France in the Reformation Era

The historian Wylie places the beginnings of the French Reformation in 1510 with the conversion of Lefevre to Protestantism. Louis XII was on the throne of France and he was perhaps the wisest monarch that occupied the throne at that period of time. The Pope at that time was Julius II who was more a self-proclaimed warlord than a shepherd of the flock of God. He liked nothing better than to pick a fight and then take himself and a bevy of able-bodied men onto the battlefield to try to win the said brawl. His most recent victim on the geopolitical playground was Louis of France, who though being meek and considerably more upright than the brawling Julius, was not one to take things lying down either. He assembled a session of parliament in Tours to decide whether or not it was lawful to go to war with the Pope. The advice handed down by the Parliament to the king is a testament to how the political leadership of France viewed the Pope and the Papacy at that time. According to the historian Wylie the verdict was;  “It is lawful for the king not only to act defensively but offensively against such a man”. Clearly, Julius was not a favorite with the French parliament. Louis immediately rallied his armies and marched against Julius and two years later he publicly made known his personal views of the Roman Church by minting a coin which bore the inscription “Perdan Babylonis Nomen” (I will destroy the name of Babylon).

Sick and tired of a Pope that spent more time conquering on a battlefield than preaching in a pulpit, Louis XII and the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I convened a council at Pisa to hold the Pope accountable for his actions. Julius failed to appear before them at which point they suspended him from office and effectively sought to take away his influence among the people. Julius retaliated by convening his own council, overturning the decisions made by the King and Emperor and excommunicating Louis XII and urging anyone who was willing and able to depose him from his throne. The entire cat and mouse game ended in a stalemate with the two rulers accomplishing little in the way of reforming the church.

Francis, Leo and Clement: The Dawn of  New Day

Julius II died in 1513 and Louis XII died shortly thereafter in 1515. Julius was succeeded by Cardinal John De Medici who took the name Leo X and Louis was succeeded by his nephew Francis I. Leo was not a warlord or a general, he was a Medici, the pampered son of one of the most affluent, wealthy and pretentious Florentine families of Europe. Leo took the Papal throne with great ambitions, to turn the church into a hub of art, culture, and elegance. The only thing he had in common with Julius is that they both didn’t really believe in God or Christianity which was a tragic irony given the position they were called to occupy.

Francis and Leo were a lot alike. They had both been influenced by the Renaissance that was blossoming around them and the refinement of taste that it encouraged. The art, the culture, the beauty all gratified their senses. Wylie tells us that Francis was greedy for fame and Leof was greedy for money and they were both greedy for pleasure. Francis established a Royal library that would later become the Bibliotheque Nationale and he also purchased Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa for the greatest price ever paid for a painting at the time.

Unfortunately for Francis, Charles V, Emperor of Spain and the Holy Roman Empire stole his thunder on the political stage, significantly humiliating him. Charles and Francis went head to head in a long series of Dynastic wars over territories they both claimed belonged to them; namely Milan and Naples.

They first went clashed in the Battle of Pavia in 1525 which ended badly for Francis. Charles V and his armies won and, to add insult to injury, they took Francis captive and laid claim to most of Northern Italy.

Fearing that Charles would gain control of Italy Pope Clement VII formed an alliance with France known as the League of Cognac which led to French and Papal forces attacking the Imperial armies in Italy in 1526. Charles rallied his forces and gained significant military aid from the Protestant German Princes after agreeing to the Edict of Speyer in 11526. He then went on to defeat the combined forces of the French and Papal armies, sacking Rome in 1527 and taking Clement captive.

The Battle of Pavia and the ensuing Wars of the League of Cognac formed a turning point for the reformation on many levels. First, it soured the relationship between France and Spain, making sure that the prospect of the two nations every marshaling their armies together was slim to none. France and Spain were two of the most formidable political and military powerhouses in the 16th century and had they come together with the common goal of crushing out the Reformation they very well could have. Secondly, it kept Charles V distracted so that he couldn’t really focus on a concerted effort against the Reformation. Of all the European monarchs of the early 16th Century, Charles V posed the greatest threat to the Reformation.  

Francis and Charles would go head to head a third time in a series of battles fought between 1528-1529 with Charles once more winning the day. The entire episode was a humiliating, not to mention tedious and expensive debacle for France and Francis.

Paris, France
Paris, France
Eiffel Tower, France
Paris, France

Catherine de Medici

The most formidable power brokers of the early 16th Century were the Pope, Francis I of France and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and Emperor of Spain. After his humiliating defeat at the hands of Charles V and the loss of his holdings in Italy, Francis was always on the prowl for a way to shift back the balance of power in his favor. After humbling the Pope in 1527, Charles had gotten his message across to the Papacy loud and clear and Clement VII was open to any and all suggestion that Charles had in mind. Francis needed a way to put himself back in the game and what better way than to propose a marriage? Francis was not exactly your 16th Century matchmaker but he did have his eye out for a suitable girl for his son Henry, Duke of Orleans and who better than the Pope’s very own niece Catherine De Medici?

The marriage would bind Francis to the Pope by a far greater tie than political union, that of familial loyalty. But surely the King couldn’t be serious? Would he actually stoop to marrying his son off to the descendant of a merchant? Well, desperate times called for desperate measures and right now Francis cared very little for rank or river bank. All that mattered to him was making sure that Charles didn’t checkmate him for the 4th consecutive time in a row! And so it came about that the blood of the noble Valois dynasty was inextricably linked with that of an incredibly wealthy merchant family from Florence.

Francis’ ploy worked well because, the Pope, so completely elated at the prospect of being related to French Royalty, would not even think of doing anything to jeopardize the marriage and refused to give ear to any more of Charles machinations against Francis. Francis for his part, in an attempt to recover some of what he had lost in Italy, had stipulated that Catherine bring with her as dowry almost all of the provinces that he had lost to Charles.

The most significant thing about the marriage of Henry and Catherine is this: little did anyone, not even Catherine, realize the significant and gruesome role she would play in the history of the Reformation in France. When she married Henry she was a laughing girl of 14 who loved being the center of attention but when she was finally laid to rest she had woven a legacy as one of the most calculating, power hungry and bloodthirsty women that history has ever seen.

Paris, France

The Huguenots

In the aftermath of the incident of the placards, many French Protestants fled France and scattered throughout Europe. Most found refuge in Geneva where Calvin and Farel had undertaken the work of spiritual and social reform and here, under the tutelage of Calvin they were trained and sent back to France to continue the work of the Reformation.

With this steady stream of young Calvinist missionaries pouring into France, it wasn’t long before there were over a thousand Protestant congregations planted throughout the country. The Protestants came to be identified as Huguenots and they exerted a mighty influence across the nation from the highest ranks of the nobility to the lowest ranks of the peasantry and through each layer of society in between. Perhaps it was the influence they exerted on the nobility or perhaps it was the example set by the Protestant states of Germany after Luther’s death but regardless of the reasons behind it the Huguenots soon found themselves at the center of a long and bloody period of religiopolitical upheaval in France.

The Huguenot Wars: An Introduction

One of the most influential noble families in France, the Bourbon family, were Huguenots, they were also closely related to the French monarchy. On the other side of the spectrum was the Guise family, Catholic and strongly allied to the militant Counter-Reformation launched by the church. Unfortunately, both families had their eyes on the throne and saw it as a means to secure the triumph of their respective religious views.

Caught in the midst of this fray was the Monarchy itself which was Catholic since France was an officially Catholic nation, but not at all allied to the Counter-Reformation. In fact, Catherine De Medici tried her best to keep religion out of politics in an attempt to preserve the authority of the state in a country that was becoming more and more religiously divided. The problem however with the monarchy was this, Charles IX was on the throne but in truth, he was just the puppet of his power mongering mother Catherine, who, come what may, would never relinquish the throne to anyone.

An added element that precipitated everything was the steady stream of Huguenot pastors that poured into France from Geneva. Protestantism was illegal in the Catholic kingdom of France but by 1563 there was a network of around 2000 Huguenot churches across France which began to worship more and more openly and even held a national synod in 1569 in LaRochelle. The Guise family blamed Charles and Catherine for the situation, stating that had they pursued a more proactive course in stamping out the heresy it would not have spread so wildly across the country. Charles was ambivalent and Catherine didn’t really care as long as it didn’t threaten her power base. This enraged the Guise family even more because they felt that the King was not a true defender of the faith that he was sworn to protect, especially since he was not actively committed to the principles of the Counter-Reformation. The Guise family began to network with the Jesuits, a society founded specifically for the purpose of stamping out the Reformation and Philip II of Spain, self-proclaimed defender of Catholicism and hero of the Counter-Reformation. Their purpose was to depose Charles IX, seize the throne and use its power to raise a Counter-Reformation in France similar to that of Spain.

Catherine De Medici was of course an avowed Catholic, having been the niece of not one but two Pope,s but she was not really interested in exhausting religious conflict and was interested even less in protecting Catholicism  but she would engage in any conflict necessary to preserve the throne. The Guise family soon became her chief enemies and being a firm believer in keeping her enemies as close as possible she soon began to gather them to herself as close friends. She used the same tactics with the Huguenots and welcomed them warmly into the very heart of her home at the Fontainebleau castle. Her strategy was to play both sides of the issue to her advantage but this strategy perhaps only served to irritate the Guise’s even more.

Paris, France

Open Warfare

Open warfare began in 1562 when Henry of Guise, the head of the Guise family rallied his troops and massacred a Huguenot congregation in Vassy. The Huguenots were outnumbered but under the leadership of Admiral Coligny they rallied to mount a defense and after a protracted struggle spanning a decade, the Huguenots started to gain the upper hand.

This development set off alarm bells throughout the camps of the Catholics and they began to hatch a plot that would lead to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572. Chief among the instigators of the plot was the Pope, Pius V, Philip II of Spain and the Duke of Alva who urged Catherine and Charles to rid France of the heretics, making a clear that the only way to do so was through the shedding of blood.

The plot was an elaborate one and orchestrated under the able guidance of Catherine De Medici herself. First, the Huguenots were lulled into a false sense of security by offering them military assistance to ward off an onslaught by Philip II in the Low Countries and by arranging a marriage between the Huguenot Henri de Bourbon of Navarre and Catherine’s own daughter Margaret de Valois. The offer of military assistance was designed to win trust while the offer of marriage was designed to lure many of the Huguenot leaders to Paris for the massacre.

A few days after the wedding celebrations Charles despatched a great marauding mob to go throughout Paris and massacre every Huguenot they could lay their hands on. The leaders were massacred in their beds at the Louvre and Coligny was beheaded in his room and his body thrown in the street. Henri de Bourbon was saved by the pleas of his new wife who, it is said, threw herself at the feet of her brother and pleaded for her husband’s life.

The Louvre, Paris

Climax of The War: The Spanish Armada

The climactic phase of the war was fought between 1588-1589 and was known as the War of the Three Henries after its principal combatants; Henry of Guise, Henry of Bourbon and King Henry III. In 1587 Henry of Guise looked to Spain for help and an alliance was formed with Philip II of Spain called the Holy League in which Philip promised troops, supplies and a master plan to defeat Protestantism. Philip was the self-proclaimed messiah of Catholicism in Europe and especially in England. He had long before decided to depose Elizabeth I of England and part of that plan was to deploy the Spanish Armada, a fleet of more than 200 warships,  making up the largest naval fleet ever assembled. The plan was to cross the Channel, invade and conquer England, and then cross the channel again, invade France and defeat the Protestants there as well.

The Armada sailed in 1588 and in preparation for its arrival in France, Henry of Guise mustered his forces and attacked Paris, forcing Henry III to flee his capital. This move was to prevent any possible interference with the Armada by the King. But the plan backfired and the King took a decided stand with the Bourbon Family and the Huguenots. Meanwhile, the Armada was defeated in the channel by the English fleet which was smaller and agiler and bad weather incapacitated the ships that had managed to evade the English. The Armada limped home with its tail between its legs with fewer than half its ships.

Paris, France

Assassination, Ascension and The Edict of Nantes

The tide now turned in favor of the Huguenot forces and their ally the King Henry III of France and at this point Henry III had Henry of Guise assassinated and named his brother-in-law Henry of Bourbon his heir.

In 1589 Henry III was assassinated by a Catholic and Henry of Bourbon a Huguenot ascended the throne of France as Henry IV. Henry IV quickly realized that he couldn’t make such a large and populous country officially Protestant but he also knew that it would be incredibly difficult for a Huguenot to rule France and in a completely unexpected maneuver converted to Catholicism reportedly remarking “Paris is worth a mass”. He then issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which guaranteed Huguenots full toleration and granting them the right to bear arms and protect their towns. He then proceeded to divest the political arena of any religious sentiment and ruled France by means of a purely political mechanism thus effectively putting an end to the Huguenot wars.