The French Huguenot Wars, 1562-1598

A.) The Prehistory

The Lutheran Reformation had made limited impact on FRANCE, as reformatoric tendencies were condemned and suppressed at an early stage. JEAN CALVIN had to flee his native France and established himself in French-speaking GENEVA, under Bernese protection. As long as King FRANCIS I. ruled France, the Calvinist reformation made little progress in France; at the end of the rule of his son HENRI II. it quickly gained a significant followership, which included numerous French noblemen, among them members of the leading families; the populations of entire city and countryside parishes adopted Calvinism; after the geographic origin of the confession, they were referred to as the HUGUENOTS.
The COUNCIL OF TRENT, which had been convoked in 1545, approached its closure (in 1563); it had taken a hostile stand toward the Lutheran, Calvinist and Anabaptist reformation. It implemented a policy of 'rollback'; the INQUISITION was empowered to use force in order to return the flock to (newly defined, Tridentine) Catholic faith. The Tridentine Catholic church sought for the cooperation of kings, of the nobility, of temporal lords.
King Francis I. had striven to strengthen royal power at the expense of France's nobility. When his son Henri II suddenly died in 1559, a power vacuum emerged, which the leading French noblemen, in competition with each other, sought to fill. Duke FRANCIS DE GUISE, uncle of MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS, wife of King FRANCIS II. (1559-1560), briefly was very influential; he opted for Tridentine Catholicism. A considerable group among the French nobility opposed him; this French princely opposition had chosen the banner of the Huguenots. A conflict among the French nobility over political influence thus was to turn in a civil war, formally over the issue of religion (better, over confession).
A third party emerged in the late Valois dynasty, better in the party of CATHERINE DE MEDICI, the wife of Henri II., who exerted considerable influence over her sons, Kings CHARLES IX. (1560-1574) and HENRI III. (1574-1589). Catherine and her sons were less concerned about the confession, more about retaining control over the country.

B.) The Huguenot Wars - an Overview

The MASSACRE AT VASSY 1562, committed by Duke Francis de Guise against a congregation of unarmed Huguenots attending a religious service, marked the beginning of a series of wars : The FIRST HUGUENOT WAR 1562-1563, the SECOND HUGUENOT WAR 1567-1568, the THIRD HUGUENOT WAR 1568-1570, then the MASSACRE OF ST. BARTHOLOMEW'S DAY 1572 lead to the FOURTH HUGUENOT WAR 1572-1573, the FIFTH HUGUENOT WAR 1576, the SIXTH HUGUENOT WAR 1577, the SEVENTH HUGUENOT WAR 1580, The EIGHTH HUGUENOT WAR 1584-1589, also referred to as the WAR OF THE THREE HENRIES which, without interruption, turnmed into the WARS OF THE LEAGUE 1589-1598.

B.) The Character of the Huguenot Wars

The element of distrust between the belligerents was much stronger than in pre-reformation years, as the party of the Guise, and the party of the Valois, if they chose so, in case of a victory could unleach the Inquisition against their opponents. Traditional laws of chivalry no longer applied, as indicated by the massacres of Vassy and of St. Bartholomew's Day. Political assassinations and assassination attempts - on Coligny in 1572, the assassinations of Duke Henri de Guise in 1588, of King Henri III in 1589 prove the same, as does the attempted COUP OF MEAUX in 1568.
Traditional elements of war - campaigns, battles and sieges, were relative there - the BATTLE OF DREUX 1562, a Catholic victory, the BATTLE OF JARNAC 1568, another Protestant defeat, the SIEGE OF LA ROCHELLE 1572, the taking of LA CHARITE on the Loire, by Catholic forces, in 1577, the seizure of CAHORS by the Huguenot forces in 1580, the BATTLE OF IVRY in 1590, a Huguenot victory, the SIEGE OF PARIS 1590-1594. Yet none of them was decisive; the defeated party managed to regroup and hold ground.
In the later phase, foreign powers entered the scene, a Calvinist force under JOHANN CASIMIR OF PALATINATE, 20,000 men strong, invaded France in 1576 and caused the signing of a peace treaty. Palatinate Calvinists again invaded in 1587. Twice the Spanish invaded, and broke the siege of Paris (1590, 1592). The series of wars only ended in the TREATY OF VERVIERS signed between France and Spain.
The war was characterized by a continuous standoff of three mutually suspicious parties, the Huguenots, treated as pariahs by Catholic propaganda and, in most cases, the victims of atrocities; the Catholic party consisted of two wings, the radical Catholics the foremost representatives were the Guises, uncompromising in their stand toward the Huguenots, and the Valois, for whom Valois control was the top priority and an uncompromising policy toward the Huguenots was a tool to achieve the former, frequently abandoned when empty state coffers and/or lack of military success made it advisable.
In 1584 Duke Henri de Guise allied himself with King Philip II. of Spain; radical Catholic propaganda referred to moderate Catholics unwilling to commit themselves to the struggle against the Huguenots, in a derogatory sense, as POLITIQUES. The CATHOLIC LEAGUE reestablished by Duke Henri gained control of Paris; King Henri III. fled the city. The open breach between King Henri III and Duke Henri de Guise, culminating in the assassination of first the former and than the latter, resulted in the rapprochement of the Huguenot party and the politiques. When Huguenot leader King Henri of Navarra made a political decision and converted to Catholicism, and Paris ended her resistance against him, the Huguenot wars came to an end.

In the wars, the Huguenots had suffered many defeats, but had proved too strong to be annihilated. On the other hand, they were not strong enough to take Catholic Paris. The radical Catholic party of the Guises ultimately perished, as did the Valois party which, with the death of Henri III., joined his brother-in-law, Huguenot Henri King of Navarra. But the Valois' moderate Catholicism did prevail.

C.) The Legacy

The most important legislation formally ending the Huguenoty Wars was the EDICT OF NANTES of 1598, granting the Huguenots religious toleration in their regional strongholds (but not in Paris). For the next decades the Huguenots prospered; CARDINAL RICHELIEU again was introducing a policy of repression, which resulted in the revolt of LA ROCHELLE 1629. As a tolerated, but undesired religious minority the Huguenots continued to thrive in France until King LOUIS XIV. in 1685, in the EDICT OF FONTAINEBLEAU, revoked the Edict of Nantes and charged his armed forces to 'pacify' the protestant areas within France, in campaigns referred to as DRAGONNARDS. As late as in the early 18th century France saw a Huguenot rebellion, the CAMISARDS
Another legacy of the Huguenot wars, a mistrust of the French royal house toward the intentions and policies of Roman Counterreformation Catholicism, has often been overlooked. In 1682 the French clergy openly distanced herself from Rome by establishing the GALLICAN CHURCH. The persecution of the Huguenots in 1685ff was ordered by Louis XIV., without communication with Rome.

The Wars of Religion, from Le Poulet Gauche, in English; has a rough map; gives descriptions of the individual wars
French Huguenot Wars, from Rootsweb, very brief, rather on the Edict of Nantes than over the wars, with map
Protestantism in France from the Death of Francis I. (1547) to the Edict of Nantes (1598), from History of Protestantism by J.A. Wylie, 1878; online book
Protestants de Monflaquin sous l"ancien Regime, 1518-1789, in French
Guerres de Religion, from Yahoo Encyclopedie, in French
REFERENCE David Potter (ed., trsl.) : The French Wars of Religion, Selected Documents, New York : St. Martin's 1997

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on February 2nd 2003, last revised on November 17th 2004

Click here to go Home
Click here to go to Information about KMLA, WHKMLA, the author and webmaster
Click here to go to Statistics