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Armed procession of the Holy League in Paris in 1590, Musée Carnavalet.

The Catholic League of France, sometimes referred to by contemporary (and modern) Roman Catholics as the Holy League, a major player in the French Wars of Religion, was formed by Duke Henry of Guise in 1576.[1] In a time when religious fundamentalism was unusual, the League was an extremist group bent on the eradication of French Protestants--also known as Calvinists or Huguenots--during the Protestant Reformation.

Pope Sixtus V, the Jesuits and Philip II of Spain were all supporters of this Catholic party.

Contents

The Catholic League's political origins

As Protestantism swept through parts of Europe, leaders of Catholic nations, in particular Philip II of Spain, and the Pope, felt threatened. In an effort to counter the growing power of Lutherans, Calvinists, and members of the Reformed Church of France, they formed a league to stop the spread of these Protestant factions. The effort (centered in France) was spearheaded by Henry, the Duke of Guise who used it not only for its stated purpose as a defender of Catholicism, but also as a political tool in an attempt to take the French throne.[2] [3]

The Catholic League of France aimed to preempt any shift in power to the Huguenots and to protect French Catholics' right to worship. The Catholic League's cause was fueled by religious rhetoric where any religious views outside of the Catholic Church or Catholic tradition was heresy, blasphemous, and intolerable. Catholic Leaguers saw their fight against Calvinism (the primary branch of Protestantism in France) as a form of Holy War; a Crusade against Calvinism and their apologists and justified their Holy War efforts by using passages and scriptures they interpreted from the Old Testament. Catholic pamphleteers also blamed any natural disaster that occurred in France at the time as God's way of punishing France for tolerating the existence of the Calvinists.

What is the final judgement on the Catholic League? It would be a mistake to treat it, as so many historians have, as nothing more than a body motivated purely by partisan politics or social tensions. While political and social pressures were doubtless present, and even significant in the case of the Sixteen in Paris, to focus on these factors exclusively overlooks a very different face of the League. For all its political and internecine wrangling, the League was still very much a Holy Union. Its religious role was significant, as the League was the conduit between the Tridentine spirituality of the Catholic Reformation and the seventeenth century devots. Often overlooked is the emphasis the League placed on the internal and spiritual renewal of the earthly city. Moving beyond the communal religion of the later Middle Ages, the League focused on internalizing faith as a cleansing and purifying agent. New religious orders and confraternities were founded in League towns, and the gulf separating laity and clergy was often bridged as clerics joined aldermen in the Hotel de Ville where both became the epitome of goodly magistrates. To overlook the religious side of the League is to overlook the one bond that did keep the Holy Union holy as well as united[4].

After a series of bloody conflicts during the French Wars of Religion (1562 – 1598) between Catholics and Protestants, the Catholic League formed in an attempt to drive the Protestants out of France once and for all. The Catholic League saw the French throne under Henry III as too moderate and too conciliatory towards the Huguenots. The League disapproved of Henry III’s attempts to mediate any coexistence between the Huguenots and Catholics. Indeed, the League helped organize the “Day of the Barricades” on May 12, 1588, during which Henry III was driven out of Paris.

The Catholic League also saw moderate French Catholics, known as Politiques, who tolerated Calvinists and were pro-coexistence as threats. The Politiques were tired of the religious wars and failure to solve France's religious problem and were willing to exercise tolerance and attempt coexistence rather than escalating the violence.

Similar to religious extremist groups of the modern era, the Catholic League was sponsored and funded by foreign participants attempting to influence social, religious, and political affairs within France. Like revolutionary and extremist groups today, they leveraged the media of their day to promote their cause. Between 1588 to 1589 nearly 500 pamphlets and other forms of print were circulated supporting the Catholic League's rhetoric.

History of the League

Henry IV, as Hercules vanquishing the Lernaean Hydra (i.e. the Catholic League), by Toussaint Dubreuil, circa 1600. Louvre Museum.

The League immediately began to exert pressure on Henry III of France. Faced with this mounting opposition (spurred in part because the heir to the French throne, Henry of Navarre, was a Huguenot) he canceled the Peace of La Rochelle, re-criminalizing Protestantism and beginning a new chapter in the French Wars of Religion. However, Henry also saw the danger posed by the Duke of Guise, who was gaining more and more power. In the Day of the Barricades, Henry III was forced to flee Paris, which resulted in Henry, Duke of Guise becoming the de-facto leader of France. Afraid of being assassinated himself, the King moved to have him killed. On December 23, 1588, Henry III's guardsmen assassinated the Duke and his brother, Louis II and the Duke's son was imprisoned.

However, this move did little to consolidate Henry's power and he was forced to flee Paris and take refuge with Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot, as the League moved against him. Henry of Navarre and Henry III began building an army with which to retake the city from supporters of the League. On August 1, 1589, as the two Henrys besieged the city and prepared for their final assault, a friar loyal to the League used false papers and claims to get close to Henry III and assassinated him, revenge for the killing of the Duke of Guise. This killing threw the army into disarray and Paris was freed from the siege.

Although Henry of Navarre was now the king (albeit uncrowned), the League's power was such that he was unable to successfully control France and he was forced south. Using troops given to him by Elizabeth I he achieved several military victories, but was unable to overcome the superior power of the League which commanded the loyalty of most French citizens and had the support of Philip II of Spain. The League then attempted to declare the Cardinal of Bourbon, Henry's uncle, as king Charles X of France on November 21st, 1589, but his status as a prisoner of Henry of Navarre and his death in May of 1590 removed all legitimacy from this gesture. Furthermore, the Cardinal renounced his royal title and supported his nephew's bid for the throne, although to little avail.

Unable to provide a viable candidate for the French throne (the League's support was split among several candidates, including Isabella, a Spanish princess, which made them appear to no longer have French interests at heart), the League's position weakened, but remained strong enough to keep Henry away from Paris. Finally, in a bid to achieve control of France, Henry converted to Catholicism on July 25th, 1593 and was recognized as king Henry IV on February 27th, 1594.

Under the rule of Henry IV, the Edict of Nantes was passed, granting some freedom of religion to the Huguenots and ensuring peace for France. The League now lacked the same intensity of purpose, lacking the threat of a Protestant king, and gradually faded out during Henry's reign.[5]

References

  1. ^ Holt, Mack P. : The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629, page 122. New York, 1995
  2. ^ Carroll, Warren H. : The Cleaving of Christendom : A History of Christendom vol. 4, page 432. Christendom Press, 2004
  3. ^ "French Wars of Religion". http://atheism.about.com/library/glossary/western/bldef_frenchwarsreligion.htm.  
  4. ^ Holt, Mack P. The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629, page 149-150. New York, 1995
  5. ^ "French Wars of Religion". http://atheism.about.com/library/glossary/western/bldef_frenchwarsreligion.htm.  
  • Baumgartner, Frederic J. Radical Reactionaries: The Political Thought of the French Catholic League (Geneva:Droz) 1976
  • Jensen, De Lamar Diplomacy and Dogmatism: Bernardino de Mendoza and the French Catholic League Mendoza's role in Philip II's intervening foreign policy.
  • Konnert, Mark "Local politcs in the French Wars of Religion"
  • Leonardo, Dalia M. "Cut off this rotten member": The Rhetoric of Heresy, Sin, and Disease in the Ideology of the French Catholic League" The Catholic Historical Review 88.2, (April 2002:247-262).
  • Yardeni, Myriam "La Conscience nationale en France pendant les guerres de religion"

See also

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