The French wars of religion came about from a series of events that began after France declared peace with Spain in 1559. Spain (under Charles V and Philip II) and France (under Francis I and Henry II) had been fighting over territories in Italy since 1521. Finally, a peace treaty was signed in 1559, and Henry II held a tournament to celebrate at which disaster struck. A splinter found itself in Henry’s eye during a joust, and he died shortly after. His 15-year-old son Francis II became king but died in the following year. Francis’ brother, Charles IX, was next in line. However, since as he was only ten, his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, ruled for him as regent. The sudden death of Henry II and the newfound influence of Catherine de’ Medici had great impact on the events to come.
Francis I and Henry II had tried to suppress the rapid growth of the Huguenots (French Protestants), as did Francis II and his wife, Mary, Queen of Scots. Later on, during the reign of Charles IX, Catherine de’ Medici tried to convince the king to try to adopt a policy of religious toleration towards the Huguenots. She released anyone who had been imprisoned for a religious offense, and the heresy persecutions were stopped. All the new religious freedoms granted to the Huguenots upset more strict Catholics, like those of the House of Guise. In 1562 the situation escalated into an armed conflict with the Massacre of Vassy. One day the Duke of Guise was attending Mass but was disturbed by the loud singing of the nearby Huguenots. He sent some men to ask them to be quiet for a few minutes to allow him to worship in peace, but they refused. The situation mounted, and the Duke was struck by a stone that had been thrown by one of the Huguenots. A massacre of the Huguenots ensued, killing 23 and wounding another 100.
After 1o years of war, an event occurred that came to be known as the most notorious episode of the French wars of religion. This event was the Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Catherine de’ Medici had become convinced that the Huguenots were planning on capturing her and the king, so she approved of a plot to assassinate the Huguenot leader, Admiral Colingy. The assassination was botched, and king Charles IX, who was not privy to the plot, vowed to find the killer. He did not discover the whole truth, but he became suspicious of his mother and decided no longer to ask her advice. Eventually the pressure got to Charles, and he had a mental breakdown. He decreed one night that every Huguenot should be killed, and on August 24, 1572, the militia were told to kill every Huguenot in sight. The gates of the city were shut, and carnage followed. Catherine and Charles had tried to stop the massacre, but to no avail. Death toll estimates are not precise, ranging from 8,000 to 30,000, but in any case this was a truly horrific episode.
The war carried on through the death of Charles and the ascension of his brother, Henry III, and was interrupted sporadically by truces that failed. Henry turned against the Catholics by killing the Duke of Guise, and was assassinated by a Dominican Friar in 1589. Henry III left the throne to Henry of Navarre, a protestant. In 1593 Henry IV converted to Catholicism because he new that he would not be accepted as king by the prevailing Catholic majority. Finally, Henry IV issued the edict of Nantes that granted the freedom of conscience and nearly absolute freedom of worship. After over 36 years of bloodshed, the French wars of religion were finally over.