The French Wars of Religion in Brief
It is fascinating to study countries’ histories and wonder why one country dealt with the burgeoning spirit of Protestantism in one way while another country, not so far away, had a completely different approach. For instance, England early became known as a Protestant country, yet despite the still-large number of Catholics there were no religious wars. Spain refused to allow Protestantism in any way, shape, or form, and so never found itself involved in religious wars. Yet France, with both Protestants and Catholics in large numbers, was the scene of violent religious confrontation that lasted for decades.
There were eight French Wars of Religion in all. The first, beginning in 1562, was unquestionably unavoidable, as the Huguenots had already borne various atrocities since the Protestant faith had spread into France. The church burning at Vassy in March 1562, where Huguenot faithful were burned alive during services by the Duke of Guise’s troops, was the spark that finally combusted into a blazing fire. The siege of Rouen and the Battle of Dreux were particularly harsh engagements.
Huguenots enjoyed a wary peace until 1567, when the second war began. The subsequent Battle of Saint-Denis led to the Peace of Longjumeau in 1568, but by this time it seemed there was no end to hostilities in sight. This was proven in 1568 when a third war exploded. Huguenots and Catholics of France took no interest in Christian charity . . . their differences were irreconcilable. One of the Huguenots’ main concerns was defending La Rochelle, which by this time had become known as a Huguenot stronghold.
|A scene from the siege of La Rochelle, 1572 / 1573|
If French Protestants believed there could be nothing worse than war, they were sadly mistaken. On August 24, 1572, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, in which thousands of Protestants were killed, erupted in Paris and quickly spread. Protestants across Europe were horrified at the scope of destruction. There could be no false sense of security now. None believed that such an atrocity could have been committed; I cannot even imagine how frightening it must have been to live in a country that they knew was capable of such bloodshed. There was nowhere Huguenots might run . . . except back to war.
The fourth war, understandably, began in 1572. During this time was the first such siege of La Rochelle where the city was used as a Huguenot stronghold. The 1573 Edict of Boulogne was bittersweet . . . it was only a slight consolation after so many lives had been lost. This edict gave three military towns to the French Protestants to do with as they wished. One of these was the beloved La Rochelle. Huguenots made good use of this town in later years. In 1574 the fifth war broke out. This war was not particularly notable, but it did lead to the sixth war in 1576.
The Catholic League, much feared by Protestant Europe, fought at every turn the concessions that had been given to the Huguenots by the Edict of Beaulieu. It was around this time that neighboring countries began to cast their lots with one side or the other, England giving aid to the Protestant Huguenots however it could, Spain helping the Catholic League. King Henri III reneged and took away many of the Huguenots’ rights due to political and religious pressure.
In 1579 the seventh war began. This was less of a “war” and more of an “each side with pitchforks prepared to duel to the death whenever the opportunity might arise.” The tension was tangible. France had been a tinderbox and soon would be again. Henri de Navarre, the Huguenots’ champion, was technically slated to rule France, but Catholic opposition firmly forbade the idea of a Calvinist king.
The “War of the Three Henrys,” which spanned from 1585 to 1598, was undoubtedly the most costly and probably the bloodiest engagement. This time there were no lukewarm treaties, no kings attempting to play both sides against each other or cosset either. The fighting raged on without end. In 1587 the Battle of Coutras was fought. In 1589, Henri III was killed by a monk, unexpectedly opening the way for Henri IV to step up and lift the Protestant banners high. The Battle of Ivry in 1590 is one of the most well-known of the Wars of Religion.
|A probably aggrandized view of Henri de Navarre at the Battle of Ivry, 1590|
Now, if one reads extensively on Henri de Navarre, one cannot help but admire him despite some of the more questionable things he doubtlessly engaged in (especially if one is a proud Protestant who roots for “their side” whenever possible!) but I was actually very disappointed that he converted to Catholicism in 1594. This grand Huguenot champion decided to renounce his faith so he might win the kingdom. If it was a sincere, heartfelt conversion that would be a different matter, but it is very clear that it was for political expedience.
How did the Wars of Religion finally end? The Edict of Nantes was passed in 1598 (see my post of April 17th). By this time, France was drenched in blood and weary of war. The divisions had opened so widely that the chasm could never be filled again, and Huguenots and Catholics cast wary eyes upon each other. The fighting was finally finished. Yet one cannot help but wonder at what cost.
Considering the many wars, sieges, massacres, homegrown squabbles, and state-run executions that transpired during the first few centuries of Protestantism, it is amazing that any of our ancestors survived at all. Even more amazing is that our faith survived . . . or perhaps not so amazing, as God has always been in control. It was only by the grace of God that the faith continually rose from the ashes. We must never forget what a proud legacy we bear.
(c) 2012 Joyously Saved