.

In June 1593, Henry converted to Catholicism again and in March 1594 he entered Paris. In September 1585, Henry received absolution from the pope, Clement VIII and Mayenne submitted to the king in October 1595. In January 1596, the League was formally disbanded and the French nobility was bought off with titles and money. In 1595, he declared war on Spain. Four separate Spanish forces were in France up to 1597 and it was only in 1598 that the last great nobleman (Mercouer of Brittany) submitted to Henry.

In April 1598, the wars officially ended with the Edict of Nantes signed with the Huguenots and in May 1598, the Treaty of Vervins ended the war with Spain.

Nantes stated that Huguenots could worship in the homes of the great nobility and publicly as stated in Poitiers with one or two additions per district. The Huguenots were given equality with the Catholics in public office and education. The Huguenots controlled the universities of La Rochelle, Nimes and Montauban. Special mixed courts were established in the parlements of Paris, Toulouse, Bordeaux and Grenoble to try cases where Protestants were involved. The Huguenots were also given 100 places of surete garrisoned at royal expense.

Vervins lead to Spain giving up all her conquests except Cambrai and the terms of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis were restored.