French Wars of Religion

Religion, Wars of

Wars of Religion, 1562–98, series of civil wars in France, also known as the Huguenot Wars.

The immediate issue was the French Protestants' struggle for freedom of worship and the right of establishment (see Huguenots). Of equal importance, however, was the struggle for power between the crown and the great nobles and the rivalry among the great nobles themselves for the control of the king. The foremost Protestant leaders were, successively, Louis I de Condé, Gaspard de Coligny, and Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV); the Catholic party was dominated by the house of Guise. A third party, called the Politiques and composed of moderate Catholics, sided with the Protestants, while Catherine de' Medici and her sons, Charles IX, Henry III, and Francis, duke of Alençon, vainly sought to maintain a balance of power by siding now with the Catholics, now with the Huguenots.

The Conspiracy of Amboise (1560), by which the Huguenots attempted to end the persecutions suffered at the hands of Francis II, was a prelude to the first three civil wars (1562–63, 1567–68, 1568–70). The Treaty of Saint-Germain (1570), ending the wars, gave the Protestants new liberties and the wardenship of four cities, including La Rochelle. The fourth civil war (1572–73) began with the massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day, a general slaughter of Protestants throughout France. The fifth civil war (1574–76) ended with the Peace of Monsieur (named for Francis of Alençon, who then sided with the Huguenots), which, ratified by the Edict of Beaulieu, granted freedom of worship throughout France except Paris.

When the Catholics retorted by forming the League (1576) and persuaded Henry III to repeal the edict of toleration (1577), the Huguenots revolted once more and sought the aid of foreign Protestant states. This sixth civil war ended with the Peace of Bergerac (1577), which renewed most of the terms of the Peace of Monsieur; this Henry III never carried out. A seventh war (1580) was inconsequential, but in 1584 the recognition by Henry III of the Protestant Henry of Navarre as his heir presumptive led to the renewal of the League by Henri de Guise and to the War of the Three Henrys (1585–89).

After the assassination of Henri de Guise (1588) and of Henry III (1589), the League, now headed by the duc de Mayenne, invoked the aid of Spain against Henry's successor, Henry IV. Henry, after his victories at Arques (1589) and Ivry (1590) and his conversion to Catholicism (1593), entered Paris in 1594.

With the Edict of Nantes (see Nantes, Edict of), which granted freedom of worship throughout France and established Protestantism in 200 towns, and with the Treaty of Vervins with Spain (both in 1598), Henry IV brought the Wars of Religion to as successful a conclusion as the Protestants could desire. This result, however, was completely reversed in the 17th cent. by Cardinal Richelieu, who broke the political power of the Protestants, and by Louis XIV, who destroyed their religious privileges by his revocation (1685) of the Edict of Nantes.

See study by J. W. Thompson (1958).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

French Wars of Religion: Selected full-text books and articles

`Reduced to Cinders': The Impact of the French Religious Wars By McKinnon-Bell, David History Review, September 2000
The Reformation World By Andrew Pettegree Routledge, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. Nineteen "The French Wars of Religion"
Europe and England in the Sixteenth Century By T. A. Morris Routledge, 1998
Librarian's tip: Chap. Fifteen "The French Wars of Religion"
European Warfare, 1494-1660 By Jeremy Black Routledge, 2002
Librarian's tip: "French Wars of Religion" begins on p. 97
The European Dynastic States, 1494-1660 By Richard Bonney Oxford University Press, 1991
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "Europe in the Age of the Wars of Religion, 1559-1618"
Renaissance and Reformation: A Survey of European History between 1450 and 1660 By V. H. H. Green Edward Arnold, 1952
Librarian's tip: Chap. 15 "The French Wars of Religion"
Henry IV and the Towns: The Pursuit of Legitimacy in French Urban Society, 1589-1610 By S. Annette Finley-Croswhite Cambridge University Press, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 1 "France in the 1580s and 1590s"
The Age of Catherine de Medici and Essays in Elizabethan History By J. E. Neale Jonathan Cape, 1963
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "The Massacre of St Bartholomew" and Chap. 4 "The Close of the Religious Wars"
Moral Purity and Persecution in History By Barrington Moore Jr Princeton University Press, 2000
Librarian's tip: Chap. 2 "Purity in the Religious Conflicts of Sixteenth-Century France"
The Massacre in History By Mark Levene; Penny Roberts Berghahn Books, 1999
Librarian's tip: Chap. 3 "Hidden Transcripts: Secret Histories and Personal Testimonies of Religious Violence in the French Wars of Religion"
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