France During the War of Religion

Henry II, a determined enemy of the Huguenots, died in consequence of a wound he received during a tournament, A. D. 1559. His feeble and delicate son, Francis II, was his successor. This prince was married to the fascinating Mary Stuart of Scotland, whose uncles, the Guises, in consequence, enjoyed great influence at the French court. The Guises, as zealous adherents of the Catholic Church and the papacy, made use of their lofty position to suppress the reformed party; but by doing this, gave their opponents, and in especial, the Prince Condé, of the family of Bourbon, and the Admiral Coligni, the opportunity of strengthening themselves by joining the Huguenots. The schism increased daily; the one party strove to overthrow the other, and to secure the victory to their own side by the assistance of the king. The day on which the Estates assembled at Or leans was selected by both parties as a befitting time for the execution of this project. The Guises gained the advantage. The chiefs of the Huguenots already found themselves in prison, when a turn was given to affairs by the sudden death of the king. The queen-mother, Catherine de Medicis, placed herself at the head of affairs during the minority of the new king, Charles IX, and the Bourbons assumed a position suited to their birth. The Guises, irritated at the neglect they experienced, retired with their niece, Mary Stuart, into Lorraine, whence the latter, shortly after, departed with sorrow and mourning into Scotland.

The removal of the Guises from the court was of advantage to the reformed party. They obtained toleration. Enraged at this concession, the duke of Guise concluded an alliance with some other powerful nobles for the preservation of the ancient faith in France, and returned to Paris. During this return, a horrible slaughter was perpetrated by the Guises and. their attendants upon some Calvinists of the town of Vassy, who were assembled together in a barn, for the celebration of Divine worship. This proved the signal for a religious war. The outrage given to the conceded liberty of conscience by this bloody act of violence cried for vengeance. France was soon divided into two hostile camps, that attacked each other with bitter animosity and religious rage. The most horrible atrocities were committed, and the kingdom disturbed to its inmost depths. The Catholics obtained aid from Rome and Spain, the Protestants were assisted by England; Germany and Switzerland supplied soldiers. After the undecisive battle of Dreux, and the murder of the Duke Francis of Guise, at the siege of Orleans, peace was for a short time restored, and the Calvinists again assured of religious toleration - a promise that met with but little attention. The two parties were soon again arrayed in arms against each other, A. D. 1568. But despite the bravery of the Huguenots in the battle of St. Denis, where the elder Montmorenci lost his life, the superiority remained on the side of the Catholics; particularly when Catherine de Medicis, who had hitherto sided with neither party, embraced the interests of the latter. The sight of crucifixes and sacred objects broken to pieces, during a journey undertaken by the queen and her son, and the advice of the duke of Alba, with whom she had an interview in Bayonne, had produced this alteration in her opinions. After several bloody engagements in the vicinity of La Rochelle, which the Huguenots had selected as their battlefield, and after their gallant leader, Condé, had been basely assassinated during one of them, the peace of St. Germain was arranged, by which the Calvinists were again assured of the free exercise of their religion. Condé's nephew, Henry of Bearn, who had been bred up in the doctrine of Calvin by his mother, Joanna d'Albret, now placed himself at the head of the Huguenots; but the soul of the party was the brave Coligni, who stood by the side of the prince as his guide and adviser.

Coligni possessed great influence at the court after the peace. The young kin g respected him, and favored him with his confidence. For the purpose of bringing about a permanent reconciliation between the religious parties, the king now urged a marriage between his sister, Margaret of Valois, and the Bourbon, Henry of Beam. This offended the Guises, who believed that Coligni had procured the assassination of Francis of Guise, and they resolved upon his destruction. Coligni was fired at one evening, as he was returning to his own house from the Louvre. The ball, however, only shattered his arm, and it was necessary to devise a fresh plan of destruction. The Guises, in conjunction with Catherine of Medicis, now entertained the horrible project of taking advantage of the approaching marriage, for the solemnization of which many illustrious Calvinists had hastened to the capital, to destroy the chiefs of the Huguenot party. Thus originated the Bloody Nuptials of Paris, in the night of St. Bartholomew, August 24th, 1572. When the alarm bell of St. Germain l'Auxerrois gave the signal at midnight, bands of armed ruffians fell upon the defenseless Calvinists. The gray-headed hero, Coligni, was the first victim that the Guises sacrificed to their hate; the murderous bands then marched through all parts of the city, filled the streets and houses with blood and corpses, and laughed to scorn every sentiment of humanity and justice. The butchery lasted for three days, and was imitated in other towns, so that, at the lowest computation, 25,000 Huguenots must have perished. The king, to whom the plan was communicated a short time before its execution, listened to the voice of his passions, and himself fired upon the fugitives. After the deed had been accomplished, and the Guises had been fixed upon by the public voice as its instigators, and called upon to answer for their conduct, Charles took the whole affair upon himself, and excused the crime by a pretended conspiracy. Many of the French quitted their homes in horror, and sought for security in Switzerland, Germany, and the Netherlands. Henry of Bearn saved his life by a compulsatory abjuration, but returned to his old faith as soon as he found himself in security.

Charles IX died two years after the night of St. Bartholomew, troubled with evil dreams. His brother Henry, who had been for a twelvemonth the elected king of Poland, fled secretly from the rude shores of the Vistula to take possession of the fairer crown of France. Henry III was a weak and luxurious prince, without either assiduity or energy. Shut up with his favorites and pet dogs in the inmost apartments of the palace, he forgot his kingdom with its disturbances and miseries; and when remorse at his sinful life, which was passed in lust and debauchery, seized upon him, he sought consolation in superstitious devotion, in pilgrimages and processions, and in penance and flagellations. To bring the Huguenots to peace, so that he might be able to devote himself to the undisturbed enjoyment of the pleasures of his capital, Henry, immediately upon his accession, granted them freedom of conscience, and equal civil rights with the Catholics. Enraged at these concessions, which destroyed all the fruits of their previous exertions, the zealous Catholics, under the guidance of Henry of Guise, and with the cognizance of Philip II of Spain, concluded the Holy League for the preservation of the Church in all its ancient rights. Many members were won to this alliance by the insinuations of the priests and monks, and by the intrigues of the Jesuits. The fickle and faithless king, disturbed by this movement, united himself with the Catholic zealots, declared himself the head of the League, and curtailed the religious peace. The duke of Anjou, Henry's younger brother, died a few years after this; and as he, like the king, was without children, the Bourbon Henry of Navarre (Beam), became the nearest heir to the throne. This prospect of a Protestant king alarmed the Catholic part of France, and gave fresh vigor to the League. The weak king was obliged to recall all treaties with the Huguenots, to announce the extirpation of heresy, and to approve the arrangements of the League. Henry of Guise, at first, only entertained the notion of putting aside the Protestant successor to the throne, who had been excommunicated by the pope; but his courage rose with his increasing power; he soon made attempts upon the crown himself, whilst, as a pretended descendant of the Carlovingi, he asserted the superiority of his claims to those of the reigning family. A conspiracy was formed in Paris (where the citizens were kept in a state of perpetual agitation by fanatical popular orators) against the freedom or life of the king; and when Henry III attempted to defend himself by calling in Swiss troops, the agitation burst into rebellion. The people assembled themselves around the Guises, who, against the king's commands, were entering the capital, barricaded the streets and bridges, and commenced a furious contest with single divisions of the troops. The trembling king fled with his favorites to Chartres, and left his capital in the hands of his rival. Henry of Guise now possessed the same power that had belonged to the mayors of the palace in the time of the Merovingi. But even this position did not satisfy the ambitious party leader. An assembly of Estates, convoked at Blois, where the adherents of the Guises were the strongest party, proposed not only to deprive the Bourbons of their right to the throne and to exterminate Calvinism, but to change the government, and to place the whole power in the hands of the Guises. At this crisis, Henry hazarded a bold stroke; he had the duke of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal Louis, assassinated, and imprisoned the most influential leaders of their party. This proceeding produced a fearful commotion in the whole nation: in Paris, allegiance was renounced to the God-forsaken king, who had overthrown the pillar of Catholicism; the pope fulminated an excommunication at him; revolutionary movements took place in many quarters. Despised and forsaken, Henry III saw no other way to safety open to him than an alliance with Henry of Navarre and the Huguenots. A frightful civil war burst out afresh, but fortune was hostile to the League. Henry had already laid siege to Paris, and threatened to reduce the faithless town to a heap of ruins, when the knife of a fanatical monk put an end to his life. Henry III the last Valois, died on the first of August, 1589, after appointing Henry of Navarre and Bearn his successor.

Henry IV had still a long struggle to sustain before his head was ornamented by the crown of France. Mayenne, the brother of the murdered Guise, placed himself at the head of the League, and offered a vehement resistance to the Calvinistic claimant of the throne. Philip II sought to turn the confusion to his own advantage, and commanded his able general, Alexander of Parma, to march his forces from the Netherlands into France. Henry tried for a long time to get possession of his inheritance by the sword: he laid siege to Paris, and caused the citizens to feel all the horrors of famine; but he at length became convinced that he never could gain peaceable possession of the French throne by battles and victories. He thought the crown of France was worth a mass, and went over to the Catholic Church in the cathedral of St. Denis, and by this means destroyed the power of the League. Paris now threw open its gates, and welcomed the bringer of peace with acclamations. The pope recalled the anathema; the heads of the League concluded a treaty with him, and Philip II, a short time before his death, consented to the peace of Vervins. After foreign and domestic tranquillity had been thus restored to France, the king, by the Edict of Nantes, conferred upon the Calvinists liberty of conscience, the full rights of citizenship, and many other privileges; such as separate chambers in the courts of justice, several castles, with all their warlike munitions (La Rochelle, Montauban, Nismes, &c.) and freedom from episcopal jurisdiction. He next sought to heal the wounds that had been inflicted on the land by the war, by encouraging agriculture, trade and commerce; and had the economy of the state and the taxation admirably arranged by his friend and minister, Sully. He won for himself the warmest affections of his people by his genuine French character, and by his cordial and cheerful disposition. His solitary failing, his too great love for woman, was a merit in the eyes of the French. But fanaticism was only slumbering. Henry's tolerant disposition towards heretics awakened it. As he was meditating the vast plan (with the approval of the Dutch Union and other European powers) of founding a Christian community with equal privileges for the three Confessions, and by this means destroying the supremacy of the royal house of Hapsburg, he fell beneath the knife of Ravaillac.