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8 The Road to Civil War (1): 1555-1561
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The Offensive of the Ultras, Spring 1559-December 1560

The first mercuriale session was held on the last Wednesday in April 1559. Our source, La Vraye Histoire (anonymous and Protestant) was considered factually reliable by de Thou, and nothing that I know of contradicts it. The author's judgments of people are frankly biased, however: Arnauld du Ferrier, who advocated submitting the heresy problem to a church council, is "a learned man with an enlightened mind," while the ultra président Minard is "given to sensuality, with no learning, a great inventor of schemes and factions."

It appears that a moderate consensus was reached in the first two sessions, on the necessity (and appropriateness) of leaving heresy to a church council, with discussion centering on how to handle unorthodox opinions in the meanwhile. One proposal was to offer declared heretics six months in which to recant or face banishment, but with permission to take their movable property with them. Antoine Fumée argued that capital punishment should be suspended until the issues were clarified by the ecclesiastical authorities. According to the Vraye Histoire premier président Le Maistre and présidents Minard and Saint-André, together with procureur général Bourdin, "fearing that a majority shared [Fumée's] opinion, and wishing to please the king and the pope, gave the king to understand that almost all the conseillers were Lutherans who wished to strip him of his power and his crown . . . that if he allowed the mercuriales to continue the [Roman] church would be ruined because Parlement would support its Lutheran [members], who paid no attention to the laws and mocked those who judged according to them . . . and that the majority [of the court] never attended Mass."[17] The informers urged the king to surprise the court during a mercuriale session so as to verify their report, and advised that force be used against the heretic members.

This "leaked" information—which was decidedly exaggerated—was of course a violation of the confidentiality of Parlement's deliberations. Jacques-Auguste de Thou also reports, on the authority of his father, président Christophe de Thou, that the informers produced a list identifying parlementaire suspects—and their property—which the king had shown to de Thou. The session of June 10, when Henri II followed the informers' advice, was the most important (historically) ever held. Accompanied by


Montmorency and the Guises, under armed escort, the king interrupted the deliberations, announced his dissatisfaction with the pursuit of heresy and his determination to stamp it out. He then ordered the deliberations to resume forthwith. Conseiller Claude Viole, advocating that the heresy question be submitted to a church council, summed up the substance of previous sessions. Unfortunately, there are no minutes for these sessions in the registers; they were probably destroyed, as seems to be true of Parlement's records in other major crises. There are some sources other than the Vraye Histoire , however, for the belief that a majority of those who spoke favored a general council and opposed the death sentence, notably the dispatch of England's ambassador Nicholas Throckmorton of June 13, which states that of one hundred twenty persons present, only Le Maistre and fourteen others supported the death sentence. He also interprets the basic motive for the ultra maneuver as their desire, one might say their need, to discredit président Séguier.

The House of Guise hath taken this occasion to weaken the Constable; and because they wold not begynne directly with Seggier, for feare of manifesting their practise, they have found the meanes to cause these counsailors to be taken; supposing, that on the examination of them somme mater may be gathered to toche Seggier withal, and thereby to overthrow him.[18]

While saying nothing about religious policy as such, two conseillers made bold attacks on the king. Louis Du Faur said that it was necessary to uncover the ultimate responsibility for the troubles of the kingdom and cited the prophet Elijah, who accused King Ahab of "troubling Israel," while Anne Du Bourg commented on the contrast between the flourishing and prosperous condition of blasphemers and adulterers, and the persecution of those who led pure lives and whose "sedition" was to demand the reform of a corrupt church. Even a more magnanimous king would probably have found that these remarks constituted lèse-majesté; it was out of the question for Henri II to ignore them in the very presence of his most important, ultra, advisers. The cardinal de Lorraine may well have been murmuring, "I told you so."

After the conseillers, the présidents expressed their opinions, which are


of particular interest to us. Four constituted the nucleus of the moderate leadership: René Baillet, Christophe de Harlay, Christophe de Thou, and Pierre (I) Séguier. Their main message was the defense of the court, with some suggestion that the heresy laws should be reexamined. The other two présidents were the "informers." Antoine Minard, who had a reputation for timidity, said merely that the royal edicts should be obeyed. Only premier président Le Maistre (liaison between the ultras in the royal entourage and those in Parlement) said anything directly about religious policy, by expressing approval of the policy of Philip Augustus toward the Albigensians as a precedent for the death penalty.

There was no orderly conclusion or adjournment to this mercuriale . The king flew into a rage, demanded that the register be surrendered to him, stormed out of the building with his entourage, and ordered the arrest of eight parlementaires. Three were able to hide with friends and stay out of sight: Jacques Viole, Arnauld Du Ferrier, and Nicole Du Val. Along with Anne Du Bourg, the most "seditious," four others were arrested and imprisoned in the Bastille: Louis Du Faur, Antoine Fumée, Paul de Foix, and Eustache de la Porte. According to the rules, magistrates could be tried only by the whole court, all chambers assembled, but on June 19 the king appointed a special commission to try them. It was even more flagrantly "extraordinary" than the Chambre Ardente, indeed, two of its members were veterans of the latter, président François de Saint-André and conseiller Louis Gayant. The others were conseiller Robert Bonete, maître des requêes Jean de Mesmes, and two ecclesiastics, Antoine de Mouchy and Eustache du Bellay, bishop of Paris.

During the following week the prisoners were interrogated. Du Bourg denied the authority of the commission and took advantage of many legal loopholes, including appeals to his ecclesiastical superiors as well as to the full Parlement. Against some members of the commission he also made challenges of their competence (récusations ), on the grounds that they had previously taken action against him. The case dragged on until the end of the year, in various phases. He was repeatedly condemned as a heretic and finally burned at the stake in the Place de Grève on December 23. It is clear that in the latter stages Du Bourg was consciously making points, both legal and theological, and that he was prepared for martyrdom, perhaps even seeking it.[19] Aspects of the case significant for the general question of parlementaire mentalité will be considered in the next section of this chap-


ter, along with the opinions of other members. The four conseillers arrested with Du Bourg were all reinstated the following year, but there was considerable variation in the sentences they received and in the circumstances of their rehabilitation. Each denied the legality of the case against him.[20]

Analysis of the spectrum of religious opinion among parlementaires must be understood in the context of some important changes in the political climate of France between the arrests in June 1559 and the release of all but Du Bourg within a few months. On July 10, 1559, exactly one month after Henri II had sworn "to see [Du Bourg] burn with his own eyes," the king died as a result of a wound inflicted during a joust that was part of the celebration of two royal marriages sealing the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis.[21] The fact that the fatal thrust had reached the brain through the eye did not escape notice of the Huguenot pamphleteers, who saw it as God's punishment on the adulterous persecutor of the righteous. The removal of the king did not, of course, soften the harsh policy of the royal government, over which the cardinal de Lorraine now had virtually unchallenged control. The young king, François II, was married to the cardinal's niece, Mary Stuart; Catherine de Médicis was not yet in a position to emerge from her enforced role as mere mère de famille (although she could destroy Diane de Poitiers's influence); and Montmorency was also in eclipse.

The Guises removed all important officeholders not of their party, and under their direction the tempo of persecution in Paris rose to new heights. There were massive arrests, regularly resulting in torture, mutilation, and autos-da-fé. The property of Protestants was sacked and public places were emblazoned with libels attacking them. The French pastors felt obliged to warn Calvin (who did not approve of armed resistance) that the faithful could not long bear these conditions, and they appealed to Catherine de Médicis to intervene. Parlement managed to soften one edict (September) that decreed the razing of any house used for Protestant assemblies by restricting its application only to cases in which the owner had been a participant. An edict (November) requiring denunciation of any heretical activity one knew of on pain of being considered a heretic oneself was


allowed to stand, together with a monetary reward to informers and personal pardon if they had themselves formerly been guilty.[22] In the week before Christmas fear, rumor, and violence reached a new crescendo. Présiclent Minard, prominent in the ultra faction, was assassinated in the street, an act understandably (but with no known justification) attributed to the Huguenots. Rumors that Le Maistre and Saint-André would soon fall victim fueled the anti-Protestant frenzy, and on December 23 Du Bourg was burned at the stake.

The intensity of persecution aroused widespread passive resistance and, not surprisingly, plans for armed resistance as well. The Conspiracy of Amboise, an ill-conceived and badly executed plot of some lesser Protestant nobles to seize the Guises and "rescue" the king in March 1560, was an isolated resort to arms unauthorized by the Reformed leaders either in France or in Geneva. It was betrayed to the Guises in advance and easily put down with brute force. The consequences were unfortunate in that the episode played into the hands of the ultras, who could represent all Protestants as rebels and thus frighten many law-abiding, non-ultra Catholics into accepting the persecution policy as essential to law and order and to the stability of the state.

For some time the French pastors and Calvin himself had been working for the conversion of the Bourbon brothers, princes of the blood. Neither Antoine, king of Navarre, nor Louis, prince de Condé, had become converts but their actions as "protectors" of the Huguenots were exploited by the Guises, who condemned them as fauteurs d'hérésie and rebellion. Condé was described as "the silent chief" of the Conspiracy of Amboise.[23]

The attack on the princes of the blood proved counterproductive for the Guises, substantiating the view that they had usurped the princes' "constitutional" place as "natural" advisers to the crown and regents for weak or minor sovereigns. People in all sections of the country and all (articulate) classes were drawn into a loose anti-Guise coalition, most of them Catholics of the traditional, Gallican stripe, as well as loyal to the crown. A Huguenot "party" would emerge in 1561, but there were as yet no respected and sufficiently powerful lay Protestant leaders. The anti-Guise "party" of 1559-60 naturally included the Huguenots and they tended to become its most vocal elements, but it was the moderate Catholics in the entourage of


Catherine de Médicis who were responsible for some modifications of royal policy in the summer of 1560. At what might on the surface seem the height of their power, the Guises had created their own nemesis.

The historian can discern the signs as early as the spring of the year. On March 11 Parlement registered the Edict of Amboise, which states explicitly that the queen mother's advice had been sought because the religious troubles were threatening the kingdom with civil war. She replied that the young king did not wish "to stain the first year of his reign with the blood of his subjects" and therefore offered pardon for all crimes of religion on condition of abjuration. Pastors and conspirators against the royal family or its ministers were specifically excluded. The long-range aim was to separate rank-and-file Protestants from their leaders, but there is no doubt that the immediate purpose was to abort a Huguenot resort to force, widely rumored. It was badly timed, too late; the attack on the château of Amboise came only five days later, March 16. On the 17th, an ampliation de l'édit du Roy was issued from Amboise, offering pardon to those who claimed they had merely intended to petition the king and had been "misled" into treasonable actions. Catherine made this move when interrogations of those captured revealed many humble persons who had been persuaded that if the king only understood their grievances he would redress them. The ampliation was the basis for releasing many in the ranks while the limbs of the leaders were displayed on the walls as a grisly deterrent to would-be imitators.[24]

In the early summer, Catherine made her most important appointment. Michel de L'Hôpital officially took over the seals as chancellor on June 20. It would be his thankless task to pilot through Parlement the ill-fated policy of religious toleration Catherine adopted in 1562. L'Hôpital, who had not enjoyed his sixteen years as conseiller in Parlement and never assimilated the mainstream mentalité , had risen rapidly under the sponsorship of the cardinal de Lorraine since 1553. He was successively maître des requêtes, premier président of the Chambre des Comptes, and a member of the Conseil Privé. An accomplished man of letters, he had eulogized the valor of François de Guise and the eloquence of the cardinal. It was generally assumed that he would be a tool of the Lorrainers, but L'Hôpital had served each of his several patrons so as to advance his own career as well. His adaptation to the service of Catherine while retaining the cardinal's favor, during the six months between his assumption of office and the fall of the Guises, was a political masterpiece.


As the most recent authority on L'Hôpital says, "Hostility between L'Hôpital and the Parlement escalated into institutional conflict when the king appointed him to the newly created first presidency of the Chambre des Comptes in February 1555." Clashes with Parlement left an indelible mark not only on L'Hôpital's career when he became chancellor in 1560, but also on royal policy throughout the 1560s. The parlementaires felt both humiliated and betrayed by his authoritarian manner and consistent efforts to reduce their power. He was after all a former colleague and the first chancellor who had not advanced from the position of premier président of the Parlement.[25]

L'Hôpital's first direct confrontation with Parlement over religious policy came when he presented the Edict of Romorantin in May 1560. The court was resisting registration because the edict reduced its jurisdiction; all civil authorities were forbidden de s'en mesler aucunement in heresy cases, the cognizance of which was thus "returned" to the church. Illicit assemblies, especially of armed men, were to be the responsibility of the presidial courts, recently established by Henri II, and presumably easier for the crown to control than the Parlements. Sutherland says that the edict provided "a relatively unobtrusive way of departing from extreme persecution" and that the situation of the earlier part of the century was "restored . . . in which Protestants could survive if they behaved discreetly, though naturally no such intention was expressed."[26] This was a first step in the policy of restricting government measures to law and order—to actions as opposed to beliefs. It certainly represented a via media between the Protestant demand for a suspension of all persecution and the Guise policy of inquisition. Yet Parlement's remonstrances, drawn up by conseillers Jean Jacquelot and Adrien Du Drac and expressed by président Baillet, were virtually identical to the earlier protests of Séguier against the Inquisition, that is, that the king's justice was diminished by allowing ecclesiastics to punish heresy, even if there were no accompanying "seditious disturbances," and by denying the right of appeal. Parlement's specific constitutional prerogatives were infringed by designating independent powers to the presidial courts.[27] The Edict of Romorantin was never enforced, and no further edicts were issued in the remaining months of the reign. As a conciliatory gesture to the court, the crown shortly denied any intention of removing its jurisdiction over illicit assemblies.


In the weeks surrounding the Conspiracy of Amboise, Catherine had begun to seek advice from seigneurs sufficiently powerful to provide a counterforce to Guise domination. Most prominent among them were Montmorency's Châtillon nephews, Gaspard de Coligny, admiral of France, and Odet de Coligny, cardinal de Châtillon. She would depend heavily on them for the next two years. The timing of their respective "conversions" is uncertain. Although their reform sympathies dated back to the later years of Henri II's reign, they did not take an unequivocally partisan stand until the spring of 1561, and not until the Huguenot resort to arms in 1562 did collaboration with the regent become impossible.

When Catherine convoked a special meeting of the royal council at Fontainebleau in August 1560, as a means of reducing tension between the factions, Coligny played an important part. He was highly respected and could do more than anyone else to present the legitimate grievances of the Protestants and to change their association with sedition in the public mind, by emphasizing their loyalty and law-abiding character and insisting that the leadership had no responsibility for the Conspiracy of Amboise. The admiral was not yet the Huguenot leader known to history, however. His first public step was not taken until the following April—as will be seen. At Fontainebleau his role was "more that of a mediator than that of an advocate," as his most recent biographer demonstrates.[28]

Also present at Fontainebleau were three prominent liberal Catholic bishops, frequently attacked by the ultras as heretics: Jean de Monluc, bishop of Valence, Jean de Morvilliers, bishop of Orléans, and Charles de Marillac, archbishop of Vienne, all members of the Conseil Privé. It seems probable that Catherine shared their view that abuses in the clergy were responsible for the corruption of the church and its loss of appeal; that a general council was the most desirable remedy, but if that did not occur there should be a national council, possibly in consultation with leaders of the reform, to seek an accommodation; and that no punishment harsher than exile was suitable for peaceable heretics. For the concomitant secular problems solutions should be sought in a meeting of the Estates General, which was decided upon for later in the year. In 1561, Catherine would also try the remedy of a national council on the religious question.[29]


Exchanges between Chancellor L'Hôpital and Parlement in September 1560 foreshadowed the struggle ahead.[30] When the chancellor reproached members of the court for "inciting [sedition] instead of opposing it" and warned that the king expected everyone "to avoid language that might cause scandal or confirm the seditious in their opinions," Parlement was hit on a sensitive nerve, loyalty to the crown. Premier président Le Maistre retorted that he did not know of anything said by any officer of the court tournant à sedition , and reiterated parlementaire loyalty and persistent efforts to secure obedience to the king's laws. Passing over to the offensive, he noted that two important offices were held by Huguenots and declared that such violations were the real cause of the disorders.[31]

The fact that the opinions of the queen's most trusted advisers partly coincided with those of the Protestants could not help alarming the Guises, who resumed the offensive by accusing the Bourbons of complicity in the Conspiracy of Amboise. In October they were summoned to Orléans, which had become an armed camp, and treated with scant respect by François II. Shortly Condé was arrested and Antoine humiliated. An extraordinary tribunal comprised of magistrates, conseillers d'état , and knights of the Order of St. Michael, pronounced a death sentence (for treason) against Condé on November 26, but opinions were so sharply divided that L'Hôpital adjourned the trial.[32] A political reversal even more dramatic than the sudden death of Henri II seventeen months earlier then changed the course of events. François II fell ill with a severe ear infection and died on December 5. While the Guise administration was overwhelmed with confusion, Catherine took steps to assure for herself the regency—the next Valois brother (Charles IX) was only ten years old. She was able to exploit the well-known weaknesses of Antoine de Bourbon so as to neutralize his counterclaims as first prince of the blood.[33] There were historical precedents for both. As


parlementaires who were their clients had been manipulated by the Guises under François II, so now there was an opportunity for the moderates, favored by the regent, to become more influential. But this did not transform them into docile creatures, cooperating with her policies; far from it.

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