Go to content

Henri IV - An unfinished reign

The Edict of Nantes

Section 1/4

Henri de Navarre's accession to the throne of France in August 1589 did not have an immediate effect on the kingdom's Protestants. The war that had been triggered by the constitution of the League was still being waged. The majority of Henri's subjects mistrusted or outright rejected the new "heretical" king, and the repressive laws promulgated by Henri III in 1585 (the Treaty of Nemours eliminated freedom of religion and outlawed the Protestant faith) and 1588 (the Edict of Union that recommended the fight against heresy and amnesty for members of the League) were officially still in force. As soon as he took the throne, Henri IV's coreligionists urged him to sign an edict that reinstated their rights. On 4 July 1591, the king signed the Edict of Mantes, revoking the laws of 1585 and 1588. But this was not really a new edict of pacification. It did not end the war, and merely reinstated the clauses of the 1577 Treaty of Poitiers and its "extensions" – the treaties of Nérac (1579) and Fleix (1580). Additionally, resistance from a number of parlements preventing the edict from being applied (the Parlement of Bordeaux, for example, took until 1596 to reluctantly register it!). The issue thus remained unsolved, and the country's Protestants became even more alarmed when their king officially converted to Catholicism in 1593.
In reality, there had been ongoing peace talks between Protestant churches and the government since 1591. The negotiations were long and sometimes arduous, as the Protestants, who were weary of not being heard by Henri, threatened to take up arms again, and refused to assist royalist troops in the siege of Amiens in 1597. Nevertheless, these painstaking talks resulted in a compromise being reached in 1598 between the Protestant's interests and those of the king. Henri IV, who had come to Brittany to subdue the duc de Mercœur , signed the edict at Nantes, probably on 30 April 1598.

Related multimedia

Title: Sully's Grand Design

Map of Europe showing "Sully's Grand Design"
Caption:
Sully's Grand Design. Source: Bernard Barbiche, In: Historia n°652, April 2001

Title: Entry of Henri IV into Nantes

Entry of Henri IV into Nantes
© RMN / Jean-Gilles Berizzi
Caption:
Entry of Henri IV into Nantes; Triumphal procession (?), meeting of the two armies, drawing by Matteo Rosselli. Musée du Louvre, INV1567

Title: Edict of Union (1588)

Edict of Union (1588)
© Archives nationales
Caption:
Edict of Union (1588)

Title: The Edict of Union (1588)

The Edict of Union (1588)
© Musée national du château de Pau / Jean-Yves Chermeux
Caption:
The Edict of Union (1588). Musée national du château de Pau, BP. 4138

Section 2/4

The Edict of Nantes was an edict of pacification, the last in a long line, since eight similar texts had preceded it (including six edicts and two treaties).

Edicts of pacification were laws that took the form of orders; they were spread by means of letters patent addressed to all of the king's subjects, and they had to be formally registered in each of the country's parlements. The variety of solutions imagined by the king and his retinue needed these laws to fulfil the primary objective – domestic peace through the organisation of peaceful coexistence of the two confessions within the borders of the kingdom.

To do so, the agreements were negotiated with the parties in attendance, i.e. representatives of the king and of the reformers. They took the form of contracts that obliged the signatories to abide by reciprocal agreements. Finally, they established peace by imposing a quid pro quo solution: the restoration of the Catholic Church and all of its rights and property, in exchange for the granting of civic equality and a set of special privileges to the Protestant community.

Discussing the Edict of Nantes meant, for the most part, evoking the edicts of pacification that preceded it and, for some, served as the primary inspiration. If we examine the previous edicts, we can see a striking similarity between all of them, both semantically and thematically. Every new law drew liberally on its predecessors, while introducing new clauses, often based on current conditions. The laws from the end of the Wars of Religion are thus more substantial, and offer a real view of the complexity of the solutions proposed by the crown to settle its subjects' differences.

Related multimedia

Title: Proclamation of the Edict of Nantes

Proclamation of the Edict of Nantes
© BnF
Caption:
Proclamation of the Edict of Nantes. Département des estampes et de la photographie de la BnF, QB-1 (1598)-FOL

Section 3/4

The goal of the negotiations surrounding the Edict of Nantes was to create a delicate balance between the most liberal clauses of the Edict of Beaulieu (1576) and the most restrictive ones of the Edict of Boulogne (1573), while factoring in the specific context of the late 1590s. The signatories also wanted to spell out as much as possible all the decisions, so as to leave no room for interpretation, which generally led to non-enforcement of the agreement. This explains the exceptional length of the Edict of Nantes – the final version registered by the Parlement de Paris on 25 February 1599 contain 93 articles, as well as 56 "particular" (secret) articles and 2 letters patent. Henri IV's desire to make peace, as well as a general weariness after three decades of strife, ensured that the Edict of Nantes was more successful than its predecessors. In this context, it appeared to be a synthesis of previous edicts; the only new elements were mere details, connected to specific circumstances in early 1598.

Related multimedia

Title: Edict of Nantes

Edict of Nantes
© Archives nationales
Caption:
Edict of Nantes (13 April 1598), AN, J.943 n°2 (AE II 763)

Title: Edict of Nantes

Seal of the Edict of Nantes
© Archives nationales
Caption:
Edict of Nantes (13 April 1598), detail of seal

Section 4/4

The Edict of Nantes was organised around three themes. At several points, the return to domestic peace was defined as the main objective. The king stressed that it was "the establishment of a good Peace, with tranquillity and rest, which hath ever been the goal of all our vows and intentions […]" and that his primary wish was "to establish between them [his subjects] a good and lasting peace" in order to ensure "their union and concord, tranquillity and rest."

This goal was to be attained by several means. The first was "obliteration" of past troubles, i.e. the desire to erase the memory "of everything done by one party or the other, between the beginning of the month of March one thousand five hundred eight-five and our accession to the crown, and during all the preceding troubles […]" (Article 1), so as to leave no opportunity for the resumption of hostilities. Obliteration was accompanied by an amnesty, freeing of prisoners, the annulment of previous reform-related legislation and the restoration of property seized during the chaos.

The second means involved organising the peaceful coexistence of faiths. This involved, on one hand, restoring the Catholic Church, and granting religious and civil rights to Protestants on the other. In the preamble, the king stated that the primary reasons for drafting the Edict were "the many complaints we received from many of our Provinces and Catholic Cities that the exercise of the Catholic Religion was not universally re-established, as is provided by Edicts or Statutes heretofore made for the Pacification of the Troubles arising from Religion […]. "Thus, like its predecessors, the Edict of Nantes also made the restoration of Catholicism official. This restoration took several forms. These included the restitution of property seized from the Church and its clergy and the reestablishment of worship. In addition, Protestants had to respect Catholic holidays, to pay the tithe and, when marrying, to abide by the rules of Rome concerning degrees of consanguinity. In exchange, Protestants would be granted a certain number of religious and civil rights. The religious rights concerned freedom of religious conscience ("…we have permitted and do permit those of the Reformed Religion, to live and dwell in all the Cities and places of this our Kingdom and Countreys under our obedience, without being inquired after, vexed, molested, or compelled to do any thing in Religion, contrary to their Conscience […]" (Article 6)) and socially and geographically defined freedom of worship. Protestants were given the right to build churches and to make use of specific burial places. The civil rights granted to Protestants were designed to establish civic equality between the Protestant minority and the Catholic majority: Protestants were granted access to public employment, education and health care, without discrimination.

Lastly, three special privileges were granted to Protestants. The first was judicial in nature. In order to ensure impartiality, Henri's Reformed subjects benefited from special bi-confessionals courts, divided equally between Catholic and Protestant judges. The second privilege was financial. The so-called "pastors" letter patent organised the allocation of a large sum of money (45,000 écus) to pay the wages of Protestant ministers. Finally, the third privilege established the political and territorial power of the new faith. For an eight-year period, Protestants were granted almost 160 cities and towns within the kingdom. These were to be place of safety, i.e. refuges in which a garrison of the king's soldiers were stationed. Most of these cities were located in the "Reform crescent", and included La Rochelle, Cognac, Montauban, Montpellier and Nîmes, among others. The extent of this concession was paradoxical – although it created a "State within the State", the result was an increasingly circumscribed and "frozen" Protestant community.

Related multimedia

Title: Henri IV brings peace to France, supported by religion

Henri IV brings peace to France, supported by religion
© RMN / René-Gabriel Ojéda
Caption:
Henri IV brings peace to France, supported by religion, oil on wood, French School, 4th quarter of the 16th c. Musée national du château de Pau, P.80-10-1

Title: Edict of Nantes

Edict of Nantes
© Archives nationales
Caption:
Edict of Nantes (13 April 1598), AN, J.943 n°2 (AE II 763)

Title: Map of Protestant churches in 1562

Map of Protestant churches in 1562
Comment:
By 1562, France had roughly 1,400 churches modelled on Calvin's concept of church organisation (i.e. with a pastor and a body of elders).
Caption:
Map of Protestant churches in 1562. Based on D. Boisson and H. Daussy, Les protestants dans la France moderne, Belin, 2006. (map: S. Angonnet) The map presents : Protestant Church and the "Protestant crescent"
Welcome to our web site devoted to Henri IV
/1/ If you would like to see the Flash version of the site, you must download and install Adobe Flash Player and make sure that JavaScript is enable in your browser.

/2/ If you do not have Flash Player installed, you may still access the HTML version of the site..

/3/ A mobile version is available.
Version accessible