Issued in 1598 by Henry IV of France to grant French Protestants (also known as Huguenots) equal rights with Catholics.*

The Edict of Nantes can be seen as a step towards freedom of religion, but it certainly was not complete freedom realized. It granted only basic rights of protection to the Protestants, not equal rights of worship and evangelical exercise. To Henry IV's credit, more would have scarcely been possible for the time. His goal was to end the disruptive and demoralizing deaths of French citizens, and avoid any further schism. Thus, it was a step toward tolerance in that it placed lives over religion, but a misstep in that it continued to place politics over freedom.

The events that led to the declaration of the Edict of Nantes (and arguably set up its revocation) began with the French Wars of Religion. These were some of the most calamitous to strike Europe from 1562-1598. Three opportunistic noble families (Guises in eastern France, the Bourbons in southern France, and the Montmorency-Chatillons in central France) took the opportunity of Francis II's young age at the time of his ascension to the throne in 1592 to make a simultaneous grab for the throne, resulting in considerable political turbulence. Eventually the Guises, the most fanatically Catholic of the three, effectively took control of the King and thereby the throne. The other two families became prominent leaders of the Protestant faction in France. The religious struggle between the Catholics on the throne and the rival Protestant families was overshadowed by the more real political struggle. Thus, what started as peaceful religious dissention devolved into a militaristic rift that was demolishing the political integrity of France. By 1598, ending the religious excuse for what bordered on a chaos of atrocity and genocide became a political necessity, making a decree such as the Edict of Nantes inevitable.

Part of the reason that the situation got so out of control was the death of Francis II after only a year on the throne. Because Charles IX, his younger brother, was too young to accept the throne, his mother Catherine de Medici took his place as Regent. Although she was Catholic, she resented the influence of the Guises over her and her son. In order to try and balance noble power in France, she played the Guises against their enemies the Bourbons and Montmorency-Chatillons. Foreshadowing future measures that would become necessary, she granted several concessions to the Huguenots, including the right to worship outside of towns. The balancing act of concessions and favors that Catherine was performing failed, however, when she aided the Guises in a botched assassination of Gaspard de Coligny, a Montmorency-Chatillon family member who was one of the major leaders of the French Huguenots. To avoid a Protestant uprising, Catherine was forced to aid the Guises in a campaign of genocide, murdering innocent and unarmed Protestant men, women and children. On August 24, 1572, the day before St. Bartholomew's Day, royal forces hunted down and executed over three thousand Huguenots, including Coligny, in Paris. Huguenot forces all over France rose up and took arms, and Henry III who had since succeeded his brother, tried to play both sides in the example of his mother. However, he was driven into exile by the Catholic League with the support of Spanish King Phillip II, where he struck up an alliance with his Huguenot cousin Henry of Navarre. Before the two Henrys could attack Paris, however, Henry the III was stabbed by a fanatical friar, and his cousin Henry of Navarre became Henry IV.

Although Henry IV was Protestant, he was what was called a Politique. He valued the political stability of France more than his religious affiliation. Thus, in order to secure the crown and ensure some measure of stability, Henry IV discarded his Protestant background and became Catholic. His immediate attention was concerned with two goals: stabilizing the conflict in France, and to a lesser degree, aiding his erstwhile compatriots the Huguenots. The Edict of Nantes accomplishes both of these objectives. Henry says in the opening lines of the Edict "we have finally surmounted the waves and made our port of safety-peace for our state." To maintain this peace, Henry delivers a somewhat simpleminded decree, effectively pleading with both sides to simply forget about the whole thing. He is also careful to not choose sides in doing this, and places no blame. He simply asks that "everything done by one party or the other between March, 1585, and our accession to the crown be obliterated and forgotten, as if no such things had happened." He it is important to remember that Henry was once a leader of the Protestants, tens of thousands of whom Catholic legions had very recently wiped out seemingly without mercy. In this light, his unbiased decree is remarkable, and indicative of remarkable level-headedness in the young king.

In addition, Henry is careful to first uphold the position of the Catholic Church as official national religion, to be completely protected in "the celebration of divine service, in the enjoyment or collection of tithes, fruits, or revenues of their benefices, and all other rights belonging to them." Thus Catholicism remains both protected and endorsed by the throne. This serves to soften the blow against the powerful Catholics in his next decree, which affords the "Reformed" a measure of protection in well. "In order to leave no occasion for troubles or differences between our subjects" Henry mandates that Reformed be allowed to remain unmolested in French cities, and uncompelled to act against their will in any matter of religion. This is the first part of the Edict that could accurately be described as religious toleration, in that it extends equal protection to both Catholics and Protestants. However, in the interest of placating the powerful French Catholic presence, the King does not uphold complete religious freedom. Henry makes an effort to keep the two factions somewhat segregated by forbidding the Reformed to practice any aspect of their religion except within specified zones, from which was excluded Paris and other dominantly Catholic cities and towns.

Thus, a power imbance and ingrained prjudice was allowed to remain in France, and eventually blossomed into distaster.

By request, here are some of the more important excerpts from the document itself:

Henry, By the Grace of God, King of France, and Navarre, To all Present, and to Come, greeteth. Among the infinite Mercies that God hath pleased to bestow upon us, that most Signal and Remarkable is, his having given us Power and Strength not to yield to the dreadful Troubles, Confusions, and Disorders, which were found at our coming to this Kingdom, divided into so many Parties and Factions, that the most Legitimate was almost the least, enabling us with Constancy in such manner to oppose the Storm, as in the end to surmount it, reducing this Estate to Peace and Rest; For which, to Him alone be given the Honour and Glory, and us the Grace to acknowledge our obligation, in having our Labours made use of for the accomplishing so good a work, in which it hath been visible to all, that we have not only done what was our Duty, and in our Power, but something more than at another time, would (peradventure) have been agreeable to the Dignity we now hold; as in not having more Care, than to have many times so freely exposed our own Life. And in this great concurrence of weighty and perillous Affairs, not being able to compose all at one and the same time, We have chosen in this order, First to undertake those who were not to be suppressed but by force, and rather to remit and suspend others for some time, who might be dealt with by reason, and Justice: For the general difference among our good Subjects, and the particular evils of the soundest parts of the State, we judged might be easily cured, after the Principal cause (the continuation of the Civil Wars) was taken away, in which we have, by the blessing of God, well and happily succeeded, all Hostility and Wars through the Kingdom being now ceased, and we hope he will also prosper us in our other affairs, which remain to be composed, and that by this means we shall arrive at the establishment of a good Peace, with tranquility and rest, (which hath ever been the end of all our vows and intentions) as all the reward we desire or expect for 80 much pains and trouble, as we have taken in the whole course of our Life. Amongst our said affairs (towards which it behooves us to have patience) one of the principal hath been, the many complaints we received from divers of our Provinces and Catholick Cities, for that the exercise of the Catholick Religion was not universally re-established, as is provided by Edicts or Statutes heretofore made for the Pacification of the Troubles arising from Religion; as also the Supplications and Remonstrances which have been made to us by our Subjects of the reformed Religion, as well upon the execution of what hath been granted by the said former Laws, as that they desire to have some addition for the exercise of their Religion, the liberty of their Consciences and the security of their Persons and Fortunes. . . . For this cause, acknowledging this affair to be of the greatest importance, and worthy of the best consideration, after having considered the papers of complaints of our Catholick subjects, and having also permitted to our Subjects of the Reformed Religion to assemble themselves by Deputies, for framing their complaints, and making a collection of all their Remonstrances; and having thereupon conferred divers times with them, viewing the precedent Laws, we have upon the whole judged it necessary to give to all our said Subjects one general Law, Clear, Pure, and Absolute, by which they shall be regulated in all differences which have heretofore risen among them, or may hereafter rise, wherewith the one and other may be contented, being framed according as the time requires: and having had no other regard in this deliberation than solely the Zeal we have to the service of God, praying that he would henceforward render to all our subjects a durable and Established peace. Upon which we implore and expect from his divine bounty the same protection and favour, as he hath alwayes visibly bestowed upon this Kingdom from our Birth, during the many years we have attained unto, and give our said Subjects the grace to understand, that in observation of this our Ordinance consisteth (after that which is their duty toward God and us) the principal foundation of their Union, Concord, Tranquility, Rest, and the Re-establishment of all this Estate in its first splendor, opulency and strength. . . .

6. And not to leave any occasion of trouble and difference among our Subjects, we have permitted and do permit to those of the Reformed Religion, to live and dwell in all the Cities and places of this our Kingdom and Countreys under our obedience, without being inquired after, vexed, molested, or compelled to do any thing in Religion, contrary to their Conscience, nor by reason of the same be searched after in houses or places where they live, they comporting themselves in other things as is contained in this our present Edict or Statute.

7. We also permit to all Lords, Gentlemen and other Persons, as well inhabitants as others, making profession of the Reformed Religion, having in our Kingdom and Countreys under our obedience, high Justice as chief Lord (as in Normandy) be it in propriety or usage, in whole, moiety, or third part, to have in such of their houses of the said high Justice or Fiefs, as abovesaid (which they shall be obliged to Nominate for their principall residence to our Bayliffs and chief Justice each in their jurisdiction) the exercise of the said Religion as long as they are Resident there, and in their absence, their wives or families, or part of the same. And though the right of Justice or whole Fief be controverted, nevertheless the exercise of the said Religion shall be allowed there, provided that the abovesaid be in actual possession of the said high Justice, though our Attorney Generall be a Party. We per mitting them also to have the said exercise in their other houses of high Justice or Fiefs abovesaid, so long as they shall be present, and not otherwise: and all, as well for them, their families and subjects, as others that shall go thither.

8. In the Houses that are Fiefs, where those of the said Religion have not high Justice, there the said Exercise of the Reformed Religion shall not be permitted, save only to their own Families, yet nevertheless, if other persons, to the number of thirty, besides their Families, shall be there upon the occasion of Christenings, Visits of their Friends, or otherwise, our meaning is, that in such case they shall not be molested: provided also, that the said Houses be not within Cities, Burroughs, or Villages belonging to any Catholick Lord (save to Us) having high Justice, in which the said Catholick Lords have their Houses. For in such cases, those of the said Religion shall not hold the said Exercise in the said Cities, Burroughs, or Villages, except by permission of the said Lords high Justices.

9. We permit also to those of the said Religion to hold, and continue the Exercise of the same in all the Cities and Places under our obedience, where it hath by them been Established and made publick by many and divers times, in the Year 1586, and in 1597, until the end of the Month of August, notwithstanding all Decrees and Judgments whatsoever to the contrary. . . .

16. Following the second Article of the Conference of Nerat, we grant to those of the said Religion power to build Places for the Exercise of the same, in Cities and Places where it is granted them. . . .

27. To the end to reunited so much the better the minds and good will of our Subjects, as is our intention, and to take away all complaints for the future; We declare all those who make or shall make profession of the said Reformed Religion, to be capable of holding and exercising all Estates, Dignities, Offices, and publick charges whatsoever, Royal, Signioral, or of Cities of our Kingdom, Countreys, Lands, and Lordships under our obedience, notwithstanding all Oaths to the contrary, and to be indifferently admitted and received into the same, and our Court of Parliament and other Judges shall content themselves with informing and inquiring after the lives, manners, Religion and honest Conversation of those that were or shall be preferred to such offices, as well of the one Religion as the other, without taking other Oath of them than for the good and faithful service of the King in the exercise of their Office. . . .

from Roland Mousnier. The Assassination of Henry IV (New York, 1973), 316-347

as usual, specifics courtesy of wikipedia

verbose elaboration and speculation from a magnificent education in French history courtesy of Dr. Hazel Hahn