The causes of the French Wars of Religion can be put under four headings. This division of sub-headings is purely for convenience and all four are very much inter-linked.
The four areas are :
The monarchy; its financial weakness, its structural weakness and its weak personalities. Calvinism and the Roman Catholic Church; some of the leading Calvinist were also members of senior aristocratic families. Why did they convert and what was the implications for France ? Factional rivalry between the major families of France; the most important families in this issue were the Montmorency, Guise and Bourbon families. The were out to expand their own power base… but at the expense of the monarchy ? Economic depression; France was badly affected by the economic repercussions of the Habsburg-Valois Wars which had only ended in 1559.
By English standards, the French kings had a high income. Henry II had the equivalent income of £1 million a year. However, a lot of this money was wasted on a “policy of magnificence”. This phrase included the cost of wars, the building of magnificent palaces and the lavish entertainment that went on within these palaces. Taxation could not make up this loss and the monarchy had to resort to selling titles and offices on a greater scale than had happened before. Trade in this was so great that an office had to be set-up simply to deal with the transactions. In 1568, Charles IX imposed a tax on the transfer of one office from one person to the other. These titles became property by law and the holding of certain titles effectively put the title holder out of the control of the king.
Henry II had tried to expand absolutism but even his chancellor, L'Hôpital, observed that the crown body appeared absolute but that it lacked hands and feet. In 1557, the crown was declared bankrupt. The shortfall in tax revenue was supplemented by borrowing. Lyons became a centre of international finance and the crown's annual income was eaten away by interest payments on the previous year's loan. Poverty was a major problem for the French crown.
How did the nobility view such a predicament ? Henry II had never endeared himself to the nobles as he had attempted to further reduce their power at their expense. In particular, Henry had targeted the provinces as areas where monarchical power should be expanded as the nobility still tended to dominate these regions. This brought him into direct opposition with the provincial magnates. However, the stature of Henry in the minds of the senior magnates was such that they kept their opposition very quiet. The magnates were left with a deep-seated anger that was brooding. His unexpected death and the succession of a fifteen year old boy, Francis II, may well have provoked a reaction. Francis was known to be a frail boy. He died in 1560 and was succeeded by Charles IX who was just nine years of age when he was crowned king. His mother was appointed to be regent until he came of age - Catherine de Medici.
For over half a century, the senior nobility had been kept in check by a strong monarch. Their powers had been weakened and there was not a great deal they could have done about it. The fear of the standing royal army, the use of political appointments, the tolerance and encouragement of the nobility to involve themselves in the Habsburg-Valois Wars and the sheer personalities of Francis I and Henry II, kept the nobility in line. But their obedience was born out of necessity not out of blind loyalty to the crown. The unexpected death of Henry II in 1559, almost certainly unlocked years of anger which was directed towards the new monarchs both of whom could not be respected by the magnates because of their age. The nobility viewed the situation as ripe to regain their past power and even expand on it.
Henry II could keep the three main families in check. His chief advisor at court was Anne of Montmorency. He held the title of Constable of France. Henry also listened to Francis, Duke of Guise, to maintain a balanced opinion. This also gave the impression that he was not overly favouring one family. Anne and Francis detested one another.
The Montmorency family was very powerful in central and northern France. Religiously, the family was split. Anne was a devout Roman Catholic. His nephews were committed Huguenots. The most notable of these Huguenot was Coligny, Admiral of France. Coligny did not want to overthrow the established order. He was a strong believer in maintaining the power of the monarch so that the stability of France was guaranteed. Coligny was a devout believer - he did not convert to Calvin to use it as an aid to further his own cause. All he wanted was freedom of worship for Huguenots preferably through a negotiated settlement which would give the Huguenots the legal backing to do so. But it would need the Parlément de Paris to ratify any royal bill and this body was against Calvinism and all it stood for. It had not forgotten or forgiven Francis I for using the Huguenots as a lever to reduce their power while monarchical power increased as a result. Coligny's wish for a legal recognition of the rights of the Huguenots was highly unlikely while the Duke of Guise was at the court of Francis II. The Guise family had an influence over Francis. He had been briefly married to Mary, Queen of Scots, who was herself ardently catholic and influenced by the Guise family. Anne's authority in court declined drastically when Henry II died. Francis was more inclined to listen to the advice of Francis, the Duke of Guise, and as a result, their influence at court greatly increased at the expense of the Montmorency's.
The Guise family was strongly catholic and their power base was in eastern France. Francis, Duke of Guise, had a passion for war and physical exercise. He developed a very close friendship with Marshall Saint-André who was considered the finest soldier in France. The mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, was a Guise : hence the influence the family had over Francis II. Francis of Guise held the title Lieutenant-General of France (a position given to him by Henry II) and he saw it as his duty to protect France from external threats and internal enemies. He detested Huguenots and he saw them as a de-stabilising threat. In particular, he hated the Bourbon family because of their close links with the Huguenots.
The Bourbons were the senior family in France. They were lead by Anthony of Bourbon who was King-Consort of Navarre, a small kingdom on the French/Spanish border. Anthony was a Huguenot. His younger brother, Louis, Prince of Condé , was also a Huguenot but he did this to further his own political ambitions. He was a potentially de-stabilising force. As the eventual military leader of the Huguenot force, Louis called himself the “Protector-General of the Churches in France”.
The religious problem in France
The “state of rottenness” of the Catholic Church was well known in France. As an example, the Cardinal of Lorraine (a member of the Guise family) had been archbishop of Rouen when he was fourteen years of age. He later acquired the archbishoprics of Metz and Verdun as well. Pluralism and nepotism was rife. The crown had also clashed with the pope. The Valois family was staunchly catholic but wanted to remain independent of papal rule (though it did not want to challenge doctrine which was considered the preserve of the Papacy). After 1516, the French monarchy made all the important appointments to the French church. This resulted in widespread corruption. While the senior clergy were rich and lived lives of luxury, the parish priests were frequently very poor and politically radical.
Despite being persecuted, the Huguenots made gains. This was due to a number of reasons. Francis I had tolerated the religion and this had given it time to strengthen and developed itself. When this toleration ended with the Affairs of the Placards, the Huguenots were an established reality. The bulk of those who converted to the Huguenots did so for religious reasons and therefore they were committed. A few did convert in an effort to further their own aims. But the bulk were spiritual converts who were prepared to preach for their church thus allowing it to spread.