Fifth War of Religion, 1575-76

The Fifth War of Religion (1575-76) emerged from a period of continued warfare after the official end of the Fourth War, and although it was ended by one of the more generous peace treaties was quickly followed by the Sixth War (1576-77)

The Fourth War of Religion was officially ended by the Edict of Pacification issued at Boulogne in July 1573, but fighting continued across large parts of France, and in particular along the Rhône when the Huguenot leader Montbrun was still active. At La Rochelle it was the Court that made the first move, making an unsuccessful attempt to put a Royal garrison into the city despite having agreed not to.

There were now three main factions in France - the Huguenots who were generally fighting for their right to worship; the ardent Catholics (led by the Guise family) whose aim was to eliminate the Protestants and a middle-group, the 'malcontents' or 'Politiques', a group of more moderate Catholics who were more shocked by the extremes of the Catholic grouping (most notably the St. Bartholomew's Eve Massacre of 1572). Amongst the more important members of this grouping were a number of members of the Montmorency family (including Marshal Damville Montmorency, the second brother), fierce rivals of the Guise family. The 'Politiques' would soon be led by Charles IX's youngest brother, the Duke of Alençon.

The situation was not helped by concerns about the king and his brothers. Charles IX was clearly unwell, and was widely expected to die during 1573, although he recovered and survived into the following year. His brother Henry of Anjou had been elected King of Poland, and departed for his new kingdom at the start of 1574. That left the youngest brother, Alençon, generally seen as a rather unimpressive figure, both physically and intellectually. Henry was the favourite of their mother Catherine de Medici. This partly explains the eagerness with which Catherine attempted to negotiate a marriage between Alençon and Elizabeth I of England, a move that would have removed a potential rival to Henry.

Despite these marriage negotiations Alençon was a virtual prisoner at the court, where Henry of Navarre and the Prince of Condé were also held, having been forced to give up their Protestant faith after the St. Bartholomew's Eve Massacre.

The first major outbreak of fighting came early in 1574. The Huguenots and the Politiques agreed to attempt an uprising on 10 March. Alençon and Navarre were to escape from the court at St. Germain and flee to Sedan, but the plot was betrayed by Alençon. The court moved to Paris and then Vincennes. A second escape attempt also failed, and Alençon revealed the names of many of his supporters. The Prince of Condé did managed to make his escape during this disturbance and moved to Strasbourg, from where he attempted to gain support for his fellow Huguenots within France.

At about the same time as the failure of the affair of St. Germain the Huguenots attempted to seize control of Normandy. St. Lo was already in their hands when Count Montgomery returned from England and occupied Carentan. On this occasion the Court acted promptly, sending an army of 5,000 men into Normandy. Montgomery was captured at Domfront and executed on 26 June 1574.

On 30 May 1574 Charles IX finally died. Catherine de Medici immediately made herself the regent for Henry of Anjou, and messengers were sent to summon him from Poland. Henry made a rapid exit from his old kingdom, but his journey home slowed down dramatically when he reached Italy, and he didn't arrive in France until September, reaching Lyons on 6 September.

The fighting in the south continued while Henry made his way back to France. In June the small town of Livron was besieged for the first time, but its Huguenot garrison fought off the Catholic attack. The longer siege of Lusignan began in September and would drag on into the following year.

Everything depended on Henry's attitude after his return to France, and it was soon clear that he intended to continue the persecution of the Huguenots. In Letters Patent of 10 September he announced a pardon for anyone who had born arms against the king or who had left the country without permission as long as they laid down their arms and returned home. Religion was not mentioned in these letters, but was the main subject in Letters Patent issued by Henry on 13 October in which he offered freedom of conscience (Huguenots would not be forced to worship in Catholic churches) but would not be free to worship in their own way. At the same time he prepared to raise Swiss and German mercenaries, and the fighting continued, with the small town of Le Pouzin falling after a siege that lasted from 5-15 October.

The Huguenots responded by forming a semi-independent state in the south of France. Henry, Prince of Condé was appointed as their governor-general and protector while Marshal Damville was recognised as governor and protector in Languedoc and commander of the armies. This agreement was formalised in a meeting of the States of Languedoc which began on 6 November.

Although there had been fighting throughout much of 1574 the Fifth War of Religion is generally considered to have started in 1575. The year started with Henry making his escape from the south of France, leaving Avignon in January. On his way north he took part in the second unsuccessful siege of Livron, before reaching Rheims, where he was crowned on 13 February.

Henry's coronation was followed by one last attempt to avoid war. Henry asked a delegation of Huguenots to come to Paris to present their demands, and allowed Damville and the Protestants confer with Condé at Basle. On 11 April the delegation presented the dramatic Huguenot demands. These called for complete freedom of religion, the right to use common cemeteries and schools, to hold synods, to build their own churches, and to collect tithes. These sweeping demands were to much for Henry, but he did respond on 23 April with a counter-offer in which sixteen cities would be held by the Huguenots, court cases involving them would be seen in front of a selected bench of twenty judges and the Huguenots would have the right to challenge the appointment of four judges in each parliament. On the next day the terms were extended to allow the Huguenots to live anywhere in the kingdom and to keep all of the places in their hands apart from Montpellier, Castres, Aigues-mortes and Beaucaire. These terms were very similar to the ones that had ended the first four Wars of Religion, and the Huguenot delegates agreed to take them back to their leaders. Despite these concesions the gap between the King and the Huguenots was too wide to be bridged at this point, and negotiations were broken off.

The Fifth War of Religion is generally seen as beginning after the failure of these negotiations. The Huguenots took a number of towns in Lyonnais during the summer, while in Germany Condé came to an agreement with Duke John Casimir to raise an army. Casimir agreed to provide 2,000 reiters in his own name and 6,000 in Condé's name, as well as 8,000 Swiss foot soldiers. In return the Huguenots agreed that Damville would bring 12,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry from Languedoc.

On 13 September the Huguenots were given a dramatic boost when Alençon escaped from the court to Dreux. Once there he repeated Damville's demands from the spring and began to gather a small army around himself. Alençon was now heir to the throne, and his high rank encouraged the Huguenots to appoint him their leader.

In early October part of Casimir's army, under Damville's younger brother Thoré attempted to join up with Damville, but was intercepted and defeated by Henry of Guise at Dormans (10 October 1575) in the only major battle of the war. Thoré and a number of his followers escaped from the scene, and eventually joined up with Alençon well to the south-west of Paris.

Meanwhile Catherine de Medici was attempting to come to terms with her son Alençon. On 21 November they agreed the Truce of Champigny. Under the terms of this truce Alençon would have been given five security towns and Condé one, the German troops would have been paid and Henry of Navarre released. Condé and Casimir refused to accept these terms, while two of the security towns refused to admit Alençon's men, and the agreement collapsed.

By the end of the year Casimir's army was over 20,000 strong (around 10,000 cavalry, 6,000 Swiss infantry, 2,000 lansquenets and 3,000 French arquebusiers for a total of 21,000, although some sources give Casimir 25,000 men).

On 9 January 1576 this army crossed the Meuse and began a march across France that was marked by burning and looting. The Abbey of Citeaux, the original home of the Cistercians, was looted, as was Nuits. Henry III raised two armies, taking command of one himself while the Duke of Mayenne (brother of Henry of Guise) commanded the other, but the two Royal armies were only able to shadow the Germans as they advanced. On 5 February Henry of Navarre took advantage of the confusion to escape from the court. Once in safety he renounced his conversion to Catholicism and resumed Protestant worship. He then returned to his home in the south-west and began to raise an army.

By the spring the Germans had united with Alençon, giving the Huguenots an army of 30,000 men. Henry III was running out of money, and was finally forced into genuine peace negotiations.

The negotiations eventually produced the Edict of Beaulieu (6 May), in which the Huguenots were granted religious freedom across all of France (apart from Paris, the Court and the lands of any nobleman who objected). The Huguenot leaders and Alençon all received generous rewards - in the case of Alençon so generous that the edict became known as the 'Peace of Monsieur'. 

The Edict of Bealieu was very unpopular amongst a large part of Catholic opinion. The people of Paris refused to celebrate the news. More seriously Henry, duke of Guise, began to form the Holy or Catholic League, which with the support of Philip II of Spain would eventually turn the two-sided Wars of Religion into much more complex three-sided Civil Wars, with the king often the weakest of the three. The peace itself didn't last for long, and the Sixth War of Religion broke out before the end of the year.  

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (28 February 2011), Fifth War of Religion, 1575-76 ,

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