French Wars of Religion

Summary and Timeline of the Awful French Wars of Religion

When we think about France in the 16th century, the first thing that comes to our mind is the French Wars of Religion. Read on to know more...
The infamous French Wars of Religion were a series of wars that took place in France between 1562-1598 over a span of 36 years. They were mainly fought between the French Catholics and the French Protestants or Huguenots. The noble families of the House of Guise and the House of Bourbons were also involved. Historians are of the opinion that it was a proxy war between Queen Elizabeth I of England, a Protestant and King Philip II of Spain, a Catholic, as both of them are said to have contributed financially and militarily to these wars.

Causes Behind the Wars

The French monarchy became weak after the death of King Henry II in 1559. Some powerful noble families, who were ambitious, wanted to take advantage of this situation to gain more power. As a result, their interests clashed and conflicts began. Animosity between Catholics and Protestants was also on the rise. In this situation, Catholics were supported by the House of the Guise, while the House of Bourbons sympathized with the Protestants. Monarchy tried to intervene and reduce the tension between the warring factions and bring about religious toleration in France, but failed, as both the Catholics and the Huguenots were not ready to compromise.

The Incident That Led to the War

A group of Huguenots was attending a service of worship in the town of Vassy. In those days, attending a Reformed worship service in public was considered illegal in France. Francois, the 2nd Duke de Guise, who was close to the royal family, happened to visit the place of worship with some of his armed men. He first asked the worshipers to stop the prayer. But they refused to obey and continued. This angered the Duke, who along with his men started killing the unarmed Protestants. Louis de Bourbon, who was the leader of the Huguenots, ordered the Protestants to retaliate. This incident which came to be known as the 'Massacre at Vassy', which started a civil war that spread across the whole of France.

Timeline of the Wars

French Wars of Religion were inevitable when civil tolerance failed. It was mainly a series of nine wars that followed with an occasional pause in between.

First French War of Religion - (1562-1563)

The first war began on 1st March, 1562, after the bloodbath in Vassy. Duke de Guise was assassinated in this civil war. The war ended on 19th March, 1563, after signing of the Edict of Pacification at Amboise, but the provisions of this were later violated by the King, which led to subsequent wars.

Second French War of Religion - (1567-1568)

The highlight of this war was the Battle of St. Denis, which was fought between the Catholics (who were supported by the royalty) and the Protestants. This battle was won by the royal troops who outnumbered the Protestants. After that, several rounds of talks were held, before both parties could agree to sign a peace pact, the Edict of Longjumeau, and end this civil war.

Third French War of Religion - (1568-1570)

This war was triggered by an event which took place outside France. During this period Netherlands was under Spanish rule. When the King of Spain failed to enforce heresy laws, Dutch Protestants decided to revolt against him. This rebel group tied up with the French Protestants to strengthen their movement. The Catholics, on the other hand, teamed up with the King of Spain. The Protestants got the support of Queen Elizabeth I of England. However, they suffered a big setback in this war, as some of their prominent leaders were killed by the royal troops. The Edict of Pacification of St. Germain was signed at Saint-Germain for the ceasefire in 1570, which once again allowed some concessions to the Huguenots.

Fourth French War of Religion - (1572-1573)

This war was mainly confined to the southern and the western parts of France. These areas were Protestant stronghold and they refused to pay taxes to the royal governor. So the King declared war. Later, the King signed the Edict of Boulogne with the Protestants and called for a truce. But, the Protestants were unhappy with certain clauses of the treaty.

Fifth French War of Religion - (1574-1576)

An alliance was formed between the Protestants and the moderate Catholics that was called 'Malcontents'. They initiated a movement to demand political reforms in favor of tolerance towards Reformed worship. The King of France, Henry III, refused to accept their demands and a war broke out once again. This war ended with the signing of a peace treaty, the Edict of Beaulieu, that provided freedom of worship to Protestants all over the kingdom, except in and around Paris.

Sixth French War of Religion - (1576-1577)

Catholics vehemently opposed the Edict of Beaulieu and demanded its abolition. As a result, conflicts started all over again but could not last long, as both the parties were unable to gather financial aid. So they decided to compromise and signed the Edict of Poitiers in October 1577.

Seventh French War of Religion - (1579-1580)

This war was restricted to some local areas, wherein fighting continued in a scattered manner. The war came to an end with the signing of the Edict of Felix.

Eighth French War of Religion - (1584-1598)

In this phase (1584-1589), Henry III led the royal troops. This civil war was fought amongst the royalists, the Protestants, and the Leaguer forces. All the three parties were led by men whose names were Henry. So this war is better known as "The War of Three Henrys". The duration of this war was very long, and King Henry III was murdered during this war.

The second phase (1589-1598) is said to have begun, when Henry IV became the King following the death of Henry III. Henry IV was the legitimate heir to the throne. However, he faced strong opposition from his subjects, simply because he was a Protestant. In 1590, Henry IV besieged his capital Paris, defeating the League. But the siege was broken by the League with the help of Spanish support. Finally, in 1594, the King captured Paris and the Spanish troops had to march out. However, it was only in the year 1598 that the royal troops ousted all Spanish forces from France. Some historians consider this phase as the Ninth French War of Religion.

The End of the Wars

The bloody warfare that raged within the French kingdom for 36 long years officially got over in April 1598, with the signing of the peace agreement, Edict of Nantes. This treaty was more concrete as compared to all the other peace pacts that were signed previously. It conceded civil rights to the Protestants and granted them freedom to practice their own religion and also assured equal opportunities in education and public office, to both Catholics and Protestants.

Effect of the Wars

Every war causes irreparable damage to the entire framework of the society. These wars were no exception. The war had more than three million casualties. The cost of military operations was so high that the government was forced to raise taxes, which in turn weakened the economic infrastructure of the country. As a result, poverty became a major issue. Post-war, several people perished to death due to hunger or disease.

The French Wars of Religion, spanning more than three and a half decades, were one of the longest-running civil conflicts in world history. These wars illustrate how extreme hostility between two factions of a religion can destroy an entire generation.
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