Lectures on Modern History/The Huguenots and the League

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Lectures on Modern History by John Acton
VIII. The Huguenots and the League



When the religious frontiers were fixed in the rest of Europe, in France, the most important state of all, they were still unsettled. There the struggle was obstinate and sanguinary, and lasted more than thirty years, ending, towards the close of the century, with the triumph of the Crown over the nation, and the State over the Church.

Although the French had had at least one reformer before the Reformation, and were prepared by the Gallican system for much divergence from prevailing forms of medieval Catholicism, they received the new ideas as an importation from Germany. In that shape, as Lutheranism, they never became an important force in the country, though there was a time of comparative toleration, followed, after 1535, by the severities which at that time became usual in Europe. The number of victims in the last years of Francis I. is supposed to have been eighty-five or a little more. Luther, in his life and thought, presented so many characteristics of the exclusively German type as to repel the French, who, during many years of that generation, were at war with Germany. After his death, the first man among the reformers was a Frenchman, and the system as he recast it was more congenial. Calvinism possessed the important faculty of self-government, whilst Lutheranism required to be sustained by the civil power. For these reasons the Calvinistic doctrines obtained a far more favourable hearing, and it is in that shape only that the Reformation struck root in France.

King Henry II., who had been educated in Spain, where he was detained as a hostage, was resolutely intolerant, and when the general peace was concluded he turned his thoughts to the state of religion. He made an attempt to introduce the Inquisition, but was killed in a tourney before he had achieved his purpose. The Protestants at that time were estimated by Calvin at about 300,000, and in certain districts they were increasing rapidly. They had two translations of the Bible, and a celebrated book of hymns; and they now began to combine and organise. They were strongest in Dauphiny, which was near Geneva, and at Lyons, which was a centre of trade. Then they spread to Normandy, and in the west, and as time went by it became difficult to say which part of the country or which class of the population was most deeply influenced by their doctrine. No province ever became Protestant, and hardly any town. There never was any prospect that the Reformation would prevail; but at first, in the tide of early expansion, this was not quite evident, and they dreamt, not of liberty only, but of predominance. They did not profess the liberal principle, and never repudiated the maxim of their chief at Geneva regarding the repression of other sects. They thought it a life and death struggle, persuaded that the Catholics were irreconcilable, and impossible fellow-subjects and neighbours. By image-breaking, assaults on processions, and general violence, they made the part of tolerant Catholics difficult to play. As a religious body, guided by the counsels of Calvin, they should have professed passive obedience. But they were associated with vast political interests, and with men less eager about points of doctrine than about affairs of state, who brought them into action against the government. As there were princes of the blood among them, and even crowned heads, resistance to the authority of the day was not felt to be seditious. In this way it came to pass that while Calvin at Geneva was preaching non-resistance, Calvinists in France formed an armed opposition and became involved in plots.

As the new king was too young to govern, Queen Catharine, his mother, became nominal Regent; but as he was married to Mary Stuart, her uncles governed the kingdom. One of them was the Duke of Guise, the conqueror of Calais, and the most popular soldier in France. His brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine, one of the most conspicuous ecclesiastics of the age, was a Gallican prelate, obnoxious to Rome, and willing to concede much in favour of the Confession of Augsburg as an arm against Geneva, maintaining his power by every means, and an avowed and unshrinking advocate of assassination. Against the administration of these men, princes and Protestants combined. Their plans were detected; many accomplices were put to death at Amboise, and the Prince of Conde was arrested, tried, and in imminent danger of execution, when Francis II. died, and the reign of the Guise was at an end.

Catharine, whose effective regency now began in the name of Charles IX., her second son, rested on the moderates. There was so little passion in her religion that people doubted whether there was much conviction. When Pius V. proffered advice as to the king's marriage, she replied that he was old enough to act for himself, without foreign interference. She assured Elizabeth that she would have no objection if she treated her Catholics as Protestants were treated in France on St. Bartholomew's day. Once, on the report of a Protestant victory, she declared that she was quite ready to say her prayers in French. In Italy, her want of zeal made people suppose that she was at heart a Huguenot. She encouraged the liberal and conciliatory legislation of L'Hopital; for the most striking feature of the time is the sudden outbreak of tolerant opinion.

To arrest this surrender of Counter-Reformation policy, and the ruin which it portended to the Church in France, Guise fell upon a congregation of Protestants, and mingled their blood with their sacrifices. This is the massacre of Vassy, which provoked the wars of religion. They lasted, with intervals, sometimes of several years, for a whole generation, and effaced the country as a European Power. This long obliteration protracted the struggle in the Netherlands, led to the fall of Mary Stuart, and assisted the triumphant rise and growth of England in the middle years of Elizabeth. During the sixties Coligny advanced steadily to the highest place in his party and in the State, and he repeatedly secured terms which satisfied the Protestant leaders, though at the expense of their followers.

The third war of religion, the war of 1569, in which the Huguenots were defeated in the historic battles of Jarnac and Moncontour, had been so devastating that the government lost the disposition to go on fighting, and counsels of moderation prevailed. Coligny, summoned to advise, was listened to with attention, and a marriage was decided on between the king's sister, Margaret of Valois, and Henry of Bourbon, the young King of Navarre, whose birthright made him the head of the Protestant interest. Before the wedding was celebrated a change occurred in the European situation which profoundly affected the policy of France. The revolt broke out in the Netherlands, the real revolt, which was not the work of Belgian nobles, but of the Water Beggars, who took advantage of the maritime configuration, and accomplished the deliverance of the northern provinces.

This was Coligny's opportunity. It was the manifest policy of France to intervene, now that the conflict was a serious one, and to rectify the frontier along the line of peril, by which the capital was exposed to attack. What could not have been attempted while Alva held the provinces in subjection, was possible now that his power was shaken to its foundation. England was an obstacle, because England preferred Spanish masters in the Low Countries to French; but it was possible to negotiate compensation with Elizabeth; and Charles IX., under pressure from Coligny, concluded a treaty with her. He also decided that a Protestant force should join the Flemish insurgents in their operations against the Duke of Alva. If they succeeded, their success was to be followed up, and the merit of the expected conquest would be theirs. Conciliation and peace at home would be purchased by victories over the Spaniard. If they failed, they would be disavowed. Accordingly, in July 1572, an expedition under Genlis went to the relief of Mons, and was betrayed and defeated. The Huguenots had had their opportunity and had made nothing of it. The perfidy of the French government was detected, and the king, in his embarrassment, denounced the invaders, and urged Alva to make short work with prisoners. At the same time, he did not give up the scheme that had begun so badly, the scheme for the conquest of Flanders by a forlorn hope of Huguenots.

Coligny was to have another chance of securing liberty by the splendour of his services to the country, and the wedding of the Princess Margaret of Valois with Navarre, in defiance of the Pope's refusal of the requisite dispensation, proclaimed that the court had gone over to the Protestants. France was on the brink of a war with Spain, in which the admiral would have the command of her armies. It was to be a war for Protestant predominance, with France at the head of the Protestant interest in Europe, and Protestants in high offices at home. Queen Catharine was resolved not to submit to their ascendency, and she knew a short way out of it. There was a blood-feud of nine years' standing between the House of Guise and the admiral who had never succeeded in vindicating himself from the suspicion that he was cognisant of the murder of the former Duke of Guise at the siege of Orleans. They were glad to obtain their revenge; and one of their bravos, after two days' watching, shot Coligny, wounding him severely but not mortally. His friends, who were collected at Paris in large numbers, insisted on satisfaction. Catharine then informed her son that there could be no punishment and no inquiry, that the real culprit was herself, and that if anything was done, by way of justice. Guise would cast upon her all the ignominy of the attempt, all the ignominy of its failure. Nothing could save her but the immediate destruction of Coligny and his chief adherents, all conveniently within reach. The king hesitated. Not from any scruple; for when the Parliament had offered a reward for the capture of the admiral, he had obliged them to add the words — alive or dead. But he hesitated to surrender the hope of annexing Flanders, the constant and necessary object of national policy.

Late in the day after that on which Coligny received his wound, the civic authorities were warned to hold their men in readiness, when the bell of the church near the Louvre, St. Germain of Auxerre, rang the tocsin. This was the beginning of that alliance between the rural aristocracy of Catholic France and the furious democracy of the capital which laid the inauspicious foundation of the League. Their objects were not entirely the same. The Parisian populace were indiscriminately murderous and cruel, killing every Huguenot they knew. The Spanish envoy wrote: "not a child has been spared. Blessed be God"! Guise had his thoughts fixed on political enemies. Some Protestant officers who lived beyond the Seine, hearing the tumult, took horse and made off before it reached them, and were pursued by Guise for many hours along the north road. When Guise gave up the chase and returned to Paris, his house became a refuge for many obscure persons from whom he had nothing to fear. In his absence, the king had laid the blame upon him, and described the massacre as a result of the old quarrel between Guise and Châtillon.[1] This was not to be borne, and another explanation was speedily devised. It was now stated that a Protestant conspiracy had been discovered, and happily crushed in time by a prompt effort in self-defence. This was suggested by the threatening attitude assumed by Coligny's friends in order to compel punishment for the attempt on his life. Both theories were adopted in dealing with England and the German princes. Whilst orders went forth to the local authorities all over France to imitate the example of the capital, every effort was made to avert a breach with the Protestant Powers.

These efforts were so successful that Elizabeth stood godmother to the daughter of Charles IX., while his brother, Henry of Anjou, was elected King of Poland by a union of parties, although his share in the slaughter was notorious. This idea soon became preponderant; and when provincial governors neglected or refused to obey the sanguinary commands, nothing was done to enforce them. The actual massacre was a momentary resolve: it was not a change of front.

The premeditation of St. Bartholomew has been a favourite controversy, like the Casket Letters; but the problem is entirely solved, although French writers, such as Guizot and Bordier, believe in it; and the Germans, especially Baumgarten and Philippson, deny it. It is perfectly certain that it was not a thing long and carefully prepared, as was believed in Rome, and those who deny premeditation in the common sense of the word are in the right. But for ten years the court had regarded a wholesale massacre as the last resource of monarchy. Catharine herself said that it had been in contemplation, if opportunity offered, from the year 1562. Initiated observers expected it from that time; and after the conference with Alva at Bayonne, in 1565, it was universally considered probable that some of the leaders, at least, would be betrayed and killed. Two cardinals, Santa Croce and Alessandrina, announced it at Rome, and were not believed. In 1569 Catharine admitted that she had offered 50,000 crowns for the head of Coligny, and corresponding sums for others. The Archbishop of Nazareth reported to the Pope in the autumn of 1570 that the Treaty of St. Germain had been concluded with the intention of slaughtering the Protestants when they were beguiled by the favourable conditions granted them, but that the agents disobeyed. He hoped that the Peace of St. Germain had the same legitimate motive and excuse, and advised that a list of proscription should be drawn up. In short, the idea had been long entertained, and had been more than once near execution. At last, the murder of Coligny was provoked by the imminent war with Spain, and the general slaughter followed. The clergy applauded, but it did not proceed from them. Excepting Sorbin at Orleans and the Jesuit Auger in the south, few of them were actual accomplices before the fact. After the energetic approval given by the court of Rome, it was not quite easy for a priest to express dissent.

One dauntless ecclesiastic warned the Pope to prohibit demonstrations which revealed the secret of the priesthood. The man who thus disturbed the unanimity of exultant cardinals was Montalto, afterwards Sixtus V., and he deserves to be recorded, because he outweighs many names. He thought so ill of his predecessor, Gregory XIII., that he was tempted to revoke the best act of his pontificate, the reformation of the Calendar; and he was quite perspicacious enough to understand that the massacre was the height of folly as well as the worst of crimes.

We have no reliable statistics of the slain. The fugitives who escaped to England spoke of one hundred thousand. At Rome they put the figure for Paris alone at sixty thousand. For the capital a basis of calculation is supplied by the number of bodies found in the river. The result would be something over two thousand. In the provinces there are reports from about forty towns. The Protestant martyrology assigns two thousand to Orleans alone. But Toussaint, one of the ministers, who was there, and had the good fortune to escape, knew only of seven hundred, and that is still the belief in the town itself. It was said that two hundred perished at Toulouse. But the president, Duranti, who lost some of his own friends, and whose Memoirs were not written for the public, speaks of thirty-six. In five towns the victims amounted to between one hundred and seven hundred. In all the rest they were fewer. Taking the more authentic figures, and in cases where we cannot decide between statements that conflict, preferring the lower figure, because of the tendency to exaggerate where there is passion or excitement, we arrive at rather more than five thousand for the whole of France. The editor of Queen Catharine's correspondence, La Ferrière, urged me to make some allowance for persons who lost their lives on the byways in attempting to escape. That is a probable conjecture, but no evidence takes us as high as eight thousand. I reached that conclusion many years ago, and it is confirmed by what has since appeared, especially by the new Histoire Générale, which accepts the limit I have mentioned. The higher estimates commonly given are not based on a critical investigation. The character of the event, and of its authors and admirers, is not affected by numbers. For the massacres of September and the revolutionary tribunal wrought less bloodshed in twenty-three months than the French Catholics had done in about as many days. At a time when papal agents estimated the Huguenots at one-fifth of the entire population, the loss of five thousand, or even of eight thousand, would not seriously weaken them. It checked their increase, and injured mainly the royalist element among them, for Coligny was the leader of the party that desired to support the monarchy.

Lord Clarendon has said that it was a massacre that all pious Catholics, in the time in which it was committed, decried, abominated, and detested. There were, of course, many in France who thought it possible to be a good Christian without being a professional murderer, and who sincerely desired toleration. For such men it was impossible to continue associated with the Catholics of the League, and they were in far closer sympathy with the Protestants. In this way a new party arose, which was called the Politiques, and consisted of those whose solicitude for dogma did not entirely silence the moral sense and the voice of conscience, and who did not wish religious unity or ascendency to be preserved by crime. It was on an ethical issue that the separation took place, but it necessarily involved political consequences of a definite kind.

The Politiques became promoters of the regal authority against the aggression of the clergy, the aristocracy, and the democracy. They had their strength among the jurists and the scholars in an age when France was at the head of all scholarship and jurisprudence. The very reason of their existence was the desire to resist the influence and the spirit of Rome, and to govern France on contrary principles to those professed by ecclesiastical authority and enforced by ecclesiastical law. Therefore they strove to reduce the action of the Papacy within very strictly defined limits, to abolish ultramontanism, and to develop the Galilean theory of Church and State which French divines had produced at the reforming councils of the fifteenth century. As the clergy were subject to a Power which had encouraged extermination, they aimed at the supremacy of the secular order, of the lawyer over the priest, and of the State over the Church. They were the most intelligent advocates of the modern state in relation to society. For them, the representative of the State was the crown, and they did their utmost to raise it above the restraining forces. For the purpose that animated them the sole resource was the monarchy; and it is they who terminated the wars of religion, the League, and the Revolution, and prepared the great period of the Bourbon kings. Their ideas survive, and are familiar to the later world in the classic History of Thuanus.

The survivors closed their ranks and rapidly established a system of self-government, which sought safety in its own organisation, not in the protection of the crown. The intense conservatism of the early Protestants was already giving way in the Netherlands, and it now made way in France for the theory of resistance. A number of books appeared, asserting the inalienable right of men to control the authority by which they are governed, and more especially the right of Frenchmen, just as, in the following century, Puritan writers claimed a special prerogative in favour of Englishmen, as something distinct from the rest of mankind. The most famous is the Vindiciae contra Tyrannos, by Junius Brutus, generally attributed to Hubert Languet, but written, as I believe, by Duplessis Mornay, a man eminent as a party leader, who lost ground by entering on religious controversy. As an adherent and even a friend of Henry of Navarre, he was moderate in his language. This is the beginning of the literature of revolution. But the Huguenots quickly restrained themselves, for the same reason which, as we shall see, drove the Catholics of the League to the extremity of violence and tyrannicide. The cause of these dissimilar consequences was the problem of succession to the crown. Henry III. had no children, and the future of the Valois dynasty rested on his only brother, the Duke of Anjou, formerly of Alençon, the favoured and apparent suitor of Elizabeth, who by his perfidy and incompetence lost the government of the Netherlands.

In 1584 Anjou died, and nobody remained between the king and Henry of Navarre, the head of the Bourbons. Therefore, if the king died, the next heir would be the chief of the Protestants, a relapsed heretic, whom the Pope had excommunicated. It would be the ruin of the Catholics as a political party, and the renunciation of Catholicism as a system of law and authority, for a relapsed heretic was a culprit to whom the Church could show no mercy. To make him king was to defy the ecclesiastical code, and to abandon the practice of Rome and Spain for that of Germany under the Peace of Religion. The example of Denmark, of Sweden, and of England showed that a Protestant king would impose his religion on the people. They preferred to fight for the principle that a people should impose its religion on the king. This consideration was the origin of the League, as a great confederation distinct from earlier and less important associations. 'It was constituted out of three distinct elements: first, Guise and his partisans, who had carried on the civil wars, and were the Catholic portion of the aristocracy; then the Parisian democracy, who had acted with the others against Coligny and the Huguenots, who cherished a strong municipal spirit, and eventually created a supreme commune, such as had existed in the fourteenth century, and was seen again in 1792 and in 1871; lastly, Philip II. of Spain, who gave a million crowns.

Gregory XIII. bestowed a qualified sanction, which was not enough to allay the scruples of some men, Beyond the suppression of Protestantism and the restored ascendency of the Church, on which all were agreed, there was a design to develop local self-government and provincial institutions. All the liberties, they said, that had come down from Clovis, and more if possible. The League was a movement directed against the crown, even if it surrendered to them. There was an idea, vague at first, afterwards more distinct, that Guise descended from Charlemagne, and had a valid claim to the throne; and this was a rift in his alliance with the King of Spain. For Philip hoped to secure the crown of France for his own daughter Isabella, who became the ruler, and the successful ruler, of Belgium. At the time when the League was formed, in January 1585, Philip had reached the highest point in his career. He had annexed Portugal and its immense dominion. William of Orange was dead, and Farnese had already recovered an important part of the insurgent region. He had succeeded, for a quarter of a century, in avoiding a breach with Elizabeth, in spite of the expulsion of his ambassador and of Drake's victorious piracies. If he had pursued the same cautious policy, and had employed, under Farnese against the Dutch, the resources he wasted against England, he might have ended his reign in triumph. The prudence for which he was renowned deserted him when he joined the League, and then made it subservient to the purposes of the Armada. His object was that France should continue to be divided against itself, and that neither Henry III. nor his own confederate Guise should prevail. While those disorders continued, and made the French powerless abroad, the expedition of the Armada was carried out, without interference, and failed by mismanagement.

Meantime, Henry III. was supported in a half-hearted way by Protestants and Politiques, who did not trust him, and Guise, at the head of the population, made himself master of Paris. Henry retired to Blois. After that outrage, refusing to acknowledge that the breach was irremediable, the duke followed, and trusted himself, undefended, in his enemy's hands. Then followed the only thing by which Henry III. could retain his power. He took six days to make up his mind that it was right, and then ordered Guise to be despatched. His brother, the cardinal, met with the same fate. Catharine of Medici, who was in the castle of Blois when this happened, and also had thirty years' experience in such things, died immediately, after giving her son warning that the merit is not in the way you cut the thread, but in the way you sew it. He thought that he was safe at last, and the applause of Europe followed him on his march against the capital. He had shown so much weakness of will, such want of clearness and resource, that nobody believed he had it in him. In the eyes of Parisians he was guilty of the unpardonable sin, for he had killed the popular leader and the champion of orthodoxy. As he was also an ally of heretics and an accomplice of Navarre, a young Dominican came into his camp and stabbed him. His name was Jacques Clément, and he became a popular hero and martyr, and his example is cited by Mariana as the true type of tyrannicide. The action of the crazy friar produced effects that were not intended, for it made Henry of Navarre King of France. A long struggle awaited him before he prevailed against the League, the armed citizens of Paris, the Pope, and the King of Spain. He succeeded by the support of the Royalists and Legitimists, who detached themselves from the theological conflict, and built up an independent ideal of political right.


  1. Châtillon-sur-Loing, now Châtillon-Coligny, was the birthplace of both Coligny and his father, the latter of which was known as the Marshal of Châtillon. (Wikisource contributor note)