History of the Huguenots
Huguenot was given to French Protestants who were influenced by Martin Luther's preaching
early in the 16th century, and who later established a reformed church following the
teachings of John Calvin. By the middle of the 16th century, there were about 2,000
congregations and perhaps 1.5 million believers. As the French Protestant church
grew it came into increasing conflict with the Roman Catholic Church and the monarchy.
The continuing effort to eliminate rather than tolerate these Protestants resulted
in a century of bitter persecution and fighting.
These French Protestants were inspired by the German monk Martin
Luther and then generally followed the teachings of John Calvin, a French theologian who
preached in Geneva from 1537 to 1564. The
Reformed Church was established in France by the mid-1530s.
The new religion rejected the excesses and doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church
and the French monarchy.
John Calvin (1509-1564)
theologians such as Calvin taught that a universal priesthood of believers could find
salvation, not through the interventions of a church, but through individual faith alone. The Bible was translated for the first time into
the vernacular languages and the new faith was based on the study and individual
interpretation of the Bible.
the 1530s to 1560, the French Reformed Church experienced rapid growth, particularly among
the nobility. By the 1560s, the Huguenots had
their own churches, schools, garrisoned towns, manned castles and fortifications. But as the Protestant Church grew, conflict with
the Roman Catholic Church and the Crown intensified. As
early as the 1530s, the first religious refugees began to leave France.
In 1561 Catherine de Medici, as
Regent to her minor son Charles IX, granted certain privileges to the Protestants, but the
peace was short-lived. In March of the
following year a group led by François, Duc de Guise, a staunch Catholic, attacked a
congregation of unarmed Huguenots who were worshipping in a barn at Vassy, killing over
one hundred people. This began the Wars of Religion, which tore France apart for
thirty-five years until relative peace was established following the Edict of Nantes in
Saumur, in Maine-et-Loire.
A Protestant stronghold, it was the site of a Protestant Academy founded in 1599.
Massacre at Vassy, 1562
Wars of Religion (1562-1598)
1570 Catherine de Medici declared the Peace of St. Germain, primarily to keep the
Protestants from taking Paris. By that time
Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of the French Navy and Governor of Picardy, had become a
leader and spokesman for the Protestant cause. In
August 1572, Prince Henri de Navarre, a Protestant, was to marry Marguerite de Valois,
sister of Charles IX, in Paris. The Roman
Catholic leaders, together with the Regent, thought that this was an opportunity to
assassinate Coligny and many of the Protestants who would be in Paris for the wedding.
During the night of August 23,
1572, those plans were carried out. The young
King Charles IX was there with his mother and brother Henri dAnjou (later Henri
III). After he had been pressed to agree to the plan he was reputed to have ordered
the death of all the Protestants of France, so
that none would remain to reproach him later.
Coligny was murdered and the frenzy spread through Paris and throughout the
provinces, resulting in the deaths of an estimated three thousand men, women, and children
in three days. This was the infamous St.
Bartholomews Day Massacre.
Gaspard de Coligny (1519-1572), first victim
of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre
St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, 24 August 1572
Following the death of Charles IX in 1574 and the murder of his
brother Henri III in 1589, Henri de Navarre was crowned King Henri IV. Although Henri IV had converted to Catholicism for
political reasons, he established basic rights for the Protestants.
or place of worship, Lyon
Promulgation of the Edict of Nantes, 1598
When Henri IV
was assassinated in 1610, the Protestants lost much of their protection. The rise of the absolute monarchy began with his
son and successor, Louis XIII, who regarded the Protestants as a threat to the monarchy. His regent, Cardinal Richelieu, was obsessed with
eliminating all Huguenot communities in France. Protestant
freedoms were restricted and, in 1622 the Crown began the first of three Huguenot Wars
that ended in 1627 with the siege and fall of La Rochelle and an uneasy peace.
The fortified city of La Rochelle, one of several Protestant strongholds.
A "Booted Missionary" witnessing a Protestant abjuration
Louis XIV, who had ascended the throne as a young boy in 1643,
believed that there should be one king, one law and one religion for France. By 1665, Huguenot churches and schools began to be
abolished and more restrictions were gradually imposed.
Huguenot men and women were imprisoned and their children kidnapped or
forcibly removed and sent to orphanages and convents to be raised in the Roman Catholic
faith. The families of these children were
billed for their room and board.
Between 1681 and 1686 royal troops were forcibly quartered with
Huguenot families in several provinces in order to compel them to renounce their faith;
these dragonnades were carried out
in several provinces where Protestants were numerous.
The Huguenots were expected to pay the soldiers board and the booted
missionaries punished those who resisted. Those
who did not agree to become Roman Catholics and who could not flee the country were often
imprisoned, tortured or put to death.
By 1685, Louis
XIV believed that years of intimidation and persecution had largely done away with the
Huguenots, and the Edict of Nantes was revoked. The
Revocation led to the destruction of the last Protestant churches in France and forbade
any assembly of non-Catholics. Protestant
ministers were given fifteen days to leave France or face execution. The property of those who had already fled was
forfeited to the Crown. Protestant men and
women caught attempting to leave France were condemned to galleys or imprisoned.
The remnants of the Protestant
church in France went underground, holding secret worship and becoming known as the Church
of the Desert, or le Désert. They worshipped in
private homes, in deep woods and in caves wherever they could gather together. Those who were caught attending these secret
worship services were relentlessly punished; men were sent to the galleys and women to
convents where they were forcibly converted.
Persecution of Huguenots 1598
Secret Assembly, 1685
Prior to the
Revocation, there were about eight hundred thousand Huguenots in France. In the face of horrible persecution, approximately
five hundred and fifty thousand of them recanted their faith. During the next twenty years, it is estimated that
about a quarter of a million Huguenots left France. Many
fled to friendly neighboring countries such as Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and
parts of Belgium. Others escaped to England
and Ireland from where they embarked for the West Indies and British North America,
especially to the Carolinas, Virginia, New York and New England. Some eventually migrated as far as South Africa.
The Huguenot refugees who left France were generally
merchants, artisans, craftsmen, weavers or were skilled in specific trades. Many were well-educated, and some were able to
establish new roles as entrepreneurs or professionals where they settled. They were generally well-received where they
located, and became industrious members of their new communities. Some of these immigrants and their descendents
played significant roles in the history of their newly adopted countries.
The Huguenot Society of South Carolina was founded in 1885 by their
descendants in order to honor and perpetuate the memory of these French Protestant men,
women and children.
Charles W., D.D., History of the Huguenot
Emigration to America; 2 vols.,
1885. Reprint (2 vols. in 1), Baltimore: Regional Publishing Co., 1966. Reissued
Baltimore, Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1991. Still
a valuable resource.
Jon, The Huguenots in America, A Refugee People
in New World Society; Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1983.
Noel, and Royston Gambier, Huguenot Ancestry; Phillimore, 1985.
Robin D., Huguenot Heritage, The History and
Contributions of the Huguenots in Britain; 2nd Revised Edition with enlarged
plate section, Brighton, Sussex Academic Press, 2001.
Robin D., The Huguenots of London; United
Kingdom, Sussex Academic Press, 1998.
of London and the Huguenot Society of London, The
Quiet Conquest: The Huguenots, 1685-1985; London, Museum of London, 1985. A coffee table book with many wonderful
Ruymbeke, Bertrand, and Sparks, Randy J., editors, Memory
and Identity: The Huguenots in France and the Atlantic Diaspora; Columbia, South
Carolina, University of South Carolina Press, 2003.
Ruymbeke, Bertrand, From New Babylon to Eden: The
Huguenots and Their Migration to Colonial South Carolina; Columbia, SC, University of South
Carolina Press, 2006.
These books are all available for
research at the Huguenot Society Library, 138 Logan Street, Charleston. We also have a number of books on Huguenot
settlements in America, on local history and Huguenot subjects for sale in our offices on Logan
Street. The Charleston County Public Library
also has most of the books listed here, as well as an extensive collection of South
Carolina reference books.
Copyright 1999-2009 Huguenot Society of