The early history of Florida is interwoven with the spread of the French Protestant movement across Europe, the United States, and Africa. From the early 1600s to the late seventeenth century, thousands of Huguenots left their homes in France due to repeated waves of religious persecution.
One of these Huguenots was the famous French navigator, Jean Ribault, looking for places where the French Huguenot Christians fleeing persecution could settle. Ribault explored the Florida, Georgia, and Carolina coastlines during the period 1562 to 1565. To put this into historical perspective, Jean Ribault’s journey for religious freedom took place 56 years before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
Who Were The Huguenots?
While historians are unsure of the exact origin of the name “Huguenot”, it is thought that it was a combination of German and Flemish phrases that described their particular form of home worship.
The Huguenots were French Protestants who believed in the teachings of theologian John Calvin and they came into being around 1550 when preachers from Switzerland brought Bibles into France. The growth of this reform movement in France was fast with the first Huguenot church created in 1555 in a private home in Paris, and these French Calvinists adopted the Huguenot name five years later.
The Huguenot Church held its first synod in 1559, and fifteen churches attended. In 1561, more than two thousand churches sent representatives to the synod. A hundred years later, it boasted a million and a half adherents.
Protestantism was a respectable movement involving the most responsible and accomplished people of France. It expressed their desire for greater religious and political freedom. Members of the nobility, the intellectual elite, and trade, medical and craft professionals rapidly embraced Protestantism. Prominent Huguenot leaders included the royal houses of Navarre, Valois, Condé, as well as Admiral Coligny, and hundreds of other officers in the military.
The Inevitable Conflict
The Roman Catholic church became increasingly worried about losing control, while the French government feared Protestant demands for local rule. Indeed, their concerns were justified when powerful nobles such as the Condés attempted to employ Protestant strength for their own political advancement against the powerful Guise family.
At first, Francis I favored the Huguenots due to their stature and abilities and their economic contribution to France’s finances. However, ninety percent of France was Roman Catholic, and the Church remained in control. Inevitably, there were clashes between Roman Catholics and Huguenots, many of which resulted in bloodshed.
Events Leading Up To The Huguenot Exodus
An outright war began in 1562 when troops under the command of the Duke of Guise attacked 300 Huguenots holding a religious service outside the town of Vassy. They killed more than 60 Huguenots and wounded over 100 more. This massacre sparked off decades of violence known as the French Wars of Religion.
On Saint Bartholomew’s Day in 1572, another massacre occurred. Soldiers and organized mobs slaughtered thousands of Huguenots who had gathered in Paris to celebrate the marriage of Henry of Navarre to Marguerite de Valois. Violence and murder followed in 12 cities, leading to the first wave of Huguenot departures from France to England, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The Huguenots’ departure was a disaster for France and cost the nation much of its cultural and economic influence. In some French cities, it meant losing half their workforce. Huguenots were exceptionally skilled in the textile industry and considered reliable workers in many other fields. They were also an educated group, well-able to read and write. As a result, many countries welcomed them and benefited from their arrival.
Huguenots In The History Of Florida
In September 1565, the Spanish explorer Pedro Menéndez de Avilés founded the Spanish colony of St. Augustine in North Florida. He chose the name because he first spotted the site on August 28, the feast day of St. Augustine. Menéndez was not the first Spanish explorer who tried to start a colony in Florida which Juan Ponce de León had claimed for Spain way back in 1513. Instead, his primary mission was to eliminate the French Huguenot colonists trying to usurp the Spanish claim.
In 1564, as a result of Jean Ribault’s coastal explorations, Huguenots from Normandy had established an outpost at Fort Caroline at the mouth of the St. Johns River in present-day Jacksonville. Menéndez did not like this and vowed to destroy the fledgling French colony. A French base in Florida posed a potential threat to Spanish territorial claims and the Spanish treasure fleet that sailed from South America and Mexico along the Florida coast before heading for Spain. King Philip II wanted to eliminate the French threat and especially because the settlers were Protestants. As a Catholic, this was intolerable.
A few days after the founding of St. Augustine, a French fleet under the command of Jean Ribault lurked off the coast and demanded that Menéndez surrender. However, before receiving a reply, a hurricane blew Ribault’s ships south, and they were wrecked at Cape Canaveral.
French Colonization Attempts Come To An End In Florida
Knowing that Fort Caroline was now unprotected, Menéndez attacked the French outpost and slaughtered more than 130 settlers. Weeks later, the Spanish executed Ribault and hundreds of French shipwreck survivors at an inlet south of St. Augustine. This dramatic and violent event effectively ended France’s attempts to colonize the area and put a stop to the French playing any further part in the history of Florida.