Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
16 chapters | 173 lessons | 8 flashcard sets
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Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Although Henry of Bourbon reigned as the Catholic Henry IV, he did not forget his Protestant friends. In fact, he continued to be one of its greatest allies. In 1598, he issued the Edict of Nantes, which granted civil rights to the Huguenots. Although Catholicism remained in control, the Huguenots were given cities in which they could freely worship. With this freedom, the Huguenots also gained political power, almost becoming a free republic within the borders of France.
The Edict of Nantes also ended the French Wars of Religion and ushered in a decade of peace. Sadly, this peace ended in 1610 when Henry IV was assassinated by yet another religious extremist. Although his reign was cut short, Henry IV, the first French king from the House of Bourbon, is still considered one of France's greatest monarchs.
Upon the death of this renowned king, his son took the throne as Louis XIII of the House of Bourbon. Unlike his father, Louis XIII was raised as a devout Catholic who had no use for Protestants. Desiring unquestioned power, Louis chose Cardinal Richelieu, his chief minister, to deal with the bothersome Huguenots. Richelieu, who took his job quite seriously, renewed the persecution of the Huguenots, and stripped them of much of their political power. However, he did not rescind the Edict of Nantes.
Upon the death of Louis XIII by natural causes, his son took the throne as Louis XIV. With his rise to the throne, the Huguenots faced one of their greatest enemies from the house that had once been an ally. Intent on having only one faith within his country, this new Bourbon king issued the Edict of Fontainebleau in the year 1685. This abolished the Edict of Nantes and stripped the Huguenots of their freedom and safety.
It made it illegal for the Huguenots to meet together and ordered the immediate destruction of all Protestant churches and schools. Perhaps even more devastating, it prohibited Protestants from leaving France. Any Protestant caught trying to flee would be executed. Under such pressure, many Huguenots renounced their Protestant faith and returned to the Catholic Church. Hundreds of thousands risked death by fleeing the country. With this exodus, the power of the Reformation within France came to an end.
The Reformation brought the Protestant faith to France. Sadly, it also brought violence and bloodshed. French Protestants, known as Huguenots, challenged the authority of the Catholic kings of France. Since the Huguenots included many powerful aristocrats, they had political power as a weapon and were able to stand their ground in the French Wars of Religion.
After years of bloodshed and massacre, Henry Bourbon emerged as the leader of the French Protestants. Under his leadership, the Huguenots gained power within France. When Henry Bourbon became king, they were granted civil rights under the Edict of Nantes.
Unfortunately for the Huguenots, the proceeding rulers from the House of Bourbon did not share Henry's Protestant sympathies. In the year 1685, the Edict of Nantes was abolished, and the Huguenots were stripped of all the freedom they had gained. As the House of Bourbon increased persecution, many Huguenots renounced the Protestant faith, and returned to Catholicism. Others fled the country in search of religious freedom. As they fled, they carried their hopes of freedom and reformation with them.
When you have finished this lesson, you could discuss the contributions of reformers and leaders such as John Calvin and Henry of Bourbon. You should be able to recall that the Reformation brought Protestantism to France in the guise of the Huguenots who came under constant persecution by the French leadership until they left the country voluntarily out of fear for their lives.
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Back To CourseHistory 101: Western Civilization I
16 chapters | 173 lessons | 8 flashcard sets