Tuesday, April 17, 2012

April 17, 2012

The Edict of Nantes

In my post of March 04, I spoke of the Edict of Fontainebleau (more commonly known as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes) and how, after this decree, life for the Huguenots in France became unbearable. So what exactly was the Edict of Nantes, and why was it passed if only to be revoked less than a century later?

Beginning in 1562, France became a hotbed of civil war. While Catholicism remained the only religion of Spain and England took on a more Protestant face, France was matched bitterly between both factions, resulting in various instances of bloodshed (such as the burning of a church full of Huguenot parishioners in Vassy) that brought about the First War of Religion. Fighting raged on and off for over three decades. By 1598, the French were weary of bloodshed.

It was ironic that Henry IV (Henri de Navarre) was the king of France who signed this particular Edict. He had bravely espoused the Huguenot cause in his younger days but, upon claiming the throne, found he could not reign if he held true to his Protestant convictions. He made the choice to convert to Catholicism so he might rule, perhaps in part so he might be an "inside contact" for his Huguenot brethren. Despite his conversion he remained tender-hearted toward the Huguenots so brutally persecuted. In 1598 he passed the Edict of Nantes.

France held her breath. Protestants, having been shunned for the first six decades or so of their existence, doubted if this new edict could save them and restore their rights, so they dearly hoped for recognition. Catholics dubiously looked upon the edict as giving the Huguenots too much leeway. As Henry IV had hoped, the wars did not pick up where they left off. Frenchmen turned warily, casting a distrustful eye to their neighbors. The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572 was still on everyone's mind. That event, which caused the death of thousands of Protestants, was the catalyst by which peace and agreement could never be found.

There were certain parts of the Edict of Nantes that could be considered highly favorable toward the Huguenots, while there were other parts in which the king delicately affirmed his newfound Catholicism just enough to appease pope and council. He asserted that the Catholic Church was the only "official" church of the French state but that Protestants practicing their faith earnestly and with no thought of civil disobedience might live and pray in peace.

Henry IV promised that any Huguenots visiting other countries would be sheltered from the far-reaching tendrils of the Inquisition. This olive-branch, this royal assurance that Protestant subjects would be protected from foreign evils, was a new concept and must have made the Huguenots finally feel some sense of worth and value. Not everyone was as pleased with the decree. "This crucifies me," were the words uttered by Clement VIII, the pope of the day. It made no difference that the Huguenots were still expected to show a certain amount of obeisance to Catholic feast days and to understand there were basic civil rights they must forego. In the eyes of their opponents, France's Protestants were dangerously close to freedom.

This unassuming parchment produced in April 1598 signified
life and freedom for the persecuted Protestants of France

The Edict of Nantes also granted the Huguenots certain towns where they might gather for protection, called "places of safety." If the Protestants were willing to pay, they might also be granted forts whereupon they could defend themselves if the need arose. It was easy to see that Henry, despite having joined the Catholic realm, still cared deeply for his former co-religionists and understood that no man should live in a constant state of fear and inequality. 

I remember reading extensively about Henry IV and being disappointed that he had abandoned his faith. Yet I realized that, in order for him to have the authority to publish an edict that could benefit the Huguenot populace, he had to belong to the Church that crowned kings. A Huguenot could have never come to such a high position in the sixteenth century. Thus his people would have been vulnerable and without protection. We cannot know exactly why Henry IV converted, whether it was simply to gain the kingdom of France, or due to sincere beliefs, or to help the Protestants by assuming authority in the only way that was possible at the time. Whatever his reason, the end result granted temporary peace to France's beleaguered Huguenots.

God has always worked in mysterious ways.

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

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