The History of the House of Bourbon in the Reformation

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  • 0:07 Definition Of Reformation
  • 1:37 Reformation Comes To France
  • 2:33 War Breaks Out
  • 4:35 Henry Bourbon Helps…
  • 7:10 Catholic House Of Bourbon
  • 8:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will explain the effects and events of the Protestant Reformation within France. It will discuss the dealings of the French Protestants, known as Huguenots, with the royal House of Bourbon.

Definition of Reformation

Today we'll be discussing the country of France during the Protestant Reformation. As we do this, we'll discover how the House of Bourbon was perhaps the French reformers' greatest ally and enemy all wrapped up in one. Before we get into the details of France and its House of Bourbon, let's review how the Reformation began.

The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century began as an attempt to reform the practices of the Catholic Church. It was sparked in the year 1517 by Martin Luther's 95 Theses. In these writings, Luther objected to the abuses he perceived within the Church. Soon, others joined the call for church reform.

Of course, these ideas didn't sit so well with the Pope. Before long, the efforts of the reformers led to a schism in Western Christianity. On one side were those who held to the doctrines of the Catholic Church. On the other were those who protested these doctrines. Aptly so, these protesters became known as Protestants, or followers of Western Christianity, separate from the Roman Catholic Church. Aided by its followers and the invention of the printing press, the Protestant message spread like fire throughout Europe, quickly making its way to France, a country ruled by a staunchly Catholic king.

The family of Henry Duke of Guise triggered the 1562 Massacre at Vassy
Henry Duke of Guise

Reformation Comes to France

When the Reformation came to France, its message spread quickly. By 1534, there were estimated to be over 30,000 followers of Luther within the city of Paris. Although facing great persecution from the French throne, Protestantism continued to grow. However, the new converts lacked organization. Without a unified leader, their cries for reform went unheeded.

This all changed when Calvinism came to France. Calvinism, named after the 16th century reformer John Calvin, held that only God has complete authority over humanity, salvation, and the Church. In other words, the pope is not the end all authority. He, like the rest of humanity, is subject to God. In John Calvin, the French Protestants had found a leader.

War Breaks Out

By 1559, Protestant churches were popping up all over Catholic France. It was about this time that French Protestants came to be known as Huguenots. Many of these Huguenots were from the aristocratic class. This meant they had political power to back up their beliefs. As they began to gain popularity and power, King Henry II, France's Catholic ruler, called for their arrest and execution. This persecution lasted until Henry's death and the ascension of his son, King Charles IX.

Coming to the throne as a young man, Charles realized religious moderation was his best chance at maintaining power. However, many other nobles disagreed and continued their siege against the Huguenots. One such nobleman was Henry Duke of Guise, whose family sparked the 1562 Massacre at Vassy in which dozens of unarmed Protestants were slaughtered. This violence signaled the beginning of the French Wars of Religion, a series of conflicts in which the Huguenots fought for religious freedom.

Henry of Bourbon issued the Edict of Nantes during his reign
Henry of Bourbon

Violence escalated when King Charles' sister was promised in marriage to her Huguenot cousin, Henry of Bourbon, King of Navarre. Upon hearing this, Catholic extremists were outraged. Knowing many leading Huguenots would come to Paris for the festivities; the extremists hatched a violent plan.

On August 23, 1572, St. Bartholomew's Day, the bells of Paris were rung, signaling the extremists to take up arms against the unsuspecting Huguenots. This began a massacre of French Protestants, which lasted for three days. By the time the Catholics were finished, thousands of Huguenots lay dead in what has come to be known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

Henry Bourbon Helps Protestantism

Rather than ending the Wars of Religion, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew gave the Huguenots a stronger will to fight. Henry of Bourbon, who survived the massacre, led the Protestants against their Catholic enemies. Under the leadership of Bourbon, the Protestants gained ground and continued their fight for freedom into the reign of Henry III. Henry III came to the throne after the death of his brother Charles IX.

Like his brother, Henry III tried to take the course of religious moderation, but war still raged within France. Unfortunately for those who agreed with Henry III's moderate stance, he was assassinated by a Catholic extremist in the year 1589.

Although Henry's assassination seemed like a win for the Catholic extremists, it would soon backfire. Since Henry died without an heir, the next in line for the throne was none other than Henry of Bourbon. Making matters worse for the Catholics, Henry Bourbon was not just a military leader, he was a skilled politician.

Richelieu was the chief minister for Louis XIII
Cardinal Richelieu

Since he was a Protestant, Bourbon realized the Catholics in France would never rest while he sat on the throne. In a rather crafty move, Bourbon renounced his Protestant faith. Whether sincere or not, this gained him enough Catholic support to take the crown as King Henry IV in the year 1594. With this move, the House of Bourbon came to the French throne.

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