Edict of Nantes

The Edict of Nantes granted limited religious rights to French Protestants, or Huguenots, finally ending the French Wars of Religion, which had begun in 1562.

Summary of Event

The full significance of the 1598 Edict of Nantes, by which King Henry IV granted freedom of religion to French Protestants, can be understood only if one recalls the nearly four decades of violent civil war between French Catholics and Protestant Huguenots Huguenots that preceded it. This civil strife began in 1562, when Catherine de Médicis, the queen regent, and the powerful Guise family started persecuting and executing French Protestants. Quite naturally, the Huguenots fiercely resisted Catholic violence. Despite attempts to destroy Huguenot opposition, such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August, 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572)[Saint Bartholomews Day Massacre (1572)] , in which at least seven thousand Huguenots were killed by royal forces, French kings came to realize that force alone would never unite their kingdom. Henry IV had himself experienced religious persecution during the first evening of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, when he was forced under threat of death to convert from Protestantism to Catholicism. Upon his return to his kingdom of Navarre in southern France, he quickly recanted this forced conversion. Nantes, Edict of (1598)
Henry IV (1553-1610)
Mercoeur, Philippe-Émmanuel de Lorraine, duke of
Philip II (1527-1598)
Ravaillac, François
Henry III (1551-1589)
Henry IV (king of France)
Catherine de Médicis
Henry III (king of France)
Philip II (king of Spain)
Mercoeur, Philippe-Émmanuel de Lorraine, duke of
Ravaillac, François

After the assassination of King Henry III, Henry IV, who was then still a Huguenot, was the next in line for the French throne. His assumption of political power was fiercely resisted by a coalition called the Catholic League Catholic League , and Henry IV’s forces had to win several important battles in provincial cities, most notably Ivry Ivry, Battle of (1590) (1590), before his successful entrance into Paris in 1594. For political reasons, Henry reconverted to Catholicism in 1593 in an attempt to consolidate his support from both French Catholics and Protestants. By his coronation in 1594, most of his subjects gave their support to Henry IV because of their belief that he would restore peace to France.

In January, 1595, a new war broke out, begun by King Philip II of Spain, who feared that a unified France would endanger his control over the Netherlands. Virtually all the fighting took place on French soil. Henry IV had the support of almost the entire French nation with the exception of the Catholic Philippe-Émmanuel de Lorraine, duke of Mercoeur, who made Brittany into a pro-Spanish stronghold. Henry appealed to French nationalism by branding as traitors those who had sided with the enemy. This argument proved persuasive with his subjects, who were no longer willing to support the Catholic League. In its initial stages, however, this war went badly for Henry.

In March of 1597, Amiens fell to the Spanish; it was retaken by the French in September. After this decisive victory, the war with the Spanish soon ended. Henry had regained the military advantage in the country, and Philip II’s many imperial campaigns had become far too costly, effectively bankrupting his nation. Moreover, by successfully retaking Amiens, Henry IV also consolidated his political power with both Catholic and Protestant subjects. Those who opposed his policies were inevitably viewed as traitors whose loyalty was not to France. The Treaty of Vervins Vervins, Treaty of (1598) was signed the following year.

In June of 1597, a Huguenot assembly met in Chatellerault and demanded that certain towns be given to it as sureties, as provided for in the truces of the later phases of the religious wars. The assembly sent a delegation to the king to press for a settlement. Henry IV was in an especially strong position. He had effectively destroyed Catholic opposition, because no Catholic leader could oppose the now-Catholic king of France without his patriotism being called into question. Huguenot leaders, moreover, understood the practical reasons for the king’s conversion to Catholicism, and they realized that the only alternative to Henry IV would be a member of the Catholic League, which had persecuted the Huguenots cruelly. It was in the self-interest of both Catholic and Huguenot leaders to come up with a solution which would bring a final ending to the French civil war. Huguenots;treaty with Catholics

The delegates from the Huguenot assembly met with Henry IV in Nantes, where in March, 1598, he had made peace with the duke of Mercoeur. He spent some time in earnest negotiations with the Huguenots, and on April 13, he promulgated the Edict of Nantes, embodying the results of these negotiations. The published documents contained ninety-five articles. There were also fifty-six secret articles, and on April 30, an additional twenty-three secret articles were accepted.

The Edict of Nantes granted Huguenots the right to dwell anywhere in France without harassment and without being required to answer for their beliefs. The higher nobility were permitted to hold Protestant services on any of their domains for the benefit of any Protestants. The lesser nobility were permitted to have services only for themselves, their families, and their servants. Those cities previously designated as cities of Huguenot worship in the 1577 Edict of Poitiers were now permanently authorized to hold Protestant services, and in addition one town in each district was designated as a place of free worship.

Henry IV’s clear intention was to eliminate religious conflicts in France so that the economy could function normally and he could consolidate his own power throughout his kingdom. He granted to Huguenots the same basic rights enjoyed by his Catholic subjects. The universities and charitable institutions were to be open to all French subjects without respect to religion. Protestants were permitted to open schools in all towns where free worship was allowed. They were also to have their own cemeteries. All civil offices were to be open to Protestants. The edict further provided that within each parlement (a regional court whose responsibility was to register and interpret royal edicts), a chamber was to be set up, including a substantial minority of Protestant judges who alone could deal with violations of this edict. By secret agreement, the king promised to continue his financial support of the Huguenot clergy. He also permitted the Huguenots to retain for eight years all the towns that they still retained from the civil wars. This concession was renewed as late as 1615.


Despite opposition from Catholic bishops and certain members of regional parlements, Henry IV succeeded in implementing the Edict of Nantes in conformity with his policies. He pointed out to Catholic bishops and judges that he was now a Catholic, and he further added that any opposition to his Edict of Nantes would be viewed as treason. By means of an effective combination of diplomacy and threats, Henry IV imposed his will throughout France. The edict reduced but certainly did not eliminate religious hatred and intolerance in France. It allowed the kingdom to begin to heal after four decades of violent civil wars. In addition to his sympathy for the plight of Protestants, Henry believed that if Huguenots enjoyed the same rights as other French subjects, they would cooperate with his government to restore political unity and economic growth in France.

A great tragedy in French history was the assassination of King Henry IV by a Catholic schoolmaster named François Ravaillac on May 14, 1610. It has been generally assumed that Ravaillac hated Protestants and killed Henry IV because of his opposition to the king’s policy of religious tolerance. Henry IV understood that his Edict of Nantes was a workable solution to the religious problems of France. It is unfortunate that he was succeeded by two kings, Louis XIII (r. 1610-1643) and Louis XIV (r. 1643-1715), who had little concern for the destructive impact of religious intolerance on national unity and economic growth. In 1629, Louis XIII authorized the brutal siege of La Rochelle, a Protestant stronghold, and Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. Both actions had disastrous effects on the French economy.

Further Reading

  • Buisseret, David. Henry IV. London: Allen & Unwin, 1984. A well-documented biography of Henry IV that describes both his military successes and his political effectiveness.
  • Finley-Croswhite, S. Annette. Henry IV and the Towns: The Pursuit of Legitimacy in French Urban Society, 1589-1610. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Study of Henry’s labors to win support from his subjects, focusing on his courtship of the urban population and the consolidation of his claims to legitimate sovereignty. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Garrisson, Janine. A History of Sixteenth-Century France, 1483-1598. Translated by Richard Rex. London: Macmillan, 1995. A very reliable history of sixteenth century France which explains the significance of the Edict of Nantes in relation to the French civil wars.
  • Greengrass, Mark. France in the Age of Henri IV. 2d ed. London: Longman, 1995. Contains an excellent study of political, economic, and administrative changes during the reign of Henry IV.
  • Holt, Mack P. The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A comprehensive examination of the religious wars, designed for undergraduates and general readers. The work includes a chronological table of events and a section of brief biographies of key figures.
  • Horowitz, Maryanne Cline. “French Free-Thinkers in the First Decades of the Edict of Nantes.” In Early Modern Skepticism and the Origins of Toleration, edited by Alan Levine. Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 1999. Analyzes the intellectual reception of the edict and its consequences for a culture of religious toleration in France.
  • Love, Ronald S. Blood and Religion: The Conscience of Henri IV, 1553-1593. Ithaca, N.Y.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. An assessment of Henry’s reign against the background of civil war and religious strife. Concludes with a discussion of Henry’s perception of the conflicting requirements of his crown and his soul, and his 1593 conversion to Catholicism. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Major, J. Russell. From Renaissance Monarchy to Absolute Monarchy: French Kings, Nobles, and Estates. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994. The long chapter on Henry IV (pages 130-180) examines his extraordinary administrative skill in dealing with social and economic problems.
  • Mentzer, Raymond A., Jr. Blood and Belief: Family Survival and Confessional Identity Among Provincial Huguenot Nobility. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1994. Thoroughly examines reactions by provincial Huguenots to the policy of tolerance implemented by Henry IV.
  • Sutherland, N. M. Henry IV of France and the Politics of Religion, 1572-1596. 2 vols. Bristol, Avon, England: Elm Bank, 2002. Extremely detailed account of the role of religion in France’s monarchy and political sphere during the late sixteenth century. Each chapter discusses a specific political event or issue from the point of view of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Includes illustrations, map, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Whelan, Ruth, and Carol Baxter, eds. Toleration and Religious Identity: The Edict of Nantes and Its Implications in France, Britain, and Ireland. Portland, Oreg.: Four Courts, 2003. Anthology of essays tracing the history leading up to the Edict of Nantes and examining its consequences in Britain and on the Continent. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Mid-16th cent.: Development of the Caracole Maneuver

Mar., 1562-May 2, 1598: French Wars of Religion

Aug. 24-25, 1572: St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

July 7, 1585-Dec. 23, 1588: War of the Three Henrys

Aug. 2, 1589: Henry IV Ascends the Throne of France

May 2, 1598: Treaty of Vervins