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The French Religious Crisis

Catholics did not take the Protestant break lightly. There was a strong reaction, usually refered to as the Counter-Reformation. The conflict between Protestants and Catholics convulsed Europe. The shockwaves of the Reformation lasted through the entire period we are studying.The battle between Protestants and Catholics was sometimes fought on the battlefield and sometimes in the schoolroom. Germany, France and later England suffered what amounted to civil wars over religious issues. The fighting began almost immediately in Germany. But it spread quickly enough to France. Henry IV of France, the first of the line Bouron kings, struggled in such a civil war. Henry's story both provides the background to help us understand issues about skepticism and religious toleration. It also makes plain that Montaigne's interest in skepticism was not, as one might say, purely academic.

Henry's parents had become Protestants and at the crucial age of 13 he was raised in the strict principles of Calvinist Protestantism. His military education started soon thereafter. He was prince of Navarre, and in 1567 he served as the nomial head of punitive expidition against rebellious Catholic gentry in lower Navare. He was present, though he did not fight, at several battles where Protestant forces were defeated. At the age of 16 his baptism of fire arrived when he led a charge of Protestant calvary.

In August 1570 peace was arranged, and Catherine de Médicis, the wife of Henry III, sought to arrange a marriage between Prince Henry and Marguerite de Valois, her daughter. The arrangements for the marriage were made, and Henry's mother went to Paris. She died almost immediately upon her arrival in Paris, making Henry, King of Navarre. On August 24, 1572 came the St. Bartholome's Day Massacre, in which thousands of French Protestants were cut down by royal forces. Ordered by his brother in law, Charles IX to abjure his Protestantism, Henry yielded. The sincerity of his conversion was obviously dubious, and he was held for three and a half years at the courts of Charles IX and then Henry III. He hid his character and decieved his retainers, even the wily Catherine de Médicis. It was with her seceret consent that he escaped from court at the beginning of 1576. Henry was notable for his common sense (except in love affairs), and when civil war broke out again and things went badly for the Protestants, he persuaded them to accept the Treaty of Bergerac in September 1672, despite the sacrifices it imposed on them.

Through the death of various members of the French royal family, Henry became the heir persumptive of the throne of France.
Henri IV of France
He was opposed, however, by the militant Catholics of the Holy League who were unwilling to accept a Protestant king. The Pope excommunicated Henry and declared that he had no right to inherit the crown. The increasing dependence of the Holy League on Spain led Henry III to break with the League and reconcilled himself to the King of Navarre. On August 30, 1589, Henry III was stabbed at his headquarters at Saint Cloud. He died the next day, after proclaiming Henry Bourbon, the first prince of the blood, the King of France. Thus did Henry IV become King of France. But it would take him some nine years to conquer his kingdom.

After becoming King, Henry defeated the forces of the Holy League and captured Chartes after a long siege on April 10, 1591. Henry was then crowned at Chartes (as Rheimes, the traditional site for the cornonation of French kings was still held by his enemies).
Henry IV's Triumphal Entry into Paris
Rubens, undated
Nonetheless the war dragged on and Henry realized that it must be stopped at any cost. On July 23, 1593 in Saint Dennis, the sepulchre of the French Kings, he abjured his Calvinism. Though many remained unconvinced of his sincerity, his conversion was the turning point. Town after town submitted, and Henry was finally able to make his triumphal entry into Paris.

Because of the support of Spain for the Holy League, Henry was eventually forced to fight a successful war with Spain from 1595 to 1598 which finally consolidated his power in France. Brittany had resisted Henry with Spanish support. After the Spanish war Henry prepared to remove the duc of Brittany. He did so bloodlessly by arranging a marriage between the daughter of the Duc and the eldest son of his mistress Gabrielle d'Estrées. The high point of his visit to Brittany was the issuing on April 13, 1599 of the Edict of Nantes which proclaimed freedom of conscience and granted many places of worship and nearly a hundred places of refuge to Protestants.

After having united France, Henry spent the rest of his reign healing France's wounds. More than a century of bitter religious conflict had torn France asunder, and peace was not to be easily achieved. Political and religious intrigue were entwined and there was more than one attempt on Henry's life. In December 1594, Jean Chatel wounded Henry with a dagger. This became a pretext to expel the Jesuits from the kingdom. Henry also faced the risk of having his work quite undone if he did not have a legitimate heir to the throne. Henry's marriage to Margaruite de Valois was annuled by the Pope which then allowed Henry to mary the princess of Tuscany, Marie de Médicis in October 1600. The new queen gave birth the following year to the Dauphin, the future Louis XIII. France flourished as her finances were reorganized and the economy stablized.

In 1610 Henry was preparing to launch a military expedition against the Hapsburgs. On May 14 he got into his coach with the intention of visiting an ailing minister. The coach had not gone far when traffic congestion in a narrow street caused the coachman to slow down. Suddenly, Francois Ravaillac, a religious fanatic, leaped into the King's coach and stabbed him two times with a long knife. Henry died on the way back to the palace, a victim of the fanaticism he wanted to eradicate. We might end this story by siting one of Henry's most inspriring remarks about religion: "Those who follow their conscience are of my religion, and I am of the religion of those who are brave and good."


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