When Martin Luther posted his Ninety-Five Theses in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, the shockwaves reverberated through all of Europe.
Luther outlined multiple grievances with the Roman Catholic Church of the time, and this moment is widely hailed as the spark that began the blaze that was the Protestant Reformation.
The fires of reformation raced across the continent. In France, tensions escalated quickly, with prominent figures aligning against one another with the Reformation or the Church. Those who supported Protestant beliefs and practices came to be known as the Huguenots. The resulting culture war was brutal and often bloody.
So, who were the Huguenots, what did they believe, and what happened to them?
What Was a Huguenot?
By the middle of the 16th century, Calvin estimated that there were about three hundred thousand French people who followed Reformed practices. Members hailed from all classes, including prominent families like the royal houses of Navarre, Valois, and Condé.
However, opposition to these reformers arose quickly, with the first Huguenot to be martyred for the cause burned at the stake in 1523. Many Huguenots fled the country, but tensions continued to escalate. Despite this, the movement grew, and the first French Reformed synod was held in 1559. By the 1561 synod, 2,150 churches were represented.
With such high numbers in what was still majority-Catholic France, the stage was primed for powerful forces such as Queen Regent Catherine de Medici to take notice — and disapprove.
What Were the French Wars of Religion?
Though Catherine de Medici disapproved of the Huguenots, she showed a measure of tolerance, which angered the powerful Roman Catholic Guise family. The Duke of Guise ordered a massacre of Huguenot worshippers in 1562 at the Massacre of Wassy (or Vassy), kicking off an uprising in the provinces and inconclusive skirmishing. Compromises were made and broken.
In August 1572, a large number of Huguenots came to Paris for the significant wedding of Henry of Navarre to Marguerite de Valois, sister of King Charles IX. On August 21, an unsuccessful assassination attempt was made on Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny.
After a council meeting between Catherine de Medici, King Charles IX, Henry d’Anjou, and the Guises on the night of August 24, soldiers fell upon the Huguenots in Paris, killing Coligny and other Huguenot leaders. The killing spread throughout France, with thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, massacred.
A Huguenot political party formed in 1573, fighting for religious liberty. Tentative peace was found in 1598 with the Edict of Nantes. Though the edict protected the Huguenots, it established Catholicism as the state religion and required Protestants to pay tithes to the Catholic church, follow Catholic rules of marriage, and respect Catholic holidays.
Civil war erupted again in the 1620s under King Louis XIII. The Huguenot forces were defeated and disbanded as a political entity, but the 1629 Peace of Alais granted them the freedom of conscience and confirmed the rights under the Edict of Nantes.
The Huguenots were not innocent in these conflicts. From a 1560 plot to kidnap the boy king Francis II to powerful figures using religious divisions to fight out their wars, conflicts often fell along political party lines.
This is not to say that the Huguenots were not truly dedicated to Protestantism; however, religion, conquest, power, and politics were perpetually intertwined in medieval and Renaissance Europe.
What Happened to the Huguenots?
Though all-out civil war no longer reigned, the Huguenots were regularly persecuted and harassed for decades. In 1685, King Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes. Over four hundred thousand French Protestants fled the country over the next several years, many of them to American colonies where religious freedom was strived for.
This move ultimately hurt the French nation economically, as skilled workers and professionals trickled out to the Netherlands, England, Prussia, and America, boosting their industrial revolutions and hurting France’s progress. Furthermore, the act strained France’s relationship with the surrounding Protestant countries.
In 1787, the Edict of Versailles, also known as the Edict of Tolerance, restored some civil rights to French Protestants. In 1789, the French Revolution destroyed all barriers entirely, and the National Assembly affirmed the liberty of religion and allowed Protestants to hold any and all public offices and professions once more.
After more than two hundred and fifty years, the Huguenots were free from persecution, signifying religious freedom.
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Alyssa Roat studied writing, theology, and the Bible at Taylor University. She is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E., the publicity manager at Mountain Brook Ink, and a freelance editor with Sherpa Editing Services. She is the co-author of Dear Hero and has 200+ bylines in publications ranging from The Christian Communicator to Keys for Kids. Find out more about her here and on social media @alyssawrote.