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The Edict of Nantes immediately followed the Wars of Religion, which further divided France in terms of religion. The Edict of Nantes could be described as a significant development in policies regarding religion in France in the 17th century.
The policies were implemented by a monarch who sat on the fence when it came to religion, having devotions to both Catholicism and Protestantism, in the shape of Henry IV.
The Edict of Nantes itself was very significant as its policy was the first of its kind in French politics. Never before had a French monarch tolerated both Catholicism and Protestantism and allowed them both to flourish in the same ‘country’. Whatever Henry’s beliefs and motives in implementing such a policy, it was certainly an original policy and a significant development in sixteenth and seventeenth century France. Toleration existed and although it can be argued that Protestants didn’t have very much power and the Catholics remained in near total control of the majority of areas in the country but the Protestants certainly had more power than they had under previous more anti-Protestant monarchs.
The Edict could also be described as a turning point. Indeed, it could be described as a very significant turning point. Legislation was put in place in an attempt to avoid discrimination against the Protestants. Discrimination was not evident by the Edict itself; it was more of a case of trying to give the Protestants more rights. Henry couldn’t go as far as giving the Protestants equal legal, religious and political rights because he would lose the support of the Catholics. However, there can be no denying the significance of the legislation. It was the attempt to be pragmatic where religion is concerned which resulted in his death. The significance of Henry’s reign lies in the difference and the pragmatism of his reign.
The actual legislation could be described as ground breaking. The rights that the Edict of Nantes gave the Protestants included full liberty of conscience and private worship; liberty of public worship wherever it had previously been granted and its extension to numerous other localities and to estates of Protestant nobles; full civil rights including the right to hold public office; royal subsidies for Protestant schools; special courts, composed of Roman Catholic and Protestant judges, to judge cases involving Protestants; retention of the organization of the Protestant church in France; and Protestant control of some 200 cities then held by the Huguenots, including such strongholds as La Rochelle, with the king contributing to the maintenance of their garrisons and fortifications.
In practice, things were slightly different for the Protestants who were oppressed by the Catholics and still weren’t allowed anywhere near Paris. It is clear that full, equal rights for the Protestants were not given by Henry – for example, Roman Catholic judges had more power in the courts than the Protestant judges did and often Roman Catholic bias came through in a number of cases – but there was some attempt to give the Protestants some rights and freedoms which was in itself significant.
The Edict of Nantes was also very significant in terms of Henry’s foreign policy. He wanted to protect the southern border of France from the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs. Henry was more patriotic than the French kings before him and his policies show this as he placed the Protestants in the south of France, using the Protestants to protect France from Spain. All of this means that – in terms of French foreign policy – the Edict of Nantes carries further significance for a number of reasons…
The removal of the Protestants away from Paris and further towards the south means that Henry IV embarked on a policy of centralisation. There is no doubt that Henry converted to Catholicism and tried to maintain as much power as possible for his Catholic friends in the establishment. Policies were made more in a centralised way i.e. from Paris and the Protestants were freezed out in positions of power by the Catholics. This is significant because of the reign of Louis XIII who furthered the centralisation policy, and shows that there was a trend towards centralisation before Louis XIII came onto the throne. This also shows that Henry’s domestic and foreign policy can easily be linked, which is also significant. All of this emphasises how significant the Edict of Nantes was.
Henry’s patriotism was also on show in the implementation of the Edict of Nantes. He didn’t want any foreign influence in his affairs and he wanted to appease the Protestants. The best way to appease them was giving them an important role whilst getting what he wanted in his foreign policy by getting the Protestants to protect the borders of France. This is highly significant as never before had a French monarch been as patriotic as Henry and it is also significant because it indicates that Henry didn’t actually want the Catholics to have power in all areas of France which probably indicates that he still had allegiances to the Protestant beliefs despite his conversion to Catholicism.
Henry’s tactical manoeuvres were also significant in another way. Basically, he prevented the Wars of Religion from continuing and restarting again. The irony is that his tendency to sit on the fence on the issue of religion in the end cost him his life. This is why some historians place emphasis on the significance of this aspect of the Edict of Nantes. Henry’s early life as a Protestant and his subsequent conversion to Catholicism make the Edict of Nantes interesting as well as significant.
To consider the significance of the Edict of Nantes, we have to consider the situation in France before Henry IV came to the throne and even beyond the Wars of Religion. The Wars of Religion were where the Calvinist Huguenots (Protestants) and the Catholics did battle for control of the monarchy. The Catholics won and maintained control of the monarchy; however, it is clear that something needed to be done to prevent another War of Religion from happening. Henry IV was the man with the job of preventing another War of Religion and he turned out to be the perfect man for the job. Unlike most French monarchs in this period, Henry was pragmatic when it came to religion although he had developed a slight preference for Catholicism. Henry felt that they were more important things than religion – his patriotism as opposed to his religious beliefs – but ultimately it was this that caused his downfall and eventual death.
However, the very fact that the Wars of Religion didn’t happen again throughout Henry IV’s reign is very significant considering the huge division between the two religions. Another War of Religion could have shaped French history differently, especially if the Protestants/Calvinists came out on top. Today’s France could also have been completely different if a war wasn’t avoided. This makes Henry’s reign and – of course – the Edict of Nantes take on further significance.
The Edict of Nantes certainly cannot be described as revolutionary but it was almost a complete reform of the laws regarding religion. In reality, there was little reform because there was major exploitation of flaws in the law by the Catholics. However, this shouldn’t take anything away from the significance of the Edict of Nantes because the laws created Protestant strangleholds in the south of France.
Despite all this, the Edict of Nantes takes on an apparent lack of significance because of what happened to Henry and what happened under the reigns of subsequent monarchs. The Edict was indeed revoked in 1685 and steadily the Catholics moved towards a position of total power over the Protestants. So this means that the Edict of Nantes loses some of its significance because the policies of Henry had no impact on future monarchs. During Henry’s reign, however, significance can be attached to the Edict.