The Wars of Religion
Eleanor of Lancaster married Charles of Oldenburg, younger brother to the King of Denmark, a Protestant, and throughout her long and prosperous reign she enforced religious tolerance (at least for moderates), and allowed the rise of a prominent faction of Protestant nobles. On her death in 1588, she was succeeded by her son, Édouard II the Kind, who was by that time of advanced years himself, and mostly mad, and the kingdom was ruled by his Protestant advisors, against the wishes of his wife, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland. This was tolerated, because the king’s eldest son, Charles, was known to be a devout and pious Catholic. The decisions of the Protestants – including their decision to aid Protestant princes in Germany against the Wittelsbach, Catholic Emperor – were endured, and most of their decrees reversed with the advent of Charles VIII the Pious in 1590 as King of France, England, and (through his mother) Scotland.
Difficulties arose in 1605, when Charles himself succumbed to a bout of insanity. The king’s Protestant younger brother, Chrétien the Slow (named not for his mental faculties, but for his deliberate and cautious nature) took it upon himself to act as regent – imprisoning his elderly mother in the process, and exiling his sister-in-law, Joan. Catholic forces – and those angered by Chrétien’s puritanical attitudes toward corruption and decadence, and his refusal to fight against Protestants in Germany – overthrow him in a coup in 1606, and the regent only escaped by pretending to be a simpleton servant (an ignominy with which he was forever after lampooned). The following Catholic Regency, lead by Joan of Aragon, persecuted Protestants and supporters of Chrétien. The persecution stopped with the return of Charles to sanity in 1610, but its damage had been done.
Meanwhile, other wars were breaking out across Europe. In the east, John the Infidel, King of Hungary, had orchestrated the so-called League of the Devil, a three-way alliance between Hungary, Venice and the Ottomans designed to protect all three against Catholic aggression; at the same time, Catholics in Germany and Italy rallied to the side of the Pope in his Holy League to rescue Catholics now being persecuted by John and by the Doge.
At first, these wars took place primarily in Italy. Naples, Milan, and Tuscany allied with the Pope to reverse Venetian gains made the preceding century; at first succesful, they were beaten back by an Ottoman invasion of Naples, until Charles the Pious entered the war in 1603. However, with Charles’ incapacity, and unrest in France, the Holy League was in the end badly defeated. In 1609, the Pope signed the Treaty of Benevento that accepted the Ottoman conquest of all Naples. In the north, Venetian gains were finally reversed with the intervention of the Germans: the Wittelsbachs of Bavaria (lead by the Holy Roman Emperor) and the Hapsburgs of the Tyrol, who crushed Venice, with the assistance of Charles of France. This stage of the war ended with the invasion of Bavaria by John the Infidel in 1615.
When Charles VIII died in 1614 after another battle with madness, he was succeeded by his teenage son, Nicholas I the Beautiful, who had married the heiress of Milan. Nicholas promptly invaded Germany to counter the Hungarian threat. A general war was then fought between on the one side the Protestant League and the Kingdom of Hungary, and on the other, France-England and the Catholic League (chiefly Bavaria-Würtemberg, Ducal Saxony, and Lorraine), lead by the Emperor. The war was an unmitigated disaster for the Catholics, and Nicholas died in battle at the age of 20, in 1619, just months after the birth of his daughter, Mary.
Mary being too young to rule, and her foreign mother too inexperienced, a regent was needed once again – and the presence of a large Protestant army in France ensured that it was Chrétien the Slow. Fearing death, Mary’s mother and grandmother fled with her to Joan’s relatives in Aragon, and Chrétien declared himself King in his own right.
In the east, meanwhile, John Hunyadi had been elected Emperor, and was now busy crushing the Poles in Silesia and Bohemia. Venice, left to fend for itself, was fighting a losing war against both Catholics and Muslims – an anti-Venetian reaction within the Ottoman court had brought them to ally with Genoa and the Pope. Chrétien, worried that this might further increase the power of the Vaudémont dynasty, invaded northern Italy under the pretext of acting as regent for his niece, Mary, who had become rightful ruling Duchess of Milan. Allying with Venice, their combined armies subjugated Milan, Genoa and Florence, before sacking Rome and destroying St Peter’s Basilica. The Ottomans pushed them back north, but in the process ground down the last of the Catholic resistance.
In 1624, however, Chrétien was compelled to return to his own country to face a threat from an unexpected direction: his own son, Édouard the Gallant, who had declared himself a Catholic and argued that his father’s destruction of Rome disqualified him from the throne divinely allotted through the office of the Pope. For years, Catholics in Britain had been in open revolt, but now the charismatic Prince took charge of the armies sent to enforce royal control and turned them into an army of rebellion, landing in Calais and marching to hold Paris. For two more years, Édouard and Chrétien fought for control of the country, before Chrétien acknowledged the inevitable in 1626 and signed a letter of abdication – from a safe distance, having fled to his relatives in Denmark.
Yet the accession of Édouard III did not bring peace. The poweful Vaudémont clan, represented by Queen Joan, did not accept Édouard as king – not only was the rightful ruler Mary, daughter of Nicholas, but Édouard was not, they said, even legitimate, as his father Chrétien was born a bastard (which was entirely possible – relations between Édouard II and his wife Mary Stuart were strained by religious differences and by his periodic insanity, and both their sons were born to them relatively late in their marriage, with rumours particularly surrounding the younger child). These arguments were intensified by Édouard’s refusal to return Milan to his cousin, and open war broke out between the two sides – reflecting ultimately a battle for supremacy between the House of Vaudémont and the House of York, which supported Édouard.
In 1629, Chrétien persuaded his Danish cousins to enter the war. Defeating and killing his son in battle, he reclaimed the throne that year; but much of France was in open rebellion against him from the start; in particular, the powerful Richard of Navarre (King of Navarre, Duke of Brittany, Guyenne, York, Mercœur, Alençon, Marche, Gloucester and Breda, Count of Poitou and Rousillon, Earl of Westmoreland, Somerset, Warwick and Cornwall, amongst other titles) controlled most of the south of the country. Chrétien managed to maintain his position until his death – but it came in 1633, after only four years of rule. Upon his death, the Catholic faction once more broke in two, and fought for another year before placing on the throne Queen Louise, daughter of Charles VIII (and younger sister to Nicholas, hence aunt of Mary).
The death of Chrétien was only one part of a bad passage of years for the Protestants. John the Infidel had died the year before, and his successor, Stephen the Cruel, was a less adroit leader. At home, the carefully pragmatic reign of John was replaced by a merciless persecution of Catholics, and abroad, his strategies lead to a gradual reversal of all his father’s gains. Most of his reign, in any case, was occupied by the renewed war against the Ottomans, who, allied to the Pope, twice beseiged Budapest.