Henry IV. Photo by neko92vl

By Fr. Dwight Longenecker

By the middle of the sixteenth century Europe was torn apart by the religious divisions caused by the Protestant Reform. Religion and politics were tangled in a web of power politics, family dynamics, personal rivalries and theological arguments. In 1553 the boy king Edward VI of Englan (Henry VIII’s sickly son) had just died making way for his Catholic half sister Mary Tudor—who would herself reign for only five years. In Rome, the uncompromising Paul IV was the pope. while Francis II ruled Catholic France and Charles V dominated from Spain as Holy Roman Emperor. The rest of Europe, including Germany, was a conglomeration of small kingdoms—some Catholic and some Protestant. Into the midst of this turmoil a boy was born to a royal family in Spain would would one day assume the French throne as King Henry IV. During his lifetime the religious wars reached a climax of violence and intolerance. Henry IV of France is important because he managed to bring an end to the bloodshed and establish peace. 

The Crown and Conflict

Henry’s mother was the Queen of Navarre — a small, but strategic principality on the Northern end of the border between Spain and France. His father was of the royal house of Bourbon in France. Although he was baptized as a Catholic, Henrys mother Queen Joan III had declared Calvinism to be the religion of her kingdom and Henry was a therefore brought up as a Protestant.

The Queen died in the summer of 1572 and at that point, just nineteen years of age, Henry not only became King of Navarre but he was also engaged to Margaret of Valois the daughter of the French king and his powerful queen Catherine de Medici. Margaret was the sister of three ineffectual brothers: Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III —all of whom had short reigns as King of France.

Henry and Margaret were married in Paris on August 18, 1572, and the next week the religious wars broke out in the terrible St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It was rumored that Protestants who had come to Paris for the royal wedding were plotting against Margaret’s brother King Henry III. Panicked by the rumors, the Protestants were rounded up and killed by Catholics in a terrible bloodbath. Newly married Protestant Prince Henry only escaped being murdered by the marauding Catholics by intervention of his bride and by promising to convert to Catholicism.

But a person convinced against his will is unpersuaded still. Forced conversion never works, so four years later Henry fled Catholic Paris and rejoined the Protestant rebels.

The Throne of France

Henry IV, (1553-1610). Photo by Morphart Creation

Henry’s wife Margaret was sister to three French kings, and she had another younger brother in line to the French throne. Francis, the Duke of Anjou was set to become king after his brother Henry III. But the younger brother Francis was discontented with his lot. He rebelled against his Catholic family and joined the Protestant side. For several years he moved around Europe, courting Elizabeth I of England and attempting several military adventures to gain power. After contracting malaria he died at the age of 29 in 1584.

His death meant that King Henry of Navarre was next in line to the French throne. Now “three Henrys” vied for power: King Henry III, his heir apparent, Henry King of Navarre and the French Catholic nobleman Henry of Guise. Henry of Navarre was still a Protestant, but he formed an alliance with his brother in law Catholic King Henry III.

In 1588 Henry III had Henry of Guise murdered and in 1589 he was in turn assassinated leaving Henry of Navarre heir to the throne of France. There was only one problem: Henry was still a Protestant, and the majority of the people and ruling powers of France rejected his claim to the throne.

For four years Henry battled various forces who sought to place a rival on the throne of France. During that time he and his forces attempted to capture Paris from the Catholic armies, but without success. Finally in 1593 Henry agreed to re-convert to the Catholic faith, allegedly saying, “Paris is worth a Mass.”

The next year he was crowned King of France in Chartres Cathedral.

Peace with the Protestants

The Protestant powers of France were called Hugenots, and they naturally felt betrayed by Henry’s conversion back to Catholicism. However, Henry IV’s experience on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide gave him a certain sympathy for both sides in the battle.

One of the reasons Europe had been torn apart by religious war was because, after the Lutheran revolt, the various monarchs of Europe declared that the religion of the monarch would be the established religion of his or her people. The establishment and enforcing of a state religion meant not only that there was no religious freedom for individuals, but also a whole nation would be obliged to go to war based on religious beliefs as well as political ambitions. Religion was therefore inextricably tied in with the politics, economics and power of whole territories. Consequently there was much more than religious truth to fight for. Furthermore, if you believe you are not only fighting for the king, but also fighting for religious truth, you are less likely to compromise. The consequences are extreme. To kill the enemy is to kill an enemy of God and his truth. To surrender is to surrender one’s faith and risk hell.

Henry IV stepped aside from the intolerance which brought such ruthless bloodshed as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the ensuing wars. To bring peace to his land he established the Edict of Nantes which granted tolerance and limited power to his former friends the Hugenots. For the first time religious toleration made a timid appearance in a Europe torn apart by religious strife.

A Vision of the Future

CIRCA 1969: A stamp printed in France shows Edict of Nantes and Henry IV of France. Photo by Neftali / Shutterstock

The Edict of Nantes is historically important—not only because Henry IV granted religious tolerance to the Protestants and ended the wars of religion, but also because it established the foundation for some principles which would eventually change the religious scene forever. Although Catholicism remained the established religion of France, the Edict of Nantes established that it was at least possible to have a separation between loyalty to one’s nation and loyalty to one’s religion. The freedoms of the Hugenots were strictly controlled, but the idea was planted that there could be a separation of church and state—something that was unthinkable up to that time.

In the years to come the French and Catholic authorities would overturn the Edict of Nantes and seek once again to enforce a state religion, but by granting religious freedom to the Hugenots, Henry IV established a beachhead.

An idea was planted which became another belief we take for granted in modern life: the secular state. If there were no enforced state religion that meant the state did not have a religion. Religion therefore could be relegated to the realm of individual choice and individual conscience. In theory the state could remain a religion free zone.

This is exactly what would transpire in the French and American revolutions some two hundred years later. Religious freedom and the separation of church and state became enshrined as part of the American constitution.

The Edict of Nantes opened the way to a further development which flowered in the modern world. If religion were relegated to the realm of individual choice then the door was opened to another feature of the modern world: religious relativism.

Tolerance was the object, but the side effect of that tolerance was the eventual conclusion that if religion was a matter of individual choice then any religion was satisfactory as long as the individual was sincere in his or her belief. If that was the case, then it was increasingly difficult to argue that one religion was necessarily better or more true than any other.

Henry the Great

Henry IV reigned as King of France for twenty one years. During that time he ruled well with advancements in architecture, economics, education and the arts. By establishing peace in his own realm he nurtured peace throughout Europe and was named by his people “Henry the Great.”

During his life Henry witnessed the Council of Trent with its great work of Counter Reformation. He also participated in the discovery and settlement of the New World and saw the rise of the Jesuit order with its great missionary efforts to the Americas and the Far East.

His desire for religious tolerance laid the foundation for the modern concepts of separation of church and state and the religious freedom we take for granted. While the down side might seem to be religious relativism, the positive effect is that for Catholicism to be real and vital it cannot be taken for granted simply as part of a culture or heritage. While other religions are free, Catholicism is also free to be held by those of genuine commitment to Christ and his church.

Despite his great accomplishments, Henry was still considered a traitor by both the Hugenots (because he converted to Catholicism) and the Catholics (because he granted the Protestants religious freedom) He survived many assassination threats and finally fell at the hands of a Catholic assassin in May 1610.

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