How to understand the French wars of Religion ?

From the last years of Henri II’s reign to the end of the first war of religion  in March 1563, the religious split between Catholics and Protestants considerably widened. The study of judicial sources brings to light the spiral which led to the formation of rival parties and to a dreadful civil war. Right from the beginning, chroniclers, martyrologues and later historians focused on the horrid punishment by burning at the stake. But, for those who escaped death by burning – and they were quite a few – there was a whole scale of punishments. This is  what is revealed by the criminal archives of the parliament of Paris.

The court dispensed sovereign justice without any possible appeal except from appealing to the king. It dispensed judgements in the name of the king, source of all justice.  Because of the king’s occasional presence, the Parliament had become its representative, which meant that they had to dispense both a delegated and sovereign justice. That is why the king’s justice here refers to the justice dispensed by the parliament of Paris.

In the XVI century, judicial and legislative functions were not separate. The legislation, just like the administration, are part of the king’s judicial functions. The mission of the royal power was to maintain peace among men through justice. The king’s decrees and orders, like the judgements from the sovereign courts, were first and foremost judicial decisions. That is why they offer a wealth of historical information.

Historians, and among them Denis Crouzet known for his rigorous analysis, have first observed how the Valois kings had reacted to the protestant Reformation. But the first who were bold enough to use parliamentary criminal archives were the American historians who synthetized them into a rich and invaluable presentation. Our challenge was to make a selection from the mass of archives and follow the daily judicial activity of the parliament of Paris over eight years, which meant an immersion right into the judicial machinery.

In order to reconstitute proceedings covering very long periods, scattered among different archives, it was necessary to establish a database, quite unique for the XVI century, the outcome of a lengthy work of archive retrieval, indexing and Input. This database provides a rather exact view of the situation of the defendants for “fact of religion”, thanks to the 1320 files concerning 1317 persons. The « fact of religion » was the recurring accusation which the Paris magistrates preferred to that of « heresy ». This generic incrimination encompassed numerous multifaceted classifications, among which the most common being the classification concerning speech, which, once again, is a good illustration of the power of the spoken word.

  • Daubresse S., 2020, A propos du livre, Conjurer la dissension religieuse : la justice du roi face à la Réforme (1555-1563), Ceyzérieu : Champ Vallon.

An immersion into criminal justice

The criminal decisions for « fact of religion » have a twofold interest. On the one hand, they provide an opportunity to follow, almost day after day, the increasingly fierce violence and confrontations between Catholics and the Reformed. That is why they offer a privileged point of observation, like an echo chamber of those times. On the other hand, they provide reliable information about the way the country was governed: the royal policy was an attempt to appease the religious turmoil but it met with strong opposition from the subjects. As a consequence, laws could not be enforced, which led to increasing violence, which shows how useless it is to fight any new idea with judicial weapons.

Many of the Parliament’s decisions concerned Paris and the Ile-de-France. We have also studied what was happening in the cities depending from the very large responsibility of the sovereign court, from Aurillac to Calais, from Lyon to Mayenne and to the Sables d’Olonne, from la Rochelle and Cognac to Langres, to Bar-le-Duc and to Rocroi. That was half of the kingdom, with about eight to nine million people answerable to the law. The interrogations, recorded on paper, hence difficult to read, give access to the answers of the defendants. Their trade or social status was not systematically mentioned by the court clerk, which limits any comprehensive social analysis.  Nevertheless, it appeared that most of those prosecuted for heresy by the Parliament of Paris were artisans or apprentices, the most common trades being those in charge of supplies.

Because of the size of the corpus, we had to limit the study to a short chronological but continuous period. It starts in 1555, the year when the Peace of Augsburg was signed and ends at  the Edict of Amboise in March 1563, that is, spanning the eight years before the first war of Religion, and including it as well. The study investigates three different phases: the policy of repression carried out by Henri II until he died of a tournament wound in 1559, the regent Catherine de Médicis’ attempt to promote a policy of tolerance in 1560 and 1561, then the outbreak of war in March 1562 and its consequences.

The pardon of Amboise in March 1560, like a blockade receding, filled the protestants with some incredible and insane hope. 1561 was a crucial year with stronger protestant pressure on the power. The number of confrontations increased everywhere, in streets, churches, around the houses which were thought to accommodate huguenots. The edict of January 1562 attempted to put an end to violence but soon failed because it was faced with resistance and the resumption of hostilities. A number of royal officers were less and less anxious to enforce the king’s law, and ended up turning to violent action and sedition when war started in April 1562. That was how violence spread relentlessly and ended in the worst possible civil war.

This eight-year long « micro-history » allows to scrutinize the past and reveals to what extent Reformation disrupted the realm of France. It clearly demonstrates how dangerous it is to revive violence in the name of religion.

The defendants ‘ordeal

A criminal trial for « fact of religion » is an extremely reliable indicator of the realities and vital challenges which confronted individuals living at a time of religious division. The study of the criminal activity of the Parliament brings into focus these men and women when faced with the judicial machinery, sometimes displaying how destinies were being torn down. Following their interrogations is sometimes a heart-rending immersion into fragments of life, raw testimonies without any narrative nor discourse. How far can one go to stand for one’s religious belief? In front of the judge, had the defendant no other choice than to submit or to become a martyr?

Each indictment taken from the Parliament archives describes a particular case which brings to light a complex and fascinating reality. Criminal minutes are authentic documents, actually signed by the Parliament chief executive himself and by the court reporter. Behind the autographs, one imagines the quill, held by the chief justice’s hand, sealing the fate of a man or of a woman. What must have Christophe de Thou, chief justice, felt when he signed the counsellor Anne Du Bourg’s death sentence in December 1559 ? He certainly loathed it, felt sorry for a young colleague’s death, but he also felt it was clearly inevitable as Du Bourg had signed his own death warrant by writing his profession of Reformed faith. These manuscripts are striking traces of all those lives abruptly torn down.

 The royal justice: powerless in the face of religious schism?

The royal power had to adapt general law to the complexity of totally new circumstances. The growing religious discord had to be averted, danger had to be warded off by several means. The policy of pardon set up by the royal power from March 1560 was strictly enforced by the Parliament. But justice was then accused of bias by radical Catholics who did not try to understand legal action nor the judge’s decisions and who, above all, rejected the contents of the peace of Ambroise.

Confronted to a movement of Reformation which kept spreading, the senior judges, faced with the unleashing of passions and violence, may have felt quite confused. They may have wondered whether their action was effective at all. It is clear that the royal policy kept changing under the pressure of zealous Catholics or that of partisan politics. In this second half of the XVI century, justice was weakened by the king’s confusion at the rising religious turmoil and his difficulty in deciding what should be done.   Was the Parliament’s judicial legalism in a position to calm down the violence which expressed people’s most heart-wrenching anguish concerning their salvation? This is the very issue of this work.


Illustration by Adèle Huguet for Mondes Sociaux: all rights reserved Adèle Huguet. To discover more drawings,

Image credits in CC: Flaticon Freepik, Monkik


Find more articles in English by clicking here

OpenEdition vous propose de citer ce billet de la manière suivante :
Sylvie Daubresse (7 mars 2022). How to understand the French wars of Religion ? Mondes Sociaux. Consulté le 22 juillet 2024 à l’adresse

Sylvie Daubresse

Université Paris Sorbonne, Centre Roland Mousnier (UMR 8596) (

Vous aimerez aussi...

Laisser un commentaire

Votre adresse e-mail ne sera pas publiée. Les champs obligatoires sont indiqués avec *

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur comment les données de vos commentaires sont utilisées.

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search