The religious wars began with overt hostilities in 1562 and lasted until the Edict of Nantes in 1598. It was warfare that devastated a generation, although conducted in rather desultory, inconclusive way. Although religion was certainly the basis for the conflict, it was much more than a confessional dispute.

“Une foi, un loi, un roi”

(one faith, one law, one king). This traditional saying gives some indication of how the state, society, and religion were all bound up together in people’s minds and experience. There was not the distinction that we have now between public and private, between civic and personal. Religion had formed the basis of the social consensus of Europe for a millenium. Since Clovis, the French monarchy in particular had closely tied itself to the church — the church sanctified its right to rule in exchange for military and civil protection. France was “the first daughter of the church” and its king “The Most Christian King” (le roy tres chretien), and no one could imagine life any other way.

“One faith” was viewed as essential to civil order — how else would society hold together? And without the right faith, pleasing to God who upholds the natural order, there was sure to be disaster. Heresy was treason, and vice versa. Religious toleration, which to us seems such a necessary virtue in public life, was considered tantamount to letting drug dealers move next door and corrupt your children, a view for the cynical and world-weary who had forgotten God and no longer cared about the health of society.

Innovation caused trouble.

The way things were is how they ought to be, and new ideas would lead to anarchy and destruction. No one wanted to admit to being an “innovater.” The Renaissance thought of itself as rediscovering a purer, earlier time and the Reformation needed to feel that it was not new, but just a “return” to the simple, true religion of the beginnings of Christianity.

These fears of innovation certainly seemed justified when Henri II died suddenly in 1559, leaving an enormous power vacuum at the heart of social authority in France. The monarchy had never been truly absolute (although François Ier made long strides in that direction), and had always ruled in an often uneasy relationship with the nobility. The nobles’ sense of their own rights as a class, and the ambitions of some of the more talented, were always there to threaten the hegemony of the crown.

When the vacuum appeared, the House of Guise moved in. François II, although only 15, was married to Mary Queen of Scots, a niece of the Duc de Guise. The Guise were a cadet branch of the House of Lorraine (an independent imperial duchy) that were raised to the peerage by François Ier. They were ambitious and had already produced at least two generations of exceptional leaders. The duc de Guise, François, was a military hero, and his brother, the Cardinal de Lorraine, was a formidable scholar and statesman. During François II’s brief reign, Guise power was absolute.

This greatly threatened the House of Montmorency, an ancient line which had enjoyed great political prominence under Henri II, as well as the Bourbons, who as the first princes of the blood had the rights of tutorship over a minor king. François II was not technically a minor (14 was the age of majority), but he was young and sickly and no one expected much from him.

These dynastic tensions interweave with the religious and social ones. The Bourbon princes were Protestant (the Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre and the Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Condé), and although the constable de Montmorency was Catholic, his nephews, the Châtillon brothers (including Admiral de Coligny) were Protestants. The Guise identified themselves strongly as defenders of the Catholic faith and formed an alliance with Montmorency and the Marechal St. André to form the “Catholic triumvirate.” They were joined by Antoine de Bourbon, who flip-flopped again on the matter of his religion. His wife, Jeanne d’Albret, the Queen of Navarre, remained staunchly Protestant and established Protestantism completely in her domains.

Catherine de’ Medici tried to promote peace by issuing the “Edict of Toleration” in January ’62, which made the practice of Protestantism not a crime, although it was restricted to preaching in open fields outside the towns and to the private estates of Huguenot (Protestant) nobles. This was not well-received by many Catholics.

The First War (1562-1563)

The first religious war was provoked by the Massacre at Vassy in ’62. The Duc de Guise, travelling to his estates, stopped in Vassy on a Sunday and decided to hear Mass. A few of his servants got into a scuffle with some Huguenots who were attending a service in a nearby building, and the whole thing escalated until the Guise faction had fired on the unarmed Huguenots, set the church on fire, and killed a number of the congregation.
The national synod for the reformed church met in Paris and appealed to the Prince de Condé to become the “Protector of the Churches.” He, his clients, and their respective client networks took on the task, and from this point the leadership of the Huguenots moves away from the pastors towards the noble “protectors”, and takes on a more militant tone. Condé mobilizes his forces quickly and moves decisively to capture strategic towns along the waterways, highways, and crossroads of France. He takes a string of towns along the Loire and makes his headquarters at Orléans.