French Wars of Religion

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French Wars of Religion: 1562 - 1598
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The French Wars of Religion were fought between the Catholic League and the Huguenots from the March 1, 1562 massacre of 1,000 Hugeunots at Vassy to 1598.

In the early to middle part of the 16th century, the French Protestant John Calvin created the doctrine and conventions for a uniquely French form of Protestantism. Before long, it attracted many powerful followers in the nobility, tired of the domination of the state by the Vatican. Equally, Calvinism was embraced by thousands of ordinary citizens.

Urged on by Rome, which had recently lost control of the Catholic Church in England under the will of King Henry VIII, King Henri II of France attempted to crush a movement he perceived to be a threat to his power. His attempt was unsuccessful, as were those of his three sons who all became King of France. Instead, the country was severely divided by the Wars of Religion.

The religious fanaticism of the adversaries, combined with the usual brutality of the times, resulted in a vicious struggle in which great atrocities were committed by both sides. All of France was laid waste to and agriculture was virtually wiped out as citizens of the country underwent a living nightmare of constant destruction and massacres of entire villages.

In 1558, Francois, dauphin of France married Mary Queen of Scots. By 1559, she had appointed her two powerful uncles of the House of Guise, Francois, Duke of Guise and Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, to high positions in the French government. This prompted the Conspiracy of Ambroise in which the Huguenots and the House of Bourbon plotted to usurp the power of the Guise family. The Guise family made a preemptive attack and killed hundreds of conspirators. In 1562, Catherine de Medici tried to soothe tensions by giving the Huguenots religious rights with the Edict of Toleration. This precipitated a temporary coup d'état by Francois, Duke of Guise in which he killed 30 Huguenots. After that, the Wars of Religion openly began.

Catherine de Medici, as Regent and as the Queen mother, was the real ruler during most of three of her sons reigns (sons: Francois II, Charles IX, Henry III, Duke of Alencon). Although Roman Catholic, at first she was more concerned about the potential loss of royal power and attempted to negotiate a compromise that would enable both sides to practice their faith without restriction. She first became the regent for Charles IX of France and she sided with Francois, Duke of Guise when the wars broke out in 1562. With the defeat of the royal troops by Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, she feared she might lose power, so she planned his assassination, but it failed. To keep her family on the throne, she arranged the marriage in 1572 of her daughter Marguerite de Valois to Duke Henry of Nevarre of the House of Bourbon, who had a claim to the throne after her children. She planned to have the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre after the wedding, so she persuaded King Charles IX to follow through with it, and had 3 thousand Huguenots killed in Paris and 20 thousand killed around France. She did nothing but exacerbate the situation and keep her lineage in power until the death of her son Henry III of France.

The consummation of the struggle came when the War of the Three Henrys ended with Duke Henry of Nevarre beginning the Bourbon Dynasty as Henry IV of France after he converted to Catholicism to soothe the situation. Also, King Henry IV of France issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which gave Huguenots religious rights. The same year, he signed the Treaty of Vervins that required Philip II of Spain, an exponent of the Catholics, to remove his troops from France. Later that year Philip II of Spain died, leaving the Catholics without a powerful aid. The Wars of Religiom thus ended.

After Catherine de Medici's son, Francois, Duke of Anjou, joined the Protestants with an army of his own, a treaty was made that gave the Huguenots freedom of worship throughout the country and legal equality with Catholics.


The Catholic League

The treaty was greeted with consternation by the powerful Duke of Guise, a fanatical Catholic with designs on the throne of France who, as head of the House of Guise, formed the Catholic League (aka the Holy League). The League's objective was to exterminate the Huguenots, to confine the King in a monastery, and place the Duke of Guise on the throne of France. The League was sanctioned by the Pope and backed by the Catholic King Philip II of Spain.

The power of the Catholic League was such that King Henri III of France cancelled the treaty and as a result peace lasted only a few months before the civil war continued. Following the death of the king's brother, Francois, and the King's own subsequent assassination, Henri of Navarre, the de-facto leader of the Protestant movement, became the rightful king of France. However, the Catholic forces, with support from Catholic Spain, gathered against his ascension to the throne.

After numerous successful battles against superior Catholic forces and the Spanish, a feared and yet revered Henri of Navarre recognized that the majority of the French people were loyal Catholics and that as king he could do far more for Protestantism than he ever could by waging war. As such, in 1593 he publicly converted to Roman Catholicism. The following year Henri of Navarre was crowned King Henri IV of France in Chartres Cathedral.

The Duke of Mayenne, a brother of the Duke of Guise, was commander of the armed forces of the Catholic League. After King Henri III, had his brother murdered in December of 1588, the Duke of Mayenne became head of the Catholic League. Although Mayenne and other members of the House of Guise had murdered, tortured and wreaked havoc on the lives of many French citizens, for the sake of the country King Henri IV bought peace with him and in January of 1596 a treaty was signed that put an end to the League. Parlement refused to ratify the treaty, but King Henri exercised his power and ordered them to register it.

A highly popular and effective ruler, with the Catholic League dissolved, in 1598 Henri IV issued the Edict of Nantes that granted partial religious freedom to the French Protestants. While far from equality of religions, the Edict of Nantes was enough to put an end to the series of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants that devastated France from 1562 to 1598.

Henry II of France
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Henri II (1519-1559), a member of the Valois Dynasty, was King of France from 1547 to 1559.

Born March 31, 1519 in the Royal Château at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France, the son of François I and Claude de France, his marriage was arranged to Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) on October 28, 1533 when both were 14 years old.

He was crowned king, on July 25, 1547 in the cathedral at Reims, his reign marked by wars with Austria, and the persecution of the Protestant Huguenots. Henri II severely punished them, burning them alive or cutting out their tongues for speaking their Protestant beliefs. Even someone suspected of being a Huguenot was imprisoned for life.

Henri II was an avid hunter and participant in jousting tournaments. On July 1, 1559, during a match to celebrate a peace treaty with his longtime enemies, the Hapsburgs of Austria and to celebrate the marriage of his daughter Elizabeth to King Philip II of Spain, King Henri's eye was pierced by a sliver from a shattered lance that penetrated the brain. He suffered terribly, passing away on July 10, 1559 and was buried in a cadaver tomb in Saint Denis Basilica.

He was succeeded by his son, Francis II. Henri II's death resulted in the next forty years in France being filled with turbulence as his sons and other claimants to the French crown fought for power.


  1. François II, (January 19, 1544 - December 5, 1560)
  2. Elisabeth de France, (April 2, 1545 - October 3, 1568)
  3. Claude, (November 12, 1547 - February 21, 1575)
  4. Louis, (February 3, 1549 - October, 1549)
  5. Charles-Maximilien (Charles IX), (June 27, 1550 - May 30, 1574)
  6. Edouard Alexandre (Henri III), (September 19, 1551 - August 2, 1589)
  7. Marguerite de Valois, (May 14, 1553 - March 27, 1615)
  8. Hercule (François), Duke of Alençon and Anjou, (March 18, 1555 - June 19, 1584)
  9. Jeanne, (June 24, 1556 - June 24, 1556) (Twin - died at birth)
  10. Victoire, (June 24, 1556 - August, 1556) (Twin - died at two months)


Preceded by:
François I
List of French monarchs Succeeded by:
François II