Huguenot Wars

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Le massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy , the bloody night of Bartholomew in 1572, painted by François Dubois (1529–1584)
The Michelade massacre in Nîmes on September 29, 1567: around a hundred Catholic monks and clergy fell victim to the Protestant rebels.

The Huguenot Wars from 1562 to 1598 were a series of eight civil wars in France . The French are still aware of the massacre of the French Protestants or, more precisely, the Calvinists , the so-called Huguenots , on Bartholomew's Night and the political termination by the popular King Henry IV . The aim of a Catholic aristocratic party was to exclude the Huguenots at least from the state and church benefices and at the same time to control the kingship. They marked the last riot of regional forces against the absolutist central power in France and were characterized - on both sides equally - by lust for power, betrayal and vindictiveness.

Similar to the later Thirty Years' War , the Huguenot Wars were not purely religious wars; Dynastic and power-political backgrounds played an equally important role. In the Huguenot Wars that were fought in France, it was not just about the question of correct religious affiliation . The French nobility also fought his privileges and freedom of action in relation to the development of a centralized monarchy, which during the reign of Francis I began. In the European arena, on the other hand, there was an effort to find new coalition partners in order to control Philip II's Habsburg Spain , which was regarded as overpowering . This against the background of the smoldering conflict between the kingdoms of England - Elizabeth I was enthroned in 1558 ( Elizabethan era ) - and Habsburg Spain.


Dynastic backgrounds

France was under the Valois rulers Francis I (1515–1547) and his son Henry II (1547–1559) the strongest European state of the Renaissance , but even before the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559 it was becoming apparent that France would Would lose position to Spain. Only their permanent rival, Emperor Charles V , was of equal rank ; however, this ruled an inherited conglomerate of states that were grouped around France. French stability was based heavily on religious unity and the national wars against Charles V and his son Philip II , which, however, militarized the French nobility. The untimely deaths of Henry II and his eldest son a year later created a dangerous dynastic situation in which the Italian queen widow Catherine de Medici pitted the noble parties against each other in order to secure the throne for her underage sons. An essential component was the struggle for power in France between the House of Guise (Lorraine) on the one hand and the House of Bourbon on the other.

Religious backgrounds

King Franz I was initially quite benevolent to the demands of the Reformation. This changed fundamentally with the Affaire des Placards : in October 1534 posters were posted in public places in larger cities in France, in which an open attack on the Catholic concept of the Eucharist was presented. As one of these posters had been placed inside the royal castle of Amboise , Francis I had to fear for his own safety from now on. Just two weeks later, Protestant sympathizers were arrested and even put at the stake.

In France, Protestantism only gained a foothold relatively late in the form of Calvinism : French-speaking Geneva had been under the permanent protection of the confederates since 1536 . There, John Calvin, who fled France, introduced the Reformation, but with the doctrine of predestination he set different religious accents than Lutheranism in Germany and Zwingli in German-speaking Switzerland. Above all, Calvin organized a systematic mission aimed at the nobility in France and the Walloon parts of the Spanish Netherlands .

One of the most important differences between the two competing Christian interpretations of the faith, that is, between the Catholic and Calvinist faith, lay in the interpretation of the Eucharist or the Lord's Supper. Catholics believe that bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ and that Jesus is physically present at every mass , and only an ordained priest is allowed to consecrate it . For the Calvinist bread and wine at the Lord's Supper are more a symbol of Jesus' love for people. The Protestants, Calvinists as well as Lutherans, also rejected the veneration of Mary and the saints , as this could diminish God's honor. In addition, the Calvinists believe in predestination . This means that even before birth it is predetermined who can go to heaven . In this predestination nothing can be changed by a pious life. However, the Calvinist wants to prove through moral rigor and success that he is chosen. In Catholicism it is in principle possible for a believing person to go to heaven and this despite sometimes considerable offenses against a pious and sinless life. The prerequisite for this, however, is the need to repent . According to Luther, God's grace and forgiveness alone determine the afterlife, and the Christian must accept this primarily through his faith. In France, however, only Calvinism spread.

State political background

Around this time the Holy Roman Empire had already disintegrated into a multitude of so-called territories, whose rulers also determined the religion in their territories from 1555 onwards according to the principle " Cuius regio, eius religio ". Heinrich II wanted to prevent a religious fragmentation like in Germany. An agreement based on the principle of the Augsburg Religious Peace might have destroyed the centralization of France that began under Francis I.

Measures by King Henry II.

In the first year of his reign (1547), Henry II built the Chambre ardente in Paris; a chamber which persecuted the Huguenot members of the Parliament of Paris. In 1551 this principle was extended to the provincial parliaments in the Edict of Châteaubriant . In 1557 the Edict of Compiègne followed : Protestants “who disrupted order in any way” were placed under secular jurisdiction; Heinrich left the conviction for heresy to the Church. This then culminated in the Edict of Écouen in 1559 : From now on the courts for heresy were only allowed to impose the death penalty.

This repression was also motivated by foreign policy: the heir to the throne Franz II was married to the Scottish Queen Maria Stuart , who from a Catholic point of view could make legitimate claims to the English royal throne. Henry II therefore maintained the repression. In March 1560, the attempt to kidnap Francis II failed ( Amboise conspiracy ). With the exception of Louis I of Bourbon, Prince de Condé , all of the conspirators lost their lives. But the Huguenots were already so strong that their leader, Admiral Gaspard II. De Coligny , was able to protest in Fontainebleau against the violation of freedom of conscience. With the support of the House of Bourbon, which ruled the Kingdom of Navarre , Protestant preachers raised sufficient funds to equip an entire army, including powerful cavalry. (At the height of their power, the Huguenots controlled around 60 fortified cities and became a serious threat to the Catholic court and the capital, Paris.) It was only after the early death of Francis II that his mother tried to regent the underage Charles IX. (from 1560) a cautious policy of tolerance as a counterweight to the overly powerful Duke of Guise. A religious talk at Poissy in 1561 did not lead to the desired agreement. The Queen Mother raised the Bourbon Anton of Navarre to general governor, with Michel de l'Hôpital she appointed a moderate chancellor who formulated the Huguenot-friendly edict of Saint-Germain in 1562 . In it, the Huguenots were assured free religious practice outside of the fortified cities.

Sequence of wars

This policy of tolerance was torpedoed in March of the same year by the disempowered uncle of Maria Stuart, Duke Francis II of Guise , in the Vassy bloodbath of unarmed Huguenots. It is unclear whether the provocations came from Catholics or Protestants, but it is likely that Franz de Guise was responsible for power politics. (There are contradictions with regard to the number of fatalities: some cite only 23, other sources hundreds.) In three wars, the Huguenots secured a limited tolerance until 1570, secured by a few security posts.

During the First Huguenot War (1562–1563), the Prince of Condé organized a kind of protectorate in favor of the Huguenot communities. The Guisen (supporters of the Duke of Guise) kidnapped the king and his mother to Paris. In the battle of Dreux de Condé was captured, on the other hand Anne de Montmorency , the general of the government troops. In February 1563, Francis II of Guise was murdered during the siege of Orléans; Katharina now hastened to conclude an armistice that led to the Edict of Amboise in March . It was a religious peace in which the Huguenots - with the exception of Paris - were allowed to practice their religion freely.

The Second Huguenot War (1567–1568) was triggered because the Queen Mother did not want the power that had slipped from the Guises to simply pass to the Huguenots. In 1564, for example, implementing provisions for the Edict of Amboise were issued, which largely diluted its meaning. The Protestants in France also feared violent measures such as those initiated by Duke Alba in Flanders ; the Huguenot leaders de Condé and Admiral Coligny therefore decided to bring the young King Charles into their power. The plan was betrayed, de Condé besieged the court in Paris for six weeks and then delivered a battle at Saint-Denis on November 10, 1567 . With auxiliary troops under the electoral Palatinate Prince Johann Kasimir, he advanced again against Paris in February 1568, while the Catholic received support from Duke Alba. The Peace of Longjumeau confirmed the peace treaty of Amboise and promised general amnesty.

The Third Huguenot War (1568–1570) broke out in autumn of the same year . Both sides were dissatisfied and there were many bloody acts of violence. The leaders of the Huguenots went to La Rochelle , which became their headquarters because of its convenient overseas connection. Queen Joan of Navarre with her son Heinrich  - a Bourbon - also arrived there. Help came again from Protestant Germany (Zweibrücken and Orange) and from England. But in the battle of Jarnac (March 1569) the Huguenots were defeated; Prince von Condé was killed. Another defeat followed in the Battle of Moncontour in October 1569 , but the Huguenots were able to relieve La Rochelle with foreign support and defeat the royal troops at Luçon in June 1570 (which in turn had received help from Spain, the Papal States and the Duchy of Tuscany).

The Third Huguenot War ended with moderate politicians asserting themselves and making the peace of St. Germain en Laye. In addition to freedom of belief and amnesty , the Huguenots were now also - in addition to La Rochelle - awarded three fortified places.

Then the Huguenot leader Admiral Coligny succeeded in persuading the young French King Charles to adopt an anti-Spanish, pro-Protestant policy. As a measure of goodwill, the marriage of the young king's sister, Marguerite (Margot) of Valois , to the Huguenot leader Heinrich of Navarre was arranged. The wedding on August 15, 1572 was followed a week later by the notorious St. Bartholomew's Night - initiated by the Queen Mother . The butchers lasted for several days; Predatory greed and jealousy ran free. In September, the Cardinal of Lorraine, who belongs to the Guises family, celebrated a thanksgiving service on this occasion, which the Pope and Philip II applauded.

In the inevitable Fourth Huguenot War (1572–1573) that followed, the surviving Protestants defended themselves with the courage of desperation. The siege of La Rochelle by Heinrich, Duke of Anjou , was unsuccessful. Only when he was about to be elected King of Poland-Lithuania (and religious tolerance had to be demonstrated for this purpose) did this war come to an end in June 1573. In the Edict of Boulogne the Huguenots were promised an amnesty, but they were forbidden from all public services.

After the early death of Charles IX. Heinrich returned from Poland. Under his rule (as Henry III ), new battles soon began, the Fifth Huguenot War (1574–1576). The King and Queen Mother Catherine de Medici desperately tried to maintain royal authority between the rival factions. The Huguenots were joined by important nobles and marshals, and a German auxiliary corps was added. Given the overwhelming numbers of Protestants - especially in the southwest - the Duke of Mayenne, Charles de Lorraine , advised the king and his mother, who was still active, to make peace. It was closed in Beaulieu-lès-Loches in May 1576 and was more advantageous for the Huguenots than any previous agreement: with the exception of Paris and its two-mile radius, they were granted free religious practice throughout France, access to all offices and a total of eight security posts .

Henry III. wavered: at times he tried to personally take over the leadership of the Catholic party; At times he approached the Huguenots because he wanted to establish his younger brother Franz , then Duke of Anjou, as the leader of the Protestants in the rebellious Netherlands.

The peace conditions of Beaulieu met with so much resistance from the Catholic party that the extremist Henri I von Guise (son of Duke Francis II ) founded the " Holy League (1576) " in 1576 , a noble association for the defense of the faith. In fact, this union was not only supposed to defend the true faith, but also to weaken the central power in France in the interests of the regional nobility. Henry III. placed himself at the head of the league and resumed acts of war, but the Estates General denied him the means necessary to conduct the war successfully. This Sixth Huguenot War (1576–1577) did not last long - after minor successes, Heinrich III. 1577, because the Queen Mother Catherine feared the ambitious plans of the Duke of Guise, which he hoped to implement with the help of the League, more than the Huguenots.

Katharina even approached the Protestant leader Heinrich of Navarre. Once again there were conflicts over the execution of the peace, even a brief arms revolt took place with the Seventh Huguenot War (1579–1580). But the Duke Franz von Anjou , the youngest brother (and heir to the throne) of the king, soon brokered a new peace at Le Fleix in November 1580 . The Holy League was dissolved.

After the death of this Duke of Anjou in 1584, the Huguenot Heinrich III was under Salian inheritance law . of Navarre the next heir to the throne. Henri I von Guise did not want to grant the crown to a heretic and reactivated the Holy League. King Henry III for his part entered into negotiations with his brother-in-law Heinrich von Navarra and assured him of the succession to the throne - on the condition that he converted (again) to the Catholic faith. The renewed Holy League, however, had a new character: it was no longer a pure aristocratic party, but also a movement with popular support, especially in Paris. At the beginning of 1585 she concluded an alliance with Spain, proclaimed the old Cardinal of Bourbon as heir to the throne and in July 1585 forced the king to issue the Edict of Nemours , which withdrew all previous concessions to the Huguenots and also excluded Henry of Navarre from the line of succession. Then the Huguenots took up arms again in the Eighth Huguenot War (1585–1598). This civil war, which had rather the succession as a religious content the subject is, (King of the three heads of Henry III. Of France , King III Heinrich. Of Navarre and Duke Henry I of Guise ) and the "War of the Three Henrys" called .

In the autumn of 1587, however, the Huguenot victory at Coutras gave the war a new turn. Duke Heinrich von Guise tried to bring the weakened king to his knees with an ultimatum. Instead of giving in to the demands of the league, however, the latter reacted with surprising firmness and had troops deployed in Paris. Thereupon triggered a "League of Sixteen" under the leadership of the Duke of Guise in the city from a popular uprising ("Day of the Barricades" on May 12, 1588). In July, King Henry III. Disempowered: the Union edict of Rouen renewed the provisions of Nemours and excluded any non-Catholic prince from the line of succession.

At the meeting of the Estates General in Blois in December 1588, however, at the instigation of the king, his worst adversaries, the Duke of Guise and his brother, Cardinal Louis of Lorraine, were murdered. Heinrich III sought the subsequent uprising of fanatical masses. to overthrow in alliance with Henry of Navarre, but was murdered himself in early August 1589 during the siege of Paris. With his death, the Valois dynasty died out.

Henry III. of Navarre from the Bourbon branch line became King Henry IV . With his troops he ruled the south and west of France (traditionally Huguenot for decades), while the League under Charles II. De Lorraine, duc de Mayenne, the successor of the murdered Henri von Guise, held the north and the east, especially Paris . In September 1589, Henry defeated the League at the Battle of Arques and gradually gained control over all of Normandy . Six months later, his victory at Ivry brought a preliminary decision, but Paris was able to hold on with Spanish help. He was only able to secure the capital and the throne after converting to Catholicism. The eighth Huguenot War - started as a civil war - finally turned into a national war against Spain.

In 1582 Heinrich III. the then leader of the Holy League, Philippe Emmanuel, Duke of Mercœur , made governor of Brittany , who in turn appointed himself “Protector of the Catholic Church” in 1588 and - due to his wife's old inheritance claims - wanted to detach Brittany from the Kingdom of France. As the "Prince and Duke of Brittany" he allied himself with Philip II of Spain . In this way he hoped to interfere in French domestic politics and at the same time to gain a valuable base in Brittany in his conflict with England. Henry IV suffered a defeat (on May 23, 1592 at Craon ), but was able to achieve Mercœur's submission in March 1598 with English support.

After that, in 1598, the Edict of Nantes ended the Huguenot Wars. The Huguenots received limited religious tolerance, secured by security posts in southern France, whose Huguenot garrisons were paid by the king. The compromise found in 1598 made the Huguenots a foreign body in the state and second-class citizens, as they were de jure excluded from all Catholic church mortgages and de facto also from state offices. From 1598 the Huguenots slowly declined from around 10% of the population to a relatively small minority.


France could only play out its real power under Louis XIV from 1661, who was able to establish his strong personal rule also because of the traumatic Huguenot Wars. In the European concert of power, Habsburg Spain was able to postpone its decline until around 1659. The colonial rivals England, Spain and Portugal founded American colonial empires by 1661, which were more promising than the French colonies in America.


  • Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller: La Paroles et les Armes. Chronique des Guerres de religion en France (1562–1598). Genève o.J.
  • Julien Coudy (Ed.): The Huguenot Wars in eyewitness reports. Edited by Julien Coudy. Forewords by Pastor Henry Bosc and A.-M. Roguet OP Historical outline by Ernst Mengin. Düsseldorf 1965.
  • Natalie Zemon Davis: The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-Century France. In: Soman, Alfred (Ed.): The Massacre of St. Bartholomew. Reappraisals and Documents. The Hague 1974, pp. 203-242.
  • Barbara B. Diefendorf: Beneath the Cross. Catholics and Huguenots in Sixteenth-Century Paris. New York / Oxford 1991.
  • Mack P. Holt: The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629. (= New approaches to European history 8) Cambridge 1995.
  • Nancy Lyman Roelker: One King, One Faith: The Parlement of Paris and the Religious Reformations of the Sixteenth Century. University of California Press, Berkeley 1996.
  • NM Sutherland: The Massacre of St Bartholomew and the European Conflict 1559–1572. London / Basingstoke 1973.
  • August Lebrecht Herrmann: France's religious and civil wars in the 16th century. Voss, 1828
  • Robert J. Knecht: Renaissance France 1483-1610. Blackwell Classic Histories of Europe, John Wiley & Sons, 2001, ISBN 0-6312-2729-6 .
  • Robert J. Knecht: The French Wars of Religion, 1559–1598. Seminar Studies in History, Longman, 2010, ISBN 1-4082-2819-X .

Web links

Commons : Huguenot Wars  - collection of images, videos and audio files

Individual evidence

  1. Allan A. Tulchin: The Michelade in Nimes, 1567. French Historical Studies, Vol 29, No.. 1 (Winter, 2006): 1-35.
  2. Ulrich Niggemann: Immigration Policy Between Conflict and Consensus: Huguenot Settlement in Germany and England (1681–1697). Böhlau Verlag, Cologne / Weimar 2008, ISBN 3-4122-0198-7 , pp. 39–60.