Religious Reform as Political Stability in France Under Henry IV and Louis XIV

Elisabetta Kerr


Politics and religion were closely intertwined in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France. The lives of French citizens hinged on the interplay between these two forces, as France was a Catholic state with a strongly allied monarchy and clergy. The spread of Protestant confessions throughout Europe beginning in 1517, following the Reformation, threatened the supremacy of Catholicism in France. The contrast between the religious policies of King Henry IV (1589-1610) and King Louis XIV (1643-1715) is highlighted in two significant pieces of religious legislation: The Edict of Nantes of 1598, and the Edict of Fontainebleau of 1685. These policies had vastly different implications for the Calvinists in France. While Henry IV encouraged Protestant reform, Louis XIV hindered it. The spread of religious reform was directly affected by the Crown's vested interest in maintaining stability within the state. The shift in Crown policy between the Edicts of Nantes and Fontainebleau illustrates that the disparity in the policies maintained the common goal of preventing dissent. Religious policy aimed to maintain control of religious factions, since religion was so closely bound to politics at this time. The King’s rule was inherently tied to the legitimacy of the Catholic Church in France, given the Gallican tradition. The changes in state policy towards Protestant reform in France from 1598- 1685 were therefore not driven by theology, but rather by the need for security of state and rule. Religious tolerance of Protestantism was a direct outcome of the state’s perceived security, which had a direct effect on the lives of the Protestant Huguenots in France. Through analysis of the Edict of Nantes and the Edict of Fontainebleau, it becomes evident that changes in states policy towards Protestant reform in France were a product of the desire for political stability.

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