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The French Wars of Religion: Catholics vs. the Huguenots

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  • 0:06 Calvinism & Huguenots
  • 1:51 The Catholic League
  • 2:35 Religious Wars in France
  • 5:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Elam Miller

Jessica has taught college History and has a Master of Arts in History

The Protestant Reformation was so popular and controversial in Europe that it sometimes led to war. This lesson explores the violent effect of the Reformation in France as war erupted between the Catholics and the Protestants.

Calvinism and the Huguenots

Luther was the leader of the Protestant Reformation.
Martin Luther Picture

During the 16th century, a revolution began in Christianity. A German monk named Martin Luther became increasingly unhappy with corruption in the Catholic Church. Luther started a movement among Christians who believed authority should not belong to clergy, but to the laypeople and their study of the Bible. Followers of the Reformation were known as Protestants.

As the reformation spread throughout Europe, it gained popularity in Switzerland. Thanks to the efforts of Huldrych Zwingli, Swiss people began to support the ideas of Protestantism. Following Zwingli, a Frenchman named John Calvin began a new form of Protestantism in Switzerland.

Calvin believed in predestination, which means each person's eternal fate is already determined before birth. Although he disagreed that the practice of sacraments was necessary for salvation, he supported the practices of baptism and the Eucharist. Calvin believed people should be baptized as infants to form a covenant with God. Additionally, he thought people should practice the Eucharist to form a spiritual connection with Christ.

Calvin firmly believed in moralistic behavior and favored strict discipline. He believed that the church and state should govern separately, but the church should have a very organized and stern method of discipline. Under his influence, the church created a consistory, which was a group of pastors and laypeople that controlled church discipline. In addition, the consistory often recommended punishments to secular courts, which was often heeded.

Calvin brought Protestant ideals to the French.
John Calvin Image

Followers of Calvin's belief system were known as Calvinists. Protestants who were inspired by Calvinism in France were known as Huguenots.

The Catholic League

As the popularity of Protestantism grew in France, many French Catholics grew impatient with the lack of action against what they considered heresy by the Protestants. Heresy is the denial of a basic doctrine of Christianity. Catholic leaders began to feel threatened by the movements of the Protestants. Political-religious groups, known as leagues, organized to confront the Huguenots.

The Catholic League was a national group that intended to stamp out the spread of Protestantism in France. The group was led by the Duke of Guise, who also had intentions of taking over the French throne. Under Guise's leadership, the League intended to replace King Henry III, the king of France, who was a Protestant.

The Duke of Guise sought to overthrow King Henry III.
King HenryIII Duke Guise

Religious Wars in France

War broke out between the Catholic League and the Huguenots in 1562 and continued until 1598. Political unrest between the Huguenots and the powerful Guise family led to the death of many Huguenots, marking the beginning of the Wars of Religion. In 1562, the Huguenots were defeated by Guise in the first battle of the war. Guise was killed in this battle. A treaty was negotiated by Catherine de Medici that allowed Huguenot nobles to worship freely, but peasants could only worship in one town within each district.

De Medici was the mother of three French kings.
Catherine de Medici Sons

During the wars, Catherine de Medici was the Queen mother and held power during the reign of her sons Francois II, Charles IX and Henry III. The Huguenots were worried Catherine was planning a campaign against them with the Spaniards and attempted to capture King Charles IX. They failed, and though another attempt at peace was made, neither side trusted each other. The Huguenots faced a defeat in 1569, but began to gain ground with some Protestant nobles in France.

After this massacre, an edict was issued that granted freedom of worship in France, except in Paris. However, Catholics convinced Henry III to repeal this decision, causing another uprising with the Huguenots. The power of the Huguenots and the Catholic League grew, leaving Henry III with less power. After Henry III was killed, he was succeeded by Henry IV, who was a Protestant. Henry IV fought in the ongoing struggle. He converted to Catholicism in 1593.

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