While it is not possible to go into a detailed account of the many, many changes in the policies affecting the Huguenots made by the French kings, the French government, and the Roman Catholic Church, three points should be made clear:
- Except during the reign of Henri IV, Duke of Bourbon and King of Navarre and France and whom will be discussed later, the French governments flip-flopped between periods of harsh persecution of the Huguenots and periods of toleration. The toleration, however, was grudgingly granted at best. Numerous edicts gave the Huguenots limited protection and rights while other edicts attempted to eradicate the Protestan heretics.
- In order to establish a modus vivendi between the Roman Catholics and the Protestants, the French government at times permitted the Huguenots to govern and defend, with their own armies, various towns in France. Consequently, the charge that the Huguenots had become a state within a state had a ring of truth. As the Huguenots grew in strength and received support from abroad, particularly from England, the French kings, with justification, viewed this situation as a threat to their crowns.
- During much of the period under consideration, strongly Catholic Spain with its Hapsburg dynasty was the dominant power in Europe. It was Spain that pursued its relentless persecutions under the infamous Inquisition. The French kings kept the Inquisition, as practiced in Spain, out of France for political rather than religious reasons.
Initially, it was the intellectuals who were attracted to the Reform movement, but the reformers became bolder and bolder. In 1534 someone nailed a Protestant placard to the very bedroom door of François I, the King of France. Understandably, the incident caused considerable consternation.
As should have been anticipated, both the Pope and the French Roman Catholic hierarchy became more and more alarmed at the spread of views they judged to be heresy. The Pope finally informed François I that he could have Milan back provided he stamped out heresy in France. It should be noted that an unique relationship existed between France and the papacy. The French kings would allow the popes to meddle in French affairs, including the Roman Catholic Church in France, just so far.
In 1535, the year after the Incident of the Placards, François I, in order to placate the pope and to obtain Milan again, issued an edict banning all heretics in France. The results? The first Protestant refugees left France. Three years later, in 1538, the first French Protestant Church was organized in Strasbourg, Alsace, which was at that time a free city of the Holy Roman Empire, but now is part of France. Ten years later, the first Huguenot congregation formed in Canterbury, England.