WARS OF RELIGION
The first religious war was provoked by the Massacre at Vassy in ’62. The Duc de Guise, traveling to his estates, stopped in Vassy on a Sunday and decided to hear Mass. A few of his servants got into a scuffle with some Huguenots who were attending a service in a nearby building, and the whole thing escalated until the Guise faction had fired on the unarmed Huguenots, set the church on fire, and killed a number of the congregation.
The national synod for the reformed church met in Paris and appealed to the Prince de Condé to become the “Protector of the Churches.” He, his clients, and their respective client networks took on the task and, from this point, the leadership of the Huguenots moves away from the pastors towards the noble “protectors” and takes on a more militant tone. Condé mobilizes his forces quickly and moves decisively to capture strategic towns along the waterways, highways, and crossroads of France. He takes a string of towns along the Loire and makes his headquarters at Orléans. He also contracts with Protestant leaders of Germany and England for troops and money.
The royal forces are slower to respond, as the permanent garrisons are located along the Habsburg frontiers. Catherine de’ Medici was forced to turn to the Guise faction to deal with this alarming development. The Guise in turn sought help from the Pope and Phillip II of Spain. The Protestants were well dug-in in their garrisons, and the siege efforts to recapture the towns were long and costly. Only one open pitched battle was fought: that at Dreux which was a Catholic victory. At it, the Protestants captured Montmorency, the Catholics captured Condé. The young Admiral de Coligny managed to safely withdraw most of the Protestant forces to Orléans, which was then besieged during the winter of ’62-’63.
At Orléans, the Duc de Guise was killed by an assassin. Antoine de Bourbon had been previously killed at the siege of Rouen, and this last casualty pretty much eliminated the first generation of Catholic leadership. With the Huguenot heartland in the south virtually untouched and the royal treasury hemorrhaging, the crown’s position was weak and Catherine bent her efforts towards a settlement. The noble prisoners were exchanged, and the edict of Amboise issued in March 1563. This restricted Protestant freedoms somewhat, allowing worship outside the walls of only one town per bailliage, although the nobility still had the freedom to do as they would on their estates. This increased the resentment and tension in the towns and was generally unsatisfying to most.
Even though the Duc de Guise had died, the Guise faction remained powerful and the Cardinal de Lorraine consolidated his power even more. He argued for more vigorous suppression of the Huguenots in response to Protestant insurrection in the neighboring Low Countries, where outbreaks of iconoclasm were met with fierce repression by Spain. Catherine began a two-year tour of the provinces with her son Charles IX, as part of an effort to establish a sense of unity with the nobility. During this time, she passed through Bayonne and met with the Duke of Alva, the King of Spain’s “hard man” in the subjugation of the Netherlands.
This spread a ripple of alarm through the Protestant community. When the Spanish marched troops along the “Spanish Road” from Italy to Flanders, their presence on the eastern borders of the kingdom added to the panic. The rumor that Catherine was plotting with Spain to exterminate them caused the Huguenots to attempt a coup at Meaux, to seize the person of the king and get him away from the Guises. This plan failed, and provoked the second war. This was much a repeat of the first. At the end of it, Montmorency was dead, the crown was more in debt, and the Peace of Longjumeau was a pretty much the same as the Peace of Amboise.
It was destined to be short-lived. The Cardinal de Lorraine hatched a plot to overturn the peace and capture Condé and Coligny. They escaped to La Rochelle and raised another army to begin the third war. Condé and Coligny made an alliance with William of Orange in the Netherlands, who was fighting for the independence of the United Provinces from Spain. The Guise became ever more closely involved with Spain. The Cardinal de Guise also saw in Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, a tool for unseating Elizabeth and putting a Catholic monarch on that throne as well. (As long as Elizabeth was childless, Mary was next heir to England.) The third war therefore involved an even larger number of foreign interests, and lasted from ’68 to ’70.
The Protestant strategy this time was to fortify the Southwest and stand off the crown. This was reasonably successful for a fairly long time. However, at Jarnac, under the nominal leadership of the king’s younger brother, Henri d’Anjou, the Protestants suffered a great defeat and the Prince de Condé was killed. Coligny met the Catholics at Moncoutour and suffered another defeat. However, he collected his forces and made a brilliant “long march” across the south of France, defeating the royal army on at least one occasion and depriving the crown of their chance to break the Protestant hold on the South.
The cost of keeping the army in the field was weighing on the crown again, and yet another peace was negotiated at St. Germain. This peace was more favorable to the Protestants than the previous, naming specific towns as secure strongholds, returning confiscated property to Huguenots, and guaranteeing some equality before the law. This third war was more protracted, and brought the war to the rural areas in central and southern France, spreading the suffering to the population and raising the cultural tensions between Catholics and Protestants.
The fourth war was set off when the city of La Rochelle, the de facto capital of the Protestants, refused to pay taxes to the king because of the massacre and refused admittance to the royal governor. The king declared war on the town in November ’72 and finally got an army to besiege it in February. The army was nominally led by Henri d’Anjou, and included Henri de Navarre as a hostage. Being a port city that was easily supplied by sea, with a near-impregnable harbor, La Rochelle was not easily reduced. There were high casualties on both sides, and the royal treasury began to feel the strain. The siege was called off in May, as Catherine began to prepare for the election of the Duc d’Anjou to the throne of Poland. The Treaty of La Rochelle was disadvantageous to the Protestants, and left them certain to break it when they were strong enough.
In 1574, Charles IX died, sweating blood and reputedly tormented with guilt for the massacre. His brother, Henri, now installed as king of Poland, lost no time giving the slip to his Polish courtiers and heading for the border. He took a leisurely tour of Italy and then arrived in France to take up the crown. The people remembered him as the “young eagle” of Jarnac and Moncontour, and were looking to him to take a strong hand and settle things down in the kingdom. This was not to be. Henri III’s reign was tormented by the impossibility of peace.
Meanwhile, Condé was raising money, troops, and support from the German princes, particularly Jan Casimir, the son of Frederick III of the Palatine. Henri de Montmonrency, the Sieur de Damville, Governor of Languedoc, who ruled his region as like an “uncrowned king of the south,” brought another substantial army to the Protestant side. Although he himself was Catholic, the Languedoc was a heavily Protestant region and he was related to the Coligny brothers. In February 1576, Navarre escaped from the court and headed into his own territory, raising an army behind him. The king’s younger brother, the Duc d’Alençon, the last of the Valois sons, began to play to the anti-royalist factions. His propagandists put out manifestos portraying him as alternative ruler to the current king, one able to speak up for the rights of the people and rule more justly — cutting taxes all the while, of course.
This was a potent alliance, one for which Catherine had no good counter at the time. When 20,000 troops invaded France under Jan Casimir in the spring of ’76 and these various armies collected themselves together in the heart of France within striking distance of Paris, the crown was forced to negotiate. The Edict of Beaulieu, otherwise known as the Peace of Monsieur (“Monsieur” being the traditional title for the reigning king’s next-oldest brother) was signed in May and was very favorable to the Protestants. In separate private agreements, the leaders got substantial settlements: Navarre was confirmed as Governor of Guyenne, Condé was made Governor of Picardy, Alençon was made Duc d’Anjou and given a raft of titles, and the crown agreed to pay the bills for Jan Casimir’s mercenaries. It left Henri III smarting. The Parliament of Paris refused to register it, and some of the towns ceded to the Protestants refused to admit their troops. Picardy, for example, refused to admit Condé to his capital.
In the spring of 1576, convocation of the Estates General was held. The Protestants had been pushing for this for some time, but when it came, there were almost no Protestant delegates. The Estates advocated establishing one religion in the realm, and Henri III demanded new taxes and revenues in order to finance such a project. The Estates somehow wanted this to be done without spending any money. The cost of the wars was driving up the national debt beyond the level of endurance, and it made staunch absolutists like Jean Bodin (whose Six Books of the Commonwealth was published in 1576) question the value of enforcing the royal prerogatives at such costs.
This year saw the formation of the first attempt at a Catholic League to oppose the Protestants if the king would not. To co-opt this threat to his authority, Henri III declared himself the head of it. However, somehow a royal force was put together to take back some of the Protestant towns along the Loire. La Charité fell in May of 1577, but the bulk of the Protestant forces were at large in the South and there was no hope of a victory over them. The Peace of Bergerac was signed in July. It was more restrictive in allowing places of worship to the Protestants than the previous peace, but was still largely the same. It disallowed any leagues and associations, trying to fend off the growing movement from the Catholic right wing.
This was a brief flurry of activity, the most notable of which was Henri de Navarre’s seizure of the city of Cahors. Sometimes called “The Lovers War”, it seems to have been some kind of maneuvering between Navarre and the crown in which Queen Margot was involved. It didn’t last long, and Navarre and Catherine de Medici signed the Treaty of Nerac, followed by the Peace of Fleix. Henri consolidated his control of the Southwest and bided his time. The Duc d’Anjou spent these years (1580-1584) intriguing and trying to acquire the sovereignty of the Netherlands, who were seeking a prince to replace Phillip II, the king of Spain against whom they were in rebellion. Although not a Protestant himself, or even truly sympathetic to them, this seemed his best opportunity for a place in the world until his older brother died. When Anjou died in ’84, it precipitated a new crisis. King Henri III was childless and looked to remain so. With the death of Anjou the heir presumptive became a Protestant: Henri de Navarre.
Christian Renewal Ministries
Greater Europe Mission
www.lepg.org (see www.lepg.org/biblio.htm for references)
paper presented by Sebastien Fath at the Association for Sociology of Religion in 2003 – (http://hirr.hartsem.edu/sociology/fath.html)