For the entire second half of the 16th century, France has been marked by the Wars of Religion opposing Catholics and Protestants. The war started at the beginning of the century, when a German religious man Marthin Luther contests the Catholic Church and instates the Reformation, a revolutionary Protestant movement. His new thoughts do not take long to spread across France, but quickly, Protestant Reformists are persecuted by Catholics dominating in the country.
Between 1562 and 1598, civil and deadly wars follow one another in France for over 30 years. These Wars of Religion will take place under the reigns of several Kings of France, starting with Francis I who – although Catholic – is not opposed to the spread of Protestantism, even showing tolerance to churchgoers. But faced with their determination, Francis I eventually triggers a series of persecutions in 1534 in order to expect the dissidents out of France.
Under the reigns of Henry II and Francis II, the Reformation continues to spread in France with encountering real repression. Catherine de’ Medici – who will then rule the country with her 10-year-old son, Charles IX – hopes both Churches will reconcile and signs the Edict of January for Protestants. But the Massacre of Vassy in 1562 puts an end to the pacification and causes the first of the eight Wars of Religion.
After the first War of Religion between 1562 and 1563, and a second war from 1567 to 1568, the third War of Religion starts in 1568 and ends on August 8, 1570 with the signing of the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye by the King Charles IX and admiral Gaspard de Coligny – head of Protestants. The latter – weakened by their losses in Jarnac and Moncontour against the troops of the Duc of Anjoy, the king’s brother and future Henri III, and the assassination of their second chef, the Prince of Condé – name Henry of Navarre – future Henry IV – leader of the Protestants.
The edict, signed at the royal castle of Saint-Germain-en-Laye and encourage by Queen Catherine de’ Medicine, grants protestants new privileges and writes down peace modalities between the two religions. In fact, the edict of peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye grants protestants the freedom of cult in the places that were dedicated to them prior to the wars, as well as the faubourgs in 24 cities of the realm. It also grants them four fortified towns for two years so they can freely practice their religion – La Rochelle, Cognac, Montauban and La Charité – as well as the possibility to be admitted to public services.
It seems a genuine call for tolerance between the two Churches, seeming to put belief differences aside, but actually, the edict is more written and signed by the royal party to pacify and unify the realm and lead Protestants to progressively join Catholicism. Yet, Catherine de’ Medici also orders her daughter – Marguerite of Valois, upcoming Queen Margot – to marry Protestant Henry of Navarre who will become King of France in 1589 as Henry IV.
Although the edict of tolerance is signed, tensions between Catholics and Protestants do not ease off. The peace is short, only two years, with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre on August 24, 1572, bloody climax of the war between the two Churches.
Fragile, the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye of August 8, 1570 will yet serve as a model for the following treaties until the Edict of Nantes, signed in 1598 by Henry IV that will end the Wars of Religion in France.
Iconographie : Charles IX et Catherine de Médicis publiant la paix de Saint-Germain, enluminure du manuscrit Carmen de tristibus Galliae, 1577, Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon