This term encompasses a series of wars fought in France from 1562 to 1598, centred around the rise of Protestantism. It was not simply a religious struggle, however – there were territorial rivalries between aristocratic dynasties, especially the Guise and the Bourbon, who were associated with Catholic and Protestant sides respectively. These houses were in turn supported by Philip II of Spain and Elizabeth I of England.
The attitude of the French crown was initially confused, oscillating between persecution and tolerance – there was a blurring of the notions of Protestantism with humanist reform movements, and there were external wars in which protestant rulers were sometimes needed as allies. The massacre of protestant worshippers at Vassy in Champagne in 1562 precipitated the first war. In all, there were eight distinct wars, interspersed by shaky peace agreements.
The chief names on the Catholic side were the pope (obviously), Catherine of Medici (mother of both Charles IX and Henri III), the Spanish kings and the dukes of Guise (who formed the Catholic League in 1576).
On the protestant (Huguenot) side, supporters included the house of Bourbon, the influential Gaspard de Coligny, Henry of Navarre (subsequently king Henri IV of France), his general Sully, his bloodthirsty ally Montgomery from the south-west, and Queen Elizabeth of England.
In 1572, Henry of Navarre married the Catholic Marguerite de Valois in Paris and many Huguenot nobles gathered for the event. When Coligny was assassinated by the duke of Guise, there followed five days of general slaughter of Huguenots, known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, leading on to the fourth in the weary succession of wars.
The Catholic side was dealt a blow in 1588, when Henry III, although a Catholic, suspected the Guise brothers of treachery and had them lured to Blois and killed. Henry III himself was later stabbed and killed by a monk.
Henri of Navarre was the heir to the French throne under Salic law (which excluded female succession), but he had no hope of taking the throne as a protestant, even after winning many battles around Paris, with the help of the English. Taking the practical approach, he converted to Catholicism for the second time (he had done so to stay alive after the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre), and was crowned King Henry IV in 1594. The Catholic League was still being helped by Spain, so Henry declared war on Spain and succeeded in bringing the whole sorry saga to an end with the Edict of Nantes in 1598. This gave limited rights to the Huguenots, and Henry’s practical diplomacy allowed peace to settle. He paid off troublesome nobles and is said to have vowed that no working man in his kingdom would be without the means to put a chicken in the pot on Sundays. After surviving several assassination attempts, Henry IV was finally killed in 1610.
The harrassment of Huguenots continued sporadically throughout the seventeenth century, during the reigns of Louis XIII and Louis XIV, and culminated in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, which resulted in a mass exodus of protestants from France. The only significant population that remained were the Camisards of the remote mountains of the Cévennes.