The long-established French monarchy began to move toward more efficient absolutism after the Hundred Years’ War, particularly under Louis XI. In this development, France had certain advantages. None of its provinces showed quite the intense regionalism that could be found in Catalonia or among the Spanish Basques.
Moreover, unlike the Iberian peninsula, most of France is not cut up by mountain ranges into compartments isolated by problems of transport and communications. Yet despite these assets, France was still only loosely tied together under Francis I. Many provinces retained their own local Estates, their own local courts (parlements), and many other privileges.
Nonetheless, the kingdom of Francis I had been strong enough to counter the threat of encirclement by Charles V. The king himself was not another Louis XI, however. Self-indulgence weakened his health and distracted him from the business of government; his extravagant court and frequent wars drained French finances. Francis lived in the grand manner. It is reported that it took eighteen thousand horses and pack animals to move the king and his court on their frequent journeys. He built the châteaux of Chambord and Fontainebleau, and in Paris he remodeled the great palace of the Louvre and founded the College de France. He patronized Leonardo, Cellini, and other artists and men of letters.
At the beginning of his reign he had extended the royal gains first made in 1438 at papal expense in the Pragmatic Sanction of Bourges; through the Concordat of Bologna in 1516 the pope had granted the king increased control over the Gallican church, including the important right to choose bishops and abbots. But Francis was the last strong monarch of the house of Valois. The second half of the sixteenth century was the age of French civil and religious wars, a time of crisis that almost undid the centralizing work of Louis XI and his successors.
The religious map of France in the 1550s showed a division by class as well as by territory. While Protestantism scarcely touched the French peasantry except in parts of the south, the Huguenots were strong among the nobility and among the rising classes of capitalists and artisans. Paris, Brittany, most of Normandy, and the northeast remained ardently Catholic. Protestantism was gaining in the southwest. Even in these regions, however, the employer class was more likely to be Protestant, the workers to be Catholic.
Sporadic warfare began soon after the death of Henry II in 1559. Thereafter, the crown passed in succession to Henry’s three sons—Francis II (r. 1559-1560), Charles IX (r. 1560-1574), and Henry III (r. 1574-1589). Since Charles IX was a boy of ten at his accession, authority was exercised by his mother, Catherine de’ Medici, who had no particular religious convictions. Catherine was determined to preserve intact the magnificent royal inheritance of her sons, however, which seemed threatened by the rapid growth of the Huguenots. What especially worried Catherine was the apparent polarization of the high nobility by the religious issue; the great family of Guise was zealously dedicated to the Catholic cause, and the powerful families of Bourbon and Montmorency to the Huguenot.
Success in scattered fighting during the 1560s netted the Huguenots some gains. Their ambitious leader, Gaspard de Coligny (1519-1572), gained great influence over the unstable Charles IX and hoped to control the government. Panicky at the danger to the prospects for her sons and to her own position, Catherine threw in her lot with the Guises and persuaded Charles to follow suit. The result was a massacre of Huguenots on St. Bartholomew’s Day (August 24, 1572). Six thousand Protestants were killed in Paris; the Huguenots remained strong. As warfare continued, the Catholic nobles organized a threatening league headed by the Guises, and both sides negotiated with foreigners for help—the Catholics with Spain and the Protestants with England.
French civil and religious strife culminated in the War of the Three Henrys (1585-1589)—named for Henry III, the Valois king and the last surviving grandson of Francis I; Henry, duke of Guise, head of the Catholic League; and the Bourbon Henry of Navarre, Protestant cousin and heir-presumptive of the childless king. The threat that a Protestant might succeed to the throne pushed the Catholic League to propose violating the rules of succession by making an uncle of Henry of Navarre king. But this attempt to alter the succession alienated moderate French opinion, already disturbed by the extreme positions taken by both Catholics and Protestants.
Paris was strongly Catholic, and a popular insurrection there (May 1588) frightened Henry III out of his capital, which triumphantly acclaimed Henry, duke of Guise, as king. Henry III responded by conniving in the assassination of the two great leaders of the Catholic League, Henry of Guise and his brother Louis. Infuriated, the Catholic League rose in full revolt, and Henry III took refuge in the camp of Henry of Navarre, where he was assassinated by a monk.