Marc Chapelle and Antoine Simon:
In Search of Religious Freedom


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The Huguenots

Following the Protestant Reformation of the first half of the 16th Century, the members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France came to be known by the name Huguenots.  These were historically French Calvinists.  The Huguenots were well known for their violent opposition to the Roman Catholic Church and its focus on rituals.  Their numbers grew rapidly, particularly with nobles and city-dwellers.  While they faced periodic persecution from the beginning of the reformation, it was this increase in size and influence during the 1550s that made the Catholic factions in France uncomfortable.  By 1562, their population was especially numerous in the southern and central parts of the country.  At their peak, they still remained a small segment of the general French population when compared to the Catholics.   The strained relations between Protestant and Catholics finally erupted in a series of eight civil wars (1562-1598), known as the French Wars of Religion

On March 1, 1562, a faction of the Catholic House of Guise attacked a Huguenot service in Wassy (northeastern France); 30 Huguenots were killed and more were injured.   This massacre marked the beginning of the Wars of Religion, and sparked the Huguenots into building a large army and cavalry, led by Admiral Gaspard de ColignyHenry of Navarre and the House of Bourbon joined the Huguenots, adding wealth to the Protestant strength.  Since both the House of Guise and House of Bourbon had staked a claim to the French throne, the war was eventually very much a feud between these two noble families. 


The darkest point in this war came in 1572, with what was to be known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.   The Queen-Mother, Catherine de Medici, had arranged for the marriage of her daughter Marguerite to Henry of Navarre as a means to gather all the Huguenot leaders in Paris so they could be killed.  At 2 a.m. on 24 August, St. Bartholomew's Day, the church bells rang signaling the soldiers to attack.  Admiral Coligny and several dozen other Huguenot leaders were murdered at the inn where they were staying.  This started public riots in which thousands of Huguenots were murdered by the Paris mob.  Historians have pointed out that Huguenots were often wealthy, and thus the mob may have been driven more by envy than religious zeal.  The massacres spread to the countryside in the weeks that followed, with tens of thousands of Huguenots being killed.  In Rome, Pope Gregory XIII's reaction was one of jubilation, and church bells rang for a public day of thanksgiving. 

On the death of the king in 1589, Henry of Navarre legally became the king of France.  However the Catholics resisted, and with support from Spain, forced Henry to the south.  In 1593, Henry renounced Protestantism and gained enough support from the Catholics to be crowned King Henry IV of France in 1594.  On April 13, 1598, Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes, against the desires of both the clergy and determined Calvinists, granting substantial rights to the Huguenots, primarily being reinstatement of their civil rights (equal citizens, could be heard in court, hold state positions, have any profession).  He granted the Protestants one hundred locations in which they could practice their religion in safety. 

Under the reign of Henry's son, Louis XIII (King of France from 1610 to 1643), contrary to the provisions of the Edict of Nantes, efforts began to eradicate the Reformed religion in the areas to the north of the western Pyrenees.  After long battles and a final defeat in 1628, the Protestants were no longer a political force.  They were able to maintain status as a legally recognized denomination; however, the number of locations where they were protected was shrinking.   The Cevennes mountain range in southern France was a strong Protestant region, as Protestants in more northern areas either left the country (to England, Netherlands, Germany) or moved south.  

Louis XIV became King of France in 1643 and further intensified the harassment of the Protestants.  They lost their civic rights and were treated as second-class citizens.  In 1655, Waldensians in the Piedmont area were ordered to quarter the troops of the Marquis de Planeza.  Early on Easter morning, at a given signal, these troops arose and brutally murdered and pillaged their hosts.  This became known as the Piedmont Easter massacre.  In 1681, a policy known in French as "dragonnades" was used to intimidate Huguenot families to reconvert to Roman Catholicism.   Similar to the Piedmont Easter, particularly obnoxious and difficult soldiers known as dragons stayed with Protestant households where they were encouraged to wreak havoc.  Louis XIV ordered the destruction of Huguenot churches and the closure of Huguenot schools.  In many cases, the harassment was sufficient to cause Huguenots to leave the country, or convert to Catholicism. 

Louis XIV had the strong desire for national unity and was under the belief that there would have to be one religion (Catholicism).  In October 1685, Louis XIV signed the Edict of Fontainebleau decreeing the following:

  • The Edit of Nantes shall be abolished in its entirety.
  • The Protestant temples shall be destroyed without exception.
  • The Reformed clergy who do not immediately renounce, must leave the kingdom within two weeks under penalty of the galleys.  Children over seven years of age may not be taken aboard, since they are of age in religious matters.
  • All Reformed schools shall be dissolved, and all Reformed religious instruction prohibited.
  • The followers of the "allegedly Reformed religion" (the religion which displeases the king) are prohibited from assembling for services or other meetings in any location whatsoever, or in a private residence, under penalty of seizure of their property and themselves.
  • The children born to Reformed parents are to be baptized Catholic and sent to the Catholic churches (under penalty of 500 livres or more).  The judges of the towns are explicitly instructed to supervise the enforcement of these decrees.
  • The subjects, their wives and children, are prohibited from emigrating, or from removing their possessions and goods from the country under penalty of the galleys for the men and the seizure of body and possessions for the women.  Those who already had left the country had four months to return without penalty, if they renounced.

Even those that converted to Catholicism were treated as second-class citizens, and called "new Catholics."  As a result of the Edict of Fontainebleau, 200,000 to 500,000 Huguenots left the country over the next two decades.  This exodus of skilled craftsmen and hard workers was devastating on many provinces.  It would take France years to recover.

Even in the most strongly Reformed families, one member, at least, would typically stay behind to try to preserve the family estate and possessions.  Who stayed and who left was usually decided through mutual agreement.  As stated by researcher and author Eugen Bellon, in the introduction to his book (2):

We cannot judge, today, whether it was those French Protestants, who undertook the perilous venture of escape from a sunny homeland into a foggy distance for the sake of their faith and their religious conviction, "trusting in God's good providence", who were the faithful ones, or whether it was those who, always threatened, kept their faith clandestinely.



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(1)  Malan, Ronald F, M.A., Waldensian History: A Brief Sketch, Genealogist and Trustee, Piedmont Families Organization,

(2)  Bellon, Eugen. Zerstreut in alle Winde [Scattered to all the Winds], 1685-1720. Trans. by Erika Gautschi. (West Lafayette, Indiana: Belle Publications, 1983). This is an English translation of historical papers originally published by the German Huguenot Society. Describes the Dauphine French Huguenots’ migration into Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. 245 pages. Family History Library, microfiche, FHL INTL Fiche 6068505, Salt Lake City.

(3) "Huguenot", Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, <>.

 (4) Reneau, Blake, "History of the Huguenots", <>.

(5)  "Who were the Huguenots?", Huguenot Society of South Africa, <>.




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