Huguenot History: Who Exactly Were The Huguenots?

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (the 1500s & 1600s), Protestants in France who followed the teachings of John Calvin were known as Huguenots (also French Protestants, Reformed Church, and Calvinists). Calvin was a French theologian who would ultimately become a leading figure in the Protestant movement in the sixteenth century (the 1500s).

Renowned for his intellectual and unemotional approach to faith, Calvin’s methodologies appealed to well-educated French people, bringing in some of the most intelligent, prominent, and elite members of society. Although France was primarily Catholic, the French crown tolerated Calvinism at first, due to the influence of those that followed Calvin and his teachings.

However, they would go on to be persecuted by the French government throughout the 1500s & 1600s and forced to flee the country leading to the establishment of Huguenot settlements in other parts of Europe, modern-day United States, and Africa.

Quick Growth

French Protestants, also called French Calvinists, established the first Huguenot church in a private home in Paris in 1560. While the origins of the word “Huguenot” are largely uncertain, the leading theory is that it may come from a combination of German and Flemish words, which combine the Flemish ‘Huisgenooten’, or House fellows, with the German ‘Eidgenosen’, meaning confederates bound together by oath. The rise of the Protestant churches in France was astounding. And, just two years later in 1562, there were more than two million Huguenots in France and more than two thousand churches scattered throughout the country.

Catholic Resistance

Despite the quick growth of the Huguenot church, France was still more than ninety percent Catholic. Even with members of the nobility, intellectual elite, and the royal houses of Navarre, Valois, and Condé on the side of the Huguenots, they could not fight the resistance they faced from Roman Catholics that were still dominant all over France.

Although Huguenots were given a lot of leeway in the beginning by French Roman Catholics and they began making moves to control power in the country. The Huguenot movement posed a threat to the crown, especially with its rapid expansion and this was something that was not going to be tolerated by the Catholics who were in power at the time.

Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

The Huguenots were persecuted hugely while at the same time being given high favor by the crown. Over time, this flip-flopping between persecution and favor led to countless clashes between the Huguenots and Roman Catholics. In the 1560s, these clashes escalated with more and more blood being spilled until eventually, the Queen of France, Catherine de Medici planned a horrendous attack.

On August 24th, 1572 – the feast day of Saint Bartholomew – thousands of Huguenots had gathered in Paris for a day of peaceful wedding celebrations. Henry of Navarre, who would go on to become the King of France from 1589 to 1610, was due to marry Margaret de Valois, a French princess of the Valois dynasty and daughter of Catherine de Medici. With a large section of Huguenot nobility due to attend the event, this was the perfect opportunity for Catherine to plot an attack. Following her orders, organized mobs and soldiers descended on the Huguenots in Paris, murdering thousands of people in a horrific event that would become known as the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

Civil Wars, Persecution, And Exile

Over the following years, several civil wars took place in France. In March of 1590, Prince Henry of Navarre led a Huguenot army to fight the Catholic League at the Battle of Ivry in Northern France, defeating the Catholic forces. In April 1598, King Henry IV signed the Edict of Nantes, granting the French Huguenots substantial rights in a country that was still predominantly Catholic. Henry was striving to end civil unrest in the country, separating religious and civil unity and paving the way for tolerance in France. The Huguenots would have more freedom for the next hundred years until Louis XIV became king and revoked the Edict of Nantes.

After King Louis XIV forbid the practice of the Huguenot religion, French Huguenots were ordered to turn their backs on their beliefs and join the Catholic Church. Louis XIV sent more than three hundred thousand soldiers around the country to find anyone who continued to practice and confiscate their property. Louis XIV overturning the Edict of Nantes ultimately led to France losing more than five hundred thousand of its best citizens, as Huguenots fled the country in search of safe-haven in other countries, including the United States.

Religious Freedom In France Is Finally Granted

After America became independent from Great Britain, Gilbert du Motier – better known as the Marquis de Lafayette – persuaded Louis XIV to establish an Edict of Toleration that would guarantee religious freedom to everyone living in France. After seeing the resilience, bravery, and determination of the American leaders and then learning that many of them were of Huguenot descent, he simply could not stand by while the Huguenots were persecuted in France any longer. The Edict of Toleration, also known as the Edict of Versailles, was granted by Louis XIV, officially being adopted into law in January 1788, granting Huguenots the religious freedom they deserved.