The French Wars of Religion

The French Wars of Religion (1562–98) is the name of a period of fighting between French Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots).


  • Discuss how the patterns of warfare that took place in France affected the Huguenots


    • Protestant ideas were first introduced to France during the reign of Francis I, who firmly opposed Protestantism, but continued to try and seek a middle course until the later stages of his regime.
    • As the Huguenots gained influence and displayed their faith more openly, Roman Catholic hostility to them grew, spurning eight civil wars from 1562 to 1598.
    • The wars were interrupted by breaks in peace that only lasted temporarily as the Huguenots’ trust in the Catholic throne diminished, and the violence became more severe and Protestant demands became grander.
    • One of the most infamous events of the wars was the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, when thousands of Huguenots were killed by Catholics.
    • The pattern of warfare followed by brief periods of peace continued for nearly another quarter-century. The proclamation of the Edict of Nantes, and the subsequent protection of Huguenot rights, finally quelled the uprisings.


  • Edict of NantesIssued on April 13, 1598, by Henry IV of France; granted the Huguenots substantial rights in a nation still considered essentially Catholic.
  • HuguenotsMembers of the Protestant Reformed Church of France during the 16th and 17th centuries; inspired by the writings of John Calvin.
  • Real PresenceA term used in various Christian traditions to express belief that in the Eucharist, Jesus Christ is really present in what was previously just bread and wine, and not merely present in symbol.



The French Wars of Religion (1562–1598) is the name of a period of civil infighting and military operations primarily between French Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots). The conflict involved the factional disputes between the aristocratic houses of France, such as the House of Bourbon and the House of Guise, and both sides received assistance from foreign sources.

The exact number of wars and their respective dates are the subject of continued debate by historians; some assert that the Edict of Nantes in 1598 concluded the wars, although a resurgence of rebellious activity following this leads some to believe the Peace of Alais in 1629 is the actual conclusion. However, the Massacre of Vassy in 1562 is agreed to have begun the Wars of Religion; up to a hundred Huguenots were killed in this massacre. During the wars, complex diplomatic negotiations and agreements of peace were followed by renewed conflict and power struggles.

Between 2,000,000 and 4,000,000 people were killed as a result of war, famine, and disease, and at the conclusion of the conflict in 1598, Huguenots were granted substantial rights and freedoms by the Edict of Nantes, though it did not end hostility towards them. The wars weakened the authority of the monarchy, already fragile under the rule of Francis II and then Charles IX, though the monarchy later reaffirmed its role under Henry IV.

Introduction of Protestantism

Protestant ideas were first introduced to France during the reign of Francis I (1515–1547) in the form of Lutheranism, the teachings of Martin Luther, and circulated unimpeded for more than a year around Paris. Although Francis firmly opposed heresy, the difficulty was initially in recognizing what constituted it; Catholic doctrine and definition of orthodox belief was unclear. Francis I tried to steer a middle course in the developing religious schism in France.

Calvinism, a form of Protestant religion, was introduced by John Calvin, who was born in Noyon, Picardy, in 1509, and fled France in 1536 after the Affair of the Placards. Calvinism in particular appears to have developed with large support from the nobility. It is believed to have started with Louis Bourbon, Prince of Condé, who, while returning home to France from a military campaign, passed through Geneva, Switzerland, and heard a sermon by a Calvinist preacher. Later, Louis Bourbon would become a major figure among the Huguenots of France. In 1560, Jeanne d’Albret, Queen regnant of Navarre, converted to Calvinism possibly due to the influence of Theodore de Beze. She later married Antoine de Bourbon, and their son Henry of Navarre would be a leader among the Huguenots.

Affair of the Placards

Francis I continued his policy of seeking a middle course in the religious rift in France until an incident called the Affair of the Placards. The Affair of the Placards began in 1534 when Protestants started putting up anti-Catholic posters. The posters were extreme in their anti-Catholic content—specifically, the absolute rejection of the Catholic doctrine of “Real Presence.” Protestantism became identified as “a religion of rebels,” helping the Catholic Church to more easily define Protestantism as heresy. In the wake of the posters, the French monarchy took a harder stand against the protesters. Francis I had been severely criticized for his initial tolerance towards Protestants, and now was encouraged to repress them.

Tensions Mount

King Francis I died on March 31, 1547, and was succeeded to the throne by his son Henry II. Henry II continued the harsh religious policy that his father had followed during the last years of his reign. In 1551, Henry issued the Edict of Châteaubriant, which sharply curtailed Protestant rights to worship, assemble, or even discuss religion at work, in the fields, or over a meal.

An organized influx of Calvinist preachers from Geneva and elsewhere during the 1550s succeeded in setting up hundreds of underground Calvinist congregations in France. This underground Calvinist preaching (which was also seen in the Netherlands and Scotland) allowed for the formation of covert alliances with members of the nobility and quickly led to more direct action to gain political and religious control.

As the Huguenots gained influence and displayed their faith more openly, Roman Catholic hostility to them grew, even though the French crown offered increasingly liberal political concessions and edicts of toleration. However, these measures disguised the growing tensions between Protestants and Catholics.

The Eight Wars of Religion

These tensions spurred eight civil wars, interrupted by periods of relative calm, between 1562 and 1598. With each break in peace, the Huguenots’ trust in the Catholic throne diminished, and the violence became more severe and Protestant demands became grander, until a lasting cessation of open hostility finally occurred in 1598.

The wars gradually took on a dynastic character, developing into an extended feud between the Houses of Bourbon and Guise, both of which—in addition to holding rival religious views—staked a claim to the French throne. The crown, occupied by the House of Valois, generally supported the Catholic side, but on occasion switched over to the Protestant cause when it was politically expedient.

St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

One of the most infamous events of the Wars of Religion was the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, when Catholics killed thousands of Huguenots in Paris. The massacre began on the night of August 23, 1572 (the eve of the feast of Bartholomew the Apostle), two days after the attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the military and political leader of the Huguenots. The king ordered the killing of a group of Huguenot leaders, including Coligny, and the slaughter spread throughout Paris and beyond. The exact number of fatalities throughout the country is not known, but estimates are that between about 2,000 and 3,000 Protestants were killed in Paris, and between 3,000 and 7,000 more in the French provinces. Similar massacres took place in other towns in the weeks following. By September 17, almost 25,000 Protestants had been massacred in Paris alone. Outside of Paris, the killings continued until October 3. An amnesty granted in 1573 pardoned the perpetrators.

The massacre also marked a turning point in the French Wars of Religion. The Huguenot political movement was crippled by the loss of many of its prominent aristocratic leaders, as well as many re-conversions by the rank and file, and those who remained were increasingly radicalized.

St. Bartholomew Massacre painting by François Dubois, a Huguenot painter

Born circa 1529 in Amiens, Dubois settled in Switzerland. Although Dubois did not witness the massacre, he depicts Admiral Coligny’s body hanging out of a window at the rear to the right. To the left rear, Catherine de’ Medici is shown emerging from the Château du Louvre to inspect a heap of bodies.

War of the Three Henrys

The War of the Three Henrys (1587–1589) was the eighth and final conflict in the series of civil wars in France known as the Wars of Religion. It was a three-way war fought between:

  • King Henry III of France, supported by the royalists and the politiques;
  • King Henry of Navarre, leader of the Huguenots and heir-presumptive to the French throne, supported by Elizabeth I of England and the Protestant princes of Germany; and
  • Henry of Lorraine, Duke of Guise, leader of the Catholic League, funded and supported by Philip II of Spain.

The war began when the Catholic League convinced King Henry III to issue an edict outlawing Protestantism and annulling Henry of Navarre’s right to the throne. For the first part of the war, the royalists and the Catholic League were uneasy allies against their common enemy, the Huguenots. Henry of Navarre sought foreign aid from the German princes and Elizabeth I of England.

Henry III successfully prevented the junction of the German and Swiss armies. The Swiss were his allies, and had come to invade France to free him from subjection, but Henry III insisted that their invasion was not in his favor, but against him, forcing them to return home.

In Paris, the glory of repelling the German and Swiss Protestants all fell to the Duke of Guise. The king’s actions were viewed with contempt. People thought that the king had invited the Swiss to invade, paid them for coming, and sent them back again. The king, who had really performed the decisive part in the campaign, and expected to be honored for it, was astounded that public voice should thus declare against him. The Catholic League had put its preachers to good use.

Open war erupted between the royalists and the Catholic League. Charles, Duke of Mayenne, Guise’s younger brother, took over the leadership of the league. At the moment it seemed that he could not possibly resist his enemies. His power was effectively limited to Blois, Tours, and the surrounding districts. In these dark times the King of France finally reached out to his cousin and heir, the King of Navarre. Henry III declared that he would no longer allow Protestants to be called heretics, while the Protestants revived the strict principles of royalty and divine right. As on the other side ultra-Catholic and anti-royalist doctrines were closely associated, so on the side of the two kings the principles of tolerance and royalism were united.

In July 1589, in the royal camp at Saint-Cloud, a Dominican monk named Jacques Clément gained an audience with the King and drove a long knife into his spleen. Clément was killed on the spot, taking with him the information of who, if anyone, had hired him. On his deathbed, Henri III called for Henry of Navarre, and begged him, in the name of statecraft, to become a Catholic, citing the brutal warfare that would ensue if he refused. He named Henry Navarre as his heir, who became Henry IV.

Edict of Nantes

Fighting continued between Henry IV and the Catholic League for almost a decade. The warfare was finally quelled in 1598 when Henry IV recanted Protestantism in favor of Roman Catholicism, issued as the Edict of Nantes. The edict established Catholicism as the state religion of France, but granted the Protestants equality with Catholics under the throne and a degree of religious and political freedom within their domains. The edict simultaneously protected Catholic interests by discouraging the founding of new Protestant churches in Catholic-controlled regions. With the proclamation of the Edict of Nantes, and the subsequent protection of Huguenot rights, pressures to leave France abated.

In offering general freedom of conscience to individuals, the edict gave many specific concessions to the Protestants, such as amnesty and the reinstatement of their civil rights, including the right to work in any field or for the state and to bring grievances directly to the king. This marked the end of the religious wars that had afflicted France during the second half of the 16th century.