Migratory flows (16th–19th century)

The Edict of Nantes

In 1598, the Edict of Nantes had put paid to one of the darkest periods in French history, that of the religious wars that had ravaged the kingdom for the best part of the previous forty years. Formally, the Edict of Nantes must be understood as a religious peace (in so far as there are such things as religious wars) : it is the official act that marks an armistice or the restoration of peace. In Henry's days, incidentally, people readily referred to the “Peace of Nantes” when speaking of the Edict. The Edict of Nantes is not an edict of toleration but a text that seeks, in spite of intolerance, to make coexistence possible for the two parties. Certainly, there is no question of ensuring any kind of equal treatment to the diverse faiths in presence, let alone promulgating religious freedom ; the object is simply to arrive at a politically viable balance between the two parties – Catholic and Protestant – who both have strengths and weaknesses whether political, economical or cultural.

Fundamentally, there are only two ways to bring adversaries to peace: the first is the triumph of one party – that is the defeat of the other – the second is an accommodation of the rivalries. In the Ancien Régime, in the mindset of the times, before the advent of individual right to faith and religious practice, it is the first solution that prevails. « Whose region/realm, his religion » (cuius regio, eius religio) : this is the motto then admitted by well nigh everybody and which implies that the subjects share their prince's faith. This is indeed the reason why, in the kingdom of France, the Jews are not considered the king's subjects and why, elsewhere in Europe, it is possible for a sovereign to hail from any place under the sun provided he appertains to the prevailing faith and watches over the doctrinal wholesomeness expected among his subjects. Thus France was confronted to a novel conundrum when the heir to the throne, Protestant Henry of Navarre, found himself, through the inescapable rules governing the devolution of the crown, king of France the very second his predecessor and remote cousin Henry III[1] died. Henry IV, an exceptionally brilliant political mind, had nothing against the Protestants but he understood that he would not be able to reign without executing what he called the « somersault », that is without confessing the Catholic, apostolic and Roman faith, which he enacted in 1593. Loathing fanaticism as he did, he found ways to accommodate a dogma that partly differed from that learned in his youth.

Henry IV's first aim is to restore peace inside the kingdom. He seeks on the one hand to secure for the Protestants a wherewithal that would allow them to lay down their arms with honour and on the other hand to reassure the realm's Catholics by curtailing the rights of the Protestant minority. Thus, the Edict of Nantes is a political document that takes into account the inequality between the contending forces : it re-establishes in the whole kingdom without exception the « Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion » (Art.3), which entails the re-establishment of Roman Catholic worship in all the towns while it is content with allowing « those of the said religion called Reformed » (as the Protestants were officially known) to believe according to their faith. This freedom of faith does not entail the freedom to practice it, which is restricted to a handful of places. The edict exhorts the Catholics to convert the Huguenots « by the example of a good life » and deplores in its preamble that all the king's subjects do not worship « in a same form and religion » – the Catholic religion –. To make up for this elemental inequality, the Edict grants the protestants a number of specific rights, notably that of holding a few fortresses. To sum up, the Edict of Nantes institutes a regime of co-existence between two religions that have no tolerance for each other for the pure and simple reason that each is deeply convinced that the other is in error and that they both hope to see one day the triumph of the true understanding of God, faith the Church, salvation... that is the triumph of their side.

  1. Henry III (1551-1589)

    King of France from 1574, last king in the Valois dynasty. His reign was riven with religious wars.

AccueilAccueilImprimerImprimer Michel Grandjean, professeur à l’Université de Genève (Suisse) Paternité - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de ModificationRéalisé avec Scenari (nouvelle fenêtre)