By E. Joyce Best




THE HUGUENOTS WERE FRENCH PROTESTANTS and their story is one of persecution which took place over a long period The first converts to Protestantism were mostly academics and nobility attracted to the theology of John Calvin, who tried to find a way of worship that was simple and nearer to the Scriptures, without embellishment. Calvin recognised the fact that the Church needed discipline, and if deprived of the rules of the past Church, must be given an alternative. The discipline he imposed gave his followers the coinage they needed in the early days of their Church. At first they were called Gospellers, but later assumed the tide of the Reformed Church of France.

At first the Huguenots were led by the Prince of Cond?and after his death at the Battle of Jarnac in 1569, by Gaspard de Coligny; but the ultimate leader was Henry of Navarre, a Bourbon prince, brought up in the predominantly Protestant South of France.

The Regent of France, Catherine de Medici, who wished for the support of the Huguenots in her struggle with the Guise family, influenced Henry and for reasons of State he married her daughter, Marguerite de Valois, sister of King Charles IX, in Paris in 1572.

A large assembly of Huguenot nobility had gathered for the festivities but the celebration turned to violence after the attempted assassination of Gaspard de Coligny. Two days later this was accomplished and signalled an orgy of killing and pillage, and shocked the Protestant Countries of Europe.

Henry of Navarre was sent for by the King and imprisoned, where he lived in constant fear of assassination, despite having promised to become a Catholic. Two years later Charles IX died and on the succession of his brother Henry Ill, Henry of Navarre was released from close confinement. Although he was still guarded at the fourth attempt he succeeded in escaping, and fled to the far side of the River Loire, to the Chateau of Samur. From there he began to rally the scattered Huguenots. 

Henry IVAfter the death of Henry III's younger brother, the Duke of Alen?/font>on1,Henry of Navarre became heir to the throne. In 1589 Henry III was assassinated and although Henry of Navarre was legally King, few Frenchmen would accept him, so, on the twentieth of February 1594, Henry perhaps cynically, decided to accept the Catholic faith. As a Catholic and anointed King, he became acceptable to the French people, and entered Paris without opposition. Although there seems to be no proof that he ever said, "Paris is worth a Mass", it seems probable.

In 1598 he proclaimed the Edict of Nantes, which gave certain freedoms to the Huguenots. It promised freedom of conscience, legalised the publication of Protestant literature to a limited degree and gave civil and political rights. Henry hoped to help the Huguenots, but it was a settlement of convenience, an effort to encourage compromise and toleration, neither of which were much practised in the seventeenth century. Though Henry said, "We are all French and citizens of one country", he was exceptional. He was assassinated in 1610, when his son Louis XIII was nine years old.2

By 1624 Cardinal Richelieu was appointed to the Council of State, and quickly made himself Master of France. He regarded Huguenots as enemies of the State, and attacked them in many ways. Many Petty edicts were issued, one being that no Protestant place of worship could be called a Church but must be known as a Temple.

In 1653 Oliver Cromwell became Protector of England and he took a personal interest in the Huguenots.3 It is thought he wished to become the leader of the European Protestants, and tried to influence them for political rather than religious reasons. He sent emissaries to visit France, one being a Swiss Pastor Jean Baptiste Stouppe.4 All the emissaries returned with the information that the Huguenots were loyal to Louis XIV and wanted no involvement in politics.

After the Restoration of the monarchy in England, Charles II, aware of the increasing persecution of the Huguenots, wrote to Louis XIV saying:-

"I conjure you in the name of the great Henry whose blood circulates in both our veins to respect the Protestants, whom he looked upon as his children. If, as is reported, you wish to compel them to renounce their religion under pain of banishment from you. Kingdom, I offer them all asylum in England."

In 1680 Dragoons were sent to Beam in the south of France where Protestantism was noticeably strong. Ostensibly, it was a move to protect the French border from a threatened invasion by the Spanish, but when this fear passed they were used instead for the suppression of the Huguenots. Dragoons were quartered in their homes and many cruelties
were perpetrated. Sometimes whole towns renounced Calvinism rather than be occupied by Dragoons.5

In 1685 Louis XIV decided that most of the Huguenots were now converted and the Edict of Nantes had become superfluous. He said:-

"We can do nothing better than to wipe our the memory of the trouble that the progress of this false religion has caused in our Kingdom, than to revoke the said Edict."

All Temples were destroyed, escape was forbidden on pain of death, imprisonment, or being sent to the galleys. Pastors were given fifteen days in which to leave the country. Those remaining faced the life of a fugitive. Rewards were offered for the capture of an escaping Huguenot and the threat of the galleys made to anyone helping one to escape. Much furtive help was given and thousands of Protestants escaped to other countries such as the Baltic States, Switzerland, England, Ireland, a few to Scotland, the West Indies, South Africa and the Eastern Seaboard of America. Many sailors sailed away from France, and many soldiers literally fought their way across the borders, but the most damaging exodus was made by the skilled workers, who often took the tools of their trade with them.

During the reign of Louis XV the Huguenots became a secret society, worshipping in secluded places such as caves, mountain sides, old quarries and isolated farm houses. Throughout this time the persecution and arrest of Huguenots continued.

At a time when morale was low help came from Lausanne, where pastor Antoine Court founded a seminary for the training of pastors to keep the Reformed Church alive, and enable their numbers to increase slowly. After the Revolution and during Napoleonic times freedom of religion was again restored, but very few refugees returned to France.