Ancient history

Wars of religion in France (1562-1598)

Last updated:2022-07-25

In summary, we call "Religious Wars » the long conflict which opposed Catholics and Protestants in France in the 16th century. Although there are traditionally eight Wars of Religion (from 1562 to 1598), these are more like a long and single conflict of thirty-five years. The battles, most often consisting of very long sieges, are few and rarely decisive; the exhaustion of the parties is the main motivation for peace treaties, in fact truces of a few months or years. On the other hand, the massacres, such as that of Saint Barthelemy , are perpetrated with constancy and with a savagery which has had few equals in the history of France. Henry IV puts an end to the Wars of Religion with the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes in 1598.

The context of the Wars of Religion

The first tensions and persecutions against those who adhere to his ideas; Luther's writings were condemned in France from 1521. This worsened during the years 1540-1550, with the repressive policy of Henry II, who created, for example, the Ardent Chamber for heresy trials. The sudden death of Henri II leaves the throne to François II for a short year, then to Charles IX in 1560.

François II can do nothing against the first demonstration of the future wars of religion, the conspiracy of Amboise, where he is nearly kidnapped by members of the Protestant party seeking to escape from the influence of the Guises. The repressions which follow announce the wars of religion, in spite of a relative lull at the end of his short reign and at the beginning of that of his brother. The country sees the royal power weak in the face of the influence of the regent Catherine de Medici, mother of young kings, and the rise of the various noble parties, whether Protestant or Catholic.

From the Wassy massacre to the peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye

The edict of Saint-Germain on January 17, 1562 is supposed to ease tensions and offer a sign of openness to Protestants, but it has the effect of infuriating the Catholic party! Thus, in March of the same year, soldiers of François de Guise massacred Protestants in the town of Wassy in Champagne, arguing that the latter had practiced Protestant worship in a prohibited place. This is the "official" start of the war, with the raising of his armies by Louis de Condé. The Protestant armies, despite some Catholic successes in the North, advanced rapidly and were not finally held back until December at the Battle of Dreux, thanks to the Duke of Guise (assassinated a little later, at the siege of Orléans).

In March 1563, Catherine de Medici imposes the peace of Amboise, taking up the main lines of the edict of January 1562, while limiting it. With Charles IX, who had reached his majority, she undertook a "tour of France" from January 1564 to May 1566 to appease conflicts by multiplying symbolic acts. The edict of Crémieu (1564) or the ordinance of Moulins (1566) were thus decreed, the latter officially proclaiming the reconciliation.

It was partly the international context that revived the conflict in France, when Philip II of Spain decided to crush the Calvinist revolt in the Netherlands; the Huguenots seem to have played a role in it, suspecting Charles IX of wanting to get closer to the Spanish sovereign. In September 1567, the men of Louis de Condé tried to kidnap the king near Meaux ("the surprise of Meaux"), but it was a failure. This was the start of the second war of religion, which nevertheless ended in March 1568 with the Peace of Longjumeau. The problem is still not solved...

Charles IX published in May 1568 the Ordinance of Saint-Maur which, to sum up, made the Protestants responsible for the failure of the negotiations:the war resumed, in particular in the Southwest, at the instigation of the Queen of Navarre, Jeanne d'Albret. The Catholic armies then won important victories, including one at Jarnac which saw the death of the Prince of Condé. Admiral de Coligny must finally withdraw to La Charité, remaining threatening throughout the Loire Valley. It was only the king's financial difficulties that again stopped the conflict, with the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye on August 8, 1570, which was rather favorable to Protestants.

St. Bartholomew

Obviously, the Catholic party was again unhappy, especially following Coligny's return to court at the end of 1571, where he tries to impose a policy hostile to Spain. The rapprochement between Charles IX and the Huguenots was confirmed with the marriage between Henri de Navarre, son of Jeanne d'Albret, and the king's sister, Marguerite de Valois on August 18, 1572. Four days later, Coligny fell victim to a attack, and it was in a white-hot Paris, as much by the hatred of the Huguenot as by the fear of reprisals on their part that the night of Saint Barthélemy broke out, on August 24, 1572.

In the capital alone, it claimed around 3,000 victims (over several days), of all sexes and ages, and even of all social conditions. The massacres had a "purifying" character, the Huguenots were disembowelled to extirpate the demon from their bodies... The violence spread over the following days to the rest of the country, and the cycle of war did not end until October, causing about 10,000 deaths.

The conflict is bogged down, the Wars of Religion continue

The direct consequences of this mass slaughter are the flight of Protestants from the kingdom, or a concealment or even a denial of their faith (the "refuge theory"). Thus, Henri de Condé and Henri de Navarre must abjure to save their lives. But this also provoked a radicalization of Protestants and the development of pamphleteer currents, already existing for the most part, but which exploded at this time:this is the case of the monarchomachs. The war continues, the wars even, but without real gain, concentrating around cities like La Rochelle and Sancerre.

In December 1573, the United Provinces of the South were set up, a sign of a real challenge to royal power with the creation of a "Huguenot State". In 1581, Henri de Navarre became its Governor General, gradually transforming this “Republic” into a princely system.

As early as 1574, the so-called "Malcontents" movement also appeared. Within the nobility, some suspect the king of wanting to exercise absolute power at their expense. This movement affects both Catholics and Protestants (including Henri de Condé and Henri de Navarre), and we thus see a Henri de Montmorency-Danville, Catholic, being recognized by the Protestants as governor of the Provinces of the South. The "Malcontents" were joined in 1574 by François d'Alençon, brother of Charles IX, who allied himself with the three Henris, leading to a new conflict. The latter is therefore both denominational and political, and it intervenes at the very moment of the death of Charles IX, who is succeeded by Henry III (in 1575). Peace was quickly signed at Beaulieu in May 1576.

Henry III and the Holy League

Once again, the most radical Catholics are offended by the clauses of the peace of Beaulieu, deemed too in favor of the Protestants. In 1576, a “Holy League” was founded in Péronne, in Picardy, with the aim of bringing about the repeal of the Beaulieu agreements. Other cities follow this example in the following years, throughout the kingdom. Logically, it was the Duke of Guise, then especially Henri III, who took the lead of this "Catholic League" when the war resumed. It was the victory of the royal armies at La Charité, which imposed the Peace of Bergerac and the cancellation of the Edict of Beaulieu, which was replaced by that of Poitiers, much less favorable to the Huguenots (October 8, 1577). In the following years, the conflict resumed sporadically, at a local level, but it nevertheless caused Condé to flee to Germany.

From the 1580s, the war resumed on a national scale, affecting the whole territory, and reaching its highest level of violence. It takes place in an eschatological atmosphere, the fervor of which touches even the king who enters a brotherhood of penitents, and introduces several of them into Paris. Henry III, with the help of his mother, also surrounded himself with competent men as fervent as himself, and reorganized the kingdom around the court and above all around himself. This personal power, but also the financial difficulties of the kingdom and the image of a sovereign isolated from the people, make him little by little unpopular.

The death of François d'Alençon in 1584 did not help matters; it makes Henry of Navarre the legitimate successor of Henry III on the throne! The Catholics react by creating a new League, seeing in the death of the heir a new sign of the coming of the Apocalypse. They decide to ally with Spain, behind Henry III's back.

New Leagues flourish again, especially in the cities, and uprisings follow one another during the year 1585; Henry III took over as head in July of the same year, pledging to eliminate the Huguenot cult from the kingdom, even if he was not really favorable to the Leaguers (many of whom were "Malcontents", rejecting absolute monarchy). The fighting resumed with the Huguenots, who obtained victories, such as that of Henri de Navarre at Coutras, October 20, 1587.

The League quickly tends to want to gain the upper hand over the king, who tries to disarm it in May 1588 during the day of the barricades; but it is a failure and Henri III must flee Paris! The king still manages to buy time and negotiate with the Leaguers, biding his time. After keeping a low profile for several months, he managed to have the leaders of the Holy League arrested and executed, including Henri de Guise (whose body was cut up and burned) on December 23 and 24, 1588, in Blois. However, the expected effect does not occur, on the contrary:the remnants of the League are radicalized against the king! Worse, in May 1589, the Pope excommunicated Henry III! Calls for regicide are increasing, the sovereign is now seen as the Antichrist...

The accession of Henry IV and the end of the wars of religion

The king, rejected on all sides, decides to turn to Henry of Navarre. In April 1589, the two men joined forces to march on Paris, still in the hands of the Ligueurs. For the latter, it is confirmation that the king is demonic:he is stabbed by the Dominican Jacques Clément in his camp at Saint-Cloud and dies of his wounds; he designates before dying Henri de Navarre as his successor.

This one takes advantage of the divisions between nobles and urban notables within the League to defeat them at Arques and Ivry, but he fails before Paris in 1590. He leaves to die in captivity his competitor to the throne, Charles de Bourbon, his uncle. Henry IV also failed to capture Rouen, still under the control of the Holy League, in 1591 and 1592.

However, the League saw its divisions deepen between on the one hand the most radical Catholics, ready to hand over the throne to Philip II, and on the other the partisans of Charles de Lorraine, Duke of Mayenne; the Holy Union split into two camps, part of which rallied to the king. The latter gradually appears as the symbol of a possible unity. For this, he knows he must convert to the Catholic faith:he abjures his Calvinist faith on July 25, 1593, is consecrated in Chartres (Reims being league) on February 24, 1594, and enters Paris the following month after tough negotiations.

The following years, Henry IV spent them subduing the last strongholds of the League, using both force and negotiation. He also had to face the offensive of the Spaniards, whom he succeeded in defeating and on whom he imposed the peace of Vervins, on May 2, 1598. A few weeks earlier, he had already sealed peace in his kingdom by the promulgation on May 13 April of the Edict of Nantes, which establishes freedom of worship and grants places of safety to the Huguenots. The religious civil wars are over in France.

Religious Wars Timeline

1560:Protestant conspiracy of Amboise. Execution of the plotters.

First War (1562-1563)

1562:Massacre of Wassy (March); the “triumvirate” (Guise, Saint-André, Montmorency) seizes Rouen (October).

1563:Death of Duke François de Guise at the siege of Orléans (February); Edict of Appeasement of Amboise (March).

Second war (1567-1568)

1568:Peace of Longjumeau (March).

Third War (1569-1570)

1569:Invasion of Béarn; victory of the Duke of Anjou and death of Condé at Jarnac (March); victory of the Duke of Anjou at Moncontour (October).

1570:Peace of Saint-Germain granting freedom of conscience and giving four strongholds to Protestants (August).

1572:St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (August 24).

Fourth War

Failure of the Duke of Anjou before La Rochelle (February-June); Treaty of La Rochelle, giving the city, Nîmes and Montauban to the Protestants (July).

Fifth War (1574-1576)

1575:Victory of the Duke of Guise (Le Balafré) at Dormans (October).

1576:Edict of Beaulieu (May) granting freedom of worship to Protestants, everywhere except Paris and eight places of safety; birth of the League (June).

Sixth War

Uprising of Henri de Navarre:the Duke of Anjou seizes La Charité (May); Peace of Bergerac (September), restricting the Edict of Beaulieu.

Seventh War (1579-1580)

1579 Peace of Nérac, giving fifteen seats to Protestants (February).

1584:Alliance of Guise and Philip II of Spain (Treaty of Joinville).

1585:Henry III joins forces with the League (July). Henry of Navarre, heir to the throne, is stripped of his rights (September).

Eighth War (1585-1598)

1587 Victory of Henri de Navarre at Coutras (October).

1588 Day of the barricades in Paris and escape of Henry III to Chartres (May); estates general in Blois (October); assassination of the Duke of Guise in Blois (December).

1589:Alliance of Henry III and Henry of Navarre (Plessis-lez-Tours, April); siege of Paris by the two Henris (July); assassination of Henry III (August); Victory of Henri IV at Arques (September).

1590 Victory of Henri IV at Ivry (March), but he cannot take Paris (May).

1593:Henry IV abjures Protestantism (July).

1594:Henry IV enters Paris.

1595:Victory of Henri IV over the Spaniards at Fontaine-Française (June); submission of the Duke of Mayenne Catholic pretender to the throne of France.

1598:Edict of Nantes (April); Peace of Vervins with the Spaniards (May).


- D. CROUZET, The warriors of God (violence in the time of religious troubles, around 1525-around 1610), Champ-Vallon, 2009 (1 era ed 1990).

- A. JOUANNA, J. BOUCHER, D. BILOGHI, G. LE THIEC, History and Dictionary of the Wars of Religion, Gallimard, 1998.

- W. KAISER (dir), Europe in conflict (religious confrontations and the genesis of modern Europe, around 1500-around 1650), Presses University of Rennes, 2008.