Who Were the Huguenots?

History of the Calvinist Reformation in France

Huguenot Families Fleeing, 1661
Huguenot Families Fleeing, 1661. DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI / Getty Images

The Huguenots were French Calvinists, active mostly in the sixteenth century. They were persecuted by Catholic France, and about 300,000 Huguenots fled France for England, Holland, Switzerland, Prussia, and the Dutch and English colonies in the Americas.

The battle between Huguenots and Catholics in France also reflected fights between noble houses.

In America, the term Huguenot was also applied to French-speaking Protestants, especially Calvinists, from other countries, including Switzerland and Belgium. Many Walloons (an ethnic group from Belgium and part of France) were Calvinists.

The source of the name “Huguenot” is not known.

Huguenots in France

In France, state and crown in the 16th century were aligned with the Roman Catholic Church. There was little influence of Luther’s reformation, but the ideas of John Calvin reached into France and brought the Reformation into that country. No province and few towns became explicitly Protestant, but the ideas of Calvin, the new translations of the Bible, and organization of congregations spread fairly quickly. Calvin estimated that by the middle of the 16th century, 300,000 French people had become followers of his Reformed religion. Calvinists in France were, the Catholics believed, organizing to take power in an armed revolution.

The Duke of Guise and his brother, Cardinal of Lorraine, were particularly hated, and not just by the Huguenots. Both were known for keeping power by any means including assassination.

Catherine of Medici, an Italian-born French queen consort who became Regent for her son Charles IX when her first son died young, opposed the rise of Reformed religion.

Massacre of Wassy

On March 1, 1562, French troops massacred Huguenots at worship and other Huguenot citizens in Wassy, France, in what is known as the Massacre of Wassy (or Vassy). Francis, Duke of Guise, ordered the massacre, reportedly after he’d stopped in Wassy to attend a Mass and found a group of Huguenots worshipping in a barn. The troops killed 63 Huguenots, who were all unarmed and unable to defend themselves. Over a hundred Huguenots were injured. This led to the outbreak of the first of several civil wars in France known as the French Wars of Religion, which lasted more than a hundred years.

Jeanne and Antoine of Navarre

Jeanne d'Albret (Jeanne of Navarre) was one of the leaders of the Huguenot party. Daughter of Marguerite of Navarre, she was also well-educated. She was a cousin of the French king Henry III, and had been married first to the Duke of Cleves, then, when that marriage was annulled, to Antoine de Bourbon. Antoine was in the line of succession if the ruling House of Valois did not produce heirs to the French throne. Jeanne became ruler of Navarre when her father died in 1555, and Antoine the ruler consort. On Christmas in 1560, Jeanne announced her conversion to Calvinist Protestantism.

Jeanne of Navarre, after the massacre of Wassy, became more fervently a Protestant, and she and Antoine fought over whether their son would be raised as a Catholic or Protestant. When he threatened divorce, Antoine had their son sent to Catherine de Medici’s court.

In Vendome, Huguenots were rioting and attacked the local Roman church and Bourbon tombs. Pope Clement, an Avignon Pope in the 14th century, had been buried at an abbey at La Chaise-Dieu. During fighting in 1562 between Huguenots and Catholics, some Huguenots dug up his remains and burned them.

Antoine of Navarre (Antoine de Bourbon) was fighting for the crown and on the Catholic side at Rouen when he was killed at Rouen, where a siege lasted from May to October of 1562. Another battle at Dreux led to the capture of a leader of the Huguenots, Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé.

On March 19, 1563, a peace treaty, the Peace of Amboise, was signed.

In Navarre, Jeanne tried to institute religious tolerance, but she found herself opposing the Guise family more and more. Philip of Spain tried to arrange a kidnapping of Jeanne. Jeanne responded by expanding more religious liberty for Huguenots. She brought her son back to Navarre and gave him a Protestant and military education.

Peace of St. Germain

Fighting in Navarre and in France continued. Jeanne aligned more and more with Huguenots, and undercut the Roman church in favor of the Protestant faith. A 1571 peace treaty between Catholics and Huguenots led, in March, 1572, to a marriage between Marguerite Valois, daughter of Catherine de Medici and a Valois heir, and Henry of Navarre, the son of Jeanne of Navarre. Jeanne demanded concessions for the wedding, respecting his Protestant allegiance. She died in June 1572, before the marriage could take place.

Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

Charles IX was King of France at the marriage of his sister, Marguerite, to Henry of Navarre. Catherine de Medici remained a powerful influence. The wedding took place on August 18. Many Huguenots came to Paris for this significant wedding.

On August 21, there was an unsuccessful assassination attempt on Gaspard de Coligny, a Huguenot leader. During the night between August 23 and 24, on orders of Charles IX, the military of France killed Coligny and other Huguenot leaders. The killing spread through Paris and from there to other cities and the country. From 10,000 to 70,000 Huguenots were slaughtered (estimates vary widely).

This killing weakened the Huguenot party considerably, as most of their leadership had been killed. Of the remaining Huguenots, many re-converted to the Roman faith. Many others became hardened in their resistance to Catholicism, convinced that it was a dangerous faith.

While some Catholics were horrified at the massacre, many Catholics believed that the killings were to prevent the Huguenots from seizing power. In Rome, there were celebrations of the defeat of the Huguenots, Philip II of Spain was said to have laughed when he heard, and the Emperor Maximilian II was said to be horrified. Diplomats from Protestant countries fled Paris, including Elizabeth I of England’s ambassador.

Henry, Duke of Anjou, was the king’s younger brother, and he was key in the carrying out of the massacre plan. His role in the killings led Catherine of Medici to step back from her initial condemnation of the crime, and also led her to deprive him of power.

Henry III and IV

Henry of Anjou succeeded his brother as king, becoming Henry III, in 1574. Fights between Catholic and Protestants, including among the French aristocracy, marked his reign. The “War of the Three Henries” pitted Henry III, Henry of Navarre, and Henry of Guise into armed conflict. Henry of Guise wanted to completely suppress the Huguenots. Henry III was for limited toleration. Henry of Navarre represented the Huguenots.

Henry III had Henry I of Guise and his brother Louis, a cardinal, murdered in 1588, thinking this would strengthen his rule. Instead, it created more chaos. Henry III acknowledged Henry of Navarre as his successor. Then a Catholic fanatic, Jacques Clement, assassinated Henry III in 1589, believing he was too easy on the Protestants.

When Henry of Navarre, whose wedding had been marred by the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, succeeded his brother-in-law as King Henry IV in 1593, he converted to Catholicism. Some of the Catholic nobles, especially the House of Guise and the Catholic League, sought to exclude from the succession anyone who was not Catholic. Henry IV apparently believed that the only way to bring peace was to convert, supposedly saying, “Paris is well worth a Mass.”

Edict of Nantes

Henry IV, who had been a Protestant before becoming King of France, in 1598 issued the Edict of Nantes, granting limited toleration to Protestantism within France. The Edict contained many detailed provisions. One, for instance, protected French Huguenots from the Inquisition when they were traveling in other countries. While protecting Huguenots, it established Catholicism as the state religion, and required Protestants to pay tithes to the Catholic church, and required them to follow Catholic rules of marriage and to respect Catholic holidays.

When Henry IV was assassinated, Marie de Medici, his second wife, confirmed the edict within a week, making a Catholic massacre of Protestants less likely, and also reducing the chance of Huguenot rebellion.

Edict of Fontainebleau

In 1685, the grandson of Henry IV, Louis XIV, revoked the Edict of Nantes. Protestants left France in large numbers, and France found itself on worse terms with Protestant nations around it.

Edict of Versailles

Also known as the Edict of Tolerance, this was signed by Louis XVI on November 7, 1787. It restored freedom to worship to Protestants, and reduced religious discrimination.

Two years later, the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen in 1789 would bring complete religious freedom.

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Who Were the Huguenots?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/who-were-the-huguenots-4154168. Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2020, August 27). Who Were the Huguenots? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/who-were-the-huguenots-4154168 Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Who Were the Huguenots?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/who-were-the-huguenots-4154168 (accessed June 6, 2023).