In 1589, a Huguenot prince inherited the French throne as Henry IV. Henry was the first ruler in the Bourbon dynasty. As a Huguenot, Henry had battled Catholic forces. Once on the throne, he realized he would face severe problems ruling a largely Catholic country, so he converted to Catholicism. “Paris is well worth a Mass,” he is supposed to have said. To protect Protestants, however, he issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598. It granted the Huguenots religious toleration and other freedoms.
Henry IV then set out to restore royal power and rebuild a land shattered by war. His goal, he said, was not the victory of one sect over another, but “a chicken in every pot”—a good Sunday dinner for every peasant. Under Henry, the government reached into every area of French life.
Royal officials administered justice, improved roads, built bridges, and revived agriculture. By building the royal bureaucracy and reducing the influence of nobles, Henry IV laid the foundations for royal absolutism.
The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre began at a royal wedding in Paris in 1572. Thousands of French Huguenots were massacred.
When Henry IV was killed by an assassin in 1610, his nine-year-old son, Louis XIII, inherited the throne. For a time, nobles reasserted their power. Then, in 1624, Louis appointed Cardinal Richelieu (ree shul YOO) as his chief minister. This cunning, capable leader devoted the next 18 years to strengthening the central government.
Richelieu was determined to destroy the power of two groups that defied royal authority—nobles and Huguenots. He defeated the private armies of the nobles and destroyed their fortified castles. While reducing their independence, Richelieu tied the nobles to the king by giving them high posts at court or in the royal army. At the same time, he smashed the walled cities of the Huguenots and outlawed their armies. Yet he allowed them to continue to practice their religion.
Richelieu handpicked his able successor, Cardinal Mazarin (ma za RAN). When five-year-old Louis XIV inherited the throne in 1643, the year after Richelieu's death, Mazarin was in place to serve as chief minister. Like Richelieu, Mazarin worked tirelessly to extend royal power.
Cardinal Richelieu, one of the architects of French absolutism, was principle advisor to Louis XIII. The Siege of La Rochelle, shown here, was a battle in Richelieu's campaign to bring the Huguenots under royal authority.
How did the Edict of Nantes affect Huguenots?
Soon after Louis XIV became king, disorder again swept France. In an uprising called the Fronde, nobles, merchants, peasants, and the urban poor each rebelled in order to protest royal power or preserve their own.