French Wars of Religion

This series of eight civil wars, fought intermittently over a thirty-six-year period between French Catholics and Protestants, ended only when Henry IV issued the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which established limited religious toleration in France.

Summary of Event

In the early 1560’, France came apart in a series of civil conflicts. Eight different wars were fought over a thirty-six-year period in which intervals of violence alternated with tenuous periods of peace. The key political players in these wars included the last Valois monarchs—Francis II, Charles IX, Henry III, and their mother, Catherine de Médicis—and their chief rivals, the Guise, Bourbon, and Montmorency families. The wars resulted in the founding of a new French dynasty, as the Protestant Bourbons’ leader, Henry of Navarre, ascended the throne as King Henry IV in 1589. Religion, French Wars of (1562-1598)
Francis II (1544-1560)
Charles IX (1550-1574)
Guise, François de Lorraine, second duke of
Guise, Henry I of Lorraine, duke of
Henry III (1551-1589)
Henry IV (1553-1610)
Catherine de Médicis
Philip II (1527-1598)
Francis II (king of France)
Charles IX (king of France)
Henry III (king of France)
Catherine de Médicis
Henry IV (king of France)
Calvin, John
Guise, François de Lorraine, duke of
Guise, Henry I of Lorraine, duke of
Philip II (king of Spain)

Violence and torture by French Protestant Hugenots against Catholics.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

The French Wars of Religion were fought between Protestants seeking to bring the Reformation Protestantism;France to France and Catholics defending the Roman Church. By the mid-1550’, John Calvin was sending missionaries into France and converting a large following to the Protestant faith. About 10 percent of the French population, or around 1,250,000 people, adopted the reformed religion and were called Huguenots Huguenots . Most of the Huguenot population lived in three great regions in central and southwestern France: Aquitaine, Languedoc, and Dauphiné. Huguenot strongholds included the important towns of La Rochelle, Montauban, and Nîmes. Around 1570, the largest of these towns was La Rochelle, with approximately twenty thousand inhabitants. Most of France, however, remained Catholic, Catholicism;France and few individuals of the time could envision more than one accepted religion. Many French people worried that God would punish the realm if two religions were allowed to coexist, and they developed a violent hatred of people of differing faiths.

The wars of religion were also fought for political reasons. They occurred during a time when the French monarchy was very weak. The politically ambitious Catherine de Médicis was a widow by 1559. She greatly influenced all of her sons while they sat on the throne, and she even served as queen regent during the first years of Charles IX’s reign. Because weak boy-kings occupied the throne, political factions vied for leverage over the Valois court. Even though Catherine tried to maintain peace in the realm, she never succeeded in either diminishing the influence of the factions or settling the country’s religious differences. The Catholic Guise family, the Protestant Bourbon family, and the Catholic but more politically and religiously moderate (politique) Montmorency family each tried to dominate Catherine and her weak sons.

The spark that ignited the wars occurred in March of 1562, when the powerful François de Lorraine, duke of Guise, and his troops came upon a group of unarmed Huguenots worshiping in a barn in the small Champagne village of Vassy. Violence erupted and several hundred people were killed or wounded, prompting the Huguenots to call the event a massacre. One month later, Huguenot leaders began raising troops to defend the Protestant population, and the first military engagements between Protestant and Catholic forces occurred in July of 1562.

The wars of religion were noted for the violence they engendered. Key military engagements included the 1563 Siege of Orléans, the 1573 Siege of La Rochelle, the 1587 Battle of Courtras, the 1590 Battle of Ivry, and the 1595 Battle of Fontaine-Française. The wars were also marked by horrible massacres. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572)[Saint Bartholomews Day Massacre (1572)] in 1572 was particularly infamous: The Protestant leadership came to Paris as part of Catherine de Médicis’s attempt to balance rival court factions, but a massacre ensued in which most of the Huguenot leadership was killed. This led to similar massacres of Huguenots throughout the French provinces and a serious weakening of the Protestant movement.

The Catholic League dominated the last phase of the wars. Catholic League, War of the (1585-1598) It consisted of zealous Catholics who wanted to keep the Protestant Henry of Navarre from ever sitting on the throne. The very popular Henry I of Lorraine, duke of Guise, headed the league until his assassination in 1588, and Philip II of Spain supported the league with money and troops. By the time Henry III was murdered in 1589, most of the towns in France had succumbed to the league.

By the early 1590’, France was war-weary, the economy was severely depressed, and the population had been decimated by famine and disease. Henry of Navarre became Henry IV in 1589 and emerged as the only person forceful enough to solve France’s problems. In 1593, he abjured his Protestantism and became a Catholic king. Paris accepted him, and soon thereafter other key towns capitulated as well. Over the next five years, Henry besieged towns and bribed key nobles and League leaders. He offered generous terms to the vanquished willing to accept him as king. Henry was forced to go to war with Spain in 1595 to drive the Spanish supporters of the Catholic League out of France.

The religious wars officially ended in 1598 with the Treaty of Vervins Vervins, Treaty of (1598) . In that year, Henry also issued the Edict of Nantes Nantes, Edict of (1598) to settle the religious conflict that had plagued France for so long. The edict mandated limited toleration of Huguenots by allowing them to practice their faith in more than two hundred towns in France.


The French Wars of Religion reveal how fundamentally important religion was in the lives of sixteenth century people, who often derived their personal identities primarily from their religious faith. The organization of Protestant churches and the strengthening of the Catholic Church in the sixteenth century were also preludes to the political reorganization in the European states that occurred in the next century.

The wars additionally stimulated political thought. Huguenot writers, for example, stressed the limited nature of monarchy. They developed resistance theories to argue that people did not have to obey a king who was a tyrant. Conversely, other political thinkers stressed the divine nature of monarchy and argued that kings did not need the consent of their subjects to rule. Their rule was absolute and constrained only by rules of succession and divine law.

Political theory in France mirrored political actuality. Most of France proved willing to give up some of its autonomy to Henry IV to end the wars. This strengthened the power and authority of the king and laid the foundations of absolutism in France. It took a strong ruler to issue and enforce the Edict of Nantes. Some historians believe the edict was a great document of religious toleration. Even so, it established a state within a state—a separate Protestant infrastructure within the larger Catholic nation—which in part explains the revocation of the edict in 1685. More recent historians stress that the toleration established in 1598 was very limited and was probably meant only to give Protestants time to reconvert to Catholicism.

Further Reading

  • 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. Explores how Henry IV won the support of his urban subjects during and after the wars of religion.
  • Greengrass, Mark. France in the Age of Henri IV: The Struggle for Stability. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1995. A general survey of Henry’s reign with emphasis on how he ended the wars of religion and returned stability to France.
  • 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 graduates. Holt questions the idea that the Edict of Nantes was designed to offer religious toleration to Huguenot France in chapter 6.
  • Knecht, R. J. The French Wars of Religion, 1559-1598. 2d ed. New York: Longman, 1996. Knecht offers excellent background on the spread of Protestantism in France in chapter 1. The book also contains key document excerpts.
  • Parrow, Kathleen. From Defense to Resistance: Justification of Violence During the French Wars of Religion. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 83, part 6. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1993. A short work that examines the legal theories sixteenth century writers used to justify violence in their society. The research is based largely on political pamphlets published during the period of the wars.
  • Racaut, Luc. Hatred in Print: Catholic Propaganda and Protestant Identity During the French Wars of Religion. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002. Rare study of the pro-Catholic pamphleteers in France. Analyzes the strategies, production, and impact of pro-Catholic propaganda of the period. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • 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.
  • Wolfe, Michael. The Conversion of Henri IV: Politics, Power, and Religious Belief in Early Modern France. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. Wolfe examines the controversies and ramifications surrounding Henry IV’s 1593 decision to abjure his Protestant faith and reconvert to Catholicism.

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

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

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

Apr. 13, 1598: Edict of Nantes

May 2, 1598: Treaty of Vervins