The Edict of Nantes is one of the great acts of religious tolerance in European history. It stemmed from
the French Religious Wars which tore the country apart. The Religious Wars including the eight outbreaks of
violence occurred during the reign of King Henry III who succeeded Charles IX. The Huguenots led by Henry of
Navarre defeated the Catholic forces at Coutras (1587). The Huguenots were aided by infighting among the
Catholics. The Duc de Guise was assassinated by other Catholics (1588) as was Henry III himself (1589). With
Henry's death the House of Valois became extinct and of all people, the Protestant leader Henry of Navarre
became king, the first monarch of the Bourbon line. To end the destructive civil wars, Henry converted to
Catholicism (1593) and issued the Edict of Nantes granting almost complete religious freedom on the
Protestants. With this freedom during the reign of Henry, the Protestants grew to be a major force in France.
The Edict of Nantes was signed by Henry (1598). This ended the terribly destructive Wars of Religion. Under
the terms of the Edict, the Huguenots were permitted to freely practice their faith in 20 specified French
'free' cities. France again became united and peaceful kingdom. Many at the time, however, saw a kingdom split on religious lines was a serious weakness. And many Catholics hoped to eventually stifle the Protestants. A decade of peace followed. Henry IV was murdered by a catholic zealot (1610).
French Protestants became known as Huguenots. The first known use of the term appears in court cases in
which "heretics" were persecuted by Catholic and Royal officials;s (1550). There are several theories as to the
origins of the term. It was at first a derisive term, but over time has come to be the name for a brave people
resisting religious persecution. German Protestants were primarily Lutheran. The French Protestants in
contrast were mostly Calvinists. French reformer John Calvin (Jean Cauvin) played an important role in the
Protestant Reformation, second only to Martin Luther. John was born in Noyon, Picardy (France) (1509) and grew
up there. He wrote the influential Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536). It was Calvin who created the
'presbyterian' model of church government. Historians describe him as the 'organizer of Protestantism' as a
result of his pastoral efforts in Strassburg and Geneva. Working in Geneva he was protected from the Counter
Reformation and was able to influence religious thought in not only Switzerland and other countries, but also
his native France. Geneva was is in the French-speaking area of Switzerland and on the French border. Thus
Calvin could easily promote the growth of Protestantism in France. Calvinism had significant appeal in France.
The majority of the French population remained Catholic, but a substantial minority converted. This included
notable individuals among leading French noble families. Thus the Huguenots acquired an importance out of
proportion to their actual numbers. The French Reformed Church was formally established by John Calvin (1550).
At the first national synod (council), 15 churches participated (1559). At the second synod over 2,000 churches
The Religious Wars including the eight outbreaks of violence occurred during the reign of Henry III who
succeeded Charles IX. The percecution and religious intolerance on the part of many Catholics resulted in
reprisals from the the Protestants. The result was a bloody civil war. Catholics slew some 1,200 Huguenots at
Vassy (1562). This ignited the the Wars of Religion which would last three decades and devastate the country.
There were eight outbreaks of fighting separated by formal peace treaties. There was open war, atrocities.
brutal acts, assassinations, treachery and other acts during the civil war (1562-98). The Huguenot forces were
led by Louis I de Bourbon Prince de Condé and Admiral Gaspard de Coligny and later Henry de Navarre (Henry IV).
The Catholic forces were led by Duc de Guise (Henry I de Lorraine) and Catherine de Médicis and later by Henry
III. As in Germany, foreign troops were involved in the fighting. Soldiers from England, Germany, and
Switzerland were active. The Catholics were supported primarily by Spain. The treaties that end the various
outbreaks granted the Huguenots various levels of toleration. Afterwards the French royal Government attempted
to repudiate or ignore these pledges resulting in renewed hostilities. The essential problem was both the
intolerance of the time and the conviction on the part of Catholic monarchs that Protestants would not be
loyal, fully trusted subjects. The most terrible incident during the religious wars was the St. Bartholomew’s
Day massacre (1572). Catholics murdered thousands of Protestants, including women and children.
Henry of Navarre was a son of Antoine de Bourbon, Duc de Vendome, and Jeanne d'Albret (q.v.), heiress to
the throne of Navarre. Henry became King Henry III of Navarre (1572). The last Valois king of France, King
Henry III, died (1589). Henry of Navarre became the claimant with the best dynastic right to the crown. The
problem for Henry was his Protestantism.
The Huguenots led by Henry of Navarre defeated the Catholic forces at Coutras (1587). The Huguenots were
aided by infighting among the Catholics. The Duc de Guise was assassinated by other Catholics (1588) as was Henry III himself (1589). With Henry's death the House of Valois became extinct and of all people, the Protestant leader Henry of Navarre became king, the first monarch of the Bourbon line. The Catholic were determined to prevent this at all cost. Henry waged a successful war against the Catholics and besieged Paris. The city was on the point of capitulation when Phillip II ordered his army in the Netherlands to relieve the city. It would be the last major Spanish military action in Europe.
Henry won many military victories in the field, but he did not have a large enough force to seize Paris. To end the destructive civil wars, Henry finally decided to convert to Catholicism (1593). With both sides nearing the point of utter fatigue they agreed to a truce. It was not a peace. Hatreds still flared with both sides desiring to exterminate the other. But they were simply unable to continue the fighting. And Henry showing his wisdom and grasp of the situation, offered a compromise the Catholics could accept.
Henry was the first Bourbon and is generally considered one of the greatest French monarchs. He was
murdered by a religious zealot (1610). Henry was the first in a line of Bourbon kings of France. Henry had
five legitimate children and many illegitimate children. One son died without male heirs. The other four were
his successor, King Louis XIII, and three daughters, Elizabeth, Christina, and Henrietta Maria. Through the
marriage of these daughters, the House of Bourbon was dynastic ally linked to the royal families of Spain,
Savoy, and England.
The Edict of Nantes is one of the great European acts of religious tolerance at a time in which tolerance
was not the ideal virtue that we view it today. Henry issued the Edict of Nantes granting almost complete
religious freedom to the Protestants. The Edict of Nantes was signed by Henry IV (1598). This ended the Wars
of Religion. Under the terms of the Edict, the Huguenots were permitted to freely practice their faith in 20
specified French "free" cities. France again became united. A decade of peace followed. The Huguenots gained
a degree of religious freedom and political control of specified parts of France. The Catholics remained,
however, the official religion of the realm and Catholics controlled most of the nation. And many of those
Catholics who did not trust Henry's conversion did not accept the Edict.
With the freedom conferred by the reign of Henry and the Edict of Nantes, the Protestants continued to be a
major force in France.
Henry is commonly considered one of the great monarchs of France. One serious failure, however, was his
neglect of his son, Louis. In particular he left the upbringing and education of Louis to his wife and
Catholic priests. Failure to develop in his son an enlightened aattitude toward religion would ultimately doom
the Protestants he fought so hard to protect. Under the influence of his mother, Louis grew up to be both
devoutly Catholic and intolerant. Louis XIII after the murder of his
father, Louis rose to the throne. He sought to create an absolutist monarchy and organized groups like the
Huguenots stood in his way. As a result, renewed persecutions were launched. Religious fighting broke out in
France again. Huguenots that fell into Louis' hands were sentenced to the galleys. The campaign to suppress the Huguenots was conducted under the guidance of Cardinal Richelieu. Louis XIII is another important French king. This was not the result of Louis himself, but rather his choice of Richelieu to oversee his reign. Richelieu focused on the campaign against the Huguenots. He adroit;y succeeded in breaking the political and military power of the Huguenots. After a protracted siege, the great Huguenot stronghold La Rochelle was finally taken (1628). He then attempted to conciliate the Protestants--to a degree. Louis XIV was even more committed to building an absolute monarchy. He is most famous for his statement, 'I am the state', although there is some doubt that he actually made that statement. To this end, Louis ordered a merciless persecution of the Huguenots, ultimately culminating in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
Just as the Edict of Nantes is one of the great European acts of religious toleration, it's revocation by
Louis XIV is one of the notable acts of religious intolerance. After years of persecution under Louis XIII and
Louis XIV, Louis XIV finally took the ultimate step--revoking the Edict of Nantes (1685). As a result of these
persecutions life for many Protestants became intolerable in France. It was not just the lack of religious
freedoms, but many other matters. The state refused to recognize Protestant marriages leaving the children
illegitimate. This affected property rights and inheritances. Large numbers of Huguenots surreptitiously fled
France, leaving for Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, England, and the English colonies in America
(especially New York, Massachusetts, and South Carolina). As a result, many Americans of French ancestry are
Protestants. Except for the Huguenots few French people emigrated to America. France is one of the few
European countries from which large numbers of did not emigrate to America. Interesting in that the French
showed such an enthusiasm for America, No one knows precisely how many French Protestants emigrated. Louis
attempted to prevent emigration and force them to convert. Estimates range from 0.4-1.0 million. About 1.0
million Protestants remained in France. Many settled in the isolated Cévennes Mountains becoming known as the
Camisards. Louis XIV ordered them removed, resulting in the Camisard War (1702-05). The flight of the
Huguenots proved to be a disaster for France that would be paid in installments down to the 20th century.
France by conservative estimates lost More than 0.4 million of her finest citizens with all their talents and
skills. France at the time was not only the richest country in Europe, but also the most technically
advanced. It some ways the suppression of the Huguenots was comparable to the NAZI campaign against its Jewish
citizens--without the racial component. For France it was in many ways worse only worse because the Huguenots
were a much larger portion of the French population. The invaluable technology and skills of important French
industries were dispersed to other countries competing with France. Those who managed to emigrate would fight
Louis in his attempt to take over the Netherlands and subsequently to return James II to the English throne.
Their descenders would play a prominent role in the German armies that fought the French
down to World War II.
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