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French Religious Wars

            This paper will analyze the social backgrounds, events and factors that changed the society, government, ideology, religion and the policies of France brought about by the French religious war of the 16th century and how it affects the Reformation movement in France.

The french religious wars in the 16th century was a series of wars and conflicts that is fought between the Catholic sector and Protestant (Huguenots) sectors of the French society. These wars with regards to religious beliefs were disastrous for France in the long run because it created divisiveness and strife among specific sectors of the French populace. The first war was between the French Huguenots and the Catholics started in 1562 and ended in 1563.

The first war started when Duc de Guise of the House of Guise and his followers massacred innocent Huguenots in the area of Vassy. A few of the Duc's servants got into a disagreement with some Huguenots attending a religious service. Violence ensued and the Duc fired on a number of unarmed Huguenots while his companions burned a Huguenot church (Haine 98). Because of this incident, Huguenot forces assembled their own troops to punish the Duc and to bring the other perpetrators sto justice. Protestant forces planned to attack the Catholic towns while appealing to countries such as England and Germany for financial and material support (Haine 102).

The monarchy headed by Catherine de' Medici asked the House of Guise to solve the problem being posed by the Protestants while appealing to the king of Spain for help. Towns and areas held by both parties were attacked and fortified cities were besieged but the Protestant factions remained strong, in fact the cities and areas of Southern France which was predominately Huguenot was untouched by war (Hartman 132). Due to the financial problems of the crown, the monarchy sued for peace and the Edict of Amboise was signed giving the Protestants some rights to propagate and to worship in public withot any fear of being arrested (Hartman 133).

Another war between the Huguenots and the Catholic was imminent when the Cardinal of Lorraine hatched a plan to kill Conde and Coligny who were the two important and vital leaders of the Huguenots movement in France (Diefendorf 65). Conde and Coligny escaped and went to La Rochelle (Huguenot stronghold) to raise an army while making an alliance with William of Orange of Netherlands who was then fighting Catholic Spain. The House of Guise meanwhile made an alliance with Mary, Queen of Scots who was a catholic because she is the next in line to the throne of Elizabeth who is a Protestant (Diefendorf 70). It is therefore vital to note that this French internal war was also mixed with the international politics, intrigue and differences in religion that is occuring in many parts of Europe. The Protestants, in this war used the fighting in Southern France to wear down the forces of the King. Again, due to the financial limitations of the monarchy, the King sued for peace and a treaty was signed in St. Germaine giving greater religious toleration to the Huguenots (Diefendorf 73).

The year 1572 was a hard year for all France, there was constant insuficiency of bread, food, fuel, almost all goods were sold at an exorbitant fee and harvests were hampered by bad weather. Together with these misfortunes, priests and members of the Clergy reiterated that these bad lucks were brought by God upon them because they were torelating heresies being made by the Huguenots (Tallett 182). Catholics viewed that the toleration of the Huguenot religion was an abomination to God that must be purged.

On August 23, 15782, due to the urging of Catherine de' Medici, the king, Charles IX ordered the troops to kill Coligny and other prominent members of the Huguenot leadership who were then attending an important wedding in Paris. Coligny was killed by the king's troops and rumours spread that the king has orderd the murder of all Huguenots in Paris and in the whole country (Tallett 184). The masses, frustrated by poverty and miserable condition vented their anger and rage to the Huguenots. Due to poverty experienced by the masses, the Huguenots became the scapegoats for the all the miseries and hardship that is experience by all France.  During this day, August 23, in what would be called St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, thousands of Huguenots all over Paris and France were killed (Tallett 185).  This massacre totally weakened the Huguenot movement in France due to the elimnation of its top leaders like Coligny while other Protestant leaders went to exile.

War was again declared between the Huguenots and Catholics when the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle refused to pay taxes to the king because of the participation of the state in the massacre that happened in August 23 (Salmon 260). The king declared war and an army was dispatched to besiege and capture the Protestant stronghold. Because La Rochelle was a port city, it was easily resupplied using the sea and in when the king saw that no improvement was visible in the siege of the stronghold he abandoned the port city and signed the Treaty of La Rochelle granting more freedom and religious toleration to the Protestants (Salmon 265).

Other wars and disagreement between Huguenots and Catholics followed and eventually the king would sign the Edict of Nantes that granted Huguenots freedom of worship and civil rights for nearly a century (Dees 201).

In seeing the whole perspective with regards to the religious wars that plagued France in the 16th century, we can see that these wars can be classified as a civil war between two particular and distinct forces of the French society that is divided not by two unique ideologies and theories but by two conflicting religious point of view, Catholicism and Protestantism. France in this period was caught up on the reformation movement where counter-Catholicist ideas are propagated in Europe. France was caught up between trying to accept a new and fresh perspective on religion exemplified by Protestantism and the Huguenots or sticking to the old religion which is Catholicism (Dees 32). During this period, Protestantism would temporarily triumphed as demonstrated by the Edict of Nantes but in the future, monarchs and kings would violate and revoke the Edict. Because of the strong hold of the clergy on the thought of the masses, Protestantism would eventually be eradicated. In the future, these wars solidified the predominantly Catholic French society in opposing and completely eradicating Protestantism.

The religious wars were also an international battle of Protestantism and Catholicism. Although the reason, location and events of these religious wars can be found inside France, it is quite clear that battles are also being fought in the international scene. Other countries based on their religion and affiliations supported specific parties in these religious wars. England and Germany supported the Huguenot movement although the extent and the size of their support are debatable while Spain, which is a Catholic country, supported the monarchy and the Catholic religion (Dees 47). It would seem that these countries are fighting one another while using the French religious wars as a camouflage. Foreign countries exerted their influence and power by meddling into these internal religious wars inside France by supporting the factions that would greatly benefit their interest. On these assumptions, it is proper therefore to see that potential power and supremacy, not religion was the main reasons of these intrusions and meddling. France therefore is a battlefield between Protestantism and Catholicism during the 16th century.

These religious wars also highlighted the differences and disparity of all people in France with regards to religious matter. This created animosity and conflict that resulted in a bloody and destructive civil war. As can be seen, when a society is faced with hardship, poverty and suffering, the masses turns to religion for salvation and comfort. In the case of 16th century France, when the state cannot alleviate and ease the burden of the masses, the people turn into religion and their Catholic faith in explaining and rationalizing these sufferings. Because the Huguenot religion was an against the doctrines of Catholicism, the church cunningly used the ignorance and naivety of the people telling the masses that Huguenots are the root cause of these sufferings and in order to erase these hardships, all members of the Huguenot faith must be eradicated (Haine 101). In doing so, the Huguenots became the scapegoats and the proverbial sacrificial lamb to a problem that cannot be solved by both the state and the church.

The effects of these wars and internal strife inside the French society have a large and significant impact upon the different aspects of France. These wars brought numerous negative effects that were felt by the country and these had retarded the growth and development of the country. First of all, the royal treasury was almost empty when these wars against the Protestant movements were fought (Haine 199). As can be seen, lack of financial capability was one of the reasons why the monarchy was unable to totally eradicate the military power posed by the Huguenots. In almost all wars fought against the Protestants, the king had to sue for peace because the royal treasury was empty. These wars therefore drained the financial stability of the country. It made the country suffer inflation, decreased production of goods while the masses felt the added burden of taxation being implemented by the state.

If these financial resources were diverted into more beneficial ways like the establishment of universities and other schools of learning or improving port facilities and transportation the country would be greatly benefited. Improved port facilities and transportation services would then be useful to the economy because it facilitates the faster transfer of goods, services, food and other resources from one part of France to another.

These wars also claimed many lives and destroyed many properties, buildings, brides and other important facilities. These religious wars claimed the lives of men, both Huguenots and Protestant, thereby sapping the vitality of the nation. In this condition, there would be labor shortages because men are not in the fields harvesting their crops resulting into massive famine and starvation the rural areas. Men who would someday contribute to the progress and development of France were killed, men like Coligny who, although a Huguenot was a brilliant admiral, statesman and military general that can be tapped by France if he survived the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre (Salmon 148). Public infrastructures such as government offices, bridges, ports, roads were destroyed during these wars cannot be used by the people and these would use money taken from the royal treasury to be build again.

These wars also disrupted the lives of the Huguenots living in France. Because of religious persecution and discrimination they are forced to immigrate to other free nations such as Switzerland, Germany, Belgium and England. This immigration is detrimental to the economy of France because most of these Huguenots are brilliant artisans and workers thereby stripping the country of its needed efficient and stable work force (Haine 115). Since most of the Huguenots are skilled artisans, laborers and merchants, these migrations would hurt the economy of the country while it would drastically improve the labor force countries where the Huguenots emigrated. France therefore has to content with its depleted and unskilled workforce due to Huguenot immigration and deaths brought by wars.

The religious wars also brought distrust and suspicions between Catholics and Protestants. In these wars, the two camps eyed one another with suspicion and doubts and literally accusing one another of heresies and other religious violations. These wars fostered the disunity and divisiveness inside the country thus hampering real progress and development. The monarchy cannot focus its attention in formulating policies that would alleviate the condition of the masses because it is always bothered by the Huguenot rebellions. Society therefore cannot function in harmony because a Frenchman harbors enmity and distrust to his fellow Frenchman.

At the Edict of Nantes, the monarchy saw that fighting the Protestants and Huguenots is not practical and in fact detrimental to the political health and economic stability of the country. The monarchy saw that in order to obtain stability, peace and progress, the country must be united even though the people have two distinct religions. The state discovers that toleration and leniency in terms of religious freedom is the acceptable policy that must be followed by the government.






Dees, Richard. Trust and Toleration. New York: Routledge, 2004.

Diefendorf, Barbara. Beneath the Cross: Catholics and Huguenots in 16th Century Paris. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Haine, Scott. The History of France. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Hartman, Anja. War, Peace and World Orders in European History. London: Routledge, 2001.

Salmon, J. The French Religious Wars in English Political Thought, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959.

Tallett, Frank. War and Society in Early Modern Europe, 1495-1715. New York: Routledge, 1997.


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