The Huguenots vs France: who were the Huguenots and what did they believe?

Who exactly were the Huguenots and why were they such a concern to the French crown? Emma Slattery Williams explores the Huguenot rebellions of the 16th and 17th centuries, their roots in the Reformation, and what Cardinal Richelieu has to do with it all

France. Massacre of Vassy. Murder of Huguenot worshipers and citizens in an armed action by troops of Francis, Duke of Guise, in Wassy, France on 1 March 1562. Starting of French Wars of Religion. Engraving. (Photo by: PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

At a General Assembly in La Rochelle on 25 December 1620, after decades of persecution and discrimination, the Huguenots – French Protestants who followed the teachings of theologian John Calvin – declared their intention to create a ‘state within the state’, in defiance of French king Louis XIII and what they perceived as threats to the Protestant religion. The move sparked a chain of events that would create chaos and violence for decades to come. But trouble for the Huguenots had been brewing long before this rebellious act.

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Seventeenth-century France was predominantly Roman Catholic, but since the European Reformation – which had begun in the early-16th century – Protestantism had slowly grown in popularity in France, boasting more than two million followers by the end of the 16th century. These French Protestants were known as Huguenots.

Between 1562 and 1598, there were eight civil wars, known as the French Wars of Religion”

During the late-16th century, the clash of Catholic and Protestant religious beliefs came to a head with a series of conflicts known collectively as the French Wars of Religion, a period between 1562 and 1598 during which there were eight civil wars. Other European countries such as England and Spain became embroiled in these conflicts: England – which had broken with Rome twice, first in the 1530s and again in 1559 – wanted to prevent a Catholic victory, while staunchly Catholic Spain wished to see a Protestant defeat.

The growing power of the French nobility was another underlying cause of these conflicts. The sudden death of Henry II in 1559 had seen three of his sons successively take the throne: Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. Inexperienced and ineffective, these three kings showed little ability in being able to control their French nobles – allowing the warring noblemen to vie for places in the line of succession – and allowed the seeds of religious rebellion to bloom.

The French Wars of Religion: when did they begin?

A small act of tolerance towards Protestantism in France came in January 1562 with the Edict of St Germain – delivered by Catherine de Medici, France’s regent and mother of Charles IX, who was then 11 years old. The edict was a decree of tolerance that recognised the rights of Huguenots to worship, providing that they did so in private, not within towns, and not at night. But less than two months later, on 1 March, Francis, Duke of Guise, sent his troops to the town of Vassy, where a group of Huguenots were worshipping in a barn.

The solders massacred more than 80 Huguenots, sparking the first of the Wars of Religion. Horrific acts of violence would be committed by both sides, across France, and the Duke of Guise was eventually assassinated. An uneasy peace was reached in March 1563 with the Edict of Amboise, which guaranteed the Huguenots their religious privileges.

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Over the next few years, further skirmishes saw the Huguenots take up arms against the Crown, and the massacres of both Catholics and Protestants. Many Huguenots fled France during this time, with one group establishing a colony in modern-day Jacksonville, Florida, in 1564.

In August 1572, Catherine de Medici arranged the marriage of her daughter, Marguerite of Valois, to the Huguenot Henry of Navarre of the House of Bourbon. Henry was next in line to the French throne after Charles IX’s younger brothers – one another Henry, and Francis – and Catherine hoped that an alliance with the powerful Bourbon dynasty would placate the Huguenots for a time.

Thousands of Protestants gathered in Paris for the wedding and the city became a powder keg of tension. The Royal Council met and hatched a plan to assassinate some of the Huguenot leaders to prevent what they deemed a Protestant takeover – thousands of Huguenots were killed in Paris during what is now known as the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, with violence spreading across the country over the following weeks. The Edict of Boulogne in July 1573 halted the bloodshed and restricted the Huguenots to worshipping in just three French towns: La Rochelle, Montauban and Nîmes.

Painting of Catherine de Medici walking among the dead after the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre
Catherine de Medici walks among the dead after the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

What was the Edict of Nantes and what did it mean for the Huguenots?

Henry of Navarre ascended the throne in 1589, becoming Henry IV of France, and converted to Catholicism in 1593 as a way of consolidating his power. This ensured the favour of the majority of his subjects, but aroused the suspicion and dismay of the Huguenots.

The Edict of Nantes in 1598 was the greatest step towards religious toleration that France had seen. Protestants were now treated equally before the law and had the right to worship freely in private, and publicly in 200 towns that they could garrison. The Crown guaranteed their safety and subsidised the cost of their garrisons. Henry IV saw this attempt at civil unity as an exchange for the Huguenots accepting his Catholic faith. The French Wars of Religion had officially ended, but the Huguenots were still seen as inferior by France’s mainly-Catholic population, which was horrified at the prospect of showing toleration towards Huguenots, let alone their new royal protection. For the rest of his reign, Henry IV tried to ensure that the Edict of Nantes was upheld, but those who came after him would be far less tolerant.

A decision was taken to defy Louis XIII, who had established an all-Catholic government, and create a Protestant ‘state within a state’, with its own independent taxes and military

In 1617, Henry IV’s successor, Louis XIII, proclaimed the annexation of the Protestant Principality of Béarn in the far south of France – which had been declared an independent principality in the 14th century – and restored Béarn’s Catholic property rights in 1620. Fearing the loss of their religious privileges, a Huguenot General Assembly – beginning in November 1620 – was called at La Rochelle. During the meeting a decision was taken to defy Louis XIII, who had established an all-Catholic government, and create a Protestant ‘state within a state’, with its own independent taxes and military. This act of defiance was led by Henri Duc de Rohan, who had become the leader of the Huguenots. It was a decision that would lead to three rebellions over the next decade and ultimately see Protestantism almost completely eradicated in France.

Why were the Huguenots a threat?

Louis XIII interpreted the decision at La Rochelle as an open rebellion to his authority and gathered his forces to march south – first capturing the Huguenot city of Saumur and then defeating Rohan’s brother, Benjamin, Duke of Soubise, during the Siege of Saint-Jean-d’Angély on 24 June 1621.

A siege of Montauban followed, but Louis was unsuccessful in capturing the city. His siege of Nègrepelisse in 1622, however, saw almost all of the inhabitants of that Protestant stronghold killed and the city burned to ground. The Treaty of Montpellier was signed later that year, which allowed the Huguenots to keep their fortresses at Montauban and La Rochelle, but ordered the one at Montpellier and the royal stronghold of Fort Louis, just outside La Rochelle, to be dismantled.

Louis did not uphold the treaty, though, creating further resentment among the Huguenots. The influential Cardinal Richelieu, who would become the King’s chief minister in 1624, advised Louis to refortify Fort Louis. Richelieu was wary of the Huguenot’s military power and saw them as a threat to the country’s stability, but he also knew that any unwarranted violence or persecution directed towards the Huguenots could affect France’s alliances with Protestant nations in Europe. Nevertheless, the inhabitants of La Rochelle sensed the threat of an imminent siege.

In February 1625, the Duke of Soubise led another rebellion against Louis and occupied the island of Ré, off the west coast of France near La Rochelle. He then successfully attacked the royal fleet during the battle of Blavet, and took command of the Atlantic coast from Bordeaux to Nantes. The Duke’s successes caused him to give himself the title of Admiral of the Protestant Church. La Rochelle voted to join Soubise but, by September, the Huguenot fleet and Soubise had both been defeated and the island of Ré returned to royal power.
It took a long period of negotiations before the Treaty of Paris was finally agreed between the King and the city of La Rochelle, on 5 February 1626 – the Huguenots retained their religious freedom, but limits were imposed and La Rochelle was no longer permitted to keep a naval fleet.

What does England have to do with Huguenot rebellions?

The final Huguenot rebellion of the 17th century was sparked by an English intervention – England and France had been enemies on and off for centuries, and Charles I of (Protestant) England was happy to assist in an upheaval against his French counterpart. Charles sent the Duke of Buckingham with an 80-strong fleet to assist the Huguenots, and in June 1627, the English landed near Ré, beginning the Anglo-French War. Buckingham eventually ran out of money and support, and returned to England after defeat at the siege of Saint-Martin-de-Ré.

The final stage of this bitter struggle was the siege of La Rochelle, which began in September 1627, with Richelieu commanding the French troops. The populace resisted for almost 14 months under their mayor, Jean Guiton – and with a little help from the English – before having to surrender in October 1628. By this time, the population of La Rochelle had decreased from around 27,000 to 5,000 as a result of famine, disease and violence. Peace was officially achieved with the Peace of Alès, signed in June 1629 – this time the Huguenots’ right to religious toleration was acknowledged, but they were forbidden from holding assemblies or fortresses. Louis could not risk further threat to his authority.

Tapestry depicting the siege of Huguenot-held La Rochelle in 1572
This tapestry depicts the siege of Huguenot-held La Rochelle in 1572, in the wake of the St Bartholomew’s Day (Photo by: Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

When did the Huguenots flee France?

In 1685, Louis XIII’s son, Louis XIV, enacted the Edict of Fontainebleau, which revoked the Edict of Nantes and essentially made Protestantism in France illegal. The Huguenots were now seen as heretics and persecution against them was officially sanctioned – although this had been happening for many years, unofficially. The children of Protestant parents were removed and given to Catholic families, and many Protestants were forcibly baptised into the Catholic faith. Protestants were soon banned from entering professions such as medicine and the law – almost everything was done to force people to convert. All Protestant ministers were banished, but Protestants themselves were banned from leaving France, often under pain of death.

Thousands of Huguenots, however, did flee France, with the majority settling in the Dutch Republic, Prussia and England. Some French cities lost as many as half of their working populations, with many educated and skilled craftsmen, such as those working in the textile industry, among those who left.

Protestant European countries were outraged at France’s new religious policy and the brutality with which it had been enforced. This furthered the idea that France and Louis XIV must be opposed and a Grand Alliance was eventually established in 1686 by Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor, and from 1689 was supported by William III of the Dutch Republic. Although religious tolerance would increase over the years in France, it wasn’t until the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 that full religious freedom was achieved.

This content first appeared in the Christmas 2020 issue of BBC History Revealed

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Emma Slattery Williams is BBC History Revealed’s staff writer