The outbreak of civil war among the French in 1562 may be perceived simply as an unexpected occurrence with regard to the change of rule three years earlier, when Henry II died from injuries after a jousting competition on 30th June to celebrate the two marriages permitted by the Treaty of Cateau-Cambresis. Largely known as the period of Renaissance Monarchy, the rules of Francis I and Henry II are often associated with moderate successes in terms of religion and foreign policy, and the authority of the crown was never diminished.
The rule of Francis II was clearly preceded by monarchs of greater competence; during his reign, disturbances among the noble families had a prominent role in destabilising France, but they were not the only such factor. Economic issues, religion and the system of clientage had a similar effect, alongside the predominant role of the King’s regent and mother, Catherine de Medici. Francis’ feeble rule created a power vacuum between the rival noble families.
During the reign of Henry, court influence was shared between the Montmorency and Guise families, and when Francis was crowned, the Guises quickly secured their position of influence, having an immediate advantage because the King was married to their niece, Mary Stuart. Francis was easily persuaded by the Duke of Guise and the Cardinal of Lorraine to place the family in full control of military, church and foreign affairs.
The two Bourbon princes of the blood, Antoine of Navarre and Louis of Conde equally sought to re-establish their court influence following the recent coronation and there was initial discontent from Anne of Montmorency, who had been deprived from all his power in order that it could be handed over to the Guises. These early suggestions of unsettlement among the nobility were destabilising in that they highlighted a potential threat to the security of the monarch. R. J. Knecht stated, “The success of personal monarchy depended on the age, health and lifespan of the King. Francis was aged only fifteen upon his coronation and although regency was not strictly necessary, his physical and mental competence dictated otherwise. The very appointment of Catherine de Medici to the post of regent was a destabilising factor, for she was not a member of the nobility and was foreign, from the Medici house of Florence. J. E. Neale suggested that she was “A very able politician, but not a statesman. ” She has been frequently interpreted as a Machiavellian character, able to manipulate individual instances to success, though her objectives in curbing the influence of the Guise were largely unattainable.
The July 1561 Colloquy of Poissy to discuss the possibility of a united church greatly angered the Guise and ultimately was destabilising in that it further defined the theological differences between the factions. Furthermore, the fact in itself that a regent was required to assist a monarch who was of age and again for the younger Charles IX underlined a monarchical weakness at the head of France that could be exploited. The system of clientage alongside religious allegiance was a significant destabilising factor.
The Guises, Chatillons and Bourbons had long been building up power-bases of their own in the countryside and the creation of governorships allowed the great nobles to be virtually independent rulers in parts of the kingdom. In the sixteenth century, the French nobility increasingly turned to the aristocratic families to secure pensions through employment or protection and this ‘bastard feudalism’ led to the growing power and influence of the families. Such a system could indeed have been beneficial to the monarchy in that each part of the pyramidal structure was dependent on the monarchy and could buttress royal authority.
However, the growth of Calvinism (constituting around 10% of the population by 1562) and the ongoing loyalty of the Guise to Catholicism inevitably led to riots in the towns and countryside; clients often followed their lords in terms of religious belief. When the Guise took charge of the treasury in 1559, over two million livres of court expense was cut and when they were rewarded with more financial favours, a flock of noblemen gave their support to the family.
In this way, the discontent of the Bourbon and Montmorency lords with the Guise influence entrenched the already-existing differences in religious beliefs and likewise, the persecution of Huguenots intensified. Religion was never the primary factor in destabilising the country, but combined with the clientage system to jointly become the most significant cause in further separating the factions. Francis II inherited a government that had undergone much change since the Peace of Cambrai in 1529 with Charles V, though crown resources and the French economy now suffered with great debt.
The nobility had been expected to participate in the Habsburg-Valois wars at their own expenses and during the rule of Francis, they were almost a class under threat in their own right, for they were weakened by inflation and debt. Moreover, the situation exerted a great pressure on the peasants: France had experienced a population explosion during the first half of the sixteenth century and was, as one contemporary suggested, ‘crammed as full as an egg’.
Inevitably, there was increased pressure on land and resources and in many regions the economy could barely sustain its population as bad harvests in the 1550s led to famine and peasant rebellions over tax increases. In this sense, the outbreak of civil war can be attributed partially to the exploits of previous monarchs, since the French debt was a crucial factor in furthering discontent among the lower classes. By the summer of 1559, the Bourbon princes were being pressurised by their clients and Calvinist allies into open confrontation with the Guise.
Antoine of Navarre was urged by the Paris Protestants to attempt a military coup and take control of the court and in August, his brother, Conde, began discussions about a palace revolution. In practice, the so-called Tumult of Amboise was indiscreet, though had used forged letters from John Calvin to gain support from fellow nobles in attempting to capture the young King in order that Conde could be placed in power.
Despite its failure, the plot suggests much about the reasons for civil war eventually breaking out in France – the combination of religious rivalry and factional politics was extremely destabilising during this period and class allegiance played an ongoing role in maintaining divisions between the factions. The outbreak of French civil war in 1562 can be attributed primarily to the weak monarchy. Even the very fact that Francis II could not rule alone was destabilising in its presentation of weakness and Catherine de Medici’s regency was frequently misdirected.
It is clear that the regency itself formed a strong secondary cause for the outbreak of civil war. However, a combination of religious, political and economic factors proved destabilising during the rule of the two young monarchs, alongside the legacy of fault from previous reigns, particularly the great French debt from the Habsburg-Valois wars. The nobility did play a pivotal role and the monarchy lacked a centralised control of the country and common laws. It was in this context that disorder leading to civil war was inevitable.