The Edict of Nantes, Wars of Religion, and Damnable Nationalism

The Edict of Nantes was a pragmatic, political solution to the civil strife that existed in a sixteenth-century France ravaged by wars of religion. Though the edict itself was not trusted, appreciated, or liked by most Frenchmen at the time, its implementation (and enforcement by Henri of Navarre) succeeded in securing a measure of domestic tranquility to this nation seeking to establish itself in modern, international, secular statecraft.

Broadly speaking, the Edict divides the history of Counter-Reformation France into two eras. The first was a bellicose era in which Reformation and Counter-Reformation forces fought each other with great intensity. In the second era, the politique, or political compromisers, forged a nationalism which put the interests of the state ahead of those of religion. Subsequent French history would see the unfolding of this policy of secular nationalism, a policy which would tragically undermine the Counter-Reformation by allying itself with Protestant forces against the Hapsburgs. For convenience, we can call the first era one of “religious combat” and the second, that of “nationalist compromise.” I will therefore treat the subject of Counter-Reformation Church-State relations in France in three sections: (1) The era of religious combat, (2) the Edict of Nantes itself, and (3) the era of nationalist compromise.

The Era of Religious Combat. Between 1562 and 1598, France witnessed an era of almost continuous civil war. The belligerents, Catholics and Protestants, were led by the Guise family and the Huguenot Calvinists respectively. The Huguenots, though a minority of the populace, comprised a third or perhaps a half of the nobility. Their political and financial strength, concentrated mostly in southwestern France, made them a serious force to be reckoned with. Their Protestantism was not the “broad and comfortable Anglicanism” or “half-way Lutheranism inspired by governments”[1]; it was extreme Calvinism. In them, the traditionally ungovernable temperament of the French nobility combined with the anti-authoritarian, almost anarchistic character of Calvinism. This was a dangerous combination, as the nobility were traditionally the warrior class.

For their part, the House of Guise, a branch of the ducal family of Lorraine claiming descent from Blessed Charlemagne, were loyal Catholics who did much to advance the Counter-Reformation cause against the Protestants, although their own violence could at times undermine the moral integrity of their cause. In their attempts to unseat Protestant power in France, the Guise aroused the suspicions of certain French patriots (including the House of Valois[2]) by forging alliances with Spain. In their defense, though, it should be said that the Guise appeals to a foreign power had their counterpart in the Huguenots, who appealed to the English Protestants for assistance. Such an Anglo-Huguenot alliance would have been far more undermining of French unity inasmuch as it was an invitation to resume the horrors of the Hundred Years’ War.

The virtual forty-year war which marks our “era of religious combat” was not a conventional war. It is broken up by historians into eight or nine distinct civil wars (Hence, “wars of religion”). These wars constituted a series of skirmishes and almost random attacks here and there: “In this period from 1560-1590 or to 1598 they fight, but they do not fight regular orderly battles. You cannot say here is the Protestant army gathered on this side and on the other side say of a river are the Catholic forces. It’s more like marauders or bands that just simply run the countryside promoting the one cause or the other.”[3] To make matters worse, both sides resorted to assassination. Things came to a head when Henri II was accidentally killed in a tournament, leaving three sons, the oldest of whom was a lad of fifteen. Acting as regent for her effeminate royal sons was Catherine de Medici, an Italian Renaissance matron with all the gift of decadent intrigue that appellation conveys. Ever the scheming politician, Catherine tried to play the Guises against the Protestants. She ended this dangerous game when she feared the dominance that the Huguenot General Coligny exerted on her son, the young Charles IX. She therefore arranged, with Henri de Lorraine (Guise), the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day. On August 23, 1572, a great number of Huguenots, present in Paris to celebrate the marriage of Henri of Navarre, were brutally slain. Far from cutting off Huguenot power and ending the strife, the treacherous move exacerbated the situation and aroused the fury of the Protestants. Civil strife escalated with both sides hiring German mercenaries to fight a renewed civil war.

Disgust with all of this killing had the effect of creating a middle party, neither Catholic nor Protestant in their allegiance, men whose desire for both an end to the killing and the common good of the nation made them overlook confessional differences. These were the politiques. Among their number could be counted the political philosopher, Bodin, the man who developed the modern theory of state sovereignty. Also to be counted in this party was Henri of Navarre, the one-time Huguenot chief who succeeded to the throne at the end of the last of the wars of religion. This war, called, appropriately enough, “The War of the Three Henrys” ended when Henri III (Valois) was assassinated by the partisans of the assassinated Henri de Guise. Henri IV, as Navarre was called, was the first of the house of Bourbon to sit on the throne of France. He was also the most popular French king since St. Louis IX. Knowing that the majority Catholic France would never countenance a Protestant king (especially in Paris, where Protestantism was almost non-extant), Henri IV converted to Catholicism in 1593. It is said that he cynically quipped, “Paris is worth a Mass.” Whether or not he said this, the comment gives anecdotal life to the religious nonchalance one would expect of a politique.

The Protestants, at first delighted by one of their own coming to the throne, were thrown into anxiety by Heri’s conversion. The new King had do to something to assure his former coreligionists that they would not lose what they had gained in all their years of hard fighting. To answer their demands, Henri produced the Edict of Nantes.

The Edict Itself. “The Edict granted to every seigneur, or noble who was also a manorial lord, the right to hold Protestant services in his own household. It allowed Protestantism in towns where it was in fact the prevailing form of worship, and in any case in one town of each baillage [bailiwick, or region governed by a bailiff] throughout the country; but it barred it from Catholic episcopal towns and from a zone surrounding and including the city of Paris. It promised that Protestants should enjoy the same civil rights as Catholics, the same chance for public office, and access to the Catholic universities.”[4] In addition, the Edict created “mixed chambers” of Protestants and Catholics in certain superior courts of law. It also guaranteed that several Protestant towns, about one hundred of them, could maintain fortified garrisons under Protestant command.

The edict pacified the Protestants, who ceased to be a rebellious fifth column in the state. However, it was sternly rejected by the Catholic parlements (law courts) of Paris Bordeaux, Toulouse, Aix, and Rennes. A true politique, Henri IV managed to silence these objections by extending certain favors to the Jesuits. “France’s chief minority was thus protected by the central government, not by popular wishes.”[5] Henri, afraid that the nation was as yet too unstable to govern itself, refused to summon the Estates-General for the entirety of his twenty-five year reign. Though benevolent, his was a firm rule. In exemplifying Bodin’s theory of the sovereign, centralized, modern state, Henri’s reign was prototypical of the Bourbon dynasty, which stands in contrast to the subsidiarity which marked older Catholic dynasties, as well as the contemporary Hapsburg dynasties surrounding France.

The Era of Nationalist Compromise. When a fanatic assassinated Henri IV in 1610, the reigns of government came to Marie de Medici and her young son, Louis XIII. But the de facto ruler of France at this time was the secretary of state, one Armand-Jean du Plessis, Duke de Richelieu, Bishop of Luçon and Cardinal of the Roman Church. A personification of the politico-religious ambiguities and ironies of his day, Cardinal Richelieu’s statecraft led to the quip: “France: Catholic at Home, Protestant abroad.” Said another way, “Richelieu’s policy can be reduced to two principal ideas: the domestic unification of France and opposition to the House of Austria.”[6]

His “Catholic at home” side can be seen in his zeal to promulgate the Decrees of the Council of Trent throughout France, something done belatedly by the French Church. He also used the period of a political exile to compose a catechism which bore great fruits in countering religious ignorance throughout the realm. A book the Cardinal wrote on the claims of the Catholic Church led to the conversion of the Protestant pastor of Tonneins a hundred years after its writing. In his own diocese the shepherd showed zeal in converting the Protestants by having missions preached to them by Oratorians and Capuchins. He also assisted the efforts of St. Vincent de Paul in reforming the secular clergy. He did much to check resurgent Huguenot power, undoing at least one of the Edict of Nantes, the Huguenot privilege of holding their own fortified towns. From this point on, no armed force in France was not answerable to the king.[7] In the capitulation of La Rochelle and the peace of Alais (June 28, 1629), he “annihilated Protestantism as a political party.”[8]

His “Protestant abroad” policy was one dictated by nationalism. If we are to believe Belloc, the Cardinal was convinced that the interests of the Church were the interests of France, that France, eldest daughter of the Church, should be the nation to champion her cause, and not the Hapsburgs of Spain or of the Empire. Belloc’s view would partially (and only partially) excuse Richelieu’s foreign policy. It could never excuse the most horrible manifestation of this policy, the destructive alliance His Eminence secured with the Protestant Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden.

The Hapsburg effort to de-Protestantize their realms would have produced a strong Empire. But “The idea of a strong power in Germany was abhorrent to the French. France, through opposition to the Hapsburgs, was again put in the position of chief protector of Protestantism. France, as we have observed was a giant of Europe… As a French writer has observed, speaking of these years, the appearance of the fleur-de-lis upon the Rhine would tumble to the ground the vast projects of the Counter-Reformation.”[9] The Fleur-de-lis did indeed appear on the Rhine. Not only did France bankroll the Swedish war machine of the military genius Gustavus Adolphus, but through treacherous diplomacy with the enemies of the Hapsburgs in Spain – and even direct military intervention – Richelieu secured consistent Protestant victories. Gustavus Adolphus was killed in battle, but his side won, thanks to the man some Spaniards were given to calling “The Cardinal of the Protestants.”

The effects of Richelieu’s policy would reach their terminus in 1648, in Germany’s Peace of Westphalia, which marked an end both to the German wars of religion and to the Counter-Reformation as an effort to reclaim Christendom for the One, True Church.

[1] Palmer, R. R., A History of the Modern World, pg. 118.

[2] Henri III had Louis, Cardinal of Guise (1555-88), felled by four royal archers the same day that the Cardinal’s brother, Henri de Lorraine, was murdered by the king’s guards. Henri de Lorraine was hailed by many Catholics as a new Judas Machabeus and the staunch Catholic party considered Henri III a traitor for killing him. Henri III would himself be assassinated by a Guise partisan.

[3] Rev. Maurice Sheehan, O.F.M.Cap., Class notes for Lecture 5: “Lecture 5: Saints & Foundresses / France: Field of Battle,”

[4] Palmer, p. 121.

[5] Ibid., 122.

[6] Armand-Jean du Plessis, Duke de Richelieu, in the Catholic Encyclopedia,

[7] It should be said that this was not so much to promote Catholic interests as Royal interests, two elements often at tension in these days in France. The two elements were also radically at tension in the Cardinal himself!

[8] Ibid.

[9] Palmer, p. 125, emphasis mine.