The Huguenot Story – A short history
Who were the Huguenots?
Who were the Huguenots? The Protestant Reformation that Luther started in Germany in 1517 spread rapidly in France. The followers of these new ideas soon provoked a reaction from Church and State, and a General Edict urging extermination of these ‘heretics’ was issued in 1536. Nevertheless the numbers of Protestants continued to grow and spread across France, and in 1555 the first Reformed (Huguenot) church was established in Paris, following the teachings of John Calvin (1509-1564).
Church and State hostile to Protestantism
Hostility continued to grow and in 1562 a number of Huguenots were massacred at Vassy in North Eastern France. This marked the start of the Wars of Religion which were to devastate France for thirty-five years.
The Edict of Nantes
In 1598, Henry IV of France signed the Edict of Nantes which ended the Wars of Religion and gave French Protestants freedom to practise their religion (in particular places and under certain conditions). It also guaranteed them a number of military strongholds which they lost in 1629, after the siege of La Rochelle.
The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes
The situation of the Huguenots was gradually eroded during the seventeenth century, with increasing restrictions on occupations and professions and on rights of worship. This culminated in the ‘dragonnades’ of the 1680s where brutal means, including torture and rape, were used to force conversions.
In 1685, Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. He expelled the Protestant clergy and declared that the rest of the Huguenot population was to remain in France and become Catholic. Those who stayed were forced to convert, although large numbers continued to practise their faith in secret, at home or in clandestine assemblies in remote places. Others left the country illegally to seek a new life abroad in a Protestant country.
Refugees flee France
Many Huguenots fled France illegally in the years after the Revocation. If caught, the men were sent to be galley slaves and the women were imprisoned until they agreed to convert.
Where did the Huguenots go?
The refugees went mainly to neighbouring Protestant states such as Holland, Switzerland, Germany and Great Britain, as well as Ireland. Smaller numbers moved on to settlements in the European colonies of America and South Africa.
The Restoration of Rights in France
Civil and religious rights were eventually restored to French Protestants in 1787, when an Edict of Toleration was issued by Louis XVI.