Huguenots: the Calvinists of France

Huguenots were protestants who adopted the views of John Calvin (1509-1564) that included a doctrine that individuals are saved strictly by faith and not by their works. It also stressed the individual's right to interpret the bible and have a relationship with God without the intercession of a priest. These beliefs were excepted largely by the nobility and middle class in France, while the king and the other levels of society remained staunchly Catholic.

The name for Huguenots is probably derivative of the German, Eldgenosen, and was used to designate Calvinists in Geneva who were "oath takers" or "conspirators".1 In any case, "Huguenot" may have been a term of derision for protestants by Catholics because they associated them with a Count of Tours who would only come out in the dark.2 In more official circles these people were referred to as Réformés. Today, the name Huguenot has stuck and is considered a badge of honor by many of the descendants of French Protestants.

King Francis I (1494-1547) - influenced by his sister, Marguerite d'Angoulême - was tolerant of the new and growing religion3. However, this could not last as the political theory of the time did not allow for multiple religions within a unified state. It was felt that many Huguenots had taken up Protestantism merely as a challenge to the monarchy. It is certain, however, that religious feelings ran high with conflict between Catholics and Huguenots. In 1572 Catherine de' Medici (at the time Queen Mother of France) engineered the Bartholemew's Day Massacre in which thousands of protestants in Paris and the provinces were slaughtered.

Civil wars were a result of the animosity between the Catholics and the Huguenots. These wars were not resolved until the Reign of Henry IV. He promulgated the Edict of Nantes (1589) which granted toleration to the protestants. Yet, tensions continued to run high in France. After the reign of Henry IV there were sporadic conflicts, including the Siege of La Rochelle which occurred from 1572-1573. In which Cardinal Richelieu ensured the defeat of the Huguenots who had fortified the place and took away their right to man fortified towns.

During the youth of Louis XIV (1638-1715) another revolt occurred called the Fronde (1649-1652). This was had little to do with the Huguenots per se, except that many of the nobles participating on the side of the revolutionaries were protestant. The young and impressionable king came to suspect the nobility of disloyalty especially the Huguenots. Later in his reign he revoked the Edict of Nantes (The Edict of Fontainbleau - 1685). The French Protestants were forced to convert to Catholicism and not allowed to leave the country. Yet many did leave.

There was diaspora of French Protestants who scattered throughout the civilized world as well as to the colonies. Many went to the Americas and South Africa, others moved to Holland and England. Between one-quarter to one million people fled persecution. France lost a tremendous number of skilled people. The economy suffered a tremendous blow. Meanwhile surrounding countries gained and many Huguenots and their descendent would become prominent people, some who would eventually use their talents against France.

Persecution of Huguenots in France did not end until the Edict of Toleration in 1787 on the eve of the French Revolution. At this point Protestants were made full citizens with all the rights and priveleges this entailed.

  1. National Huguenot Society: Who Were the Huguenots?
  2. Catholic Encyclopedia on Huguenots
  3. Huguenot Society: History

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