France: Religion & Politics in the 16th & 17th Centuries

by T.J. (edited by Ilana Miller)

We recommend reading Jean Mason’s Introduction to Europe in the 16th & 17th Centuries prior to reading this article

| Chronology | The Era of the Three Musketeers |


1517 – Protestant Reformation

1550 – 1598 French Religious Wars between Catholics and Huguenots (French Protestants). The French Huguenots are on the lowest rung of nobility. The majority are the middle class or the bourgeoisie. They are, however, strong in certain noble families, especially the Bourbons of Navarre. In particular, they dominate certain areas in France, such as: Lyons, Normandy, Rhone River Valley, and Navarre (close to Spanish border).

1559 — Henry II, King of France, dies.

Francis II’s, aged 15, reign begins. His mother, Catherine de Medici, takes over, but many problems arise: two powerful, aristocratic families, the Bourbons and the Guise, want the throne. Francis II is married to Mary, Queen of Scots, whose mother was a Guise. The Guise take over and try to crush the Protestant Huguenots (Bourbons), which causes a Huguenot rebellion against the Guise.

1560 — The death of Francis II. Mary the Queen of Scots is sent back to Scotland, which, during her absence, has become Calvinist Presbyterian.

Charles IX’s, aged 10, comes to the throne. Catherine de Medici, his mother, rules as Regent until he comes of age.

Catherine de Medici: The Queen Mother attempts a compromise between the Catholics and the Huguenots by allowing the Huguenots to hold meetings outside towns and cities, however, both Catholics and Huguenots view the compromise as a sin.

1562 — Francis, le Duc de Guise, sets fire to Huguenot prayer meeting in a bar near Vassy and orders his troops to attack. Twenty-three Huguenots are killed and 130 wounded. Le Duc de Conde, a Bourbon, and a Huguenot, calls for vengeance.

Civil War continues. Huguenots are hanged in Paris and Catholics are hanged in Normandy.

1570 — Huguenot general, Gaspard de Coligny captures Paris.

Catherine de Medici, hoping for peace, proposes that her daughter Marguerite marry Henry of Navarre, a Bourbon and a Huguenot.

1577 — Catherine de Medici fears Huguenots and their influence and orders a massacre on Henry and Marguerite’s wedding day.

August 24, 1577 — St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre: Coligny, along with thousands of Huguenots are murdered in Paris. Henry of Navarre and le Duc de Conde escape death, but are imprisoned for life.

European Catholics congratulate the French.

Results of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre:

  1. None of the religious and political problems in France are solved.
  2. The Huguenots are outraged, and, once again, Catherine de Medici tries to appease them.
  3. The Catholic Guise vow to wipe out the Huguenots.
  4. War of the Three Henrys: Henry of Guise vs. Henry of Navarre (Bourbon, Huguenot) vs. Henry III (Catherine’s last son).

Henry III fears Henry of Guise and has him assassinated in 1588. Then Henry III joins Henry of Navarre for protection from the Catholics. Henry III and Henry of Navarre attack Paris to weaken the Catholic power.

A Catholic priest, however, assassinates Henry III, who designates Henry of Navarre as his heir. Henry of Navarre is required to change his religion before the coronation since the majority of France was Catholic.

Henry of Navarre converts to Catholicism in 1593: “Surely, Paris is worth a mass.”

1594 — Henry of Navarre is crowned Henry IV, thus beginning the Bourbon dynasty in France. This also signifies the end of the religious wars in France.

1598 — Edict of Nantes: issued by Henry IV for the benefit of the Huguenots:

  1. Freedom of worship in specified places
  2. Judicial protection
  3. Huguenots may hold jobs.
  4. Huguenots may have their own schools and educate their children.
  5. Huguenots may keep troops in fortified cities such as La Rochelle.

    The Edict of Nantes, then, is a major step for religious toleration in France.

The major theme after the religious civil wars is the development of Absolutism and the theory of divine right of kings.

1610 — Henry IV is assassinated by a Catholic.

    Louis XIII, aged nine, becomes the next king. His mother, Marie de Medici, Henry IV’s second wife, takes over as a Regent. She is incompetent.

Cardinal Richelieu takes over and sets two goals:

  1. To make royal power supreme in France.
  2. To make France supreme in Europe.

In order to accomplish his goals, Cardinal Richelieu does the following:

  1. Destroys the castles of the noblity.
  2. Disbands the their private armies.
  3. Reduces the military privileges of the Huguenots resulting in the destruction of La Rochelle.
  4. Involves France in the Thirty Years War to weaken the Hapsburgs (ruling in Spain, Milan, the Netherlands and the Holy Roman Empire) by fighting on the side of the Protestants, gaining Alsace and other territories.
  5. Traines a successor: Cardinal Mazarin.

1642 — Richelieu dies.

1643 — Louis XIII dies, and Louis XIV, aged five, becomes king.

1643-1715 — Reign of Louis XIV.

    Cardinal Mazarin is the de facto ruler of France and continues Richelieu’s goals.

1648-1653 — The Fronde: a rebellion of the noblity against the growing power of the monarch. The nobles lack support from the peasants and the middle classes, and, consequently, the rebellion fails.

    This is the last time the nobles would attempt to take power from the government.

1661 — Cardinal Mazarin dies. Louis XIV is now the de facto ruler of France.

The Era of the Three Musketeers

I hope you’ve watched The Three Musketeers the movie, or read the book. The book is quite fascinating and has many historical facts. Of course, everything in it isn’t true. For example, Richelieu was never that evil (actually, if you were French, you’d have admired him), and Jussac, the guards captain who stopped d’Artagnan’s duel with Athos, was too young to stop anything – he was only five at the time.

Cardinal Richelieu (1624-1642) is the de facto ruler during Louis XIII’s reign. Despite his title of cardinal, he is interested in furthering the state’s interest, not the church’s. That is precisely why France fights against the Roman Catholic Church during Thirty Years’ War, because the Hapsburgs are fighting for Roman Catholic Church.

His domestic policy is pro-absolutism and pro-mercantilism. He encourages commerce by allowing the nobles to engage in commercial activities without the loss of noble status. Not only that, but, wholesale merchants can become nobles by paying a huge sum to the state.

To strengthen the power of monarch, Richelieu needs to subjugate the powerful nobles. Richelieu does much to control them, including:

  1. no dueling
  2. no private warfare
  3. destruction of non-royal fortified castles
  4. no more fortified castles for the Huguenots (the French protestants)

This last, creates a conflict in France. The Edict of Nantes had given the Huguenots the right to have their own fortified castles, and of course, they aren’t about to let Richelieu destroy their castles.

In 1627, le Duc de Rohan leads a Huguenot rebellion in the city of La Rochelle. The English, who hate the French, help the Huguenots. (For those who’ve read The Three Musketeers, you remember the part in which d’Artagnan and his buddies were seizing a fortified castle/city? That’s the seizure of La Rochelle.) Alas, the Huguenots loose, and according to the Peace of Alais, they loose their fortified castles, Protestant armies, and all their military and territorial rights. However, they do retain their religious and civil rights. This is because Richelieu is interested in centralizing the government, not converting the French Protestants. (The Edict of Nantes was altered, not revoked during the Peace of Alais. Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685.)

Richelieu’s foreign policy has one major purpose: To crush the Hapsburgs. He sees his chance in Thirty Years’ War, and of course, he’d participated in it as a Protestant force against the “evil” Hapsburgs.

After Richelieu’s death, Cardinal Mazarin (1642-1661) rules France. Twenty years later, the sequel to The Three Musketeers, describes him as a cheap, cunning foreigner whom nobody loves. How much of that is true, I don’t know, but from what I have read, I think there was some resentment against him because he was a foreigner and held such a high position in the government. Also it was rumored that he’d secretly married Anne of Austria, the mother of Louis XIV.

Immediately after the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 (France at this time is under Mazarin and very young Louis XIV), the Fronde or rebellion breaks out. It is directed against Cardinal Mazarin. The parlements, especially that of Paris, want the right to declare edicts unconstitutional. The prominent nobles participate because they think they can govern the country if the king is powerless. They demand that the king call the Estates General (a body that hadn’t met for decades). It’s quite ironic that they made this demand. The king hadn’t called the Estates General, not because he wanted to rule without it, but because when it was called by Henry IV, it asked him to leave them alone and rule the country without summoning them.

The Fronde failes ultimately because it lacked unity and the support of the lower class. Not only that, the frondeurs allie themselves with Spain against France, and France is fighting against Spain at that time.

This event affects young Louis XIV. On Mazarin’s death in 1661, Louis XIV declares that he’ll rule by himself. He is a firm believer in absolutism and divine right. Everything he does is calculated to take power away from the nobles and strengthen the position of the king. No wonder he said, “L’état, c’est moi.

Louis XIV’s policy is pro-absolutism, religious intoleration, and expansion, i.e. wars. He concentrates the nobles in Versailles, making it easier for him to observe their activities. He encourages commerce, but he doesn’t believe in religious toleration and imprisones or banishes many non-Catholics from France which causes a tremendous loss to the French economy. (Many of the French Protestants and the Jews were quite wealthy.) Despite the principle of balance of power, Louis XIV fights against many states to expand France and gain more power. He continuously fights against England, Netherlands, Spain, and Austria. (Remember the Glorious Revolution in England? Louis XIV refused to acknowledge William & Mary as the legitimate monarchs of England because James II was Catholic and also pro-French.)

The major wars Louis XIV fights are: War of Devolution, 1667-1668; Dutch war, 1672-1678; War of League of Augsburg, 1689-1697; War of Spanish Succession, 1701-1714. Probably the War of Spanish Succession was the most important because if Louis XIV had won, he’d have ruled both France and Spain, thus upsetting balance of power.

Although Louis XIV is a competent ruler, he has some problems. His life-style is too extravagant, and he spends too much money on the military and fighting wars. This means more taxes for the poor peasants and lower classes, since the nobles are not required to pay taxes. Such burdens and the incompetency of Louis XV and Louis XVI, among many other factors, ultimately led to the French Revolution.


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