I am presently taking part in the Historical Writer’s Forum Blog Hop. This year’s theme is “Momentuous events”, and as history is choc-full of momentuous events, it wasn’t exactly easy to whittle things down. But when restricting myself to momentuous events in July, today’s subject leapt out and grabbed me by the throat. Well, figuratively speaking, as had Henri IV of France done it in person, I’d have died of fright, seeing as he’s been dead since four centuries… Enough of an intro: let’s get down to business!
In retrospect, the day Martin Luther banged up his theses on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral was the day religious hell was unleashed on Europe. Luther wasn’t the first to raise concerns about how the Holy Church was managed—many were the religious thinkers before him who’d expressed criticisms—but his timing was impeccable. Maybe it was because of the recent introduction of the writing press in Europe. Maybe it was because of the rise of the vernacular at the expense of Latin. Whatever the case, Luther ignited a flame that became a bonfire, and one of the countries in which the religious fervour would explode into bloody violence was France.
It you ask people today, chances are they’ll say that France is a Catholic country. This is not strictly true, seeing as France has since centuries adopted a strict separation between state and faith, but yes, the majority of the people in France are likely Catholic. Back in the 16th century, the vast majority were Catholic—but there were pockets of determined and devout (mainly Calvinist) Protestants who wanted nothing but to live according to their strict interpretation of the Bible.
I am not going to take you through the very complicated back and forths of the religious conflicts that plagued France throughout the century. Suffice it to say that that as the Calvinist Protestant faction—the Huguenots—grew, so did the fear of the Catholics. Henri II had a zero-tolerance approach to the Huguenots, persecuting them viciously. However, when Henri II died as a consequence of having a lance pierce his eye during a tournament, the crown went to his eldest surviving son, a boy named Francois. The new king was all of fifteen, and the true power lay instead with his mother, Catherine of Medici.
Until then, Catherine’s role had been subordinate to that of her husband. Yes, they made babies together, but Henri preferred spending his time with his long-time mistress and most trusted advisor, Diane de Poitiers, than with his wife, who was considered somewhat unattractive and dour. Maybe she was—or maybe she soured when she was so openly dissed by her not-so-loving husband. Whatever the case, with Henri II dead, the lady from Italy came into her own. However: France was not an easy country to rule, and with a boy on the throne various French grandees took the opportunity to expand their power base at the expense of that of the king.
Francois died at the age of sixteen. His ten-year-old brother was quickly crowned as king, and Catherine remained in power. Not everyone was entirely happy with this. The powerful—and very, very Catholic—de Guise family were frustrated because, with the death of Francois his young de Guise wife—Mary, Queen of Scots, whose mother was Marie de Guise—was sent back to Scotland. Plus, while Catherine was not exactly tolerant of Protestants, she didn’t actively persecute them and this, according to the opinionated Duke de Guise, was a major flaw.
This seems like a good time to introduce today’s protagonist. I give you Henri of Navarre, born in 1553 as the heir to the Kingdom of Navarre. The little baby was baptised into the Catholic faith, but while Henri’s father, Antoine de Bourbon, was a staunch Catholic, his mother, Jeanne d’Albret, was a lady of intellectual and religious curiosity, and soon enough she’d decided Catholicism wasn’t for her, embracing instead the austere Calvinist faith. Accordingly, little Henri was educated in his mother’s new faith. As dear Papa died when Henri was still a child, he had no say in this.
The religious wars in France escalated. Young Henri was likely exposed to more than one campaign aimed at winning religious freedom. When Henri became king of Navarre in 1572, the nineteen-year-old could potentially become a rallying point for the Protestants who were presently growing from strength to strength, lead by the admirably capable Admiral de Coligny.
The religious wars ravaged France, leading to famine and financial ruin. Catherine, ever the pragmatist, managed to negotiate a cease-fire with the Protestants, this despite the angry protests from de Guise, the pope and Philip II of Spain. In their narrowminded take on things, the only good Protestant was a dead Protestant.
The Peace of Saint-Germain called for Henri of Navarre to marry Catherine’s daughter, Marguerite. As a devout Protestant, it must have been difficult for Henri to marry a Catholic princess, especially as he reasonably wanted his children to be raised in his own faith. Still: backing out of the marriage was not an option—not in the present tense political climate—so in August of 1572 Henri and the majority of the Huguenot leaders arrived in Paris to celebrate the royal wedding.
The Catholic nobles were horrified at the thought of wedding innocent Marguerite to that Protestant rogue, Henri. Catherine had to use all of her persuasive powers to convince Cardinal de Bourbon to officiate at the wedding. Truth be told, the nobles weren’t the only ones who were shocked: the people of France grumbled mightily over the treaty and the wedding. Anti-Huguenot sentiments spread like wild-fire, probably helped along by the fact that the Huguenots for the most part were an industrious lot and therefore often relatively well-to-do. There’s a reason Greed and Envy are considered capital sins, because when they gain a foothold in someone’s mind, compassion and reason flee…
It is open to debate whether the events that followed upon the wedding were fully planned. Did Catherine intend to utilize the unique situation of having the entire Protestant leadership under her roof? Probably yes, as the assassinations that began after midnight on St Bartholomew’s day were clearly executed under royal orders—how else would men in black gain access to the royal palace with daggers in their hands? One of the first to die was de Coligny, and soon enough the courtyard of the Louvre was filled with heaped bodies and the night rang with screams. What happened next was likely not planned, but once the people of Paris heard of the murders, they took it upon themselves to kill every Huguenot they could lay hands on. Once the night was over, thousands of bodied littered the streets, the Seine.
These days, opinions are divided regarding who were responsible for the St Bartholomew Massacre. Paris was very pro-Guise, a situation the Duke de Guise happily exploited to whip the embers of intolerance into a blaze of hatred. Catherine and her son, Charles IX, had potential riots on their hands, forcing them to take measures that were contradictory to their previous attempts at healing the divided nation—hence the murders of the Protestant leaders. Many historians feel the evidence points at Henri, Duke of Anjou and younger brother to the king, as the main mover and shaker in this whole mess. This young man was eager to make a name for himself, and what better way to do so than by presenting himself as a defender of the faith? If that also took some of the wind out of de Guise’s sails, all the better.
For our Henri, the massacre was a disaster. In one fell swoop, he’d lost friends, allies, men he respected and loved. For some reason, he was still alive. Some say this was out of consideration for his bride, but the more probable reason was that Catherine preferred Henri alive, as a counterweight to the aspirations of the Duke de Guise. Henri had to convert to save himself, and convert he did, likely crossing his fingers behind his back. For four years, he lived a virtual prisoner at the French court, but in 1576 he managed to escape. The first thing he did was abjure the Catholic religion. The second thing he did was designate his sixteen-year-old sister as regent of his lands and gird himself with a sword. Henri was planning on spending a long time at war.
Turns out, Henri was right. On and off, the French religious wars continued to plague France. By now, Charles IX had been replaced by his younger brother Henri (former Duke of Anjou and, interestingly enough, King of Poland, a kingdom he had to abandon when he rushed back to France to claim his crown). In all this turmoil, de Guise and his sympathisers formed the Catholic League, an alliance bolstered by money from Spain and moral support from the pope with one purpose: wipe out any Protestant influence over French politics. De Guise grew ever stronger, and Henri III’s hold over his kingdom was weak, to say the least.
In 1584, Henri III had to swallow down a huge bitter pill and formally recognise Henri of Navarre as his heir. Some years later, de Guise strong-armed Henri III into annulling Henri of Navarre’s right to the throne because of his faith. This kicked off yet another religious war, aptly named the War of the Three Henris. The French king fought for himself and his kingdom, Henri of Navarre fought for his right to Henri III’s kingdom upon said Henri’s death, and Henri de Guise fought for the right for his Catholic League to decide just who was to be king of France. Major, major mess.
Fed up, Henri III decided that the only way to stop this was by unifying the Catholics. Said and done, in December of 1588 he had the Duke de Guise and his cardinal brother murdered. Did that unify the Catholics? Nope. Things exploded out of control and Henri III had no choice but to join forces with his heir, Henri of Navarre. He was just about to launch a campaign to reclaim Paris from the Catholic League when he was assassinated by a monk (!). On his deathbed, he urged his followers to pledge themselves to Henri of Navarre.
Things weren’t that easy. The Catholic League proposed another solution—one that bypassed Henri and instead looked towards the female descendants of Francois I. Parliament nixed that idea as France applied Salic law, but weren’t exactly thrilled by the idea of a Protestant king.
By now, Henri was over forty. He’d been Catholic, Protestant, Catholic, Protestant. What could it hurt to convert one more time? After some consideration, Henri decided that the crown was worth renouncing his faith, which is why, on July 25 of 1593, Henri formally embraced the Catholic faith. He would remain a Catholic for the rest of his life—at least outwardly. Privately, Henri likely held to his true beliefs, but, as he purportedly said, “Paris is well worth a Mass.” (He probably didn’t say that)
In 1594, Henri was crowned king of France, the first of the Bourbon kings. His reign was a constant balancing act between Catholic and Protestant interests, between being viewed askance by his Catholic subjects who suspected the sincerity of his conversion and thes Huguenots who considered him a traitor. Not an easy life, but somehow Henri seems to have done a relatively good job, in between dodging various assassination attempts. In 1610, his luck ran out and he was stabbed to death by a Catholic fanatic.
His legacy, other than his children by his second wife, Maria de Medici, includes the Edict of Nantes, whereby the Huguenots of France were granted rights and freedom of conscience. Ironically, it would be Henri’s own grandson, Louis XIV, who would repeal the Edict in 1685, thereby reversing whatever advances had been made when it came to religious freedom.
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