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The Italian Wars and Civil War in France

The French king from 1514, at age 20, was Francis I, a Roman Catholic Britannica describes as having grown up "following his own whims, without discipline and more infatuated with chivalrous romances, songs, and violent exercise than with classical studies." Britannica describes him also as having become interested in high Renaissance Italian art, reading philosophy, poetry and science.

And into his reign he became involved in Europe's politics. Five years into Francis' reign, Charles of Spain (the grandson of Isabella and Ferdinand), at age 19, became Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles was also Lord of the Netherlands (the Spanish Netherlands within the Holy Roman Empire). He was an archduke of Austria, and he ruled in Naples (inherited from his grandfather Ferdinand I of Aragon.

According to Britannica, Charles "had his mind set on a universal monarchy." A major obstacle was Francis. The two became bitter opponents. There was the Italian War of 1521-26 — more war basically about who would rule where. Francis was on the side of Pope Leo X, who had a fear of Charles' ambitions, but the Pope switched sides, allying himself with Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, against Martin Luther the heretic. Also siding with Charles was Henry VIII of England who was then in good standing with the Pope. France was aligned with the Republic of Venice. France had been in power in Milan since 1500. Charles had recently driven the French out, and, in 1525, Francis himself led an army to retake Milan — the Battle of Pavia. And there Francis was captured and many of his chief nobles killed. In 1526, Francis and Charles signed the Treaty of Madrid, Francis ho surrendering his claims to Italy, Flanders, and Burgundy. A few weeks after his release, however, Francis repudiated the terms of the treaty, starting the War of the League of Cognac, and the Italian Wars would continue for another three decades.

King Francis, meanwhile, became involved in the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots). His attachment to the humanist movement had left him with some tolerance of Protestants, but that changed in 1534 when Protestants in France began a campaign of placards that denounced the Catholic Mass. The idea was still prevalent among Europeans that a society had to have one authority and one common religious ideology affiliation, and instead of adding to the tolerance that was needed, the placard movement was intense enough that Francis, it is said, viewed it as a threat to the kingdom's stability. Francis initiated a move of prosecutions for heresy, and several thousand fled the France. (Among them was John Calvin, who emigrated to Basel in 1535 and the following year settled in Geneva.)

Francis in his later years had hunting and hawking as his prime passion. It was well after his death in 1547 that the religious issue led France into civil war. Francis died at the age of 52 when the common age of death from old age among aristocratic men was around sixty — another characteristic of those times. (According to Francis's modern biographer, Desmond Seward, 'when the doctors opened his body they found an abscess in the stomach, his kidneys shrivelled, his entrails putrefied, his throat corroded, and one of his lungs in shreds'.)

Francis was succeeded by his second son, who became Henry II. And Henry II ended the Italian Wars by signing the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis, renouncing all claims to Italian territory. Henry II died in 1559 from an accident during play at jousting. His son, Francis II, age 15, became king, with Henry's Italian wife, and Henry I's mother, Catherine de' Medici as regent. Catherine entrusted the reins of government to her son's relatives from the House of Guise, who were staunch supporters of the Catholicism.

The seventeen-month reign of Francis II (before his death in December 1560) was dominated by religious crisis. There had been little success in crushing Protestantism in France. By the 1560s, there were perhaps 1,250 Protestant churches serving about 10 percent of the population. Catherine was a devout Catholic who advocated liberty and security for France's Protestants, and there were Protestants who looked to her for support. She promoted the Edict of Saint-Germain, which in 1562-63 recognized the existence of Protestantism, guaranteed freedom of conscience and private worship, but it forbade Protestant worship within towns — where conflicts were thought to flare up too easily.

But this edict didn't solve anything. A hatred of Protestantism was too prevalent. On March 1, 1562, a member of the Guise family, François de Guise, stopped to attend a mass in the town of Vassy and found Protestants holding religious ceremonies. Outraged, he led men in setting fire to the Protestant church, killing over eighty of them and wounding many others. This was the beginning of what was to be to be called the First French War of Religion.

A part of this by 1572 was the wounding and death of a Protestant leader, Gaspard de Coligny. Protestants in Paris rose up in anger. Those opposed to Protestantism responded in what became known as the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre (August 24, 1572). Two thousand or more Protestants were killed. And the killing spread to the provinces. In August 1572 in France around 30,000 Protestants were slaughtered, with Pope Gregory XIII (Pope since May) declaring himself pleased by the new attack on Protestantism, as did Spain's King Philip II (son of Charles).

The War of Religion and lack of harmony were ruining France's economy. Inflation was reducing purchasing power and manufacturing was in decline. There was an increase in homelessness, brigandage and other crimes. In places the poor rioted. Scapegoating increased, directed against Italian residents in France. Italians had been marrying into French families and had felt at home in France, but many of the French saw Italian bankers as responsible for ruining the economy. Of the 75 Italian banking families in France in 1568 only 21 would remain in 1597.

A faction of Catholics viewed Protestants as traitors and enemies of humanity, and they clamored for France’s government to have them exterminated, but those opposed extermination programs prevailed.

A new war of rival armies contending for power began within France in 1584. The Protestant army was led by Henry of Navarre, from the branch of royalty called the Bourbons. He had been raised as a Protestant. He had the moral support of Queen Elizabeth of England. A Catholic army led by Henry the Duke of Guise had the support of Spain. In 1589, the Duke of Guise and his archbishop brother were invited to consult with France's king, Henry III. The king's guards murdered the two. An outraged Catholic retaliated and assassinated Henry. This left Henry of Navarre of the royal Bourbon family as the nominal king of France, and he converted to Catholicism as needed to be crowned King of France. Henry of Navarre became Henry VI.

Henry IV moved for conciliation between Catholics and Protestants. He denounced Catholic extremists as follows:

We believe in one God, we recognize Jesus Christ, and we draw on the same Gospel... I believe that the war which you so ardently pursue is unworthy of Christians.

Those opposed to Henry IV held power in Paris for nine years, Paris capitulating on March 22, 1594. In 1598, Henry issued the Edict of Nantes. It proclaimed that "everything done by one party or the other" during "the preceding period of troubles" was to remain "obliterated and forgotten, as if no such things ever happened." As a part of his move, Catholic establishments were to be restored wherever they had been interrupted. And Protestants were to have rights equal to those of Catholics.

Peace made a new prosperity possible, with Henry IV announcing that if God allowed him to live long enough he would see to it that every laborer had a chicken in his pot on Sunday. Henry adopted monetary reforms, reduced the tax burden on peasants, and embarked on administrative reform. He encouraged education and undertook many public works, including canal building and the planting of pines, elms and fruit trees. He renewed Paris as a great city.

But a mentally unbalanced religious fanatic, François Ravaillac, believed that Henry was about to make war against the Pope. Ravaillac stabbed Henry to death. Ravaillac was quickly seized, preventing a mob lynching.

Pain was still seen as a proper part of punishment, and Ravaillac was scalded with burning sulfer, molten lead and boiling oil and resin. His flesh was torn apart by pincers and his body pulled apart. His parents were forced into exile and other members of his family ordered never to use the name Ravaillac.


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