French Wars of Religion between 1540 and 1600 Part I

The Battle of Dreux, March 1590, engraving by Franz Hogenberg (1535-1590). France, 16th century.
Francis I, Duke of Guise taking the Prince of Conde as his prisoner, December 19, 1562, engraving by Franz Hogenberg (1535-1590). France, 16th century.

The unexpected death of Henry II in 1559 ushered in thirty-five years of royal weakness and internal strife. Henry’s immediate successor, the teenaged Francis II, reigned for barely a year; he was succeeded by Henry’s second son, the 10-year-old Charles IX. Henry’s widowed queen, the shrewd and capable Florentine princess Catherine de’ Medici, picked up the pieces and served as regent. She would continue to be a force at court long after Charles, an uninspiring and mentally suspect man, reached his majority Catherine eventually rallied the royal cause in the name of her sons – three would rule France – but in the meantime a few crucial years had been lost to dynastic flux and confusion. France descended towards a complicated, many-sided civil war.

The French crisis was in part purely political, as the most prominent and ambitious noble families of the realm jockeyed both with each other, and with the crown, for position and power. This competition would only intensify as it became clear that Catherine’s three sons, the last Valois kings of France, would remain without legitimate issue. The struggle in France was also, of course, about religion. Calvinism had found many converts, particularly in the south and west, and also within some of the greatest noble houses. Faith and family therefore determined the factions. The most powerful Catholic party was that of the Guise; their rival-allies included the Montmorency Several clans shared – and squabbled over – leadership of the French Protestants, or Huguenots. Among these men were Gaspard de Coligny and the Bourbon princes of Conde. The Valois remained staunchly Catholic, but Catherine de’ Medici was profoundly – and correctly – suspicious of the Guise. She also rightly concluded that her own family had the most to lose by civil war, and so Catherine was often, but not always, one of the foremost promoters of settlement and peace. In January of 1562 she promoted a royal edict that granted Huguenots the right to worship openly.

Toleration proved no solution to the French crisis, as a particularly provocative act of violence forced a civil war. On 1 March 1562 the armed entourage of the Duke of Guise massacred a Huguenot congregation discovered holding a service – now perfectly legal – in a barn outside the small town of Vassy. In response the Protestants of France rose in arms, and committed their own excesses: in late April, Lyons was pillaged with exceptional ferocity Indeed, atrocity and counter-atrocity would be the steady, brutal pattern of the wars to come.

First War of Religion, (1562–1563)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Catholics vs. Huguenots (with English aid) in France

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): France

DECLARATION: None

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Huguenots sought religious freedom.

OUTCOME: A degree of tolerance was granted to the Huguenots.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Catholics, 23,000; Huguenots, 15,000 (including 3,000 English troops)

CASUALTIES: Military losses were about 4,000 killed on each side; Huguenot civilian losses were about 3,000 killed.

TREATIES: Peace of Amboise (March 1563)

On March 1, 1562, supporters of the Catholic duke François de Guise (1519–63) killed a congregation of Protestants at Vassy. This massacre was instigated by the granting of limited toleration to the Protestants by Catherine de’ Medici (1519–85), the queen mother who took control of the throne at the death of King Francis II (1544– 60). The Catholics, under François de Guise, the Constable de Montmorency (Anne, duc de Montmorency; 1493– 1567), and Prince Antoine de Bourbon (1518–62), king of Navarre, and the Protestants, under Louis I de Bourbon, prince of Condé (1530–69), and Comte Gaspard de Coligny (1519–72), admiral of France, were soon pitted against each other in a battle known as the First War of Religion. Louis de Condé and Gaspard de Coligny ordered the Huguenots to seize Orléans to retaliate for the Vassy massacre and called on all Protestants in France to rebel. In September 1562, the English sent John Dudley (fl. 16th century) of Warwick to help the Huguenots, and his force captured Le Havre. About one month later, the Catholics defeated Rouen, a Protestant stronghold. One of the leaders of the Catholic movement, Antoine de Bourbon, was killed during the attack. The Huguenots continued to rise in rebellion, and in December 15,000 Protestants under Condé and Coligny marched north to join the English troops at Le Havre. En route, they encountered about 19,000 Catholics at Dreux. The Catholics under Guise were victorious, but one of their leaders, Montmorency, was captured, as was the Protestant leader Condé. On February 18, 1563, Guise was killed while besieging Orléans. Peace was finally secured in March when Montmorency and Condé, both prisoners since the Battle of Dreux, negotiated a settlement at the request of Queen Catherine. The Peace of Amboise stipulated a degree of tolerance. The opposing sides then combined forces to push the English from Le Havre, which fell on July 28, 1563. 

Further reading: R. J. Knecht, The French Civil Wars, 1562–1598 (New York: Pearson Education, 2000); R. J. Knecht and Mabel Segun, French Wars of Religion (New York: Addison-Wesley Longman, 1996).

Second War of Religion, (1567–1568)

The interrelated struggles in France and the Low Countries ended with the defeat of Philip II, both in his attempt to suppress the Dutch Revolt and in his aim to prevent the accession of Henry IV in France. Spain, however, displayed its military power, not only in its successful re-conquest of the southern half of the Low Countries, but also in its ability to affect the course of the bitter civil conflict in France.

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Catholics vs. Huguenots in France

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): France

DECLARATION: None

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Huguenots sought religious freedom.

OUTCOME: A degree of tolerance was granted to the Huguenots.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: 16,000 French (Catholics); 3,500 Huguenots

CASUALTIES: Numbers unknown, but heavy on both sides

TREATIES: Peace of Longjumeau (March 1568)

The Peace of Amboise (July 28, 1563), which stipulated a greater degree of tolerance between the Catholics and the Huguenots in France, ended the First WAR OF RELIGION. However, peace lasted only four years. On September 29, 1567, the Huguenots under Louis de Bourbon, prince de Condé (1530–69), and Comte Gaspard de Coligny (1519–72) tried to capture the royal family at Meaux. Although they were unsuccessful, other Protestant bands threatened Paris and captured Orléans, Auxerre, Vienne, Valence, Nîmes, Montpellier, and Montaubon. At the Battle of St. Denis, a force of 16,000 men under Constable de Montmorency (Anne, duc de Montmorency; 1493–1567), attacked Condé’s small army of 3,500. Despite the long odds, the Huguenots managed to remain on the field for several hours. Montmorency, aged 74, was killed during the fray. This war ended on March 23, 1568, with the Peace of Longjumeau by which the Huguenots gained substantial concessions from Queen Catherine de’ Medici (1519–85).

Third War of Religion, (1568–1570)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Catholics vs. Huguenots in France

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): France

DECLARATION: None

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Huguenots sought religious freedom.

OUTCOME: A degree of tolerance was granted to the Huguenots.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS:

Catholics, 18,000; Huguenots, 16,500

CASUALTIES: Catholics, 1,000 killed or wounded;

Huguenots, 8,400 killed or wounded

TREATIES: Peace of St. Germain, August 8, 1570

The Third War of Religion broke out on August 18, 1568, when Catholics attempted to capture Louis de Bourbon, prince de Condé (1530–69), and Comte Gaspard de Coligny (1519–72), the primary Protestant leaders. The Royalist Catholics continued to suppress Protestantism. Sporadic fighting occurred throughout the Loire Valley for the remainder of 1568. In March 1569, the Royalists under Marshal Gaspard de Tavannes (1509–73) engaged in battle with Condé’s forces in the region between Angoulême and Cognac. Later in March, Tavanne crossed the Charente River near Châteauneuf and soundly defeated the Huguenots at the Battle of Jarmac. Although Condé was captured and murdered, Coligny managed to withdraw a portion of the Protestant army in good order. About three months later, help for the Huguenots arrived in the form of 13,000 German Protestant reinforcements. This enlarged force laid siege to Poitiers. Then on August 24, 1569, Coligny sent Comte Gabriel de Montgomery (c. 1530–74) to Orthez, where he repulsed a Royalist invasion of French held Navarre and defeated Catholic forces arranged against him. Royalist marshal Tavanne then relieved Poitiers and forced Coligny to raise the siege. The major battle of the Third War of Religion occurred on October 3, 1569, at Moncontour. The Royalists, aided by a force of Swiss sympathizers, forced the Huguenot cavalry off the field and then crushed the Huguenot infantry. The Huguenots lost about 8,000, whereas Royalist losses numbered about 1,000. The following year, however, Coligny marched his Huguenot forces through central France from April through June and began threatening Paris. These actions forced the Peace of St. Germain, which granted many religious freedoms to the Protestants.

Religion, Fourth War of (1572–1573)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Catholics vs. Huguenots in France

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): France

DECLARATION: None

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Huguenots sought religious freedom.

OUTCOME: A degree of tolerance was granted to the Huguenots, and a group of moderate Catholics formed a new political party known as the Politiques.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS:

Unknown

CASUALTIES: Unknown

TREATIES: None

A massacre of 3,000 Protestants and their leader Louis de Bourbon, prince of Condé (1530–69), precipitated the outbreak of the Fourth War of Religion between Catholics and Protestants in France. After the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve in Paris, August 24, 1572, Prince Henry IV of Navarre (1553–1610) took charge of the Protestant forces. Marked primarily by a long siege of La Rochelle by Royalist forces under another Prince Henry, the younger brother of Charles IX (1550–74), this Fourth War of Religion resulted in the Protestants’ gaining military control over most of southwest France. However, at least 3,000 more Huguenots were massacred in the provinces before the war ended.

The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre outraged even Catholic moderates, who, seeking to counter the extremes of the Catholic Royalists, formed a new political party, the Politiques, to negotiate with the Protestants and establish peace and national unity.

Religion, Fifth War of (1575–1576)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Catholics vs. Huguenots in France

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): France

DECLARATION: None

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Henry, duc de Guise; and his Royalist faction wanted to take the French throne away from Henry III, who was more tolerant of religious differences than they.

OUTCOME: The Royalist Catholics under Henry, duke de Guise, formed a Holy League with King Philip of Spain to secure the French throne for the Catholics.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Unknown

CASUALTIES: Unknown

TREATIES: Peace of Mousieur, May 5, 1576

Protestants and Catholics in France had been fighting sporadically since 1562 in the First War of RELIGION, the Second War of RELIGION, the Third War of RELIGION, and the Fourth War of RELIGION when violence again erupted in 1575. In the most important action of this war, Henry, duc de Guise (1555–88), led the Catholic Royalists to victory at the Battle of Dormans. Aligned against Guise, however, were not only the Protestants under Henry IV of Navarre (1553–1610) but also the Politiques, moderate Catholics who wanted the king to make peace with the Protestants and restore national unity. Henry III (1551–89) was not wholeheartedly in support of Guise, and he offered pledges of more religious freedom to the Protestants at the Peace of Mousieur, signed on May 5, 1576. Guise refused to accept the terms of the peace and began negotiating with Philip II (1527–98) of Spain to organize a Holy League and secure Spain’s help in capturing the French thro ne.

Sixth and Seventh Wars of Religion, (1576–1577, 1580)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Catholics vs. Huguenots in France

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): France

DECLARATION: None

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Huguenots sought religious freedom.

OUTCOME: After subduing the Protestants, Henry III wavered in his determination to carry out the terms of the Peace of Bergerac.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Unknown

CASUALTIES: Unknown

TREATIES: Peace of Bergerac (1577)

The Sixth War of Religion between the Catholics and Protestants in France included only one campaign and was settled by the Peace of Bergerac of 1577. During this period, Henry III (1551–89) tried to persuade the Holy League, formed in 1576 by Catholic leader Henry, duke de Guise (1555–88), and Philip II (1527–98) of Spain, to support an attack on the Protestants. Henry succeeded in subduing the Protestants but wavered in his determination to carry out the terms of the Peace of Bergerac.

The Seventh War of Religion in 1580, also known as the “Lovers’ War,” had little to do with hostilities between the Catholics and Protestants. Instead fighting was instigated by the actions of Margaret, the promiscuous wife of Henry IV of Navarre (1553–1610). Over the next five years, Catholics, Protestants, and the moderate Politiques all engaged in intrigue in their attempts to name a successor to the childless Henry III. Although Henry of Navarre was next in line by direct heredity, the Holy League maneuvered to ensure that Henry, duc de Guise, would gain the throne after the reign of Charles de Bourbon (1566–1612), proposed as the successor to Henry III.

Eighth War of Religion, (1585–1589)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Catholics vs. Huguenots in France

PRINCIPAL THEATER(S): France

DECLARATION: None

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: The Catholic Royalists in France wanted to ensure that one of their numbers would be named successor to the childless Henry III.

OUTCOME: King Henry named the Protestant leader Henry of Navarre as his successor.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Catholics, 8,700+; Huguenots, 6,500

CASUALTIES: Catholics, 3,400 killed; Huguenots, 200 killed

TREATIES: None

The Eighth War of Religion, also known as the “War of the Three Henrys,” pitted the Royalist Henry III (1551–89), Henry of Navarre (1553–1610), and Henry de Guise (1555–88) against each other in a struggle over succession to the French throne. The war began when Henry III withdrew many of the concessions he had granted to the Protestants during his reign. At the Battle of Coutras on October 20, 1587, the army of Henry of Navarre, 1,500 cavalry and 5,000 infantry, smashed the Royalist cavalry—1,700 lancers—and 7,000 infantry. More than 3,000 Royalists were killed; Protestant deaths totaled 200. Especially effective against the Royalist was the massed fire of the Protestant arquebuses, primitive muskets.

Despite the Protestant victory at Coutras, the Catholics under Henry of Guise prevailed at Vimoy and Auneau and checked the advance of a German army marching into the Loire Valley to aid to Protestants. Henry’s next victory was in Paris, where he forced the king to capitulate in May 1588. In subsequent intrigues, Henry de Guise and his brother Cardinal Louis I de Guise (1527–78) were assassinated. Fleeing the Catholics’ rage over the murders, Henry III sought refuge with Protestant leader Henry of Navarre. The king failed to find permanent safety and was assassinated, stabbed to death, by a Catholic monk on August 2, 1589. On his deathbed, the king named Henry of Navarre his successor. The Catholics refused to acknowledge him king, insisting instead that Cardinal Charles de Bourbon (1566–1612) was the rightful ruler of France. This conflict sparked the NINTH WAR OF RELIGION.

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