Childhood & Early Life
Charles IX or Charles Maximilian was born on June 27, 1550, at the royal ‘Chateau of Saint-Germain-en-Laye’ (around 19 kilometers from Paris), to King Henry II of France and Catherine de' Medici. The third son and the fifth child of the royal couple, he was designated as the duke of Angoulême since birth. After the death of the king’s second son and his elder brother, Louis, in October 1550, he became the duke of Orléans. On May 14, 1564, he was presented the ‘Order of the Garter’ by Henry Carey.
King Henry II died in 1559 and Charles’s elder brother ascended to the throne as King Francis II. However, he died in December 1560. On December 5, 1560, Charles, who was 10 years old then, was proclaimed as the king. His mother, Catherine de' Medici, was appointed as the regent, as her son was too young to rule. Later, she acted as the governor of France.
Charles IX was consecrated at the cathedral in Reims on May 15, 1561. Antoine of Bourbon was appointed as the lieutenant general of France. He was the husband of Queen Joan III of Navarre and was also in the line of succession to the French throne.
Humanist Jacques Amyot was appointed to supervise Charles’s education. The king studied literature under his guidance. He developed a liking for writing poetry and was interested in hunting. He was a patron of a literary group of French writers named ‘La Pléiade.’
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Reign As King
His reign witnessed a severe enmity between two sections of religion in France. The Huguenots were Protestants and followers of Calvinism, while the ‘Catholic League’ was led by the ‘House of Guise.’ The regent of France, Queen Catherine, was Catholic, but in order to maintain peace, she initially tried to keep a balance between the two factions.
The trouble between these two groups had begun even before Charles IX had become the king. To gain power over France, some Huguenots at Amboise conspired to abduct young King Francis II. They also planned to arrest Catholic nobleman Francis, Duke of Guise, and his brother, Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine. The ‘Amboise Conspiracy’ was foiled and the ‘House of Guise’ executed hundreds of Huguenots.
Then there were incidents of Protestant iconoclasm, followed by Catholic counter-attacks. In 1561, the regent arranged a religious conference at Poissy, in an attempt to reconcile the two factions. This came to be known as the ‘Colloquy of Poissy.’ However, it did not work. Thus, in January 1562, she propagated a declaration of tolerance and made concessions to Protestants in the ‘Edict of Saint-Germain.’
The Catholics detested these concessions made to the Protestants. They wanted to avenge the ‘Amboise Conspiracy.’ ‘The Duke of Guise,’ along with his forces, attacked and killed a number of Huguenots in Wassy on March 1, 1562. This came to be known as the ‘Massacre of Wassy’ and was the beginning of the French wars of religion.
There was retaliation from the Huguenots, resulting in battles at Loire Valley, Rouen, Dreux, and Orléans. During these battles, the leaders from both the sides were killed or captured. Francis, the duke of Guise, was killed in February 1563, during the siege of Orléans. On March 19, 1563, Queen Catherine signed the ‘Edict of Pacification’ (or the ‘Edict of Amboise’) to bring about a truce. That was the end of the first phase of the French wars of religion.
According to French tradition, Charles IX declared his legal majority in August 1563, after his 13th birthday. This put a formal end to the regency. However, Charles was not very efficient at making decisions and remained under his mother’s domination. He suffered from poor health and was not mentally stable.
In March 1564, Charles and Catherine began their grand tour of France, which lasted for two years. They toured through places such as Lyon, Salon-de-Provence, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Bayonne, La Rochelle and Moulins. In Toulouse, he and his brother, Henry, were confirmed. In 1564, Charles issued the ‘Edict of Roussillon,’ which declared that the year would begin on January 1 throughout France.
In 1567, there were reports of iconoclasm in Flanders. Charles supported the Catholic faction. This made the Huguenots insecure and they conspired to capture Charles and other royal family members at Meaux. However, the plan did not succeed, instigating the second war of religion. The Huguenot rioters attacked the cities and massacred Catholics at Nîmes on Michaelmas. The incident came to be known as ‘Michelade.’
Anne de Montmorency, the royal commander-in-chief, was killed in the Battle of Saint-Denis, and the Protestants were defeated. In March 1568, Charles and Catherine issued the ‘Peace of Longjumeau,’ which ended the second war of the French wars of religion. However, as the treaty allowed privileges to the Protestants, it met with strong opposition. Thus, the privileges were revoked. As a result, the war began once again.
Interventions from various foreign factors culminated in the ‘Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye,’ a treaty that was signed on August 5, 1570, at the royal ‘Château de Saint-Germain-en-Laye.’ It brought back privileges for the Protestants.
Following the treaty, King Charles IX continued to get swayed by the disciplined Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. However, his mother and Henry, the duke of Guise (son of Francis, the previous duke of Guise), disliked the growing importance of Coligny.
In order to find a peaceful solution to the wars of religion, the royalty arranged the marriage of Charles’s sister, Margaret of Valois, and Huguenot nobleman Henry of Navarre. The wedding, which was held on August 18, 1572, brought many Protestant noblemen to Paris. A failed attempt of assassinating Coligny on August 22 caused trepidation in the city. Followers of both the factions were afraid of an attack.
Henry, the duke of Guise, murdered Coligny in the early hours of August 24 and had the body thrown in the streets of Paris. This sparked a mass killing, where the Huguenots were massacred for the next five days. Around 10,000 Huguenots were killed in Paris and the surrounding provinces. This came to be known as the ‘St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.’ Henry of Navarre agreed to convert to Catholicism and escaped death. On his mother’s provocation, Charles IX did not attempt to stop the killings and allowed the massacre to continue.
After this carnage, the power of the Protestants reduced considerably. In spite of this, there was a new start to the religious war. Charles commanded his army to attack the Huguenot-dominated city of La Rochelle. The siege continued till July 1573, and ended in negotiations and the signing of the ‘Edict of Bologne,’ which allowed the Protestants limited religious liberty.
His delicate physical and mental health worsened after the 1572 massacre. He suffered from mood swings. He blamed himself and his mother for the bloodbath and became melancholy. He developed tuberculosis and his health deteriorated. On May 30, 1574, at the age of 23, Charles IX died at the ‘Château de Vincennes.’