The Huguenot Society of Maryland

Henri de Navarre Becomes King of France

The Wars of Religion intensified. Then Henri III of France was assassinated by an ultra-religious friar, Jacques Clément. None of Catherine de Médicis’ sons, neither François II (who married Mary, Queen of Scots), nor his brother Charles IX, nor his brother Henri III had produced legitimate heirs for the throne. Therefore the successor by Salic law was Henri de Navarre, husband of their sister Marguerite. Henri was, of course, an Huguenot, a Protestant. In fact, Henri III name Henri de Navarre as the heir to the throne on his deathbed. Impossible! The kings of France had to be Roman Catholic. The Roman Catholic majority demanded it!


Henri de Navarre decided to convert to Catholicism. He is reported to have said that Paris (that is, the French throne) was well worth a mass. The statement sounds flippant, an excellent sound bit, but his real purpose was to bring peace and order to France. The country was weary and weakened by internal wars, tottering on the edge of bankruptcy, and threatened by stronger countries nearby.


Henri’s true reason for abjuring his Protestant faith and becoming a Roman Catholic so he could rule as king is summed up in this statement, which he made after he became king: “There must be no distinction between Catholics and Huguenots… I am a shepherd King, who will not shed the blood of his sheep, but seeks to bring them together.


Henri IV did bring peace and prosperity to France, and in 1598 he promulgated the Edict of Nantes, which gave a measure of religious freedom to the Huguenots. It was not complete freedom, but gave the Protestants a breather and brought France its first internal peace in years.


After the assassination of Henri IV by a religious zealot, François Revaillac, the French kings, who followed Henri, spasmodically cut back the religious liberties granted the Huguenots under the Edict of Nantes and harassed them in a variety of ways. Faced with increasingly brutal treatment (the worst was the billeting of soldiers, the dragonnades, in Huguenots’ homes where they raped, pillaged, and abused the Huguenots). An estimated 700,000 Huguenots abjured their faith and declared they were Roman Catholics — at least outwardly they were.