French Wars of Religion

The French Wars of Religion were a prolonged period of war and popular unrest between Catholics and Huguenots (Reformed/Calvinist Protestants) in the Kingdom of France between 1562 and 1598. It is estimated that three million people perished in this period from violence, famine, or disease in what is considered the second deadliest religious war in European history (surpassed only by the Thirty Years' War, which took eight million lives).[1]

French Wars of Religion
Part of the European wars of religion

St. Bartholomew's Day massacre by François Dubois
DateApril 1562 – April 1598 (36 years)
Result Edict of Nantes; Peace of Vervins
 Spain (until 1588)
 Papal States (until 1588)
Commanders and leaders

Pedro Henriquez de Acevedo, Count of Fuentes
Carlos Coloma
Albert VII, Archduke of Austria
Girolamo Caraffa
Luis de Velasco y Velasco, 2nd Count of Salazar
Juan Fernández de Velasco, 5th Duke of Frías
Hernando Portocarrero 
Charles, Duke of Mayenne
Casualties and losses
Approximately 3,000,000 killed

Much of the conflict took place during the long regency of Queen Catherine de' Medici, widow of Henry II of France, for her minor sons. It also involved a dynastic power struggle between powerful noble families in the line for succession to the French throne: the wealthy, ambitious, and fervently Catholic ducal House of Guise (a cadet branch of the House of Lorraine, who claimed descent from Charlemagne) and their ally Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France (i.e., commander in chief of the French armed forces) versus the less wealthy House of Condé (a branch of the House of Bourbon), princes of the blood in the line of succession to the throne who were sympathetic to Calvinism. Foreign allies provided financing and other assistance to both sides, with Habsburg Spain and the Duchy of Savoy supporting the Guises, and England supporting the Protestant side led by the Condés and by the Protestant Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre and wife of Antoine de Bourbon, Duke of Vendôme and King of Navarre, and their son, Henry of Navarre.

Moderates, primarily associated with the French Valois monarchy and its advisers, tried to balance the situation and avoid open bloodshed. This group (pejoratively known as Politiques) put their hopes in the ability of a strong centralized government to maintain order and harmony. In contrast to the previous hardline policies of Henry II and his father Francis I, they began introducing gradual concessions to Huguenots. A most notable moderate, at least initially, was the queen mother, Catherine de' Medici. Catherine, however, later hardened her stance and, at the time of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572, sided with the Guises. This pivotal historical event involved a complete breakdown of state control resulting in series of riots and massacres in which Catholic mobs killed between 5,000 and 30,000 Protestants over a period of weeks throughout the entire kingdom.

By the conclusion of the conflict in 1598, the Protestant Henry of Navarre, heir to the French throne, had converted to Catholicism and been crowned Henry IV of France. In that year, he issued the Edict of Nantes, which granted Huguenots substantial rights and freedoms. His conversion did not end Catholic hostility towards Protestants or towards him personally, and he was eventually murdered by a Catholic extremist. The wars of religion threatened the authority of the monarchy, already fragile under the rule of Catherine's three sons and the last Valois kings: Francis II, Charles IX, and Henry III. This changed under the reign of their Bourbon successor Henry IV. The edict of Nantes was revoked later in 1685 with the Edict of Fontainebleau by Louis XIV of France. Henry IV's wise governance and selection of able administrators did leave a legacy of a strong centralized government, stability, and economic prosperity that has gained him the reputation as France's best and most beloved monarch, earning him the designation "Good King Henry".