In the kingdom of France, unlike anywhere else in all of Europe, the religious division of the Reformation resulted in a decades-long series of civil wars that pitted not just Protestant and Catholic armies against each other on the battlefield, but civilians against each other and neighbor against neighbor in a number of cities and towns throughout the kingdom. Indeed, the French Wars of Religion have become known more for the religious violence perpetrated during the conflict than for anything else. In many narratives, the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 24, 1572 in the French capital, Paris, seems to have become the synthesis of the entire conflict.

But French men and women were no more violent or fanatical in their beliefs than other Christians, and it was a perfect storm of specific historical circumstances that best explains why no other nation suffered thirty-five years of civil war with such popular violence. These circumstances include not only a series of young and inexperienced kings following the death of Henry II in 1559, but also the fact that Calvinism emerged suddenly and grew exponentially in southern France in the 1540s and 1550s, largely because of the Reformation in neighboring Geneva, whereby Calvin sent hundreds of pastors across the French border to found Reformed congregations. By 1562, over 800 such Reformed churches had been founded in France in less than two decades, and by that time Protestants made up nearly 10 percent of the population of the kingdom. All the monarchy’s efforts to blunt and counter this growth proved ineffective.

The religious wars that emerged starting in 1562 were hardly inevitable, but they were a product of a significant number of French nobles converting to the new religion. Without these noble converts, there would never have been a substantial Huguenot military force, which not only protected the minority faith but also necessitated a substantial royal military presence for the long duration of the wars. And it was the noble leadership of first the Prince of Condé, then Admiral Coligny, and finally Henry of Navarre that enabled the Huguenots to survive as long as they did in the hope of gaining complete freedom of conscience and practice of their faith.

In 1559 Catherine de’ Medici—the mother of King Francis II, King Charles IX, and King Henry III—recognized that repression of the Protestants had not worked under her husband, Henry II, and she attempted to make peace with the Protestants over the course of three decades. These efforts were more successful than many historians have assumed, and they did lead eventually to the Edict of Nantes after her death. Nevertheless, multiple civil wars starting in 1562 produced a series of military confrontations on the battlefield that could never definitively settle the dispute, and each ended in a compromise peace edict which neither side considered to be completely satisfactory. The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August–September 1572 in Paris and a dozen provincial towns resulted in as many as 6,000 French Protestants being killed, which brought the rise in the number of Protestants to a sudden end and proved to be a turning point in the conflict. A second watershed occurred when Catherine’s youngest son Francis, Duke of Alençon and Anjou, died of tuberculosis in 1584, making the Protestant Henry, King of Navarre, the presumptive heir to the throne. A Catholic League emerged to try to stop him from succeeding King Henry III, who now had no male heir. Ultimately, it was the abjuration of Henry of Navarre in 1593 and his conversion to Catholicism that brought down the League, allowed French Catholics to accept him as their legitimate king, and resulted in his coronation as King Henry IV. This also enabled him to issue the Edict of Nantes to establish a more stable and lasting peace between the two faiths.

After 1598 the violence of the civil wars subsided, even though religious tension between the two faiths remained as acute as ever. But Henry IV promised not to persecute his former co-religionnaires as heretics, nor to use force against them in any way so long as they were loyal to the Crown. Moreover, the Huguenots were no longer destroying Catholic churches and symbols as they had done in the 1560s. Thus, it became possible to find ways for the two faiths to coexist and live side by side. The seventeenth century witnessed the two faiths sharing civic spaces such as cemeteries and even intermarrying—a kind of social integration that was much more difficult during the civil wars. The tensions between the two faiths never completely disappeared, however, and it took a series of military campaigns in the 1620s in the south to finally restore order, culminating in the siege of the city of La Rochelle in 1628. Yet the fragile peace survived until King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, making it illegal for the first time in nearly a century simply to admit to being a Huguenot. This forced French Protestants either to flee the kingdom for safer havens elsewhere or simply to go underground.