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Civil War in France and Learning Tolerance

King Henry II of France died in a jousting accident in 1559. Power remained with the queen, his Italian wife Catherine de Medici. She was the mother of and regent for young King Francis II, age 15 when King Henry died.

Meanwhile, the effort to crush Protestantism in France had not been succeeding. By the 1560s, there were perhaps 1,250 Protestant churches serving about 10 percent of France’s population. Catherine was a devout Catholic who looked upon Protestantism with at least a little sympathy. She spoke to a couple of Protestant leaders, the Prince of Conde and Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, about liberty and security for all Protestants within France. French Protestants looked with hope to Catherine, and Catherine looked to the Protestants for support. In early 1562 she issued the Edict of Saint-Germain. It recognized the existence of the Protestants (thank you very much) and guaranteed freedom of conscience and private worship, but it forbade Protestant worship within towns – where conflicts were thought to flare up too easily.

The edict didn't solve anything. Hatred of Protestantism was too prevalent, and civil war was on the way. On March 1, 1562, a member of the aristocratic Guise family, François de Guise, stopped to attend a mass in the town of Vassy and found Huguenots holding religious ceremonies. Outraged, he led men in setting fire to the Huguenot church, killing over eighty Huguenots and wounding many others. This began what was to be to be called the First French War of Religion.

Painting by Millais

Waiting for the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre. A Huguenot refuses to wear a Catholic badge to shield himself from attack.

In Paris, the Protestant leader, Gaspard de Coligny, was wounded, and two days later he died. That was August 24, 1572, Saint Bartholomew's Day. Protestants in Paris rose up in anger. Those opposed to Protestantism responded in what became known as the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Two thousand or more Protestants were killed. And the killing spread to the provinces. During the year 1572 in France around 30,000 Protestants were slaughtered.

People outside France took notice. King Philip II, "the Prudent," of Spain (r 1556-98) and Pope Gregory XIII declared themselves pleased by the new attack on Protestantism. In France, Catherine's rule remained weak. The Guise family had gained dominance at court. War against the Protestants continued. Catherine's son Francis II had died in 1560, and her third son, who became King Henry III the year following the 1572 massacres, was at age 22 switching between the pleasures of male lovers and religious repentance.

Tolerance was a necessary ingredient for a well functioning economy, and, this lacking, France’s economy was in ruin. Inflation was reducing purchasing power and manufacturing was in decline. There was a leap upward in homelessness, brigandage and other crimes. Peasants were rarely eating meat, and in places the poor were rioting. Scapegoating increased, directed against Italian residents in France. They had been marrying into French families and had felt at home in France, but many of the French saw Italian bankers as responsible for ruining the economy. Of the 75 Italian banking families in France in 1568 only 21 would remain in 1597.

There was the usual advocacy of a maximalist approach against the enemy. A faction of Catholics viewed Protestants as traitors and enemies of humanity, and they clamored for France’s government to have them exterminated. Moderate Catholics dominated the courts and they opposed extermination programs.

The last of France's 16th century civil wars began in 1584, with rival armies contending for power. The Protestant army was led by a member of the royal Bourbon family, Henry of Navarre, who had been raised as a Protestant. He had the moral support of Queen Elizabeth of England. A Catholic army led by Henry the Duke of Guise had the support of Spain. The Duke of Guise and his archbishop brother were invited to consult with King Henry III, whose guards murdered the two. That was in December 1588. In August 1589 an outraged Catholic assassinated Henry. This left Henry of Navarre of the royal Bourbon family as the nominal king of France. He acted with political expedience. He converted to Catholicism and was crowned King Henry IV of France.

King Henry IV of France

Henry IV, believed to have said "Paris is well worth a mass." He converted from Calvinism to Catholicism in order to be crowned King of France. He favored toleration and ended religious warring. (Wikipedia Commons)

Henry moved for conciliation between Catholics and Protestants. He denounced Catholic extremists as follows:

We believe in one God, we recognize Jesus Christ, and we draw on the same Gospel... I believe that the war which you so ardently pursue is unworthy of Christians.

It took a nine-year siege against those holding power in Paris to secure his crown. Paris capitulated on March 22, 1594, ending the influence there of the Holy League and Spain. Pope Clement reversed Henry's excommunication. In 1598, Henry brokered the Peace of Vervins between France and Spain. In 1598, Henry issued the Edict of Nantes. It proclaimed that "everything done by one party or the other" during "the preceding period of troubles" was to remain "obliterated and forgotten, as if no such things ever happened." As a part of his move, Catholic establishments were to be restored wherever they had been interrupted. And Protestants were to have rights equal to those of Catholics.

Peace made a new prosperity possible, with Henry announcing that if God allowed him to live long enough he would see to it that every laborer had a chicken in his pot on Sunday. Henry adopted monetary reforms, reduced the tax burden on peasants, and embarked on administrative reform. He encouraged education and undertook many public works, including canal building and the planting of pines, elms and fruit trees. He renewed Paris as a great city.

In general, the people of France had been learning the toleration needed for a functioning society. But a mentally unbalanced religious fanatic, François Ravaillac, believed that Henry was about to make war against the pope. Ravaillac stabbed Henry to death. Ravaillac was quickly seized, preventing a mob lynching.

An extremism in punishment was still alive as proper punishment by the state. Ravaillac was scalded with burning sulphur, molten lead and boiling oil and resin. His flesh was torn apart by pincers and his body pulled apart. His parents were forced into exile and other members of his family ordered never to use the name Ravaillac.

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