Relationship between religion and politics in the French Wars of Religion

May 19, 2018 Religion

Religion and politics are often kept separate for the sole reason that if one group controlled both, they would be far too powerful. In the French Wars of Religion, religion and politics were not kept separate resulting in a massive civil war throughout all of France. The power struggle originated between the Catholics and the Huguenots when Protestantism rapidly expanded in France and continued as both sides vied for a place within the government.

Religion and politics remained tied together throughout the French Wars of Religion, showing that the relationship between the two determined major decisions made throughout the war and eventually, the final outcome of the wars. The French Wars of Religion was a series of violent clashes between French Catholics and French Calvinists (Huguenots) from 1562-1598. They were brought on by more than the rapid spread of Calvinism and differences in religion among the people of France.

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Equally as influential, was the power struggle created by Henry II’s death in 1559. His son, Francis II, was only fifteen and had to take over the throne at that age. His wife, Mary Queen of Scots, controlled him and he allowed the Guise family to control both the political and religious aspects of the state. The Guise Family was a predominantly Catholic family and they did not tolerate the Protestant faith. Their main enemy was the Bourbon family, who had direct line to the throne of France but they had many powerful Protestant members of their family.

There was a plot made by those powerful Protestants to take over the throne from the Catholics; however, the Guise family was not about to step down or go without a fight. The Bourbon duc de Conde, a leading member of the Protestant movement was sentenced to death, a decision the Guise’s thought would end the movement once and for all. In a sudden change of events, Francis II died before Conde’s execution could take place and the power the Guise family had once possessed was gone in an instant.

Ten-year-old Charles IX took the throne with his mother, Catherine de Medicis, acting as the regent of France. It is clear from the beginning stages of the war that religion and politics both play a major role in the French Wars of Revolution. At this time period, religion and politics were intertwined, making it difficult to separate church and state. Also, Calvinism rapidly spread across France due to the decline of Lutheranism. Calvinists had missionary spirits and wanted to preach to anyone who would listen.

They had great success within the middle class of French society, such as merchants, traders, and artisans. Its rapid expansion was one of the main causes of the French Wars of Religion. Politics came into affect after Henry II’s death. Both the Bourbons and the Guises, families with major political power, chose a religion, dividing France. After the failed execution attempt on Conde, both Huguenots and Catholics started forming armies, in preparation for the war that was about to erupt.

In 1561, Catherine de Medicis decided she wanted to create a compromise between the Calvinists and the Catholics. In January 1562, it was stated that Huguenots must return all churches and property they took possession of. While Catherine thought this was a good idea, it only gave the Huguenots official recognition as a religion. This decision also resulted in the start of the wars of religion. In 1562, civil war broke out, tearing the country apart. Fighting continued until 1570, with many influential members of both churches killed by the opposing sides.

However, in 1570, Catherine de Medicis suggested another compromise to try to save France. She proposed a marriage between her daughter Margret and Henry of Navarre, which would signify a unification of the two sides politically. However, on the day of their marriage, Saint Bartholomew’s Day, a feast day that Huguenots had come to Paris to celebrate, Catholics took to the streets and massacred thousands of innocent Protestants. The main targets of the massacre, important Huguenot leaders such as Henry of Navarre, escaped making the attack ineffective.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre prolonged the war and forged deeper political and religious problems between both sides of the civil war. Religiously, the hatred between Catholics and Calvinists had never been stronger; a new generation of Huguenots now felt anger and had an emotional attachment to the war as they saw their brothers, fathers, and other members of their families innocently killed because of their beliefs. Politically, Catherine de Medicis had now lost the distance between the crown and the leaders of the Catholic movement.

For a decade, she had been able to keep the two separated but now, she found that the two were intertwined, with some of the major political leaders also serving as influential members of the Church. Two groups formed during the next stages of the war, politiques and the Catholic League. Politiques were a group of Catholics who wanted to find a civil and practical way to end the war. Opposing them was the Catholic League, a society that pledged its allegiance to the Catholic religion. These two groups continued to battle until 1589 when Henry of Navarre came to power.

Henry of Navarre was originally a Huguenot but it had been made very clear that a Huguenot would never rule France. The Pope excommunicated him and France was absolved from all loyalty to him. The only way he could possibly take his place as the king of France was if he converted to Catholicism. This drastic requirement showed the immense divide that developed over the almost thirty years of continuous civil war. At this point in time there was no compromising, there was only one right way and both sides thought they were right. In 1594, Henry of Navarre finally converted to Catholicism so he could take his place as king of France.

However, neither Catholics nor Huguenots trusted him. Huguenots felt they had been betrayed by one of their own while Catholics felt he only converted so that he could become king. Whatever the reason for his conversion was, he was described as “one king, two faiths”, but the people of France, who just wanted to see the war come to an end, accepted him. In 1598, Henry proclaimed the Edict of Nantes, which allowed limited toleration of the Huguenots. Although it was not the result the Huguenots were looking for, they accepted it because they had no choice.

Finally, after years of fighting, an appearance of peace was upon France, with sporadic fighting among Catholics and Huguenots because of their continuous religious hatred for one another. Because of the inability to separate religion and politics during the French Wars of Religion, the fighting continued for years after it was necessary. If religious figures held no position in the government, then there would have been no problems when it came to who would rule France or which religions were tolerated or not. All religions would have been accepted and the hatred that fueled the wars would never have existed.

Political figures also struggled over power especially the Guise and the Bourbon families, who initiated the beginning stages of fighting, because of their need for power. Yet, their struggle was based of a rivalry that was deeply rooted in their religions. Religion was the driving force behind the French Wars of Religion, the rapid expansion of Calvinism and their want for recognition and rights created a divide between Calvinism and Catholicism, as the Catholics wanted to preserve the dominance they maintained both religiously and politically.

In conclusion, the events of the French Wars of Religion show that the combination of religion and politics account for the majority of the problems that arose during this time of civil war in France. The division of Calvinism and Catholicism became more obvious with every battle and every attack. After the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the hatred ran deeper than ever before. Although the country was split by religion, it was the government and politicians who controlled both the government and the church.

This control made them almost too powerful, giving them control of many aspect of the country. France would be divided by both religion and politics for almost thirty years, until a king who converted from Calvinism to Catholicism, finally was able to grant limited tolerance to the Huguenots and give a solution that both sides could agree with. The role of religion and politics in the French Wars of Religion make it obvious that there needed to be a separation between the church and the government.


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