The French Wars of Religion (1562-1594)

In the following, only a general overview of France’s history in the second half of the 16th century will be given, as far as it seems necessary for the understanding of The Massacre at Paris.1

The Massacre at Paris akes place between 18 August 1572 and 2 August 1589. In the second half of the 16th century, the religious wars raged in France, in which even the parties involved did not always see through what was happening to whom and why. The only thing that was certain was that the further the conflicts progressed, the more obvious it became that faith played only a subordinate role. The period of the civil wars must not only be considered from a religious point of view, for it was also the time when the French nobility struggled to preserve its independence in the face of the incipient absolutist tendencies of the kingship. A struggle that only Louis XIV could finally decide in his favour.

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Henri II died on 10 July 1559. At that time, about 12 percent of the French were Huguenots.2 (In France, the Calvinists were called Huguenots). His successor François II was physically and mentally underdeveloped and not up to the tasks that lay ahead of him. A power vacuum arose, which leading aristocratic families wanted to use to their advantage. Louis de Condé, a prince du sang took over the leadership of the Huguenots, while the Catholics were increasingly represented by a new family. The House of Guise gained importance with the new king, for he was married to Mary Stuart, daughter of the late Scottish King James V and Marie de Guise. The first major conflict was already threatening to break out when François II died without any descendants. His brother Charles IX was still a minor, and instead of his nearest male relative – in this case Antoine de Bourbon, first prince du sange – his mother Caterina de' Medici took over the regency. She was both concerned to minimise the political importance of the noble families and to reconcile the confessions. The Edict of Saint-Germain was the first recognition of the Huguenots by the French crown. Unfortunately, this led straight to disaster. On 1 March 1562, a confrontation took place in Vassy between the Duke de Guise’s men and a larger group of Huguenots who had gathered for prayer. The exact course of events has never been fully clarified. In the end, many people died and the so-called "Massacre of Vassy" marked the beginning of the French Wars of Religion.

First War of Religion (1562-1563)

Condé called the Huguenots to arms after Vassy. Guise, instead of reporting to the court in Fontainebleau as ordered, allowed himself to be celebrated as a hero by the Catholic population in Paris before he also began to raise troops. Foreign countries were involved in the civil wars from the beginning. If only because France had no standing army, except for heavy cavalry on the borders, mercenaries had to be recruited. Even during the wars that followed, the factions were rarely able to pay their armies for more than two to three months. In February 1563, the Huguenot Jean de Poltrot shot the Duke de Guise, who was besieging Orléans. On 24 February the duke died, succumbing to the art of the doctors rather than his wounds. Gaspard de Coligny was suspected to have ordered the assassination – whether justifiably or not could never be established. In any case, this was the beginning of the feud between Guise and Coligny. With all the leaders either dead or captured, Caterina de' Medici urged peace. The Edict of Amboise, signed on 19 March, although unpopular with both confessions, had an effect.

Second War of Religion (1567-1568)

Troop movements on the Dutch-French border led the Huguenots to suspect that the king was allying with Spain against them. They wanted to forestall this and bring Charles XI under their control. When the king and his mother learned of this on 24 September 1567, they were only just able to flee to Meaux in order to reach Paris from there. This "Surprise of Meaux" not only marked the beginning of the Second Religious War, but also caused Caterina de' Medici to rethink her position. From now on she would no longer trust the Huguenots and never forgave them for attacking the king’s authority. On 23 March 1568, the Peace of Longjumeau was signed, but the fighting continued.

Third War of Religion (1568-1570)

Charles IX. had given the supreme command of the royal army to his brother Anjou. He was eager to demonstrate his military skills. The Huguenots withdrew to La Rochelle. On 13 March 1569 Condé was shot. Nominally, his son and Henri de Navarre were now the leaders of the Huguenots. In fact, this position was taken over by Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. Anjou achieved a triumphant victory at the Battle of Moncontour on 3 October, but the Catholics were unable to turn it to their advantage. Coligny, on the other hand, led a successful campaign that brought him ever closer to Paris. The peace treaty of Saint Germain-en-Laye on 8 August 1570 granted the Huguenots unprecedented concessions.
Caterina de' Medici wanted to seal the peace by marrying her daughter Marguerite to the Huguenot Henri de Navarre, the first prince du sange. The negotiations were difficult but successful. Catholics and Huguenots would attend the wedding. As before, the peace of Saint Germain-en-Laye did not mean that further conflicts would be avoided. There were constant violent attacks on both sides. But now, for the first time, all the authoritative men of both factions were to be in the same place at the same time with their entourages.

St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (23-24 August 1572)

Paris was one of the centres of the very conservative Catholics who, since July, had to watch as more and more Huguenots poured into the city. There was a terrible heat and the French capital was hopelessly overcrowded. It was in this tense atmosphere that the wedding between Marguerite and Henri de Navarre took place on 18 August 1572. On 22 August, Admiral Coligny was the victim of an assassination attempt on his way home, but he survived. Although Coligny urged moderation and Charles IX promised to ensure justice, increasing unrest arose among the Parisian population. On 23 August 1572 there were two or three informal meetings of the royal council, starting in the afternoon. At the first consultation, which took place in the garden of the Tuileries, Caterina de' Medici, Anjou, Maréchal Gaspard de Tavannes, Retz, Gonzague and René de Birague were present. The King is said to have joined them only at a night meeting in the Louvre. At this point, the Duke de Guise and the Duke de Montpensier may have joined them. Fear of a possible counterattack by the Huguenots spread at court. Today we know that such an undertaking was not planned, but the assumption was not to be dismissed out of hand. Instead of leaving Paris after the assassination, Coligny and his people had decided to stay. The admiral’s brother-in-law stood with 4,000 men outside of the capital, which was temporarily populated by numerous disgruntled Huguenots. It was decided not to let it come to that, and by the evening of 23 August Charles IX had been persuaded to agree to the killing of the leading Huguenots.3 Soon after, those in authority lost control altogether. The planned first strike turned into a massacre that lasted for days and affected the whole country, killing thousands.

François Dubois. Le massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy. 1584. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne. CC0

Fourth War of Religion (1572-1573)

The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre was not only the beginning of the next religious war, but caused a repositioning of the Huguenot leadership, which regrouped. Opposition to Catholicism became opposition to the Crown, which was obviously not interested in protecting its Huguenot subjects. The Catholic troops besieged some Huguenot towns when Anjou was elected King of Poland. The court urged peace, as Poland was considered a religiously tolerant country and they did not want to jeopardise Anjou’s election. On 13 July 1573, the Edict of Boulogne was signed. In December, Anjou left for Poland. On 30 May 1574 Charles IX died without legitimate descendants. In the meantime, a new group had emerged at the court. Henri de Montmorency-Damville was at the head of the "malcontents" (discontented). They consisted of members of long-established noble families, for whom it was not the Huguenots but the foreigners – namely the Italians – in the king’s entourage who were responsible for the constant feuds and bad governance. For the first time, confessions were disregarded here, for Damville’s group included Catholics as well as Huguenots. Back from Poland, Anjou was crowned Henri III on 13 February 1575.

Fifth War of Religion (1575-1576)

François-Hercule de Valois, Duke of Alençon, who was after all next in line to the throne, joined the "malcontents" and Henri de Navarre began to raise an army. Caterina de' Medici intervened, but all the trumps lay with Alençon. The Edict of Beaulieu of 6 May 1576 was also given the name "paix du Monsieur" (Peace of Monsieur). For the first time, the Huguenots were allowed to practise their religion freely throughout the country.
The Catholic population was horrified and resistance to the Edict of Beaulieu was immediately formed throughout the country. The Estates General arrived in Blois in mid-November. It soon became apparent that many Catholics were prepared to oppose the Edict of Beaulieu by force if necessary. Henri III got into trouble again because of this. Although he did not agree with the peace treaty, he had signed it. Now he could not allow Catholics throughout the country to rebel against a law of the king. On 2 December he made himself leader of the Catholic opposition. This left the monarch with no option but to break the peace treaty.

Sixth War of Religion (1576-1577)

Due to the developments in Blois, the Huguenots took up arms at the end of December 1576. Neither party had sufficient finances for a prolonged dispute, which led to the Treaty of Bergerac on 14 September 1577. Contrary to the previous peace agreement, this was given the name "Paix du Roy" (King’s Peace). The Edict of Poitiers, passed three days later, restricted the freedoms that had been guaranteed to the Huguenots in the Edict of Beaulieu, but represented a compromise that both sides could have lived with if they had wanted to.

Seventh War of Religion (1580)

Disputes over Marguerite de Valois' dowry, which had not been paid in full, caused military conflict between Henri de Navarre and the French crown in the spring of 1580. A lack of money on both sides led to the Treaty of Fleix on 26 November, which confirmed the Treaty of Bergerac.
On 10 June 1584, Alençon died childless in Château-Thierry. Consequently, the next French heir to the throne was the Huguenot king of Navarre. The Catholics joined forces in 1585 under the leadership of the Duke of Guise in the Catholic League and a third party in the civil war emerged. The king reacted by retreating to his chambers and had nothing to oppose Guise. The League achieved that Henri III excluded Navarre from the succession to the throne. The latter protested vehemently and received support from Damville, who by now saw a greater danger in Guise’s striving for power than in the spread of Calvinism.

Eighth War of Religion (1585-1594)

At the end of 1585, the "Guerre des trois Henris" (War of the Three Henrys) broke out. Despite military successes, such as the Battle of Coutras, of the Huguenots, the Duke of Guise retained the upper hand in France. On 12 May 1588, the "Day of the Barricades", the people of Paris rallied behind Guise, whereupon Henri III secretly left his capital. After the Duke of Guise and his brother Louis were assassinated on behalf of Henri III, the League gained even more support. As he could no longer do anything against his subjects on his own, the French king decided to form an alliance with Henri de Navarre. Together they marched on Paris. During the siege of the capital, the last king from the House of Valois was assassinated. Henri III as the first French ruler to die at the hands of one of his subjects.
Henri de Navarre was now de jure king of France, but few wanted to grant him that de facto. It took almost five more years for the majority of the French to recognise their new ruler.

Crawford, Katherine B. 2003. “Love, Sodomy, and Scandal: Controlling the Sexual Reputation of Henry III.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 12 (4): 513–42.
Holt, Mack P. 1995. The French Wars of Religion, 1562 – 1629. New Approaches to European History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Knecht, Robert Jean. 2000. The French Civil Wars: 1562 – 1598. Modern Wars in Perspective. Harlow: Longman.

  1. Unless otherwise noted, the following literature was used: Crawford (2003); Holt (1995); Knecht (2000)↩︎
  2. Knecht (2000)↩︎
  3. Holt (1995)↩︎

Aktualisiert am 18.01.2023

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