Many causes combined to favor the introduction of the reformed doctrines into France. Owing to the anti-papal attitude adopted by the French theologians during the Great Western Schism, there was still lurking in many circles a strong feeling against the Holy See and in favor of a national Church, over which the Pope should retain merely a supremacy of honor. Besides, the influence of the old sects, the Albigenses and the Waldenses, had not disappeared entirely, and the principles of the French mystics favored the theory of religious individualism, that lay behind the whole teaching of the reformers. The Renaissance, too, was a power in France, more especially in Paris, where it could boast of powerful patrons such as Margaret of Navarre, sister of Francis I. and wife of the King of Navarre, the king's mistress, his favorite minister Du Bellay, and the latter's brother, the Bishop of Paris. Not all the French Humanists, however, were equally dangerous. A few of them were undoubtedly favorable to Luther's views, while many others, infuriated by the charges of unorthodoxy leveled against them, were inclined to look with complacency on whatever was condemned by their Scholastic opponents. The proximity of Strasburg, where Lutheran and Zwinglian doctrines found support, and the close relations existing between the Paris University and German scholars helped to disseminate among Frenchmen the writings of Erasmus, Luther, and Melanchthon and with them the new religious views.
Against the success of the Reformation in France was the fact that the people, Latin rather than Teuton in their sympathies, were thoroughly devoted to their religion and to the Holy See, that the bishops though nominated by the king according to the Concordat of 1516, were more zealous than their German brethren, that in the main Paris University, then the great centre of intellectual life in France, was thoroughly Catholic, and that the queen-mother, the chancellor of state, the leading ministers both lay and ecclesiastic, and the parliamentary authorities could be relied upon to offer Lutheranism their strongest opposition. Nor, however much Francis I. might be inclined to vacillate in the hope of securing the help of the German Protestant princes in his struggle with the empire, had he any desire to see his kingdom convulsed by the religious strife raging on the other side of the Rhine.
In 1521 the Parliament of Paris with the approval of the king forbade the publication of writings dealing with the new religious views. Luther's books were condemned, and the Paris University drew up a list of erroneous propositions extracted from the works of the German theologians (1523). At the request of the queen-mother the theological faculty of Paris formulated a plan for preventing the spread of the German errors in France, the main points of which were that heretical books should be forbidden, that the bishops should be exhorted to seek out such works in their dioceses and have them destroyed, and that the Sorbonne should have a free hand in maintaining religious unity. Yet in spite of these precautions a Lutheran community was formed at Meaux in the vicinity of Paris, and in the South of France, where the Waldensian party was still strong, Lutheran teaching found many supporters. In some places various attempts were made to imitate the tactics adopted so successfully at Wittenberg and Berne to bring about by force the discontinuance of Catholic worship. But these attempts failed, owing mainly to the independent attitude of the local parliaments and to the energy of the bishops, who removed one of the most dangerous weapons wielded by the heretics by insisting on a thorough reform of the clergy.
But though Francis I. had been moved to take action against the sectaries, and though Calvin and other leaders were obliged to leave France, the reforming party, relying on the influence of patrons like Margaret of Navarre and on the Humanist section at the university and at the newly established College de France, felt confident of ultimate success. They realized that the king was most anxious to arrive at an understanding with the Protestant princes of Germany against Charles V., and that therefore it was unlikely that he would indulge in a violent persecution of their co-religionists at home. They knew, too, that Francis I. had set his heart on securing complete control of the Church in his own dominions, as was evident by the hard bargain which he drove with Leo X. in the Concordat of 1516, and they were not without hope that Luther's teaching on the spiritual supremacy of the civil rulers might prove an irresistible bait to a man of such a temperament. Negotiations were opened with Francis I. by some of the German reformers, who offered to accept most of the Catholic doctrines together with episcopal government if only the king would support their cause (1534). As it was impossible to arrange for a conference, the Lutheran party submitted a summary of their views embodied in twelve articles to the judgment of the Sorbonne. In reply to this communication the doctors of the Sorbonne, instead of wasting their energies in the discussion of particular tenets, invited the Germans to state explicitly whether or not they accepted the authority of the Church and the writings of the Fathers. Such an attitude put an end to all hopes of common action between the French and German theologians, but at the same time Francis I. was not willing, for political reasons, to break with Protestantism. The publication, however, of a particularly offensive pamphlet against Catholicism, printed in Switzerland and scattered broadcast throughout France, served as a warning to the king that his own country was on the brink of being plunged into the civil strife which Protestantism had fomented in Germany, and that if he wanted to preserve national unity and peace the time for decisive action had arrived. Many of the leading reformers were arrested and some of them were put to death, while others were banished from France (1535).
From this time the Lutherans began to lose hope of securing the active cooperation of Francis I., but the friendly political relations between the king and the German Protestant princes, together with the close proximity of Strasburg, Geneva, and Berne, from which preachers and pamphlets made their way into France, helped to strengthen the heretical party in the country despite the efforts of the ecclesiastical and lay authorities. In the South many of the Waldenses in Dauphiny and Provence went over formally to the side of the Calvinists. In places where they possessed considerable strength they indulged in violent attacks on the clergy, for which reason severe measures of repression were adopted by the local administrators and by the king. As in Switzerland, so too in France Calvinism proved to be the most attractive of the new religious systems. Calvinistic communities were formed at Paris, Rouen, Lyons and Orleans, all of which looked to Geneva for direction. The name given to the French followers of Calvin was Huguenots.
Henry II. (1547-59), who succeeded on the death of Francis I. had no difficulty in allying himself with the German Protestants, and in dispatching an army to assist Maurice of Saxony in his rebellion against the Emperor, while at the same time taking every precaution against the spread of heresy at home. He established a new inquisition department presided over by a Dominican for the detection and punishment of the Huguenots, and pledged the civil power to carry out its decisions. In this attitude he was supported strongly by the University of Paris, which merited the heartiest congratulations of Julius III. by its striking defense of Catholic doctrines, especially the necessity of obedience to the Holy See. Yet notwithstanding all measures taken against them the Huguenots continued to increase in numbers. The Bishop of Navarre went over to their side, as did a certain number of the clergy, and the attitude of some of the others was uncertain. So strong did the Huguenot party find itself in France that a Synod representing the different reformed communities was held in Paris in 1559, at which the doctrine and ecclesiastical organization introduced by Calvin into Switzerland were formally adopted. The accession of Elizabeth to the throne in England, and the hopes entertained in France of detaching that country from Spain made the French government less anxious to adopt severe measures against the Protestants. After the Peace of Château Cambresis (1559), when Henry determined to make a great effort to extirpate Calvinism, he was prevented by death.
Francis II. who lived only one year (1559-60) succeeded, and he was followed by Charles IX. (1560-74). The latter of these was a mere child, and during the minority the government of the country was in the hands of Catharine de' Medici, his mother, who became regent of France. At the court two parties struggled for supremacy, the family of Guise which stood for Catholicism, and the Bourbons who favored Calvinism. The regent, not being a woman of very decided religious convictions or tendencies, set herself to play off one party against the other so as to increase her own power, and in this way a splendid opportunity was given to the Calvinists to pursue their religious campaign. Several of the more powerful people in the kingdom favored their schemes solely out of hatred to the Duke of Guise and with the hope of lessening his power. Amongst the prominent Calvinist leaders at this period were Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre, and his brother Louis Prince de Conde, the Constable de Montmorency and Admiral Coligny, the recognized head and ablest leader of the Huguenot party.
Taking advantage of the bitter feeling aroused amongst their followers by the execution of some of their number, the Huguenots formed a conspiracy (Tumult of Amboise 1560) to seize the young king, to overthrow the Duke of Guise, and to set up in his place the Prince de Conde. The Calvinist theologians, having been consulted about the lawfulness of such an enterprise, declared that the conspirators might proceed without fear of sinning so long as a prince of the royal family was amongst their leaders. The plot was discovered, however, before their plans were matured, and several of those who took part in it were put to death. Instead of weakening, it served only to strengthen the family of Guise. Francis, Duke of Guise, was appointed a lieutenant-general of France with the title of savior of his country, while his brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine, became chief inquisitor and one of the papal legates appointed for the reform of abuses in France. The King of Navarre, to whom Pius IV. addressed a personal appeal, confessed his unfaltering loyalty to the Catholic religion, although at the same time he was doing much to spread Calvinism in his own dominions and throughout the South of France.
Though the royal edict against the Calvinists, published in 1560, was severe, yet little was done to enforce its terms except against those who had recourse to arms. The Prince de Conde organized a new conspiracy and attempted to secure Lyons. He was arrested, tried, and condemned to death, but before the sentence could be carried out Francis II. passed away.
A new grouping of parties now took place. The regent, Catharine de' Medici, alarmed at the growing influence of the Guise faction, threw the whole weight of her influence into the scales in favor of the Prince de Conde and of the Huguenots. A royal edict was issued suspending all prosecutions against heretics and ordering the release of all prisoners detained on account of their religion (1561). The regent wrote to the Pope praising the religious fervor of the Calvinists, and calling upon him to suppress several Catholic practices to which the heretics had taken exception. She professed herself anxious for a national council to settle the religious differences, and failing this she insisted upon a religious disputation at Poissy. The disputation ("Colloquy" of Poissy) took place (1561) in presence of the young king, his mother, and a large number of cardinals, bishops, and ministers of state. The Catholics were represented by the Cardinal of Lorraine, the Jesuit General Lainez, and other distinguished clergy, while the Calvinists sent a large number of their ablest leaders, conspicuous amongst whom were Theodore Beza and Francois de Morel. The principal doctrines in dispute, notably the authority of the Church and the Eucharist, were discussed at length without result. Then a small committee, composed of five theologians representing each side, was appointed, but without any better success. In the end, as no agreement could be secured, the conference was dismissed.
Owing to the close alliance between the regent and the Prince de Conde the former issued a new edict, in which she allowed the Calvinists free exercise of their religion outside the cities provided that they assembled unarmed, commanded them to restore the goods and churches they had seized, and forbade them to have recourse to violence or to conspiracies to promote their views (1562). Encouraged by these concessions, the Calvinists especially in the South of France attempted to force their religion on the people. They attacked churches, profaned the Blessed Sacrament, murdered several priests and laymen, and obliged the peasants to listen to their preachers. Feeling between the two parties was extremely bitter, and the Catholics were especially incensed that a small minority should be allowed to have their own way regardless of the opinions of the vast body of the French people.
In these circumstances it required very little to lead to serious conflict. At Vassy some soldiers accompanying the Duke of Guise quarreled with a party of Calvinists, whose psalm-singing was disturbing the Mass at which the Duke was assisting. The latter, hearing the noise, hastened out to restore peace, and was struck with a stone. His followers, incensed at this outrage, drew their swords and killed a large number of the Calvinists. This incident, referred to generally as the massacre of Vassy, led to a new civil war (1562). The Calvinists hastened to take up arms, and the Prince de Conde was assured of English assistance. A large army attacked Toulouse, but after a struggle lasting four days the Calvinists were defeated and driven off with severe loss. In Normandy and other centers where they were strong they carried on the war with unheard of cruelty; but as they were in a hopeless minority and as the English failed to give them the necessary assistance they lost many of their strongholds, and finally suffered a terrible defeat at Dreux where the Prince de Conde was taken prisoner (Dec. 1562). Coligny escaped to Orleans, which city was besieged by the Duke of Guise, who was murdered during the siege by one of the followers of Coligny. Before his execution the prisoner accused Coligny and Beza as being accessories to his crime, but it is only fair to say that Coligny denied under oath the truth of this statement.
Though the Catholics were victorious the awful struggle had cost them dearly. Their ablest leader the Duke of Guise had fallen, as had also Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre, who had been converted from Calvinism; many of their churches and most valuable shrines were destroyed; and to make matters worse they recognized that the struggle had been fought in vain, as the regent proclaimed a general amnesty and concluded a peace with the Huguenots (Peace of Amboise, 1563), whereby Calvinist nobles and their followers were allowed free exercise of their religion with certain restrictions.
Neither side was satisfied with these terms. Coligny and the Prince de Conde were annoyed furthermore by the fact that the regent broke off her close relations with them, and began to lean towards the Catholic side and toward an alliance with Spain. After raising large sums of money and arming their forces for a new effort they determined to seize the king and his court at Monceau, but the Constable de Montmorency with six thousand trusty Swiss soldiers hastened to the king's defense, and brought him safely from the midst of his enemies (1567). This attempt together with the terrible slaughter of Catholics at Nimes (29 Sept.) led to the outbreak of the second civil war. The Catholic forces were successful at St. Denis though they lost one of their ablest generals, the Constable de Montmorency, and were deprived of the fruits of their victory by the intervention of the Elector of the Palatinate. Owing to the mediation of the latter a new treaty was made in 1568, but as the Huguenots continued to seek alliances with England, Germany, and the Netherlands, Charles IX. recalled the concessions he had made, and forbade the exercise of Calvinist worship under penalty of death.
Thereupon the third civil war broke out (1569). The Huguenots received assistance from England, the Netherlands, and Germany, while the Catholics were supported by Spain and the Pope. The war was carried on with relentless cruelty on both sides. In the battle of Jarnac the Huguenot forces were defeated, and the Prince de Conde was slain (1569). The struggle was however continued by Coligny supported by Henry King of Navarre and the young de Conde. By wonderful exertions Coligny put a new army into the field only however to suffer another terrible defeat at Montcontour, where the Huguenots were almost annihilated. It seemed that the long struggle was to end at last and that peace was to be restored to France. But unfortunately at this juncture some of his courtiers succeeded in convincing Charles IX. that his brother, the Duke of Anjou, who with the young Duke of Guise was mainly responsible for the Catholic victories, might use his recognized military ability and his influence with the people to make himself king of France. Alarmed by the prospect of such a contingency Charles IX., already jealous of his brother's triumphs, turned against the Catholic party and concluded the Peace of St. Germain-en-Laye with the Huguenots (1570).
According to the terms of this Peace the Huguenots were allowed free exercise of their religion in France with the sole exception of the capital. They were not to be excluded from any office of the state, and four of the strongest fortresses of the country, La Rochelle, Montauban, Cognac, and La Charite were to be delivered to them for their protection and as a guarantee of good faith. The whole policy of Charles IX. underwent a complete change. Obsessed with the idea that the Catholic party, led by the Duke of Anjou, was becoming too powerful to be trusted, he turned to Coligny and the Calvinists, broke off the alliance concluded with Spain the previous year, and sought to bring over France to the side of England and of the rebel subjects of Spain in the Netherlands. Coligny was invited to court, where he soon became the most trusted and influential councilor of the king. He endeavored to embitter the mind of Charles IX. against his mother, against the Duke of Anjou and the family of Guise. No effort was spared by him to bring France into the closest relations with England and the Netherlands against Spain, and as a sign of the reconciliation that had been effected between the court and the Huguenots a marriage was arranged between Henry, the Calvinist King of Navarre and Margaret of Valois, the sister of Charles IX.
The Catholics were highly indignant at this sudden change of policy. Mindful of the misfortunes brought upon their country by the Huguenots and of the losses and cruelties they had suffered at the hands of this implacable minority, they resented the domination of Coligny, whom they regarded as their most dangerous enemy, and they were embittered by the thought that the victories they had won at so much cost had resulted only in their own downfall and in the triumph of their worst enemies. Catharine de' Medici, the queen-mother, felt more acutely than the rest the influence of Coligny. She believed that he was using his power to alienate the young king from herself, and to win him from the policy she had advocated. She was only waiting an opportunity to wreak her vengeance on Coligny and the whole Huguenot party, knowing well as she did that she could count upon the popular feeling of the nation to support her.
The opportunity came on the occasion of the marriage between the King of Navarre and Margaret of Valois. The leading Calvinists anxious to take part in the ceremony flocked to Paris, where they and their followers paraded the streets armed to the teeth and with the air of conquerors. Catharine de' Medici took steps to secure the murder of Coligny on the 22nd August, 1572, but the attempt failed. Such a step served, however, to embitter feelings on both sides, and to arouse the queen-mother to make one final effort for the destruction of her Huguenot opponents. In an audience with the king she represented to him that the Calvinists were plotting to take his life, and that the only way to secure himself against them was to anticipate them. In view of the previous history of the party and the suspicious temperament of the king, it required little to convince him of the truth of this allegation, and at last he signed an order that on a certain pre- rranged signal having been given the soldiers should let loose on the Huguenots. On the night preceding the feast of St. Bartholomew (23-24 Aug.) the bells of the church of St. Germain-en-Laye were rung, and the troops sallied forth to carry out their instructions. Rumors of a Huguenot plot had been spread through the city. The people were alarmed, and the general body of the citizens took up arms to support the soldiers. In the melee that followed over a thousand Calvinists including Coligny were put to death. The movement spread through the provinces where about the same number suffered as in the capital, though many of the Catholic clergy, as for example, the Bishop of Lisieux, exerted themselves to put an end to the butchery.
This event is known in history as the massacre of St. Bartholomew. The massacre was in no sense a premeditated affair. It was a sudden outburst of popular indignation brought about by the machinations of the queen-mother, and was neither encouraged nor approved by the bishops of the Catholic Church. The king presented himself before the Parliament of Paris on the day following the massacre, and declared that he alone was responsible for what had happened. He explained that a plot had been formed against his life and that he had taken the only measures that it was possible for him to take. This was the account of the affair that was forwarded to the French diplomatic representatives abroad, and which they gave at all courts to which they were accredited. Gregory XIII., acting on the report of the French ambassador, ordered that a Te Deum should be sung in thanksgiving for the safety of the king and royal family, and not, as has been so often alleged, as a sign of rejoicing for the murder of the Calvinists. On the contrary he was deeply pained when he learned the true state of affairs. The massacre of St. Bartholomew was indeed unjustifiable, but it was done neither to promote religion nor at the instigation of the Church. It was merely political in its object as far as the king and the queen-mother were concerned, and it was a sudden popular outburst in so far as the citizens of Paris or the people of the country took part in it. In judging the responsibility and blame for what took place nobody can put out of mind the terrible excesses, of which the Huguenots had been guilty during their long struggle against their own countrymen. The German Lutherans, who looked upon the slaughter as a judgment from Heaven on the Calvinist heretics, were rejoiced at their execution.
The Huguenots flew to arms to avenge their brethren who had fallen, and the fourth civil war began. The Duke of Anjou laid siege to their strongest fortress, La Rochelle, but failed to take it, and on his election as King of Poland (1573) a treaty was concluded according to which the Huguenots were allowed free exercise of their religion. A large number of French politicians were at last growing tired of a struggle which was costing their country so dearly, and were anxious to conclude peace even though it were necessary to yield to the demands of the Huguenots. At the head of this party stood some of the most powerful nobles of France including the Duc d'Alencon, and when on the death of Charles IX. the Duke of Anjou succeeded as Henry III. (1575-89) his sympathies were entirely with the party of the moderates as against the extremists of both sides. By the terms of the Peace of Beaulieu (1576) the Huguenots were assured of complete freedom except in Paris and at the French Court, and of full civil rights, and as a guarantee of good faith they were continued in possession of their fortresses.
Indignant at such concessions the Catholic party formed the League with the young Duke of Guise at its head. Henry III., finding that it was impossible to oppose this combination with any hope of success, determined to control it by becoming himself its leader. The concessions made to the Huguenots were recalled (1577), and the fifth civil war broke out. This was brought to an end by the Peace of Poitiers (1577). The Huguenot party, under the King of Navarre and the young Prince de Conde, continued to make headway against the League, and sought to strengthen themselves by an alliance with England and the Netherlands.
The question of the succession to the French throne became serious for both parties. Henry III. was childless, and on the death of the heir-apparent, his brother the Duke of Anjou (Alencon, 1584), the succession devolved apparently on Henry King of Navarre, but as he was a Calvinist the Catholics were unwilling to recognize him. The League declared Cardinal de Bourbon son of the Duke of Vendome as the lawful heir to the French throne, though many of its out and out supporters were in favor of the Duke of Guise. An attempt was made to get the approval of the Pope for the League and its policy, but both George XIII. and Sixtus V. were not inclined to support its pretensions. At the earnest request of Spain the latter, however, issued a constitution in 1585, by which he declared that Henry of Navarre and the Prince de Conde, as notorious heretics excommunicated by the Church, had forfeited all claim to the throne of France. Henry of Navarre lodged a solemn protest in Rome, and he appealed to the Parliament of Paris, which refused to approve of the publication of the papal document. Both sides had recourse once more to arms, and the Huguenots under the leadership of Henry of Navarre were victorious in the battle of Coutras (1587). The League however continued the struggle, captured some of the principal cities such as Lyons, Orleans, and Bourges, while Henry III. favored both parties in turn. Overawed by the successful exploits of the Duke of Guise he pledged himself to put down the Huguenots, and the French people were called upon by royal proclamation to swear that they would never accept a heretic as their king (1588).
But in his heart Henry III. favored the cause of the King of Navarre, if for no other reason because he wished to escape from the dictatorship of the Duke of Guise. In 1588 he procured the murder of the two greatest leaders of the League, Henry Duke of Guise and his brother Louis the Cardinal-archbishop of Lyons. This outrage drew upon him the wrath of the League and of the great body of the French Catholics. Charles de Lorraine, brother of the murdered Duke of Guise, put himself at the head of the king's enemies. Sixtus V. issued a strong condemnation of the murder of the cardinal-archbishop, and the Sorbonne declared that the nation no longer owed any allegiance to the king. The war was renewed vigorously on both sides, the League being supported by Philip II. of Spain and its opponents by Protestant troops from Germany and Switzerland. While the combined forces of Henry III. and of the King of Navarre were besieging Paris, Henry III. was assassinated (1589).
Thereupon Henry of Navarre had himself proclaimed King of France under the title of Henry IV., but the League refused to recognize his claims and put forward instead the aged Cardinal de Bourbon, then a prisoner in the hands of the King of Navarre. The Cardinal also was proclaimed king (Charles X.). Spain, too, refused to acknowledge Henry IV., and assisted the League with both money and soldiers. The Popes, Sixtus V. Gregory VIX. and Clement VIII. adopted an attitude of great reserve. While they were not inclined to support the demands of the League in their entirety they were unshaken in their reserve to acknowledge no heretic as king of France. Henry IV., though supported by many of the moderate Catholics (Les Politiques), began to recognize that as a Calvinist he could never hope for peaceful possession of the French throne. He determined, therefore, to yield to the entreaties of his most powerful supporters and to make his submission to the Catholic Church. In July 1593 he read a public recantation in the Church of St. Denis, and was absolved conditionally from the censures he had incurred. The following year he made his formal entrance into Paris, where he was welcomed by the people, and acknowledged as lawful king of France by the Sorbonne. Having pledged himself to accept the decrees of the Council of Trent, to abide by the terms of the Concordat of 1516, and to rear his heir and successor as a Catholic he was reconciled to the Holy See. The League dissolved itself in a short time, and so far as Catholics were concerned peace was restored to France.
The Huguenots, Henry Ivy's former co-religionists, were deeply pained at the step taken by their leader, and they insisted that their demands must be satisfied. Henry IV., more anxious for the unity and welfare of France than for the triumph of either religious party, determined to put an end to the civil strife by the publication of the Edict of Nantes (1598). The principal articles of the Edict were that the Calvinists should enjoy freedom of worship throughout the greater part of the kingdom, that they should be eligible for all positions of honor and trust in the state, that they should have for their own use the Universities of Montalba, Montpelier, Sedan, and Saumur, that the funds for the upkeep of these universities and for the maintenance of their religion should be supplied by the state, and that for a period of eight years they should have possession of some of the principal fortresses. On their side they engaged to break off all alliances with foreigners, to allow Catholic worship to be restored in the places where it had been suppressed, to observe the marriage laws of the Catholic Church, and to abstain from anything that might be regarded as a violation of Catholic holidays. Such concessions were regarded with great disfavor by the Pope, the clergy, and the vast majority of the French people as being opposed to the entire national tradition of France, and it required all the efforts of the king to secure for them the approval of the Paris Parliament (1599). Similarly the Calvinists were not content with what had been conceded to them, nor were they willing to abide by the terms of the Edict of Nantes in so far as to allow the establishment of Catholic worship in the places which were under their control. Their public attacks on the Blessed Eucharist and on the Pope were very irritating to their countrymen, but Henry IV., who was a good king deeply interested especially in the welfare of the lower classes, continued to keep the peace between both parties. His sympathies were, however, with the Protestants of Germany, and he was actually on his way to take part in a war against the Emperor when he was assassinated (1610).
He was succeeded by his son Louis XIII. (1610-43) who was then a boy of nine years. His mother Mary de' Medici, who acted as regent approved the terms of the Edict of Nantes, but the Huguenots relying on the weakness of the government refused to carry out those portions of the Edict favorable to Catholics, and made demands for greater privileges. They rose in rebellion several times especially in the South, entered into alliance with every rebel noble who took up arms against the king, and acted generally as if they formed a state within a state. Cardinal Richelieu who was for years the actual ruler of France (1624-42), inspired solely by political motives, determined to put an end to a condition of affairs that was highly dangerous to the strength and national unity of the kingdom. He saw that it was impossible for France to extend her power so long as there existed at home a well-organized body of citizens prepared to enter into treasonable relations with foreign enemies, and to turn to their own advantage their country's difficulties. His opportunity came when the Huguenots having concluded an alliance with England rose in rebellion (1627). He laid siege to their strongest fortress, La Rochelle, drove back the fleet which England sent to their assistance, and compelled the city to surrender (1628). By this strong measure he put an end to the power of the Huguenots in France and secured peace and unity for the country, while at the same time he treated the conquered with comparative mildness, confirming the Edict of Nantes (Edict of Nimes, 1629), proclaiming a general amnesty, and restoring the leaders of the rebellion to the property and positions they had forfeited.
During the reign of Louis XIV. (1643-1715) the whole tendency of the government was dangerous to the Huguenots. Louis XIV. was determined to make himself absolute ruler of France, and, therefore, he could regard only with the highest disfavor the presence in his territories of a well-organized privileged party like the Huguenots. An opportunity of carrying out his designs came in 1659, when with the approval of the Synod of Montpazier they attempted to negotiate an alliance with England. They were punished with great severity, forbidden to preach in any place without express permission, to attack Catholic doctrines publicly, or to intermarry with Catholics. Converts from Calvinism were encouraged by promises of special concessions. Owing to the disfavor of the king and the energetic action of the clergy and bishops, whose education and culture at that time stood exceedingly high, large numbers of the Huguenots returned to the Church so that in some places, as for example in Normandy, where once they could boast of considerable influence, the sect became almost extinct.
The severity of the measures taken by Louis XIV. led to new rebellions, which were suppressed with great severity. Finally in 1685 a royal proclamation appeared announcing the revocation of all the privileges granted to the Huguenots and more particularly all those contained in the Edict of Nantes (1685). The churches which they had built recently were to be destroyed, their religious assembles were forbidden, and their clergy were offered their choice between submission to the Church or exile. The prime minister Louvois sent soldiers to enforce this proclamation, and the unfortunate Huguenots were treated with great harshness and cruelty. Many of them, unwilling to change their religion and unable to endure their hard lot at home, left the country and sought refuge in England, Germany, Denmark, and Holland. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes was not due to the religious zeal of Louis XIV. or of his ministers. Indeed at the very time that Louis XIV. was engaged in dragooning the Huguenots into the Catholic Church he was in bitter conflict with the Pope, and was committed to a policy that seemed destined to end in national schism. Some of the French bishops, notably Fenelon, disapproved of this attempt at conversion by violence, and Pope Innocent XI., having no representative in Paris at the time, instructed his nuncio at London to induce James II. of England to bring pressure to bear on Louis XIV. to favor the Huguenots. Several times during the reign of Louis the Calvinists rose in arms to defend their religion but without effect. After his death the decrees against them were not enforced with much severity, but it was only in 1787 that a measure of almost complete political equality was granted to them by Louis XVI.
Original text by James MacCaffrey, edited and revised by William Mackis - this text © 2005. Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission.