The French Wars of Religion
Part 1 - Origins
Little known today, at least among the non-residents of France are the repeated series of French Religious Wars that erupted in the last half of the 16th century and paralyzed France politically and morally from c. 1560 to 1595 C.E.
The ostensible reason for the wars was religious. In this case the struggle was over whether or not France would continue to be Catholic.
Shortly after the beginnings of the Reformation. Martin Luther’s ideas began to circulate among French intellectuals. At the same time much of French intellectual life was affected by the writings of Erasmus, the great Humanist. Further the French Church was in many respects autonomous within Catholic Christendom. The doctrine called Gallicanism in it is determined that the Pope’s authority is not totally supreme and that local French customs and practices can override dictates from Rome. Generally it meant the authority of the French Catholic Church to regulate its affairs separately and to be able when it so desires to override both the Pope and Curia in Rome. This doctrine went back to the early 15th century at least and the French Kings most vehemently rejected any idea that the French Church must by definition be subject to the Vatican in Rome.1
In all this the intellectual elite already contained many people sharply critical of Papal authority and Church practice, so that the early writings of the Reformers got a hearing in France. This was especially so in the early part of the 16th century when the French Kings felt their control over an autonomous French Church was threatened by Papal claims of authority over the Church. Still in many respects the French Kings already had a Church subject to state control along with access to Church wealth and holdings for state purposes. The result was that temptation to go with the Reformation has a way of gaining control over the local Church and access to Church wealth was correspondingly less.2
This being the case in the early part of the 16th century the French kings often rather ruthlessly persecuted those who accepted one of the varieties of Protestantism. The persecution was often quite savage and ruthless with numerous burnings. The French kings tended to view the early Protestant movement has a threat to public order and an attack against their own authority. Although occasionally Francois I would make threats about becoming Protestant they were never in earnest. The French king’s attitude seemed to have been that given the theocratic leanings of the Protestant reformers that they, the French kings, would have less control over the church after such a “Reform” than they did at the moment with a French Catholic Church and the doctrine of Gallicanism.3
The early Protestant movement in France was basically Lutheran, but that was quickly overtaken by the influence of the founder of Calvinism, Jean Calvin. Jean Calvin beginning in the 1536 set up a theocracy in Geneva; wrote a great deal in French and his doctrine with its vision of man saved by grace and God’s inexplicable mercy galvanized large numbers of people. Although his little police state of Geneva appalled some.4
Thus the type of Protestant belief that penetrated widely in France was the Reform or Calvinist system of belief, much of it spread through Calvin’s polemical writings and his fevered followers.
Now in a system in which “correct” belief was given has an absolute necessity to preserve social order the failure to adhere to the “God given” correct belief system was considered an indication of lack of respect for social order and a pernicious threat to it.
It should be mentioned that the new Protestant believers in France called Huguenots, were no less believers in the notion that correct social order required that all believe in the same faith, the only difference being that the “correct” belief was their “Reformed” faith rather than Catholicism.
Toleration as a doctrine was in the early stages of being formulated in Europe and was even among avant-garde intellectuals the taste of a tiny minority. It was frankly a doctrine regarded with absolute horror by virtually everyone. The idea that people could be left free to hold any opinion about religion, including none at all was simply anathema in the society of the day. The very existence of differing religious opinions was held to be ipso-facto harmful. It was the duty of the state to enforce uniformity because diversity of opinion in matters of religion was by definition a harm.5
Why was this the case? Well in a world in which it was held that correct belief was absolutely required so that souls would go to heaven rather than hell; then allowing to exist, much less allow to be propagated, opinions that contradicted the necessary doctrines and beliefs necessary for salvation was unconscionable to the nth degree. So the state must exert considerable effort to avoid allowing misleading doctrine that allows some people to be misled and thus lured into an eternity of suffering in hell. In other words it showed a great lack of “charity” not to oppose “wrong” belief. And of course “wrong” belief upset the “proper” order of society and led to violence, disobedience, questioning and other things that undermined good order.
In other words what emerged was a contest for supremacy between two authoritarian indeed “totalitarian” creeds which could not stomach the existence of the other.
And one should note the elements of rank hypocrisy in all this. Catholics were very adamant in demanding tolerance where they were being persecuted and Protestants were adamant in demanding toleration were they were persecuted. Calvin for example was loud in demanding that the French state tolerate the Reform faith, but of course toleration of Catholicism did not exist in Geneva.6
The catalyst for precipitating religious disagreement into civil war was two closely interlocking events.
The first was the end of the long Valois / Habsburg war for supremacy in Italy. The end of the wars was sealed by the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis in 1559. This was sealed the defeat of the French in Italy and established Habsburg predominance in Europe. Still the Peace was not a comprehensive defeat. France remained the greatest single Christian monarchy in Europe. In fact France finally took Calais away from England and took over several cities in Lorraine, (Toul, Metz and Verdun).7 As for the Habsburgs.
The Habsburg realms were a disunited conglomerate of territories under the not very effective control of the Habsburg monarchs. In fact the whole structure of the Habsburg “Universal” Monarchy was so ramshackle that in 1556 Charles V had divided up the realm between his brother Ferdinand I who became the next Holy Roman Emperor and his son Philip II of Spain.8
The outbreak of peace was a disappointment to the French whose desire to curb Habsburg pretensions had largely failed and France faced in Philip II of Spain a very powerful Habsburg Monarchy that if it was no longer united with the Empire was still a formidable threat especially since the Austrian Habsburgs, now Emperors of Germany, could be counted on to ally with the Spanish Habsburgs. So the sense of loss and disappointment was bound to translate into internal political feuding especially since there were a large number of soldiers available to help settle internal disputes violently.
The second catalyst was the death of the formidable French king Henry II. Henry II died in a truly bizarre accident shortly after the signing of the peace. While jousting in a tournament to celebrate the peace Henry II was wounded by a wood splinter from a lance that entered his skull and he subsequently died of his wound. The man he was jousting with, not surprisingly fled.9
Henry II had four sons all of them too young to rule at Henry II's death and with one partial exception all of them basically ineffectual. Rule fell to Henry II’s strong willed wife Catherine de Medici as regent. But almost at once disputes over policy and religion started to get out of control. Further despite Catherine’s great intelligence, her indulgence in intrigue and back biting soon made her disliked by large sections of the French Nobility. Catherine was singularly unable to control the factions and if anything her machinations made things worst. This wasn’t helped by the fact that Francois II, Catherine’s eldest son was basically little more than a place holder and inept.
Thus Henry II’s death created a vacuum in the centre of the French government at precisely the worst moment when much of French society was pissed about the peace and mounting religious tensions were threatening social order.
Catherine de Medici has a modern reputation for clever deviousness, but her cleverness was fatally undermined by the fact that she swiftly became deeply distrusted and a love of devious intrigue that made her widely disliked. In a sense Catherine’s reputation for devious intelligence as led many to forget that in many ways she was supremely incompetent. As indicated by her knack of pissing off all the wrong people and taking measures that made things worse.10
|Catherine de Medici|
Thus France after 1559 was in a precarious position, what with a lost war, religious dissention and a regent, who was too clever by half and widely distrusted and disliked, and over it all an adolescent monarch who was thoroughly inept. Not surprisingly factions flourished and the recently ended war provided very large numbers of well-trained, unemployed soldiers for use by the various factions.
Francois II had died in 1560 after a very short reign and he was succeeded by his brother Charles IX. So aside from the disruption of another sudden, unexpected royal death there was the prospect of a prolonged regency.
The result was disaster. Things rapidly spiraled out of control and religious tensions and disagreements provided the glue around which factions could grow. The all or nothing ethos of each religious faction made each faction unwilling to compromise. Further the divisive and divided royal court was a seat of faction and singularly unable much of the time to exert authority. Catherine’s methods of rule did not help matters but aggravated the religious and political factionalism that divided the court. That the king was a nonentity did not help matters. For it meant that no one was accepted with un-questioned authority.
The Huguenots had already been persecuted and had their lists of martyrs and iconoclastic smashing of churches by Huguenots in parts of France had disturbed many Catholics. And the gradual ebbing of royal authority has factionalism paralyzed it, led to the growth of local, autonomous groups that had armed force at their command.
By 1562 the government was partially paralyzed, and armed groups proliferated all over France many under the banner of their idea of the “true” faith.
In that year an attack on a group of Huguenots worshipping outdoors near Vassy that resulted in a massacre of said worshipers precipitated the first of 8 wars of religion that would last until 1595.11
In the meantime for much of this period France has a major power was a blank. The civil wars and resulting disruption reduced France to the status of a vacuum in the international politics of Europe and opened France up to the intrigues and interference of other powers more especially Spain and the Spanish Habsburgs who had a vested interest in ensuring that France remained divided and impotent. In effect it removed, or seemed to remove, the main barrier to Spanish / Habsburg hegemony in Europe. Despite this things did not go the way the Habsburgs could have hoped but that is another story.
Meanwhile the horrors of religious war were visited upon France for a generation.
1. MacCulloch, Diarmaid, Reformation, Penguin Books, London, 2003, pp. 467-468, 479-484, Holt, Mack P., The French Wars of Religion, Second Edition, Cambridge University Prtess, Cambridge, 2005, pp. 7-49.
3. IBID, Elton, G.R., Reformation Europe 1517-1559, Fontana Books, London, 1963, pp. 112-121.
4. MacCulloch, pp. 237-269.
5. Zagorin, Perez, How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 2003, pp. 14-45.
6. IBID, pp. 114-122.
7. Elliott, J.H., Europe Divided 1559-1598, Fontana Books, London, 1968, pp. 11-17.
8. Elton, pp. 256-273.
9. IBID, pp. 271-272, Holt, pp. 41-42. Henry II sons were Francois II, Charles IX, Henry III and Hercule François. Of the four only Henry III showed any real ability to rule.
10. See Elliott, pp. 72-73, 100- 104, 113-114, 122-125, 202-203.
11. Holt, pp. 48-49.