1. The Bourbons and Guises.--Henry II. had left four sons, the eldest of whom, Francis II., was only fifteen years old; and the country was divided by two great factions--one headed by the Guise family, an offshoot of the house of Lorraine; the other by the Bourbons, who, being descended in a direct male line from a younger son of St. Louis, were the next heirs to the throne in case the house of Valois should become extinct. Antony, the head of the Bourbon family, was called King of Navarre, because of his marriage with Jeanne d'Albrêt, the queen, in her own right, of this Pyrenean kingdom, which was in fact entirely in the hands of the Spaniards, so that her only actual possession consisted of the little French counties of Foix and Béarn. Antony himself was dull and indolent, but his wife was a woman of much ability; and his brother, Louis, Prince of Condé, was full of spirit and fire, and little inclined to brook the ascendancy which the Duke of Guise and his brothers enjoyed at court, partly in consequence of his exploit at Calais, and partly from being uncle to the young Queen Mary of Scotland, wife of Francis II. The Bourbons likewise headed the party among the nobles who hoped to profit by the king's youth to recover the privileges of which they had been gradually deprived, while the house of Guise were ready to maintain the power of the crown, as long as that meant their own power.
2. The Reformation.--The enmity of these two parties was much increased by the reaction against the prevalent doctrines and the corruptions of the clergy. This reaction had begun in the reign of Francis I., when the Bible had been translated into French by two students at the University of Paris, and the king's sister, Margaret, Queen of Navarre, had encouraged the Reformers. Francis had leagued with the German Protestants because they were foes to the Emperor, while he persecuted the like opinions at home to satisfy the Pope. John Calvin, a native of Picardy, the foremost French reformer, was invited to the free city of Geneva, and there was made chief pastor, while the scheme of theology called his "Institutes" became the text-book of the Reformed in France, Scotland, and Holland. His doctrine was harsh and stern, aiming at the utmost simplicity of worship, and denouncing the existing practices so fiercely, that the people, who held themselves to have been wilfully led astray by their clergy, committed such violence in the churches that the Catholics loudly called for punishment on them. The shameful lives of many of the clergy and the wickedness of the Court had caused a strong reaction against them, and great numbers of both nobles and burghers became Calvinists. They termed themselves Sacramentarians or Reformers, but their nickname was Huguenots; probably from the Swiss, "Eidgenossen" or oath comrades. Henry II., like his father, protected German Lutherans and persecuted French Calvinists; but the lawyers of the Parliament of Paris interposed, declaring that men ought not to be burnt for heresy until a council of the Church should have condemned their opinions, and it was in the midst of this dispute that Henry was slain.
3. The Conspiracy of Amboise.--The Guise family were strong Catholics; the Bourbons were the heads of the Huguenot party, chiefly from policy; but Admiral Coligny and his brother, the Sieur D'Andelot, were sincere and earnest Reformers. A third party, headed by the old Constable De Montmorençy, was Catholic in faith, but not unwilling to join with the Huguenots in pulling down the Guises, and asserting the power of the nobility. A conspiracy for seizing the person of the king and destroying the Guises at the castle of Amboise was detected in time to make it fruitless. The two Bourbon princes kept in the background, though Condé was universally known to have been the true head and mover in it, and he was actually brought to trial. The discovery only strengthened the hands of Guise.
4. Regency of Catherine de' Medici.--Even then, however, Francis II. was dying, and his brother, Charles IX., who succeeded him in 1560, was but ten years old. The regency passed to his mother, the Florentine Catherine, a wily, cat-like woman, who had always hitherto been kept in the background, and whose chief desire was to keep things quiet by playing off one party against the other. She at once released Condé, and favoured the Bourbons and the Huguenots to keep down the Guises, even permitting conferences to see whether the French Church could be reformed so as to satisfy the Calvinists. Proposals were sent by Guise's brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine, to the council then sitting at Trent, for vernacular services, the marriage of the clergy, and other alterations which might win back the Reformers. But an attack by the followers of Guise on a meeting of Calvinists at Vassy, of whose ringing of bells his mother had complained, led to the first bloodshed and the outbreak of a civil war.
5. The Religious War.--To trace each stage of the war would be impossible within these limits. It was a war often lulled for a short time, and often breaking out again, and in which the actors grew more and more cruel. The Reformed influence was in the south, the Catholic in the east. Most of the provincial cities at first held with the Bourbons, for the sake of civil and religious freedom; though the Guise family succeeded to the popularity of the Burgundian dukes in Paris. Still Catherine persuaded Antony of Bourbon to return to court just as his wife, Queen Jeanne of Navarre, had become a staunch Calvinist, and while dreaming of exchanging his claim on Navarre for the kingdom of Sardinia, he was killed on the Catholic side while besieging Rouen. At the first outbreak the Huguenots seemed to have by far the greatest influence. An endeavour was made to seize the king's person, and this led to a battle at Dreux. While it was doubtful Catherine actually declared, "We shall have to say our prayers in French." Guise, however, retrieved the day, and though Montmorençy was made prisoner on the one side, Condé was taken on the other. Orleans was the Huguenot rallying-place, and while besieging it Guise himself was assassinated. His death was believed by his family to be due to the Admiral de Coligny. The city of Rochelle, fortified by Jeanne of Navarre, became the stronghold of the Huguenots. Leader after leader fell--Montmorençy, on the one hand, was killed at Montcontour; Condé, on the other, was shot in cold blood after the fight of Jarnac. A truce followed, but was soon broken again, and in 1571 Coligny was the only man of age and standing at the head of the Huguenot party; while the Catholics had as leaders Henry, Duke of Anjou, the king's brother, and Henry, Duke of Guise, both young men of little more than twenty. The Huguenots had been beaten at all points, but were still strong enough to have wrung from their enemies permission to hold meetings for public worship within unwalled towns and on the estates of such nobles as held with them.
6. Catherine's Policy.--Catherine made use of the suspension of arms to try to detach the Huguenot leaders, by entangling them in the pleasures of the court and lowering their sense of duty. The court was studiously brilliant. Catherine surrounded herself with a bevy of ladies, called the Queen-Mother's Squadron, whose amusements were found for the whole day. The ladies sat at their tapestry frames, while Italian poetry and romance was read or love-songs sung by the gentlemen; they had garden games and hunting-parties, with every opening for the ladies to act as sirens to any whom the queen wished to detach from the principles of honour and virtue, and bind to her service. Balls, pageants, and theatricals followed in the evening, and there was hardly a prince or noble in France who was not carried away by these seductions into darker habits of profligacy. Jeanne of Navarre dreaded them for her son Henry, whom she kept as long as possible under training in religion, learning, and hardy habits, in the mountains of Béarn; and when Catherine tried to draw him to court by proposing a marriage between him and her youngest daughter Margaret, Jeanne left him at home, and went herself to court. Catherine tried in vain to bend her will or discover her secrets, and her death, early in 1572, while still at court, was attributed to the queen-mother.
7. Massacre of St. Bartholomew (1572).--Jeanne's son Henry was immediately summoned to conclude the marriage, and came attended by all the most distinguished Huguenots, though the more wary of them remained at home, and the Baron of Rosny said, "If that wedding takes place the favours will be crimson." The Duke of Guise seems to have resolved on taking this opportunity of revenging himself for his father's murder, but the queen-mother was undecided until she found that her son Charles, who had been bidden to cajole and talk over the Huguenot chiefs, had been attracted by their honesty and uprightness, and was ready to throw himself into their hands, and escape from hers. An abortive attempt on Guise's part to murder the Admiral Coligny led to all the Huguenots going about armed, and making demonstrations which alarmed both the queen and the people of Paris. Guise and the Duke of Anjou were, therefore, allowed to work their will, and to rouse the bloodthirstiness of the Paris mob. At midnight of the 24th of August, 1572, St. Bartholomew's night, the bell of the church of St. Germain l'Auxerrois began to ring, and the slaughter was begun by men distinguished by a white sleeve. The king sheltered his Huguenot surgeon and nurse in his room. The young King of Navarre and Prince of Condé were threatened into conforming to the Church, but every other Huguenot who could be found was massacred, from Coligny, who was slain kneeling in his bedroom by the followers of Guise, down to the poorest and youngest, and the streets resounded with the cry, "Kill! kill!" In every city where royal troops and Guisard partisans had been living among Huguenots, the same hideous work took place for three days, sparing neither age nor sex. How many thousands died, it is impossible to reckon, but the work was so wholesale that none were left except those in the southern cities, where the Huguenots had been too strong to be attacked, and in those castles where the seigneur was of "the religion." The Catholic party thought the destruction complete, the court went in state to return thanks for deliverance from a supposed plot, while Coligny's body was hung on a gibbet. The Pope ordered public thanksgivings, while Queen Elizabeth put on mourning, and the Emperor Maximilian II., alone among Catholic princes, showed any horror or indignation. But the heart of the unhappy young king was broken by the guilt he had incurred. Charles IX. sank into a decline, and died in 1574, finding no comfort save in the surgeon and nurse he had saved.
8. The League.--His brother, Henry III., who had been elected King of Poland, threw up that crown in favour of that of France. He was of a vain, false, weak character, superstitiously devout, and at the same time ferocious, so as to alienate every one. All were ashamed of a man who dressed in the extreme of foppery, with a rosary of death's heads at his girdle, and passed from wild dissipation to abject penance. He was called "the Paris Church-warden and the Queen's Hairdresser," for he passed from her toilette to the decoration of the walls of churches with illuminations cut out of old service-books. Sometimes he went about surrounded with little dogs, sometimes flogged himself walking barefoot in a procession, and his mignons, or favourites, were the scandal of the country by their pride, license, and savage deeds. The war broke out again, and his only remaining brother, Francis, Duke of Alençon, an equally hateful and contemptible being, fled from court to the Huguenot army, hoping to force his brother into buying his submission; but when the King of Navarre had followed him and begun the struggle in earnest, he accepted the duchy of Anjou, and returned to his allegiance. Francis was invited by the insurgent Dutch to become their chief, and spent some time in Holland, but returned, unsuccessful and dying. As the king was childless, the next male heir was Henry of Bourbon, King of Navarre, who had fled from court soon after Alençon returned to the Huguenot faith, and was reigning in his two counties of Béarn and Foix, the head of the Huguenots. In the resolve never to permit a heretic to wear the French crown, Guise and his party formed a Catholic league, to force Henry III. to choose another successor. Paris was devoted to Guise, and the king, finding himself almost a prisoner there, left the city, but was again mastered by the duke at Blois, and could so ill brook his arrogance, as to have recourse to assassination. He caused him to be slain at the palace at Blois in 1588. The fury of the League was so great that Henry III. was driven to take refuge with the King of Navarre, and they were together besieging Paris, when Henry III. was in his turn murdered by a monk, named Clement, in 1589.
9. Henry IV.--The Leaguers proclaimed as king an old uncle of the King of Navarre, the Cardinal of Bourbon, but all the more moderate Catholics rallied round Henry of Navarre, who took the title of Henry IV. At Ivry, in Normandy, Henry met the force of Leaguers, and defeated them by his brilliant courage. "Follow my white plume," his last order to his troops, became one of the sayings the French love to remember. But his cause was still not won--Paris held out against him, animated by almost fanatical fury, and while he was besieging it France was invaded from the Netherlands. The old Cardinal of Bourbon was now dead, and Philip II. considered his daughter Isabel, whose mother was the eldest daughter of Henry II., to be rightful Queen of France. He sent therefore his ablest general, the Duke of Parma, to co-operate with the Leaguers and place her on the throne. A war of strategy was carried on, during which Henry kept the enemy at bay, but could do no more, since the larger number of his people, though intending to have no king but himself, did not wish him to gain too easy a victory, lest in that case he should remain a Calvinist. However, he was only waiting to recant till he could do so with a good grace. He really preferred Catholicism, and had only been a political Huguenot; and his best and most faithful adviser, the Baron of Rosny, better known as Duke of Sully, though a staunch Calvinist himself, recommended the change as the only means of restoring peace to the kingdom. There was little more resistance to Henry after he had again been received by the Church in 1592. Paris, weary of the long war, opened its gates in 1593, and the inhabitants crowded round him with ecstasy, so that he said, "Poor people, they are hungry for the sight of a king!" The Leaguers made their peace, and when Philip of Spain again attacked Henry, the young Duke of Guise was one of the first to hasten to the defence. Philip saw that there were no further hopes for his daughter, and peace was made in 1596.
10. The Edict of Nantes.--Two years later, in 1598, Henry put forth what was called the Edict of Nantes, because first registered in that parliament. It secured to the Huguenots equal civil rights with those of the Catholics, accepted their marriages, gave them, under restrictions, permission to meet for worship and for consultations, and granted them cities for the security of their rights, of which La Rochelle was the chief. The Calvinists had been nearly exterminated in the north, but there were still a large number in the south of France, and the burghers of the chief southern cities were mostly Huguenot. The war had been from the first a very horrible one; there had been savage slaughter, and still more savage reprisals on each side. The young nobles had been trained into making a fashion of ferocity, and practising graceful ways of striking death-blows. Whole districts had been laid waste, churches and abbeys destroyed, tombs rifled, and the whole population accustomed to every sort of horror and suffering; while nobody but Henry IV. himself, and the Duke of Sully, had any notion either of statesmanship or of religious toleration.
11. Henry's Plans.--Just as the reign of Louis XI. had been a period of rest and recovery from the English wars, so that of Henry IV. was one of restoration from the ravages of thirty years of intermittent civil war. The king himself not only had bright and engaging manners, but was a man of large heart and mind; and Sully did much for the welfare of the country. Roads, canals, bridges, postal communications, manufactures, extended commerce, all owed their promotion to him, and brought prosperity to the burgher class; and the king was especially endeared to the peasantry by his saying that he hoped for the time when no cottage would be without a good fowl in its pot. The great silk manufactories of southern France chiefly arose under his encouragement, and there was prosperity of every kind. The Church itself was in a far better state than before. Some of the best men of any time were then living--in especial Vincent de Paul, who did much to improve the training of the parochial clergy, and who founded the order of Sisters of Charity, who prevented the misery of the streets of Paris from ever being so frightful as in those days when deserted children became the prey of wolves, dogs, and pigs. The nobles, who had grown into insolence during the wars, either as favourites of Henry III. or as zealous supporters of the Huguenot cause, were subdued and tamed. The most noted of these were the Duke of Bouillon, the owner of the small principality of Sedan, who was reduced to obedience by the sight of Sully's formidable train of artillery; and the Marshal Duke of Biron, who, thinking that Henry had not sufficiently rewarded his services, intrigued with Spain and Savoy, and was beheaded for his treason. Hatred to the house of Austria in Spain and Germany was as keen as ever in France; and in 1610 Henry IV. was prepared for another war on the plea of a disputed succession to the duchy of Cleves. The old fanaticism still lingered in Paris, and Henry had been advised to beware of pageants there; but it was necessary that his second wife, Mary de' Medici, should be crowned before he went to the war, as she was to be left regent. Two days after the coronation, as Henry was going to the arsenal to visit his old friend Sully, he was stabbed to the heart in his coach, in the streets of Paris, by a fanatic named Ravaillac. The French call him Le Grand Monarque; and he was one of the most attractive and benevolent of men, winning the hearts of all who approached him, but the immorality of his life did much to confirm the already low standard that prevailed among princes and nobles in France.
12. The States-General of 1614.--Henry's second wife, Mary de' Medici, became regent, for her son, Louis XIII., was only ten years old, and indeed his character was so weak that his whole reign was only one long minority. Mary de' Medici was entirely under the dominion of an Italian favourite named Concini, and his wife, and their whole endeavour was to amass riches for themselves and keep the young king in helpless ignorance, while they undid all that Sully had effected, and took bribes shamelessly. The Prince of Condé tried to overthrow them, and, in hopes of strengthening herself, in 1614 Mary summoned together the States-General. There came 464 members, 132 for the nobles, 140 for the clergy, and 192 for the third estate, i.e. the burghers, and these, being mostly lawyers and magistrates from the provinces, were resolved to make their voices heard. Taxation was growing worse and worse. Not only was it confined to the burgher and peasant class, exempting the clergy and the nobles, among which last were included their families to the remotest generation, but it had become the court custom to multiply offices, in order to pension the nobles, and keep them quiet; and this, together with the expenses of the army, made the weight of taxation ruinous. Moreover, the presentation to the civil offices held by lawyers was made hereditary in their families, on payment of a sum down, and of fees at the death of each holder. All these abuses were complained of; and one of the deputies even told the nobility that if they did not learn to treat the despised classes below them as younger brothers, they would lay up a terrible store of retribution for themselves. A petition to the king was drawn up, and was received, but never answered. The doors of the house of assembly were closed--the members were told it was by order of the king--and the States-General never met again for 177 years, when the storm was just ready to fall.
13. The Siege of Rochelle.--The rottenness of the State was chiefly owing to the nobility, who, as long as they were allowed to grind down their peasants and shine at court, had no sense of duty or public spirit, and hated the burghers and lawyers far too much to make common cause with them against the constantly increasing power of the throne. They only intrigued and struggled for personal advantages and rivalries, and never thought of the good of the State. They bitterly hated Concini, the Marshal d'Ancre, as he had been created, but he remained in power till 1614, when one of the king's gentlemen, Albert de Luynes, plotted with the king himself and a few of his guards for his deliverance. Nothing could be easier than the execution. The king ordered the captain of the guards to arrest Concini, and kill him if he resisted; and this was done. Concini was cut down on the steps of the Louvre, and Louis exclaimed, "At last I am a king." But it was not in him to be a king, and he never was one all his life. He only passed under the dominion of De Luynes, who was a high-spirited young noble. The Huguenots had been holding assemblies, which were considered more political than religious, and their towns of security were a grievance to royalty. War broke out again, and Louis himself went with De Luynes to besiege Montauban. The place was taken, but disease broke out in the army, and De Luynes died. There was a fresh struggle for power between the queen-mother and the Prince of Condé, ending in both being set aside by the queen's almoner, Armand de Richelieu, Bishop of Luçon, and afterwards a cardinal, the ablest statesman then in Europe, who gained complete dominion over the king and country, and ruled them both with a rod of iron. The Huguenots were gradually driven out of all their strongholds, till only Rochelle remained to them. This city was bravely and patiently defended by the magistrates and the Duke of Rohan, with hopes of succour from England, until these being disconcerted by the murder of the Duke of Buckingham, they were forced to surrender, after having held out for more than a year. Louis XIII. entered in triumph, deprived the city of all its privileges, and thus in 1628 concluded the war that had begun by the attack of the Guisards on the congregation at Vassy, in 1561. The lives and properties of the Huguenots were still secure, but all favour was closed against them, and every encouragement held out to them to join the Church. Many of the worst scandals had been removed, and the clergy were much improved; and, from whatever motive it might be, many of the more influential Huguenots began to conform to the State religion.