The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629

I wouldn’t want to live in sixteenth century France unless I was a fly on the wall. Reading Mack Holt’s book may be the next best thing. The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629 puts you through the bloodbaths of 16th-century France, at the safe distance of scholarly exposition and inquiry. There are many books on the Catholic-Huguenot wars, but this is the best I’m aware of, and there are three things especially I like about it.

The first is that the author cuts against the grain of foolish fads, and argues that religion played a central role in these wars. That’s right: religion played a key role in the wars of religion. Never take the obvious for granted, for it’s precisely the obvious that many prefer to deny. If you’ve heard it said enough times that jihad terrorism has nothing to do with Islam (despite jihadists’ candid admissions that it has everything to do with the Islamic religion), then perhaps it’s not terribly surprising to learn that scholars have sought to explain the Catholic-Huguenot conflicts in just about every possible framework except a religious one.

Which isn’t to say that Holt downplays the impact of other factors, like politics, economics, and social forces. Quite the contrary, those are weighed where appropriate. He has simply restored a crucial piece of the puzzle that had been missing for too long when he wrote the first edition of this book (in 1995).

The second thing I like is that there are no implied heroes or villains in these bloodbaths, save what readers may choose to make for themselves. Histories of Catholic-Protestant conflicts are too often written by anti-establishment types who portray the Protestant cause as the “right” one, standing against abusive power and superstition. I was half-expecting to see the Huguenots depicted as oppressed martyrs to “true Christianity”, or liberty-seeking folks who just wanted to be left alone. I was wrong and pleasantly surprised.

If anything, one might be misled into thinking that the author sides with the Gallican (French Catholic) point of view. He doesn’t, but what he does do is immerse the reader in the Gallican worldview and the particulars that were taken for granted. In France there was a special relationship between church and state that wasn’t duplicated elsewhere. The ecclesiastical nature of the French kingship went beyond those of the western monarchies. While it’s true that popes recognized other monarchs for their special service to God (like Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain), French kings relied on an older and unassailable tradition. Every single French king was Rex Christianissimus, the “Most Christian King”, not just ordained by God, but a god himself, (according to the Assembly of the French Clergy). The French kings were effectively god-kings who had a sacred duty to fight heresy and keep France pure of it. Their word was absolute and not to be questioned, but there was at least one thing that might provoke legitimate defiance: if the king refused to defend his kingdom from heresy. Thus after each of the wars, when Charles IX (after wars 1-4) and then Henry III (after wars 5-7) drew up compromises with the Huguenots, there was a growing outrage that the king was failing his sacred duty to eradicate heresy from the land.

So for example, when Charles IX toured the entire nation (in 1564-66) in order to excoriate the city Parlements in person, demanding the immediate and unconditional registration of the Edict of Amboise (1563) that he signed to end the first war, he was only grudgingly obeyed. Many of the judges and magistrates viewed his provisions for the Huguenots to be a severe breach of his royal prerogative — the oath he took to defend France from heresy. The resentment would eventually explode in the fourth war (1572-73) with the massacres of St. Bartholomew. In the case of Henry III, his breaches snowballed into schism, with Catholic hard-liners declaring that he had lost his right to the throne, triggering the eighth (and nastiest and longest) war that lasted from 1584-98. The pacification edicts of Charles IX and Henry III called forth what could be described as quasi-crusades against the Protestants in France.

This brings me to the third thing I like, the implied alignment of the French wars with the crusades. To be sure, they were not actually crusades, and Holt does not say they were. For all the variety of crusading theaters throughout the 11th-16th centuries (whether in Palestine, Spain, the Baltic region, northern Africa, or even the interior of Europe), the French wars of religion were not among them. A crusade had to be sanctioned by the pope and given the official penitential benefits (the remission for penalties of confessed sins), and the popes never blessed the wars against the French Protestants in this way.

Nevertheless, in my view, the fourth and eighth wars unfolded effectively as crusades, a “popular crusade” dominating the fourth war (1572-73), and the “inquisitional crusade” of the Holy League carrying the eighth (1584-98). That’s not exactly how Holt puts it in his book, but I think it’s essentially what he ends up describing.

The Popular “Crusades” of the Fourth War: The Massacres of St. Bartholomew’s Day

It’s worth citing Holt’s lengthy analysis of the massacres of St. Bartholomew’s Day that ignited the fourth war. But first the lead-up: the third war (1568-70) had represented a departure from the first two wars (1562-63, 1567-68), which were dominated by siege warfare in a few towns north of the Loire. The first two wars were grounded in religious conflict, to be sure, but they were not characterized by religious zeal. Nor was the third war. But the third war did involve the mobilization of large numbers of troops over large distances throughout the center and south of the kingdom, exposing the rural population to the costs of war they hadn’t previously known: murder, rape, pillage, the sacking of homes, theft of livestock, disruption of agricultural production, and peasants fleeing for their lives.

All of this inflamed the religious zeal of the masses, and holy confraternities sprang up everywhere in the wake of third-war atrocities. One pamphlet published in 1568 called on Catholics to “spill your blood for God, even to the last drop” against the Protestants. Outbreaks of popular violence, grounded in religiosity, began to erupt. Catholics started pursuing a New Jerusalem ideal cleansed of the infidel. Sermons urged them to heed God’s will to eradicate infidels within the kingdom, and this would all finally explode in an extended fury of popular violence in the fourth war — when all of the political decision-making of the court nobility receded into the background, as Catholics across the kingdom made a concerted effort, indeed, to spill Protestant blood “to the last drop”:

“The Huguenots not only had to be killed, but humiliated, dishonored, and shamed as the inhuman beasts they were perceived to be. They had to be dehumanized — slaughtered like animals — since they had violated all the sacred laws of humanity in Catholic culture. Moreover, death was followed by purification of the places the Huguenots had profaned. Many Protestant houses were burned, involving the traditional purification of fire for all heretics. Many were also thrown into the Seine, invoking the purification by water of Catholic baptism. The grisly deaths of hundreds of Protestants in Paris on St. Bartholomew’s night and after reveal distinct patterns of what Professor Natalie Davis has called the ‘rites of violence’. Many of the participants in the massacre saw themselves as carrying out clerical roles of priests and purifiers and magisterial roles of judges and executioners. The violence of the massacres was the result of something more than the unconscious fears, the uncontrolled rage, or the random violence so endemic to the period. The violence was not random at all, but patterned on the rites of the Catholic culture that had given birth to it. Despite the efforts by the king and many other notables to stop the spread of the violence, it continued off and on in the capital for nearly three days, resulting in as many as two thousand deaths.

“What had caused this unusually bloody outburst of violence, far more lethal than any previous incident in the Religious Wars of France (1562-1563, 1567-1568, 1568-1570)? And why did it go unchecked for so long? Two related points must be stressed if any sense is to be made of these ‘rites of violence’. First, the sources make it very clear that many of the participants fully believed that they were carrying out the will of the king [even though they were wrong in that belief]. It was a mistaken perception — that the king had condoned the killing of all the Protestants in the capital — that led many Catholics who were otherwise law-abiding citizens to seize the moment and take part in the spree of killing. Private passion against Protestantism was transformed into public duty… Second, the participants in the massacre also felt that extermination of the Huguenots was God’s will. The escalating rhetoric of Parisian pamphleteers and preachers after the Edict of St. Germain (in 1570, after the third war, which granted more favors and rights to Protestants than any previous edict) was a main factor in this perception. Heresy was a putrid infection of the social body that would contaminate the whole if not eradicated. Thus should heretics be exterminated by a “bitter death”… So convinced were the Parisians that God was growing ever more angry with them for continuing to allow the pollution of heresy, that every severe storm, occurrence of hail or sleet, flood of the Seine — even the solar eclipse on St. Michael’s Day in 1571 — were all perceived as signs of God’s anger.

“All the surviving evidence suggests that the popular massacre that broke out on Paris on St. Bartholomew’s night was neither planned nor condoned by the king’s council. The king himself issued orders as soon as the popular violence broke out for everyone in the city to return to their homes. And apart from the radical fringe of the city militia who did encourage and even led the populace in many of the attacks, the bulk of the king’s and the city’s forces seem to have been trying to maintain order rather than participating in the murders. Even Henry, duke of Guise, who personally took charge of the murder of [the Protestant Admiral] Coligny, made efforts to prevent the unnecessary deaths of other Protestants in the capital. All the Protestant sources claiming that the king, the Queen Mother, Henry of Anjou, or Guise had ordered the general massacres — which many historians have simply taken at face value — need to be balanced by the evidence of the strength of popular religious feeling in the capital at the time of the attempted assassination of Admiral Coligny.” (pp 87-90)

That was just in Paris. After the massacres in the capital, sacred violence broke out in the following cites: Orleans, La Charite, Meaux, Bourges, Saumur, Angers, Lyon, Troyes, Rouen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, and Gaillac. About 3000 Protestants total were killed in those dozen cities (in Paris alone the body count was 2000). All twelve (like Paris) once had very significant Protestant minorities. They were towns where sizeable Huguenot communities existed and thus had raised the same specter of heretical contamination. And seven of them — Rouen, Orleans, Lyon, Meaux, Bourges, Angers, and La Charite — had actually been taken over by Protestant minorities during the first war. They had returned to Catholic control, but with feelings of hostility and tensions similar to that in Paris.

And as in Paris, the chief agents of the violence were the local populace, who believed they were acting on behalf of the king and in full accordance with the divine will. They enacted the same kind of ritualistic murders (mutilation of corpses, killers roaming the streets singing and playing lutes and guitars), driven by religious zeal. This kind of holy violence did not erupt in cities under Huguenot control (like La Rochelle, Montauban, and Nimes) or in Catholic places where Protestant communities were too small to have created much division (like Dijon).

The “Inquisitional Crusades” of the Eighth War: The Holy League and the Sixteen

Each of the first seven wars lasted anywhere between six months and two years. The eighth war lasted a whole 14 years (June 1584 – April 1598), and was ignited when Henry III’s younger brother Francis died, thus making his brother-in-law, the Protestant Henry of Navarre, next in line for the throne. The mere thought of a Protestant as king of France was an abomination, and the holy screeds and pamphleteer sermons of 1570 suddenly gained new relevance. If Henry of Navarre became Henry IV, that would not only end the French monarchy, but all of French Catholic culture. It was cried out that, “The death of Francis is the ruin of France”, and that actually proved quite true, as his death spawned the most devastating, and inquisitorial of the French religious wars.

The fact that the threat of a Protestant king — and the threat made real in 1589 — could trigger so much bloodbath shows the degree to which France revered its “Most Christian King”. As I read the religio-politics of the time period, to have a Protestant on the French throne would be like having a President of the United States burning the American Constitution and declaring it null and void. In this light, what unfolded isn’t terribly surprising. Immediately upon Francis’s death in 1584, Catholic nobles (led by the Guises) gathered to form the infamous Catholic League (or Holy League). The nobles were from various confraternities, and their stated mission was the full eradication of Protestantism from France, the replacement of Henry III (who had been “too soft” on Protestants at the end of wars 5-7), and to find a suitable electable king now that the House of Valois was no longer bearing fruit.

The League thus certainly perceived their fight against the Huguenots as a crusade against heresy. Their polemic followed two general arguments, as Holt says: (1) that the law of Catholicity takes priority over Salic Law (the laws of dynastic succession), and (2) that it is legitimate to oppose the authority of a king who defies God and his coronation oath (in order to protect the most Catholic kingdom against heresy). In France at this time, the specter of a Protestant king was like the specter of a nuclear bomb in the modern world. The League was terrified, and ready to fight tooth and nail.

In following year (1585) came the even more notorious organization, when groups of lay Catholics — lawyers, merchants, royal officers, and curates — began to organize in private homes and chapels throughout Paris. This Paris cell became known as the Sixteen (because it established a committee in each of the 16 quarters of Paris) and managed to channel the overwhelming orthodox feelings of the masses into a political machine that was independent of the nobles and elites, and of the city municipal authorities, and even of the crown. It was mostly a middle-class movement that appealed to the lower classes. Its announced intention was to keep France pure and the monarchy Catholic.

The Guises and other aristocrats would often clash with the Sixteen, when their interests and methods differed, but as Holt demonstrates in the book, they were all bound together as a League by their hard-line Catholic religiosity.

The tide turns against Henry III

With such zeal propelling the League, Henry III didn’t stand much chance. 1588 was the critical year, when he was forced to flee Paris. A popular uprising had raised barricades on the streets in support of the Henry, the Duke of Guise. The Sixteen then took complete control of the government, while the Guises protected the surrounding supply lines. By this time, the League was in control of a handful of towns outside Paris (notable ones being Sens, Troyes, and Auxerre).

Soon after, in July, Henry had little choice but to accept almost all the League’s demands: reaffirming the Treaty of Nemours (1585), which had stripped Protestants of every single thing they gained in the previous seven edicts. Protestantism was now banned completely. It was illegal to even be Protestant, no matter how loyal to the crown. All Protestants had to renounce their faith within six months or be exiled.

Being outplayed — and kicked out of his own capital — Henry III retaliated in a very rash manner. On December 23 he summoned Henry, Duke of Guise, and his brother the Cardinal of Guise, to his chamber in the castle at Blois. He murdered the Guises the next day, hacked their bodies to pieces, burned them to ash, and then proceeded calmly to Christmas Eve mass. If he thought he was making an effective strike against the League by killing their top-dog leaders, he was drastically mistaken.

In the immediate wake of the Guise murders, shitloads of towns rose up in support of the League, crying for the king’s blood. Even those which had previously rejected the League now embraced it: Agen, Amiens, Bourges, Dijon, Issoire, Le Mans, Nantes, Poitiers, Rouen, Toulouse, and many, many more. On top of that, the Sixteen began a purge of the Paris Parlement and other courts, replacing judges with extreme radicals. Anyone even suspected of being a moderate or having royalist sympathies was publicly hanged throughout the capital.

Henry III then resorted to something he surely never thought he would do, making a truce with his brother-in-law, Henry of Navarre. The Catholic king and Protestant heir stunningly agreed to suspend their differences for one year in order to wage war on the League that was turning France into an inquisitional bloodbath. The following year, in August 1589, both the crown (under Henry III) and the Huguenots (under Henry of Navarre) moved on Paris, but Henry III was assassinated just west of the capital before that could happen.

So Henry of Navarre was suddenly Henry IV — the first Protestant king of France. He was absolutely rejected by the League and the overwhelming majority of French citizens. It would take him five years, and renouncing his Protestant faith, before he was crowned and entered Paris, finally accepted as Rex Christianissimus. (in March 1594). During those years the League conducted a reign of inquisitional terror. The Sixteen became so extreme that during Henry IV’s siege of Paris (in 1590, which failed), some of them began to cry for overturning the monarchy altogether and establishing a Catholic republic. Most of them, however, looked to Philip II of Spain, who sent Spanish troops to keep Henry IV at bay, and to keep martial law inside of Paris.

The Edict of Nantes

After kicking Spain’s ass (1595-1598), Henry IV finally put an end to the religious wars that had ravaged France for 36 years. Holt’s discussion of the Edict of Nantes (signed on April 13, 1598) is important and counters a lot of misconceptions about the edict’s supposed provision for “religious toleration”. The edict did not introduce such a policy. It allowed for temporary religious co-existence. The provisions for Huguenots (such as allowing them to remain armed and in possession of many fortified towns) would expire in eight years. Its goal was provisional religious unity, not the toleration of differing confessions.

As Holt emphasizes, Henry IV wasn’t a modern secularist or ecumenist interested in playing “fair ball” to both sides. He was, in the end, committed to the French Gallican monarchy of his predecessors — that is, the restoration of “one king, one faith, one law”. The idea that his conversion to Catholicism was skin deep — that he was a manipulator or hypocrite for abjuring his Protestant religion — is without foundation. His subsequent efforts in encouraging nobles to return to Catholicism speaks to his sincerity. He crafted the Edict of Nantes to establish a provisional compromise, so as to put an end to bloodshed, but without giving up the principle of Catholic primacy in the long run.

Other stuff: Who were the Protestants?

Holt’s book is full of interesting information, and he starts at the beginning, in the year 1516, not 1562, to provide all the background that led up to the wars. The chambre ardente (“fire chambers”) that sent Protestants to be burned at the stake (during the reigns of Francis I and Henry II in the 1540s) is a particularly colorful account, with solid data as to the numbers of victims burned vs. those who received lighter punishments.

But who were the French Protestants to begin with? In what regions did they especially grow at the start of the 16th century, and why? When they reached their high point between 1560-1570, there were about 1200 Protestant churches in France, for a total of maybe 1,800,000 members, or roughly 10% of the population. They weren’t evenly distributed throughout the kingdom. There were a significant number north of the Loire, especially in Normandy, but most of them spanned the southern arc, from La Rochelle, down to Bordeaux and Toulouse, then over to Montpelier, and up to Lyon. This crescent of strength in Guyenne (Acquitaine/Midi Pyrenees), Languedoc, Provence, and Dauphine (Rhone-Alpes) — often broadly called the region of the Midi — was where most of the Huguenots were. (Click on the map to the left. The red and pink areas are the Protestant heavy areas.) But they never achieved more than 10% of the total population.

Protestants were especially absent in Auvergne, Burgundy, Champagne, Picardy, and Brittany — another arc which is all over the place. So obviously geography, or proximity to Geneva, had nothing to do with it. Burgundy was very close to Calvinist Geneva, yet it remained hard-core Catholic. Towns with printing presses also had nothing to do with it, despite what we often hear. With the exception of Lyon, most of the printing industry was in the north, not the south, and the hotbed of Protestantism was in the south.

Holt argues that the social geography of French Protestantism hinged more on local factors and traditions than any mono-causal determinant like language, literacy, social class, or proximity to Geneva.

For example, in Languedoc, regional autonomy seemed to play the key role. Languedoc was one of the pays d’etats provinces that had the right to convoke provincial estates to assist the crown in assessment and collection of royal taxes. (Burgundy, Brittany, Dauphine, and Provence were the other pays d’etats.) In Languedoc, the estates were in the game of expropriating church land and clerical wealth to help meet the fiscal demands of the crown. Thus, the autonomous struggle with the crown for lower taxes and fewer fiscal demands became linked to Protestantism when local bourgeois saw their survival and that of the new religion having common cause.

In the pays d’etat of Burgundy, on the other hand, the opposite happened. In that province the provincial estates, the Parlement of Dijon, and the city councils all came to perceive their regional identity as tied to the Catholic church. Burgundian economy thrived on the wine industry, and many of the lands with vineyards were owned by, or had ties to, local cathedrals, abbeys, and monasteries. The fruits of these labors were chosen by God to become Christ’s blood, and so in Burgundy’s case, unlike Languedoc’s, the regional autonomy became linked to Catholicism.

Scholars have nonetheless persisted in seeing social class as the determinant factor, parroting Henry II’s disdain for Protestant “low-life rabble” as if it were actual fact. The real fact is that in its initial stages, French Protestantism was largely an urban movement of the educated and literate.

As Holt points out, certain trades seemed to have attracted disproportionate numbers of Protestant converts: printers, booksellers, painters, jewelers, goldsmiths, manufacturers of silk cloths. In other words, trades in which literacy was an essential skill, or involved new technology or a certain amount of prestige. Meanwhile, very few were converted from the unskilled classes (butchers, bakers, vinters, weavers, etc.) Well-educated and high-status artisans were — at least initially — over-represented in the Protestant movements of cities like Rouen, Montpelier, and Lyon.

But here again, there were exceptions. In a city like Amiens (in Picardy), Protestantism was not a movement of self-assertive and literate middle classes, but rather, indeed, of the frustrated, exploited, and economically oppressed. In Amiens the bedrock of Protestantism was the city’s textile workers (especially the wool-combers and weavers), whose lives were controlled by cloth merchants. Their position was precarious, unlike the prosperous print workers in Lyon or merchants and artisans of Rouen. The reason is that Amiens was a textile center where the bulk of all artisans worked in the textile trades. Due to the size and importance of their profession to the local economy, authorities didn’t allow them to follow the normal path of corporate organization and control practiced by other craftsmen in the city. In other words, textile workers in Amiens didn’t enjoy the autonomy to regulate themselves, and so they appeared to have sought for such an identity in the reformed religion of Protestantism.

In sum, people became attracted to the Protestant movement and its doctrines based largely on provincial factors.


Holt’s book is fantastic and an essential reading for the French wars of religion. And as a post-script, he does not stop the story where most historians do, at 1598. That’s admittedly a convenient cut-off date, but there was more fighting between Catholics and Protestants that went on until 1629.

More importantly: to end the story at 1598 fuels the misleading perception that the Edict of Nantes was intended to establish a permanent settlement of co-existence between Catholics and Protestants, with significant religious toleration on both sides. To reiterate, Henry IV wasn’t so modern-thinking as that, and his intentions with the edict were actually quite the opposite. Ridding the kingdom of heresy was far more important than “playing fair ball”. The edict was a temporary settlement. The king, per his Gallican mandate, sincerely hoped that more Huguenots could be persuaded to abjure the Protestant faith, just as he had. That may not make Henry IV the most relevant hero for our time, but it makes him a very realistic hero in the 16th century.

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