This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations I: The History of Christian Civilization.
By 1589, France had undergone over 40 years of religious struggle and war. Though its people were mostly Catholic, France also had a large population of Protestants who were followers of John Calvin. Many Frenchmen had gone to Calvin in Geneva, in the French-speaking region of Switzerland. From Geneva, the French Calvinists had returned to France to spread their “reformed” religion.
The kings of France had made it difficult, however, for Protestantism to spread in the kingdom. Though King Francis I (Emperor Charles V’s old enemy) supported the Lutheran princes in Germany, he was vigorous in trying to stamp out Calvinism in France. Francis’s son, King Henry II, had carried on his father’s work. Throughout France the king was aided by magistrates who tried those teaching heretical doctrines and sentenced those convicted of heresy to be burned at the stake.
Yet, despite the efforts against them, the French Protestants increased in number and in power. Beginning in 1547, they began organizing churches in the major French cities, including Paris. It was in Paris in 1559 that Protestant French ministers formed a national church based on the teachings of John Calvin. These French Calvinists, called Huguenots, attracted members of the nobility—including Jeanne d’Albret, the queen of Navarre, and her husband, Antoine de Bourbon. The Huguenots thus had the backing of men of wealth and power.
Attempts to crush Protestantism in France ended when Francis II died in 1560. His son, Charles IX, was only 10 years old when he became king, so the boy’s mother, Catherine de Medici, ruled as regent. In an attempt to weaken the Guises, a powerful Catholic noble family, Catherine tried to gain the favor of the powerful Huguenot families. Yet, though she issued edicts granting freedom of religion to the Huguenots, they demanded more favors. At Montpellier, Huguenots rose and massacred about 30 people on October 20, 1561, and committed several other murders besides. Catholics under the Duke of Guise retaliated by slaying 23 Huguenots and wounding more than 100 others at Vassy on March 1, 1562. These slayings marked the beginning of all-out religious war.
Wars, known as the “Wars of Religion,” between the Huguenot and Catholic forces continued until 1563. The conflict broke out again in 1567 and continued to 1570, when Catherine again allowed the Huguenots freedom to practice their religion in certain cities and other locations in France. She even married her daughter to a prominent Huguenot named Henry de Bourbon, who became king of Navarre in 1572. Catherine, however, tried to have the Huguenot leader, Admiral de Coligny, assassinated— and when that failed, she ordered a mass killing of the Huguenot leaders on the Feast of St. Bartholomew, August 24, 1572. The ringing of church bells was the signal for the massacre, in which Coligny and his followers were slaughtered. Henry de Bourbon escaped their fate by promising to become Catholic.
Like a wave, the massacre spread from Paris (where about 2,000 Huguenots had been killed by mobs) to other French cities and towns, where thousands more were slain. But instead of weakening the Huguenots, these massacres only stiffened their resolve to resist.
When Charles IX died in 1576, his brother, Henry III, became king. Like his mother Catherine had done, Henry granted favors to the Huguenots—including the right to hold public office. In response, Catholics, led by Henry de Guise, formed the Catholic League to defend the Faith. Warfare broke out between the League and the Huguenots, led by Henry de Bourbon, who had again become Protestant. Conflict ended in 1580, leaving the Huguenots with the same freedoms they had before.
Though he made himself head of the Catholic League, Henry III at times favored the Protestants because he feared the power and influence of the Guise family. When the king in 1588 assassinated Henry de Guise, the people of Paris became so enraged that they drove the king from the city. Fleeing south to Chartres, Henry III made an alliance with Henry de Bourbon. But before the two Henrys could march on Paris, the king was killed by a mad Dominican monk named Jacques Clement. Henry III’s death brought to an end the House of Valois, which had ruled France since 1328.
Clement murdered Henry III because he believed the king was an enemy of the Catholic Faith. Yet, the next in line to the throne was none other than the Huguenot king of Navarre, Henry de Bourbon. The Catholic League refused to acknowledge Henry de Bourbon—now Henry IV—as king, and for four years civil war again bloodied France. Finally, seeing he could not rule France and remain a Protestant, Henry IV renounced his heresy before the archbishop of Bourges at the basilica of St. Denis in Paris on July 25, 1593. In this way, Henry firmly established his new dynasty, the House of Bourbon, over France.
A Resistance Hymn
The following is an example of a Huguenot a cappella hymn — a setting of Psalm 68, “O God arise and let they enemies be scattered!”