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8 The Road to Civil War (1): 1555-1561
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Divisions in the Crisis Generation

Historians of all generations and persuasions agree that the death of Henri II (July 1559) precipitated the midcentury crisis in France, weakening the crown and encouraging attempts by rival, armed politico-religious groups to dominate the country through the young Valois kings who succeeded him. The first civil war broke out in April 1562. The thirty-three months between these two dates constitute the period of acute crisis, yet events in the last years of Henri II's reign provided its context, partly determined the shape it would take, and contributed to its long-range consequences, even beyond the end of the century. The virtually all-embracing character of this turning point results from the coincidence and interaction of major changes in the power structure and religious forces throughout western Europe with equally important changes within France.

In 1555 the first war "of religion," in the Germanies, ended in the Peace of Augsburg, by which the several princes were granted the autonomy they had long sought, including the right to determine the religious affiliation of their subjects (as between Catholic and Lutheran only). One result was that the Lutheran princes no longer needed the active support of the French king; another was that Emperor Charles V was preparing to abdicate and to divide his domains into two parcels. Within two years, his son Philip, king of Spain and lord of the Netherlands, was posing a very direct threat to France's northeastern frontier, only a few miles from Paris. The Spanish king would prove to be a dangerous foe in future decades, but in the first stages of the Franco-Spanish war (1557-59) both nations were in such serious financial straits, after sixty years of intermittent war, that they were forced to prepare for peace—actually concluded in April 1559. The fact that


both kings were alarmed by the spread of heresy provided them with a useful rationalization: it was the prime duty of Catholic monarchs to unite to defend the faith by stamping out heresy, rather than wasting their substance in war against each other, which permitted heresy to increase.

Philip's emergence as a main actor on other parts of the European stage also affected France. To the west, his marriage to Mary Tudor (1554) created a kind of encirclement of France by Spanish influence, while the rising tide of Calvinism in Scotland (John Knox returned in 1559) threatened the stability of the Scottish throne and the age-old alliance between Scotland and France. Mary of Guise, sister of the French ultra-Catholic party leaders, was regent for her daughter, Mary Stuart, who was residing at the French court and soon to be married to the dauphin, François (1558). To the south, Philip's inheritance of the Kingdom of Naples aroused the opposition of the Neapolitan pope, Paul IV. He made an alliance with Henri II, who undertook to protect the pope and his ambitious Caraffa nephews, and to assist in liberating Naples from Spain. As a Counter-Reformation leader, the pope was a natural ally of the Guise faction, whose fortunes we have seen rise dramatically (as a result of the siege of Metz) at the expense of Constable Montmorency's. In the mid-1550s Montmorency was urging peace on Henri II and secured a—fleeting—victory over his rivals when France signed a truce at Vaucelles in 1556, while the cardinal de Lorraine was absent in Italy. Dynastic and personal motives were no more lacking in Montmorency's pursuit of peace than in the aggressive policy of the Guises. A clause in the Truce of Vaucelles provided for the ransom of his son François, and the constable's own release from captivity (in the battle of St-Quentin, 1557) was an important French objective in the more definitive Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis (1559).

The balance of religious forces in Europe was also changing in the last years of Henri II's reign. The Lutheran states were so well established that their existence had to be accepted, however reluctantly, by the successors of Charles V and even by the papacy. The strategy of the Counter-Reformation leadership was to focus attention on areas like France, wavering in their allegiance but still loyal if Rome used the right methods, and to "counter" heresy directly by reaffirming every Catholic doctrine that had been challenged. The source of the "contagion" was now Geneva, where Calvin achieved undisputed religious supremacy in the very year of the Peace of Augsburg and of the organization of the Paris Reformed Church, 1555.

By 1558-59 the religious polarization was to some extent linked with the diplomatic lineup: Spain, the papacy, and in France the Guise party in


a Counter-Reformation coalition, as against the states that had broken with the old church, of which England became the most important with Elizabeth's accession to the throne. Elizabeth's own religious position was conservative but also imprecise; she could not be a Roman Catholic, as in the eyes of the papacy she was illegitimate both as a sovereign and as an individual. Furthermore, England's national interests would lead Elizabeth to join forces with the followers of Knox against the Guise party in Scotland (Treaty of Edinburgh, 1560), and later to support the Dutch rebels and the Huguenots—as cheaply as possible, to be sure. Both international coalitions were subject to internal tensions and temporary dissolution whenever national, dynastic, or factional interests conflicted with the religious interest.

France was divided not only by two rival parties striving for supremacy, each allied to an international camp, but further by the conflicts between traditional Gallican Catholics and followers of the newer Tridentine approach, which was specifically antinational and ultramontane. The three-way split would make France the crucible of Europe and prolong the wars of religion for thirty-six years.

The international religious polarization was matched by profound shifts in the religious pattern in France. In the late 1550s, the ultra-Catholic position was greatly strengthened by the prestige of the Guises and, in a negative way, by reaction against the spectacular growth of Calvinism. These facts have long been recognized. In addition, Denis Richet has recently drawn attention to changes within the French Reformed movement and in the perceptions and reactions of the surrounding Catholic community. He points to three "mutations" in French Protestantism that surfaced at the end of Henri's reign: first, the conversion to or tolerance of unorthodox views of significant numbers of notables in Paris in three important milieux: the ranking commercial families, the municipal government, and the sovereign courts; second, contrary to their predecessors, the new Huguenots or sympathizers, were militant: "aux martyrs qui acceptaient la supplice, qui éprouvaient même une joie intense à périr pour Dieu, se substituent des hommes qui résistent." Sure of themselves, the Protestant notables asserted their legitimacy and disclaimed any kind or degree of rebellion or sedition. Accompanying this triomphalisme , as Richet calls it, was contempt for the man in the street that Richet believes helps to explain the connivance of Catholic notables who were also concerned to purge the community of disturbers of the peace. Richet postulates a desire, shared by the upper class of both confessions, to contain and impose "order" on the lower classes, and he considers this horizontal class cleavage more significant than the vertical ideological (religious) cleavage. The third new factor was the reluc-


tance of the authorities to act against well-placed persons by whom they were impressed. "A certain diffuse sympathy for the cause of the Gospel among Parisian notables" was manifested among parlementaires, which provoked distrust of their sincerity as Catholics and skepticism of their declared intentions to suppress heresy.[1]

The Parlement of Paris thus stood at the center of a series of concentric circles of crisis. It was inevitably affected by international crises, like those in the British Isles and the Netherlands, toward which France had to take a stand; bonds of clientage and interest connecting them to les grands made it impossible for parlementaires to avoid being caught in the crossfire of factional rivalries at court; and a difference of religious opinion among parlementaires put them at odds with royal policy toward heresy.

At the center of all these circles, the Parlement was subject to inner divisions that seriously impeded its effectiveness and threatened its integrity. As long as religious policy dominated both the relations of the court to the crown and among its own members, the pressures continued to mount. Not even the eventual explosion in civil war could relieve them. Only displacement of the threat of heresy by the ultramontane threat could do so—and that was not until 1563.

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