First War of Religion, 1562-3

The First War of Religion (1562-63) was the first of a series of nine wars that split France for nearly forty years, and was a generally inconclusive war that was ended by a compromise peace.

Like much of Europe France was divided by the Reformation. The French Protestants, known as Huguenots, were increasingly persecuted during the reign of Henry II, and this continued after his death in 1559. That year saw the end of the long series of Hapsburg-Valois Wars, with the peace of Catteau-Cambresis of 3 April. To cement the peace Henry's daughter Elizabeth was to marry Philip II of Spain, while his sister Marquerite married Emanuel Philibert, duke of Savoy. Henry died as a result of a wound inflicted on him accidentally during a tournament being held on 30 June to celebrate their marriage, dying on 10 July 1559.

Henry was succeeded by his son young Francis II, but power was immediately seized by Duke François of Guise and his brother Charles, cardinal of Lorraine. Any rivals were pushed away from the throne, and the policy of repression continued. This helped trigger the Conspiracy of Amboise of March 1560, a plot to seize the young king and overthrow the Guises. The conspiracy failed, and in the aftermath around 1,200 people were executed, while Prince Louis de Condé was arrested and condemned. 

The Guise brothers fell from power with the death of France II in December 1560. His younger brother became king as Charles IX, and Catherine de Medici made sure that she began his regent. The Guises were dismissed, Condé was released from prison and Catherine reversed the previous policy of religious oppression. A colloquy was called at Poissy in September 1561, with representatives from both sides, and although this meeting failed to find a compromise, it was followed in January 1562 by the Edict of Saint-Germain, better known as the 'Edict of Toleration' or of January. This edict gave Huguenots the right to preach during the day in the countryside and allowed Protestant noblemen to run Huguenot churches on their estates.

The Catholic response to this limited toleration was predictably hostile. Late in 1561 Duke François of Guise, Duke Anne de Montmorency, constable of France, and Marshal Saint-André formed a alliance, and prepared to seek aid from Philip II of Spain. This newly formed 'triumvirate' would be joined by Antoine of Bourbon, king of Navarre, to form the Catholic leadership in the upcoming war, although only Montmorency would survive the fighting.

It was Guise who provided the trigger for the war. As he was passing through Vassy on 1 March 1562 his men came across a Protestant congregation and opened fire. The Huguenots responded to the 'massacre of Vassy' by called a synod in April, at which they asked Louis de Bourbon, prince of Condé, to raise troops to protect them. He agreed to their request, and issued a call for the Protestant people of France to raise troops to oppose Guise and his allies.

In the first few weeks of the war a large number of towns and cities either came out in favour of the Huguenots or were seized by them. Tours, Blois, Angers, Beaugency, Poitiers, Lyon and Bourges were amongst the places to fall into their hands. The Huguenots also attempted to gain foreign help, turning to Protestant England and Germany to balance the help coming to the Catholic cause from Philip II of Spain (who at this point still ruled the Spanish Netherlands).

On 20 September 1562 Elizabeth I announced the Treaty of Hampton Court, in which she agreed to lend the Huguenots 140,000 gold crowns. In return they promised to hand Calais over to the English if they won the war, while Le Havre was occupied as a security.

In July 1562 the Royal army left Paris and marched south. Poitiers was captured, and Bourges surrendered on 31 August after a short siege. The Royal army then moved on to Rouen, which fell to an assault on 26 October 1562. The most important casualty of this siege was Antoine of Bourbon, king of Navarre, who died on 17 November of a wound inflicted earlier in the siege. 

In the aftermath of the fall of Rouen the Catholic army dispersed. Part of the army was sent into winter quarters, part remained in the area around Orleans and part, under the Duke of Guise, prepared to move against the English at Le Havre.

Condé responded to these setbacks by marching on Paris. The Huguenot army sat outside the city between 28 November and 10 December, but after two weeks of fruitless negotiations it was clear that the city was too strong to capture, and the Huguenot army raised camp and began to march towards Chartres and then Normandy.

On 19 December they were intercepted by the Royal army at Dreux, and the only major battle of the war was fought. Both Condé and Montmorency were captured, and the battle was won by a counter-attack led by Guise. The remaining Huguenot forces retreated into Orleans, which was soon besieged.

On 18 February 1563, just as the siege of Orleans looked to be coming towards its end, Guise was shot and mortally wounded, dying on 24 February. This eliminated the last of the major Catholic leaders, with three dead and Montmorency in captivity. Catherine de Medici was able to use Condé to begin peace negotations, and on 18 March the war was ended by the Edict of Amboise, which gave the Huguenots some of the religious freedoms promised in 1562, including the right to preach outside towns. This compromise managed to keep the peace between the two religious communities for four years, before the fear of an international Catholic conspiracy convinced Condé and Coligny to attempt to seize the king, triggering the Second War of Religion.

The end of the First War of Religion left the English isolated at Le Havre. In the spring of 1563 a powerful Royal army, which included a number of Huguenots, moved to besiege Le Havre, and on 1 August the French reoccupied the city. In the following year England and France signed the Peace of Troyes (11 April 1564). Calais was not mentioned, but Elizabeth accepted a payment of 120,000 gold crowns in return for giving up any claim to Le Havre.

The French Religious Wars 1562-1598, Robert Jean Knecht. A useful guide to the complex series of nine French Wars of Religion, including an examination of who the wars began and the main players on both sides, narrative accounts of the wars, overviews of the most important battles and sieges. Also looks at the impact of the wars on France’s neighbours, many of whom got dragged into the conflict, and on a selection of soldiers and civilians. Supported by a series of maps that help show how complex the conflict was
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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (13 January 2011), First War of Religion, 1562-3 ,

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