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Huguenots

Between 1500 and 1790, being a Huguenot living in France was very dangerous. If you were a Huguenot, you could expect violence, a forced conversion, or even death during one of the many massacres or wars fought between Catholics and Protestants during this time. Historians Raymond A. Mentzer and Bertrand Van Ruymbeke argue,

Their history has become synonymous with repression and carnage, intolerance and discrimination.1

But why were the Huguenots treated like this, who were they, and how did they emerge from Catholic France? What is the Huguenot origin? And who were some famous Huguenots? Find out more in this article.

Huguenots Meaning

The Huguenots were a group of Protestant reformers in France who suffered severe persecution for their religious beliefs between 1500 and 1700. They challenged the authority of both the Catholic Church and the French monarchy.

Most Huguenots lived in the South and West of France. This map shows the distribution of Huguenots across France: the deep purple indicates Huguenot regions, grey indicates Catholic regions, and the light purple indicates contested regions.

Many Huguenots migrated to other countries to escape the violence against them in France. They called themselves 'Reformed', but their Catholic opponents named them 'Huguenots', and this was the name that stuck in popular use.

The two types of Huguenots

There were two different groups of Huguenots - those who were Huguenots for religious reasons and those who were Huguenots for political reasons. The two groups sometimes did not see eye to eye, especially when the political Huguenots got frustrated with some of the more extreme religious beliefs expressed by religious Huguenots.

  1. Religious Huguenots: The works of Protestant reformer John Calvin influenced the majority of Huguenots.
  2. Political Huguenots: Some Huguenots, especially the nobles and upper classes, were more concerned with challenging the crown's authority. In particular, they opposed the crown granting the Guise family a monopoly of power over French politics.

Who was John Calvin?

John Calvin (1509-1564) was a French theologian and pastor. He developed a branch of Christianity known as Calvinism during the Protestant Reformation.

Huguenots Painting of John Calvin StudySmarterFig. 2 - Painting of John Calvin, French Protestant Reformer.

Calvinist teachings included:

  1. The Authority of the Bible: the belief that the Bible was the only way humans could come to know God.
  2. Interpretation of Eucharist: the belief that Christ was not physically present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
  3. Substitutionary Atonement: the belief that Jesus died on the cross in place of humanity to save people from their sins so they could go to heaven.
  4. Total Depravity: the belief that humans were inherently evil by nature and, therefore, were justly condemned to hell by God.
  5. Justification by faith: the belief that the only way for humans to be saved from hell was to have faith in Jesus.
  6. Predestination: the belief that God chose some people to be saved from hell and chose others to suffer eternal damnation in hell.

Eucharist

A Christian religious ritual involving bread and wine that is modelled on the story of Jesus' last meal with his followers. Traditional Christian doctrine held Jesus to be physically present in the bread and wine that had been prayed over. However, some reformers, such as Calvin, argued that the bread and wine stayed as regular bread and wine even after the prayer.

Huguenot Origin

Several developments coincided around the early 16th century that contributed to the rise of the Huguenots. Let's examine the Huguenot origin story!

Language

The Huguenots developed due to the translation of the Bible into the French language during the early stages of the Protestant Reformation. In 1523, a French professor called Lefevre translated the New Testament into French. This meant that 'ordinary' people not educated in the scholarly languages of Greek and Latin could now access the Bible in their own language.

Rise of Protestant Reformers

The Huguenots were heavily influenced by the rise of new theologians who criticised the theology and practices of the established Catholic Church. In particular, the rise of Protestant theologians William Farel and John Calvin influenced the development of Protestantism in France.

The Corruptions in the Catholic Church

The Huguenots felt that the Catholic Church had been led astray from its true purpose and were angered at the many corruptions they felt existed within the Church.

Did you know? In cities such as Bourges and Montauban, Huguenots destroyed sacred relics of the Catholic Church and killed monks and nuns.

Political Reasons

Some nobles in France became Huguenots primarily to launch a challenge to the French monarchy. Individuals, such as Henry of Navarre and the House of Bourbon (a family with a claim to the French throne), allied themselves with the Huguenots and built up a sizeable militia.

Huguenots Timeline

This Huguenot timeline gives an outline of the history of the group in France.

DateEvent
1523Lefevre published the New Testament in French. He followed this up by publishing the whole Bible in French in 1530.
1534Affair of the Placards. Huguenots put up several anti-Catholic posters around Paris and other towns. This alienated King Francis I from protecting the Huguenots.
1559King Francis II and his wife, Mary Queen of Scots, rounded up Huguenots on a charge of heresy. This was the first brutal, systematic persecution of the Huguenots until Francis died and Mary returned to Scotland.
1561Edict of Orleans. Declared an end to the persecution of the Huguenots.
1562Edict of Saint-Germain formally recognised the Huguenots for the first time.
Massacre of Vassy. Many Huguenots were killed, which sparked the French Wars of Religion - a series of eight civil war fought between Catholics and Huguenots in France between 1562 and 1598.
Huguenots attacked and destroyed the tomb of an ancient church father, known as Irenaeus.
1567Michelade. Huguenots massacred Catholics in Nimes, sparking the second civil war in the French Wars of Religion.
1572St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Catholics killed thousands of Huguenots in Paris and the surrounding towns.
1598Henry Navarre, a prominent Huguenot noble, abandoned Protestantism and converted to Catholicism to become King Henry IV of France.
Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes, which reaffirmed that Catholicism was the official religion of France but granted Protestants religious freedoms and equality with Catholics as subjects of the crown.
1621 - 1629Huguenot rebellions. A series of three small rebellions in the south of France by Huguenots to protest against royal authority. Around this time, the Huguenot symbol, the Huguenot cross, began to be used more widely among famous Huguenots.
1643Louis XIV inherited the throne. He began to persecute Huguenots again, forcing them to convert to Catholicism.
1660sDespite official protection from the Edict of Nantes, life had become so difficult for Huguenots in France by this time that most had migrated to England, the USA, Australia, and other countries. Only 860,000 Huguenots remained in France by this time.
1685Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, revoking the Edict of Nantes and making Protestantism illegal in France. Many Huguenots fled to Britain, South Africa, Holland, Prussia, and the USA.
1787Louis XVI issued the Edict of Versailles, which gave Protestants in France civil rights again.
1789Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen - the founding document of the French Revolution also gave Protestants the same rights as Catholics in France.
1790The first government of the French Revolution encouraged Huguenots who had emigrated abroad to return to France and offered them French citizenship.

The Edict of Nantes

The Edict of Nantes can be seen as a turning point in the Huguenot timeline. It enabled them to live freely in France for the first time. However, Historian Geoffrey Treasure argues that the Edict of Nantes was not truly about religious toleration but merely about bringing peace to a war-torn country after a series of destructive civil wars:

The Edict reflected military stalemate and exhaustion. Toleration [...] could hardly be imagined.2

Famous Huguenots

This table highlights vital famous Huguenots who affected, contributed to, or led the group.

Diaspora

The regions in which people have settled after they had to flee from their homeland.

Huguenots King Henry IV of France StudySmarterFig. 3 - King Henry IV of France. Former to renouncing Protestantism to become king, Henry IV was a Huguenot nobleman known as Henry of Navarre

PersonYears AliveRole in the Huguenot movement
John Calvin 1509-1564French Protestant theologian who wrote the theology that became the basis of the Huguenot religious movement. Calvin can be attributed to the Huguenot origin story.
Jean Crespin1529-1572A printer who published the History of the Martyrs, which told the history of the reform movement and detailed all those who had died for their faith. This famous Huguenot gave the group a shared history and narrative.
Catherine de Medici1519-1589Led a French regency government until her son could become king. She tried to find reconciliation between Huguenots and Catholics, although her efforts failed. She then issued the Edict of Saint-Germain in 1562, which granted the Huguenots some rights.
Admiral Gaspard II of Coligny 1519-1572A famous Huguenot who was nearly assassinated. However, instead of the attack leading to sanctions on the Catholics, it led to more repression of the Huguenots since King Charles IX was persuaded that the Huguenots were a threat to him. The king then ordered the assassination of several prominent Huguenots, starting with Admiral Gaspard.
King Charles IX1550-1574Catholic king who ordered the assassinations of several Huguenot nobles. The killing got out of hand and led to a massacre of Huguenots, which became known as the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. It is estimated that 10,000 lost their lives in four days.
Henry of Navarre/King Henry IV1553-1610A famous Huguenot noble. He became the successor to Henry III and thus became Henry IV of France. During his reign, in 1598, he issued the Edict of Nantes, which made it legal for a person to be a Huguenot in France.
Philippe de Mornay 1549-1623Huguenot leader and diplomat in the wake of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. He wrote several political tracts outlining Huguenot policies and fought against the Catholics in the French Religious Wars in the 1570s. His diplomatic skill helped end these wars.
Andre Trocme1901-1971A Huguenot in France during the Second World War. He urged Huguenots to hide Jewish refugees to protect them from the Holocaust.

Fun fact: George Washington, the first President of the United States, was a descendent of the Huguenots, as was Winston Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain during the Second World War.

Huguenots Symbol

The Huguenots symbol is known as the Huguenot cross.

Huguenots Huguenot Cross StudySmarterFig. 4 - Outline of the Huguenot cross

The Huguenot cross has several symbolic aspects:

  • The cross represents the death of Christ and the death of sin.
  • The eight points of the cross represent the eight Beatitudes.
  • The four fleurs-de-lys represent the French origins of the Huguenots.
  • The twelve petals of the three fleurs-de-lys represent the twelve apostles.
  • The dove represents the Holy Spirit. Sometimes the dove is replaced with a tear to represent persecution.

Beatitudes

A collection of sayings starting with the word 'Blessed' that Jesus gave during his famous Sermon on the Mount.

Huguenots - Key takeaways

  • The Huguenots were religious Protestant reformers who lived in France between 1500 and 1790. Many of them migrated elsewhere to escape religious persecution.
  • The Huguenots followed the teachings of John Calvin. However, some of them were Huguenots for political reasons.
  • Throughout most of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, Huguenots were severely persecuted in France. One particularly awful episode happened in 1572 and became known as the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. It was only in 1787 that it became legal for Huguenots to live in France again.
  • One Huguenot nobleman renounced his Protestant faith and became King Henry IV. He introduced toleration for Protestants in France during his reign.
  • The Huguenot symbol is the Huguenot cross.

References

  1. Raymond A.Mentzer and Bertrand Van Ruymbeke, 'Introduction' in A Companion to the Huguenots, eds. Raymond A.Mentzer and Bertrand Van Ruymbeke, (2016), p.1.
  2. Geoffrey Treasure, The Huguenots, (2013), pp. 3-4.

Frequently Asked Questions about Huguenots

The Huguenots were a group of Protestant reformers in France who suffered severe persecution for their religious beliefs between 1500 and 1800. They challenged the Catholic Church in France and the French monarchy. Many of them emigrated to flee the violence against them in France. 

Originally, a Huguenot was a Protestant reformer living in France, who believed in Calvinist doctrine and who challenged the authority of the Catholic Church and the French monarchy. However, since many Huguenots fled abroad to escape religious persecution in France, Huguenots ended up in many countries across the world. 

One of the most famous Huguenots was Henry of Navarre, who became Henry IV of France. He issued the Edict of Nantes, which made it legal for somebody to be a Protestant in France. In addition, two famous politicians who were descended from Huguenots were George Washington and Winston Churchill. 

Most Huguenots either migrated abroad to escape persecution in France, converted to Catholicism or died at the hands of the Catholic persecution against them. The migrations abroad created a Huguenot diaspora.

Approximately half a million Huguenots emigrated from France between 1555 and 1700. Most of these migrations occurred between 1650 and 1700, when persecution was particularly bad under Louis XIV. 

Final Huguenots Quiz

Question

Who were the Huguenots? 

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Answer

The Huguenots were a group of Protestant reformers in France who suffered severe persecution for their religious beliefs between 1500 and 1700. 

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Which parts of France did the Huguenots live in? 

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Answer

South and west.

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What name did the Huguenots call themselves? 

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Answer

Reformed.

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What were the two types of Huguenots? 

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Answer

Religious Huguenots and Political Huguenots.

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Question

Who was John Calvin? 

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Answer

A French theologian and pastor who developed a branch of Christianity known as Calvinism during the Protestant Reformation.

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Question

What is the Calvinist doctrine of Total Depravity? 

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Answer

The belief that humans were inherently evil by nature and therefore humans were justly condemned to hell by God. 

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What was the Calvinist doctrine of predestination? 

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Answer

The belief that God chose some people to be saved from hell and chose others to suffer eternal damnation in hell. 

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Question

Who translated the New Testament into French in 1523? 

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Answer

A Professor called Lefevre.

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In which cities did Huguenots kill monks and nuns and destroy sacred relics? 

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Bourges and Mountauban. 

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Why did Henry of Navarre and the House of Bourbon ally themselves to the Huguenots? 

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Answer

To launch a challenge to the French monarchy. 

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Who ordered the first systematic persecution of Huguenots in France? 

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Answer

King Francis II and Mary Queen of Scots.

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What were the French Wars of Religion? 

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A series of eight civil wars fought between Catholics and Huguenots in France between 1562 and 1598.

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What was Michelade? 

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A Huguenot massacre of Catholics in Nimes.

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What did Henry of Navarre do in order to become Henry IV of France? 

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He abandoned Protestantism and embraced the Catholic faith.

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When was the Edict of Nantes created? 

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Answer

1598.

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What important event happened in 1572? 

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The St Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in which thousands of Huguenots were killed. 

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Which edict made Protestantism illegal in France once more? 

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Answer

The Edict of Fontainbleau, 1685.

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Which king made Protestantism legal in the eighteenth century? 

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King Louis XVI.

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Who was Philip de Mornay? 

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A Huguenot leader and diplomat in the wake of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. He helped end the French Wars of Religion. 

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What is the Huguenot symbol? 

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Answer

The Huguenot cross.

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