AS long as he fears or remembers insecurity, man is a competitive animal. Groups, classes, nations, and races similarly insecure compete as covetously as their constituent individuals, and more violently, as knowing less law and having less protection; Nature calls all living things to the fray. In the broil of Europe between the Reformation (1517) and the Peace of Westphalia (1648), this collective competition used religion as a cloak and a weapon for economic or political ends. When, after a century of struggle, the combatants laid down their arms, Christianity barely survived among the ruins.
France suffered first and recovered first; her “religious wars” of 1562 to 1594 were to her what the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48) was to be to Germany, and the Civil Wars (1642–48) to England. When Henry II died in a tragic joust (1559) and his fifteen-year-old son succeeded him as Francis II, the nation had been led to bankruptcy by the long contest between the Hapsburgs and the Valois kings. The gross annual revenue of the government was then 12,000,000 livres; the public debt was 43,000,000. Many magistrates had been unpaid for four years past. The French people could not be persuaded to pay taxes.1 A financial crash threw Lyon into economic chaos in 1559. The flow of American silver and gold through Spain and Portugal into France depreciated the currency, inflated prices, and set on foot an angry race between wages and prices, in which no one gained but the informed and speculative financiers. In 1567 and 1577 the government tried by edict to fix maxima for prices and wages, but the economic scramble overrode the laws,2and inflation went on, perhaps as an impious way to pay for pious wars. The only prosperous organization in the country was the Catholic Church, with its 94,000 ecclesiastics (in 1600), its 80,000 nuns, its 70,000 monks or friars, its 2,500 Jesuits, its august cathedrals and stately episcopal sees, its extensive and well-cultivated lands. A third—some said two thirds—of the riches of France belonged to the Church.3 Behind the religious wars lay the desire to retain or obtain this ecclesiastical wealth.
Fortunately for the Church, Charles de Guise, who had been made Cardinal of Lorraine at thirty-five, was now chief minister to Francis II. The ducal family of the Guises took its name from their castle near Laon, but had its main seat in Lorraine, which had only recently been absorbed into France. The Cardinal was handsome, of alert intelligence and decent life, a good administrator, eloquent in Latin, French, and Italian; but his taste for wealth and power, his suave duplicity, his readiness to persecute dissent and avenge opposition, his courageous retrenchment of governmental outlays, made him enemies in almost every class. His older brother, Francis, Duke of Guise, had already earned renown in strategy and battle and was now minister of war; but as the national bankruptcy counseled peace, Francis had to nurse his ambitions in a galling idleness. He loved glory, fine raiment, and cavalier display, but his courtly manners and grace of person and carriage made him the idol of Catholic France. He was intolerant of heresy and proposed to exterminate it by force.4 He and his brother were convinced that if France, like Germany and England, adopted Protestantism, the Church would be near its end, and France would lose the religious ardor that had supported its social order and its national unity. In defense of their faith and their power the Guises braved many perils, suffered premature death, and shared responsibility for the harrowing of France.
The Huguenots were no longer a small and helpless minority of French Protestants led and inspired by Calvin from Geneva, but a spreading doctrinal and social revolt against the Church. Calvin reckoned them to be 10 per cent of the French people in 1559;5Michelet estimated their numbers to have doubled by 1572.6 They had centers in every province from Dauphiné to Brittany, above all in southwest France, where, three centuries back, the Albigensian heresy had met with apparent extermination. Despite the repressive legislation of Francis I and Henry II, they held their prayer meetings, fed on solemn sermons preaching predestination, issued a fire of pamphlets on the abuses of the Church and the tyranny of the Guises, and held a general synod in Paris (May 26, 1559) under the very nose of the King. They professed loyalty to the French monarchy, but they organized on republican lines the regions where they prevailed. Like any persecuted minority, they formulated a temporary ideology of liberty, but they agreed with the Catholics that the state should enforce the “true religion” throughout France. Their ethical theory was stricter than the time-relaxed code of their enemies; they avoided dancing, fancy dress, and the theater; and they denounced with indignation the morals of the court, where, as Jeanne d’Albret told her son, “it is not the men who invite the women, but the women who invite the men.”7
The Queen Mother, Catherine de Médicis, thought that in both parties “religion is a cover which serves merely to mask ill will … and yet they have nothing less than religion in their hearts.”8 She may have put it too strongly, but unquestionably social and economic factors underlay the religious strife. The peasantry remained Catholic; it had no material stake in the contest, and saw no substitute in a stern predestinarian Protestantism for the comforting myths and festival alleviations provided by the ancient faith. The proletariat, small numerically but big with revolt, denounced its employers, and gave a sympathetic hearing to “the Reform” as promising some change; and as in the England of the Lollards and the Puritans and the Germany of the Peasants’ War, the Gospel became a textbook of revolution.9 The middle classes too gave ear to the courageous preachers that Geneva trained and sent to France. The businessmen, who at the great fairs met prosperous Germans, Englishmen, and Swiss, noted the successful alliance of these merchants with Protestant rulers and ideas. They had long suffered contumely under bishops and barons disdainful of commerce and tied to feudal ways; they learned with pleasure and envy that Calvin was well disposed toward business and finance, and that he gave a share to the laity in the control of morals and the church. They resented ecclesiastical wealth and tithes, and feudal tolls on trade. They could not forgive the monarchy for subjecting to the central government the municipal communes that had for centuries been their political preserve.10 Even bankers smiled on the Huguenots, who raised no eyebrows at the taking of interest, upon which the Church had immemorially frowned, though lately winking a solemn theological eye.
Many nobles were taking up the rebel cause. They too were unreconciled to the centralization of power in a unified state. They must have heard of territorial German princes who, in league with Protestantism, had been able to defy emperors and popes, and had enriched themselves with the spoils of the Church. What if these doughty Huguenots could serve as a timely tool for chastening and subordinating the king? The nobles controlled the fields, the crops, and the peasantry of France, they organized and led her regiments, they held her fortresses, they governed her provinces. If the Reform won the aristocracy it would have a nation-wide power at its back. Already in 1553 the Cardinal of Lorraine had warned Henry II that the nobility were defecting to the Huguenots. In Normandy, Brittany, Poitou, Anjou, Maine, Saintonge, by 1559, nobles were openly leading the Huguenot revolt.
Proud Bourbon families had not forgiven the ruling Valois dynasty for driving Charles, Duke of Bourbon, to treason and an early death (1527); nor did they relish their exclusion from the French government by the clannish Guises, whom they looked upon as foreigners from a Lorraine that was far more German than French. Louis I de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, descended from King Louis IX, was of royal blood, far superior in rank to the Guises; he joined the Huguenots, and died in the attempt to rise to power on the wave of their faith. His brother, Antoine de Bourbon, titular King of Navarre—but actually ruling only the province of Béarn, in southwest France—played on the Huguenot side for a while, largely under the influence of his wife, Jeanne d’Albret. Jeanne was the aggressive daughter of the gentle Marguerite of Navarre, who had remained outwardly orthodox in deference to her brother, Francis I, but had protected many a heretic and Huguenot. As the mother had represented the Renaissance in love of life and poetry, so Jeanne exemplified the role and the character of women in the French Reformation—fervent in their religion to the point of intolerance, rearing and dedicating their children to carry on the holy war to death or victory. She brought up her famous son, the future Henri Quatre, to every Spartan and Puritan virtue, and did not live to see him revert to the lax gaiety of the Renaissance. She must have admired intensely Gaspard de Coligny, for he was all that she idealized: a nobleman in title and character, a prudent but loyal leader of the Huguenot cause, a stern soldier-statesman whose blameless morals shamed the gilded infidelities of the court.
Calvin had cautioned his Huguenot followers against violent resistance to the government,11 but their patience withered in the heat of persecution. Henry II had ordered all judges to issue the death penalty against persistent Protestants (June 1559). Francis II, urged on by the Guises, renewed this edict, and added that all buildings in which Reformed assemblies met should be demolished; that all persons, even relatives, who sheltered a condemned heretic, or failed to report him to the magistrates, should also suffer death. In the last five months of 1559 eighteen persons were burned alive for unrepentant heresy, or for refusing to attend Mass or receive Catholic Communion. Hundreds of French Huguenots fled to Geneva, where Calvin succored them. Those who remained in France began to organize themselves for civil war.
On December 23, 1559, Anne du Bourg, who had dared in the Parlement of Paris to condemn persecution for heresy, was burned at the stake. Soon thereafter Gaspard de Heu was strangled in the Château de Vincennes by order of the Guises. His brother-in-law, Godefroi de Barri, Seigneur de La Renaudie, conspired with nobles and others to capture and depose the Guises in a coup de main to be effected at Amboise. The Cardinal of Lorraine discovered the plot, mobilized troops, overcame and arrested the conspirators, hanged some, beheaded some, flung others into the Loire in sacks. “For a whole month,” said a contemporary chronicle, “there was nothing but hanging or drowning folks. The Loire was covered with corpses” (March 1560).12 Condé was summoned to the royal court to answer charges of complicity; he came, denied them, and challenged any accuser to trial by combat. No evidence was adduced against him, and he was left free.
Disturbed by this “Tumult of Amboise,” the high rank of the conspirators, the ferocity of the suppression, and the fever of revenge that agitated Huguenots and nobles, Catherine persuaded the weakling King and the reluctant Guises to allow a trial of toleration. She called Michel de L’Hôpital to the post of chancellor (May 1560) and bade him pacify France. As a student in Italy Michel had learned to be a humanist rather than a dogmatist; as a magistrate in France he had treated Catholics and Protestants with equal mercy and consideration. Now he proposed to the Parlement the views which had led Du Bourg to the stake: “Every man hath made a religion for himself. Some … desire that their religion should be accepted, and the faith of the rest hunted down…. We must try to deal gently with one another, to invent a modus vivendi.”13 Following his lead, Catherine summoned an Assembly of Notables, consisting of both Catholics and Protestants, which met at Fontainebleau on August 21, 1560. Coligny there presented to the King a petition from the Huguenots, affirming their loyalty but asking for full freedom of worship. Some bishops called for moderation on both sides and urged the clergy to reform their morals. The Assembly decided that the problems involved required a convocation of delegates from all sections and classes of France. The King ordered such a States-General to meet on December 10, and meanwhile forbade any trials for heresy till the new gathering could pass upon the basic issues that were dividing the country.
The Huguenot Bourbons, fearing arrest, had refused to attend the Assembly of Notables. Skeptical of conciliation, the Prince of Condé and Antoine de Bourbon plotted to raise an army and set up an independent state with Lyon as its capital. One of Condé’s couriers was intercepted by the government; papers found on him revealed the conspiracy; Condé was arrested, tried, and condemned to be executed on December 10. The Guises resumed dictatorial power.
Suddenly the situation was changed by the death of Francis II (December 5), aged sixteen. His brother, Charles IX, succeeded to his formal power, but, being only ten years old, he accepted the regency of his mother, who now joined Elizabeth of England and Philip II of Spain in guiding the chaos of Europe to their rival ends.