In 1559 Europe seemed to be entering a period of peace as Henri II of France and Philip II of Spain signed the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis. The peace was sealed by the dynastic marriage of Philip to Elisabeth of Valois. France kept Calais, which she had conquered from England in 1558, and her conquests of Metz, Toul and Verdun. Philip was therefore forced to acknowledge the diminution of the empire of Charles V, but he retained Sicily, Naples, Milan, Franche-Comté and the Netherlands.
Philip believed that, as the great defender of Catholicism, it was his duty to retain these territories. In 1566 he wrote to his ambassador in Rome:
‘You may assure His Holiness that rather than suffer the least damage to religion and the service of God I would lose all my states and a hundred lives, if I had them; for I do not propose nor desire to be the ruler of heretics.’ (quoted KMB, 301.)But his belief was challenged by the rise of international Calvinism, a potentially revolutionary creed.
The coming of peace did not lessen the danger of religious war as a generation of men who had known nothing but soldiering was demobilized. Many of these were ready to go on fighting under the banners of Catholicism or Calvinism.
On 10 July 1559 Henri II died following his injury at a tournament to celebrate the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis. He was succeeded by his 15-year old son François II, whose wife was the 16-year old Mary Queen of Scots. From November 1558 she had quartered the lions of England on her coat of arms, thus asserting her claim to the English throne.
Almost immediately France became ungovernable. Calvinism was spreading rapidly and received considerable encouragement when the French regent in Scotland, Mary of Guise (ruling on behalf of her absent daughter), was deposed by Calvinist revolutionaries. By 1562 the Calvinists claimed to have 2,000 churches over France. The nobility, notably Louis de Bourbon, prince of Condé (1530-1569) and Gaspard de Chatillion, count of Coligny (1519-72) enlisted in large numbers with their retainers and clients and posed a huge threat to the authority of the crown and the religious stability of the country. Both these Huguenot nobles were politically conservative, but they found themselves at the head of a revolutionary movement.
Although the regent was the king’s mother Catherine de’ Medici (left) real power lay with the brothers of Mary of Guise, Duke Francis, the conqueror of Calais and his brother Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine. As royal favourites and provincial governors they had built up a network of clients among the nobility of eastern and northern France which set them at odds of the Huguenot clientage of Condé and Coligny.
François II died in December 1560 and Catherine de’ Medici (right) seized control of the government for her ten-year-old son Charles IX. Her supreme aim was to preserve the French monarchy for her sons and in order to achieve this she tried to settle the religious differences by a policy of toleration. This was the strategy of the moderate ‘Politiques’, but it was unacceptable to the extremists on both sides and to Philip II. As she lacked the power to enforce toleration, Catherine was reduced to playing off one side against the other.
The result was the series of complicated civil wars known as the French Wars of Religion. The Catholic party was helped by Spain, the Huguenot by England, but the main Huguenot strength lay in Coligny’s leadership. Within the south the Huguenots were running what was in effect a separate kingdom. It is a sign of the government’s weakness that after the third religious war (1568-70), the Edict of Pacification granted them the right to garrison four southern towns.
Catherine then tried to solve the problems by a dynastic marriage – that of her daughter Marguerite to the young Huguenot leader, Henry, King of Navarre. In June 1572 Coligny came to court and joined the king’s council. But this was an especially delicate moment as Spain was facing a revolt in the Netherlands and the Huguenots planned to aid the Dutch rebels. In July a small contingent of Huguenots marched into the Netherlands and were crushed by the duke of Alva’s army. This led to a fear that Alva would then march into France. The council was divided, with Coligny arguing strongly for war with Spain on behalf of the Dutch.
The Massacre of St Bartholomew
Fearing that Coligny was going to drag France into a war she could not win, Catherine plotted to have him murdered, but the plot misfired and he was only wounded. After this, the king is reputed to have said: ‘Then kill them all’, though this does not seem to have been Catherine’s intention.
On the night of 24 August, when the Huguenots were gathered in Paris for the wedding, Catherine’s son the duke of Anjou (later Henry III), the Guises, the municipal authorities of Paris and the Paris mob massacred the Protestants in one of the century’s worst atrocities. After this the civil wars started again.
Charles IX died of tuberculosis in 1574 and was succeeded by his brother, Henri duke of Anjou who became Henri III.
See here for the revolt of the Netherlands.
Philip had inherited the Netherlands through his descent from Mary of Burgundy and through the Augsburg Interim of 1547 by which Charles V had detached the Netherlands from his imperial inheritance in order to pass them onto his son. This comprised 17 wealthy provinces, represented in the States-General, and fiercely independent towns such as Brussels, Ghent and Antwerp. The Interim had allowed them to revert to their former semi-independent status but at the same time had provided for the appointment of a Spanish governor. In retrospect, this was a recipe for instability.
In 1559 Philip appointed his half-sister Margaret duchess of Parma as governor-general of the Netherlands, and appointed the leading nobles to her Council of State: William of Nassau, Prince of Orange (also known as William the Silent) (left) , the greatest landowner in the Netherlands, the successful general Count Egmont, and his friend, Count Hoorne. But on Philip’s instructions real power was to lie with Antoine de Perrenot, Cardinal Granvelle, a Franche-Comtois career civil servant. The unintended result was a fatally divided Council, a paralyzed government, and a great deal of provincial discontent.
What was a classic centre-periphery problem broadened into a religious divide when Philip created fourteen new bishoprics, made Granvelle archbishop of Malines (Mechelen) and new primate of the Netherlands, and removed much ecclesiastical patronage from the nobility. This coincided with an increase in Inquisition activity – some 600 prosecutions in 1562. Disastrously, Philip was unaware of the growing discontent, as he had abandoned his father’s policy of constant travels. He remained in Spain, preoccupied with the Turkish offensive in the Mediterranean and the inadequacies of his son and heir Don Carlos, and this made him seem a foreigner to his Netherlandish subjects. He tried to placate the opposition by dismissing Granvelle in 1564, but the problems were more deep-rooted than dislike of a single man.
The harsh winter of 1565-66 and high food prices increased popular discontent. In 1566 a confederation was formed, consisting of a number of Calvinists, openly opposing Philip’s religious policies. When they presented their protest to Margaret, she dismissed them as beggars (‘les gueux’), a name that stuck. In the summer Calvinist field preachers to preach against the government. In Antwerp and Ghent mobs sacked the churches and broke the images. In response most of the nobility, including Egmont, a devout Catholic, rallied round Margaret (though Orange fled to Germany), Philip sent money for troops and the rebels were dispersed.
Alva in the Netherlands
In 1567 Philip sent his best general, the duke of Alva (right) , to the Netherlands at the head of a force of 10,000 Spanish and Italian troops. He set up a new court, the Council of Blood, which tried 12,000 persons and executed 1,000 for having taken part in the rebellion. These included Egmont and Hoorn who were beheaded in Brussels in June 1568. This successfully (for a while) terrorized the population, but Alva did not have the resources to impose his will and when he levied a 10% tax on property in order to pay for the occupation, he faced a revolt from the States General.
Requesens in the Netherlands
In April 1572, the Sea Beggars, privateers licensed by the prince of Orange, captured Brill, exposing Spanish weakness at sea. By the summer they had captured most towns of Zeeland and Holland. In the captured towns the councils were purged of royalists and the churches were handed over to Calvinist preachers. In July the estates of Holland met at Dordrecht and invited the prince of Orange to return as governor.
In 1573 Alva fell victim to court intrigue and was replaced by Don Lius de Requesens. Before leaving, Alva advised him to continue his ruthless policy:
‘These troubles must be ended by force or arms without any use of pardon, mildness, negotiations or talks until everything has been flattened. That will be the right time for compromise.’ (quoted Mackenney, 300).But Requesens faced the problem of near-mutiny among his troops because they had not been paid. Because the government had been unable to collect the 10% tax it lacked the resources to put down the rebellion and meanwhile the Spanish crown went bankrupt again, making it impossible to pay the troops from central government funds.
Requesens died in 1576. In the Spanish Fury of 4-6 November, his unpaid troops mutinied in Antwerp. The city was destroyed and over 6,000 people were massacred in an atrocity that destroyed Spain’s credibility in northern Europe.
At this point Philip lost control of the Netherlands.
The Pacification of Ghent
The day before the Spanish Fury, a new governor arrived in the Netherlands, Don John of Austria (1547-78), the victor of Lepanto. From the start he was unable to assert his authority. The States General moved rapidly to make peace with the rebels and Orange, and on 8 November the northern and southern provinces made a formal union in the Pacification of Ghent. The signatories
‘oblige all the inhabitants of the provinces to maintain, from now on a lasting and unbreakable friendship and peace and to assist each other at all times and in all events by words and deeds, with their lives and property, and to drive and keep out of the provinces the Spanish soldiers.’The Pacification was to become the central organ of government of a united Netherlands. In February 1577 Don John signed the Perpetual Edict of Peace with the States-General: in exchange for rebel recognition of Don John, the restoration of the Catholic religion, and the withdrawal of Spanish troops. But the provinces of Holland and Zeeland refused to accept it, and Don John broke its terms when he seized Namur in July 1577. The religious divisions were too deep to allow a political compromise. In September Orange returned to Brussels to a hero’s welcome.
Don John died in October 1578 and a few days later Philip appointed as Governor-General his nephew, Alessandro Farnese, Prince of Parma, the greatest soldier of his age.
The Unions of Arras and Utrecht
Parma faced a formidable task as the Netherlands was rapidly dividing along religious lines. In Antwerp, Brussels and Ghent, popular war councils were set up, usually dominated by extreme Calvinists. This provoked a Catholic reaction and the Walloon provinces joined in the Union of Arras (6 January 1579), which made peace with the king. On 23 January the northern provinces formed their own Union of Utrecht, a Calvinist alliance in which power was shared between the Estates and the House of Nassau. The Union committed itself to ensuring that
‘each individual enjoys freedom of religion and no one is persecuted or questioned about his religion’.Within a few years, the Union became known as the United Provinces.
Parma in the Netherlands
All was not lost for Spain. Parma brought with him nearly 60,000 men and with them he was able to begin the re-conquest of the Netherlands. On 29 June 1579 he captured Maastricht, after which town after town surrendered. Orange cast around desperately for help and persuaded the States General to swear allegiance to a Catholic Frenchman, Henry III’s brother, the duke of Anjou (formerly Alençon) the suitor of Queen Elizabeth.
In February 1582 Anjou made a triumphal entry into Antwerp, and was proclaimed duke of Brabant and count of Flanders; but his authority co-existed unevenly with that of Orange. He left the Netherlands in June 1583 and died of consumption the following June.
Henry III and the Catholic League
Anjou’s death provoked a crisis in France: the next heir to the throne was the Protestant Henry of Navarre. The prospect of a Protestant king upset the fragile equilibrium, triggering the ‘War of the Three Henries’ that was to last until 1598. The Guise faction began plotting with Spain to exclude him. The duke of Guise placed himself at the head of the Catholic League, which under his leadership became a potential revolutionary party challenging the authority of the Crown. In town after town the League replaced royalist commanders and officials with their own men. On 31 December Guise concluded the treaty of Joinville with Philip II.
‘Philip had thus achieved what his father had always vainly striven for: a Franco-Spanish alliance in the Catholic interest, and with Spain as a senior partner.’ (KMB, 320).This alliance was potentially as well a threat to England.
The Assassination of William the Silent
In June 1580 the Prince of Orange had been declared a traitor by the Parma government and a price put on his head; the ban declared him to be ‘an enemy of the human race’- an explicit invitation to assassination. On 10 July 1584 he was shot down on the stairway of his house in Delft by a Catholic Frenchman Balthasar Gérard (b. 1557). He was the first head of state to be assassinated by a firearm. After his execution, his family received a bounty from Philip II.
English intervention in the Netherlands
The assassination panicked English politicians, who feared that Elizabeth would be the next target. That summer the demoralized towns of Flanders and Brabant capitulated one by one to Parma. Ghent fell in the autumn. By the end of 1584 only Brussels, Mechelen and Antwerp still resisted. The arguments of the interventionists now seemed unassailable: the only safety for England lay in war.
On 24 June commissioners from the Netherlands arrived in England offering Elizabeth sovereignty of the Netherlands. In August 1585 in the Treaty of Nonsuch, a reluctant Elizabeth agreed to send an army to the Netherlands. This made war with Spain inevitable.
But the treaty came too late to save Antwerp, which finally surrendered to Parma three days before it was signed (news reached the court on 15 August). Many never forgave Elizabeth for leaving it too late to save the city.
In December 1585 the earl of Leicester arrived in the Netherlands as her Lieutenant General, with 5,000 foot and a thousand horse, and was hailed as the ‘Messiah’ (as his nephew, Philip Sidney told him). Unknown to the queen and against her wishes, he accepted the governor-generalship of the United Provinces; she was furious when she found out, as she feared an alternative court in the Low Countries.
'We could never have imagined … that a man raised up by ourself, and extraordinarily favoured by us above any other subject of this land, would have in so contemptible sort broken our commandment, in a cause that greatly toucheth us in honour.’1586 saw a series of dismal and expensive military failures. The most celebrated English casualty was Leicester’s nephew (and Walsingham’s son-in-law) Philip Sidney. He had seen the conflict in the Netherlands as part of a cosmic struggle: ‘the great work in hand against the abusers of the world’. He was mortally wounded outside Zutphen on 22 September.
The incompetent English campaign convinced the Dutch that they could not rely on foreign help and would need to claim sovereignty for their own estates.
For three years from 1585 Philip planned the ‘enterprise of England’. The execution of Mary Queen of Scots was the final motivating factor as she had bequeathed to him her claim to the English throne. He knew that France would not oppose him because of his alliance with the League. At the same time Parma was in readiness with an army of 30,000 to invade England.
The failure of the Armada was a huge disaster for Philip and, coupled with the troubles in the Netherlands, it contributed to a severe crisis of confidence in Spain.
The assassination of Henri III
In May 1588 the League organized a rising in Paris against the king – the ‘Day of the Barricades’, which forced him to flee. On 23 December 1588 in a futile attempt to assert his authority Henri III had the duke of Guise assassinated at the chateau of Blois, followed by his brother the following day. These two murders achieved the opposite of what he intended. Faced with a wave of revulsion in France, the king took refuge with Henry of Navarre the heir to the throne. But he himself was killed on 1 August 1589 by a young fanatical Dominican friar, Jacques Clément. As he lay dying, he named Henry of Navarre as his successor provided he changed his religion.
Henry IV and the end of the Wars of Religion
Henry had a hard struggle to gain the throne. Parma twice invaded France (1590 and 1592) in order to prevent his accession. But the Catholic League began to break up under the divisions between aristocrats and the urban bourgeoisie. Philip’s attempts to place his daughter Isabella Clara Eugenia on the throne backfired. In 1593 Henry announced his return to the Catholic Church.
‘Paris vaut bien une messe’ ("Paris is well worth a Mass")The League collapsed and Henry entered Paris on 22 March 1594. In 1595 he declared war on Spain and was able to capitalize on French resentment at Spanish interference in their affairs.
In April 1598 Henry promulgated the Edict of Nantes in which Catholicism was confirmed as the state religion the Huguenots were allowed freedom of worship in protected enclaves (places de sureté). In effect, this created a state within a state, a situation that had no parallel anywhere else in Europe. Two days after the treaty Spain and France made peace at the Treaty of Vervins.
In September Philip II died. It was the end of an era.