Under Henry II, persecution of Protestants intensified but was no more effective than before. Protestant churches and organizations continued to mushroom across the kingdom during the 1550s. Religious divisions were reinforced by political ones, as aristocratic factions, acting on both religious and secular motives, sought to expand their power and their access to state patronage. The major factions included the Guises, strong pro-Catholics with claims to the French throne; the Montmorency, with ties to both Catholics and Protestants; and the Bourbons, who gradually assumed leadership of the Protestants.
The growing crisis was aggravated in 1559 with the sudden death of Henry II in a jousting accident. Henry left behind his widow, Catherine de Médicis, and four young sons as chief custodians of an increasingly besieged monarchy. Upon his father’s death, the eldest son, Francis II, became king. Morally and physically weak, the 15-year-old king fell under the influence of the Guises. In 1560 Protestant leaders organized what is known as the conspiracy of Amboise in order to kidnap the king and free him of Guise control. The Guises thwarted the conspiracy and executed hundreds of its members.
When Francis died the same year, his mother, Catherine, became regent, acting in the name of the new minor king, Charles IX. Catherine sought to reconcile the various factions, but concessions to the Protestants only further inflamed the Guises. The next ten years saw three civil wars punctuated by fragile truces. The period was marked by civil violence committed by ordinary citizens on both sides.
In 1572 Catherine gave her daughter Margaret of Valois (better known as Margot) in marriage to a leading Protestant Bourbon, Henry of Navarre (see Henry IV). The marriage exacerbated Catholic fears of a Protestant coup d’état. On August 24, 1572, dozens of Protestant leaders were butchered in the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day, apparently on orders of Charles IX. During the succeeding months, thousands more Protestants were murdered across France in an uncoordinated effort to purify the realm of heretics.
Although devastating to the Protestants and their leadership, the massacres did not end their cause but only drove them to adopt more extreme positions. They began to claim a right to resist royal tyranny, a right rooted in an imagined Frankish constitution.
When Henry III, the third son of Henry II and Catherine de Medici, was crowned in 1574, the conflict was immediately renewed and became progressively more embedded in a Europe-wide struggle. England and the Netherlands favored the Protestants, while Spain supported the Guises. In 1584 the Guises signed an alliance with Spain, in which the two partners promised to enforce the decrees of the Council of Trent in exchange for material support. This alliance was sparked by a looming succession crisis. When the duc d’Anjou, the last remaining brother of the childless Henry III, died, Henry of Navarre, a Protestant who was a very distant relation to the Valois, became the next heir to the French throne. In response, a group of Catholic nobles formed an alliance known as the Holy League. Its goal was to reunite France in a unitary Catholic faith and prevent Henry of Navarre from becoming king. While the league established itself in provincial France, a group of officials and clerics formed the Sixteen, a committee dedicated to advancing the league’s goals in Paris. "France" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.
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