The Edict of Nantes in 1598: Definition & Revocation

Instructor: Mollie Madden
The Edict of Nantes, proclaimed in 1598, sought to end the Wars of Religion in France. It granted French Protestants freedom of conscience and allowed them to worship publicly.


The Reformation spread to France at a time when the French monarchy was weak. Francis II (r. 1559-60) only lasted 17 months on the throne; Charles IX (r. 1560-74) was only 10 years old when he became king and ruled under his mother's (Catherine de Medici) thumb; and Henry III (r. 1574-89) gave most of his attention to debauchery and the repenting of it.

Unsurprisingly, members of the French nobility saw this weakness and used it. Like a number of German princes, these French nobles used religion--Calvinism--to cover their bids for independence. This led to battles between Catholic royalists and Protestant Calvinist antimonarchical nobles. The French Calvinists, known as Huguenots, were mostly from the educated classes and comprised up to ten percent of the French population.

The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre

The assassination of Admiral de Coligny by Frans Hogenberg. Coligny was a leading Huguenot.
assassination of Coligny

In an effort to stem the violence between Catholics and Huguenots, a marriage was arranged between Margaret of Valois, the sister of the French king Charles IX, and Henry of Navarre, the Protestant king of Navarre. Many important Huguenots attended the ceremony on August 18, 1572. During the ensuing festivities, which lasted for several days, Admiral Coligny, an influential Huguenot, was shot but survived with only minor wounds. The resulting political turmoil precipitated a massive attack against the Huguenots on St. Bartholomew's Day, August 24, 1572. Coligny was stabbed to death, tossed out a window, and beheaded. The Huguenots of Paris were massacred. As many as 12,000 were killed.

War of the Three Henrys

This massacre ultimately led to the War of the Three Henrys: King Henry III of France, Catholic Henry of Guise, and Protestant Henry of Navarre. The violence went on for more than a decade until the politiques, a group of moderates that included Catholics and Huguenots, took advantage of the death of Catherine de Medici and the assassinations of Henry of Guise and Henry III to place Henry of Navarre on the French throne as Henry IV (r. 1589-1610).

Henry of Navarre: 'Paris is worth a Mass'

Henry IV by F. Pourbus the Younger
Henry IV

Henry of Navarre was one of the politques. He wanted to restore France's strength and unity. Aware that most of the French were Roman Catholic, he allegedly said 'Paris is worth a Mass' and became a Roman Catholic himself, thus saving France. Roughly a decade after he became king, Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes.

The Edict of Nantes, 1598

The Edict of Nantes was issued by Henry IV, who had to pressure the French provincial courts (parlements) to accept it. It had two important elements. The first guaranteed the Huguenots freedom of conscience (the freedom to follow one's own religious beliefs) throughout France. The second guaranteed freedom of worship in noble households and in all of the 150 towns controlled by the Huguenots as of 1597. It also allowed freedom of worship to Catholics living in Huguenot towns.

The Edict was issued as the only way to convince Huguenot nobles to stop fighting. However, it didn't make France a secular state that was indifferent to the religion of its citizens. Henry IV and his politiques supporters wanted to unify France in the Catholic faith but gradually instead of all at once or through military force.

It was not really about religious liberty or freedom but about the unity of the state and the strength of the monarchy. The Edict was issued by The King, the only one according to absolutist theory with the power to make and enforce such a proclamation. The politiques argued that a strong king was needed to put down factional violence, which meant a strong, absolutist monarchy was needed. Moreover, it was meant to be a temporary concord.

Revocation of the Edict

Edict of Fontainbleau, which revoked the Edict of Nantes
Edict of Fontainbleau

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