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The Long, Forgotten Reformation in France

A Brief History of the Huguenots

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ABSTRACT: The Reformation disrupted the religious status quo of early sixteenth-century Europe when multitudes embraced the teachings of Martin Luther (1483–1546) and John Calvin (1509–1564). Their followers were respectively called Lutherans and the Reformed, the latter known also as Calvinists and Huguenots. The time seemed opportune for religious change. The kings of France had sought to weaken the control of the Roman Church; the nobility was disgruntled over the privileges enjoyed by the clergy and nourished a hidden hostility that needed only a spark to explode. Among the clergy were eminent prelates who desired reform and priests wearied by the hierarchy’s heavy yoke. Commoners still bearing the marks of feudalism saw little faith or virtue in the lives of the clergy. Yet no one foresaw the terrible combats and persecution that would soon rage with the arrival of reformation in France.

Most Christians know of the Protestant Reformation that shook the European continent in the sixteenth century. Indeed, the aftershocks reverberate into the present whenever Protestant churches gather for worship around the world. Fewer people understand that what is cast as the Reformation is better understood as reformations, a series of interrelated movements that occurred throughout Europe.

Those reformations that led to established Protestant churches (such as in Germany, Switzerland, and England) generally receive greater attention. But other reforming movements are also part of this story. Concurrent with the reforming efforts of Martin Luther in the German states, a challenge to the status quo of the Catholic Church began in France, eventually becoming one of the most protracted and bloody struggles between Protestants and Catholics in the era of the reformations.

Igniting the Fire

There were attempts in the early 1500s to reform the Catholic Church from within. One of the most notable efforts took place under Marguerite, a French princess and later queen of Navarre (1492–1549), through her marriage to Henry d’Albret of Navarre. Influenced by the Christian humanism of Erasmus, Marguerite supported reform efforts in her beloved Catholic Church. She was the sister of King Francis I (1494–1547), the mother of Huguenot leader Jeanne d’Albret (1528–1572), and the grandmother of Huguenot warrior Henry of Navarre (1553–1610), who converted to Catholicism in 1593 to become King Henry IV, the first Bourbon king of France.

Marguerite belonged to a group of Catholics influenced by the Renaissance who adopted Reformation teachings yet remained loyal to the Catholic Church. A group called the Circle of Meaux, for example, was committed to preaching the gospel of justification by faith alone and opposed the veneration of the saints and the sale of indulgences. In 1521, the humanist scholar Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples, one of the Circle’s members, translated the Gospels into French and distributed them throughout the countryside.

Marguerite established herself at Nérac, which became a refuge for those persecuted by the Catholic Church. Nicolas Cop, rector of the Sorbonne, was forced to flee Paris for Nérac in 1533 after his evangelical sermon on All Saints’ Day. John Calvin, who may have helped to prepare Cop’s sermon, fled with him and found refuge at Nérac with Lefèvre and others. Under their influence, the surrounding cities of Sainte-Foy-la Grande, Bergerac, Agen, Clairac, and finally La Rochelle were soon won over to the Reformed faith.1

Francis I continued his protection of Marguerite and the Circle of Meaux until the event known as the Affair of the Placards in October 1534. Posters denouncing the Catholic Mass were displayed publicly in several cities, and even on the door of Francis’s bedchamber. After this event, Francis consented to brutal measures to suppress the “heretics.”2 Around the mid-sixteenth century, those who followed the teachings of Calvin became known as Huguenots.

Who Were the Huguenots?

The origin and etymology of the designation Huguenot remains obscure and disputed by historians. According to Brachet, who provides seven suggestions, “It is not known whether [Huguenot] originated in central France or was imported from the Genevan frontier. No word has had more said and written about it.”3 The present consensus sees its origin in the Swiss-German word Eidgenossen, meaning the confederates, with a possible reference to a Genevan rebellion against the Duke of Savoy. The term was initially applied to Reformed believers in derision, and over time it entered into the vernacular. Those called Huguenots preferred the term Reformed (Réformés), and by the time of the French Revolution, they were commonly called French Protestants or Calvinists.

More important than the origin of the term, the Huguenots were confronted by the dilemma of reconciling two duties of obedience: their duty to the king of France as subjects and their duty to God as Christians. For direction on how to reconcile these duties, French Reformed believers routinely turned to Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published in Latin in 1536 with a dedication to King Francis I, and then published in French in 1541.4 In his chapter on civil government, Calvin treats at some length the duty of submission and obedience to governing authorities. He nuances his exhortations in reference to Acts 5:29, stating that obedience to governing authorities requires an exception so that “such obedience does not deter us from obedience to [God].”5

Between 1552 and 1554, Calvin went further in his Commentary on Acts of the Apostles, declaring that a king, prince, or magistrate who acts in a way that diminishes the glory of God becomes nothing more than an ordinary man and that “we do not violate the authority of the king when our religion obligates us to resist tyrannical edicts that forbid us to render to Christ and God the honor and worship of which they are worthy.”6 The 1559 definitive edition of the Institutes in Latin integrated the idea that an impious prince abolishes his power. Calvin’s disciple and successor, Theodore Beza, took a similar approach when he invoked the duties of lesser magistrates to resist princes acting against the purity of religion.

Before the early 1560s, the periodic repression Protestants experienced was moderate compared to the ferocious persecution of Reformed believers in England and the persecution of Lutherans in Germany. When the Wars of Religion broke out in 1562, French Protestants were able to ground their conception of obedience in a body of teaching that nevertheless contained some ambiguity. What was clear was the obligation to obey those in authority as long as they did not command disobedience to God.7

Failed Conspiracy

In 1559, the Huguenots established a confession of faith at their first national synod in Paris. In his Histoire Ecclésiastique, Beza reported the existence of 2,150 Reformed churches in the early 1560s, a number both disputed and repeated by many historians. Even if the number of churches was inflated to impress the Crown and gain official recognition, the number of Reformed believers reached its peak around this time, only to decline in the following decades through war, reconversion to Catholicism, and emigration.8

The Huguenots’ hope for an edict to obtain legal existence in the kingdom was dashed at the accidental death of King Henry II (1519–1559) during a jousting tournament. His son Francis II (1544–1560) succeeded him at the age of fifteen for a brief reign and came under the influence of members of the House of Guise, archenemies of Reformed believers. The Guise faction took control of the government and pushed Francis to refuse any compromise with his Reformed subjects. In effect, these initiatives provided the Huguenots with a political cause to exploit. Although the repression came from the king or his entourage, the Huguenots held his evil counselors responsible for the actions, and they considered the king a prisoner.

Seeing the king as a prisoner led to the failed Conspiracy of Amboise, led by Huguenot nobles, to kidnap King Francis II in March 1560. The ringleader of the conspiracy, Jean du Barry, was killed in the Château-Renault forest four days after the abortive attempt to remove the king from under the influence of the House of Guise. Barry’s body was taken to Amboise, hung on the gallows, cut into five pieces, and exhibited at the gates of the city. His co-conspirators were hunted down and massacred without due process, their bodies hung from the windows of the château.

Catherine de Médicis (1519–1589), widow of the defunct Henry II and now Queen Regent, was shocked by the savagery of the reprisals against the conspirators and realized that the unity of the kingdom was threatened.

Church and State at War

Beginning in 1560 with the reign of Charles IX (1550–1574), and under the influence of Catherine de Médicis, the monarchy led attempts toward confessional conciliation. Catherine wanted a moderate in government as an advocate for reconciliation and suggested that the king appoint Michel de L’Hospital, a former member of the Parlement of Paris. He became chancellor of France on May 6, 1560, and remained in this position until September 27, 1568, during the first (1562–1563) and second (1567–1568) wars of religion.9 Although L’Hospital never converted to the Reformed religion, he worked tirelessly for peace between competing confessions, preferring persuasion to constraint, and he advanced the concept of the separation of the state and religion to free the nation from unending religious conflicts.10

At the Estates-General11 in 1560, the chancellor affirmed his desire to relegate the terms Huguenots, papists, and Lutherans to the past and conserve only the name Christian. The Colloquy of Poissy in 1561, organized by Catherine de Médicis, presented the last opportunity for Catholics and Reformed believers to achieve mutual religious tolerance and national unity. Beza was present as Calvin’s representative, along with Reformed lay leaders. The outcome of the colloquy, however, demonstrated the incompatibility of the two faiths, particularly on the issue of the Eucharist.12

In 1562, L’Hospital prepared the Edict of January, which authorized Reformed worship for the first time under certain conditions.13 The edict offered a ray of hope to the brewing religious tension in France but was rejected by the Catholic Church because it contradicted the Council of Trent, which had anathematized so-called Protestant heresies.

Then, after the massacre of Huguenots gathered for worship in Vassy on March 1, 1562, war became inevitable. Louis de Bourbon raised an army and captured the cities of Orleans and Rouen, marking the beginning of the Wars of Religion. The massacre of Huguenots at Toulouse in May and the destruction of churches in Vendôme and Meaux further aggravated religious tensions. Once the Edict of Amboise on March 18, 1563, ended the first war of religion, the nation experienced a brief period of calm, and religious detainees were released. The edict tolerated freedom of conscience but did not grant freedom of religious worship.14

After the first war of religion, Catherine organized a vast expedition throughout France to save the kingdom from civil war. Catherine’s designs did not materialize. In 1567, after several years of simmering tensions, Bourbon again provided leadership for the military operations of Huguenot forces. In November, the Battle of Saint-Denis ended with a Huguenot defeat as well as the death of the commander of the royal army. The Peace of Longjumeau in March 1568 confirmed the Edict of Amboise, with some additional concessions made to Huguenot nobles to freely worship in their private dwellings.15 It too failed to secure a lasting peace, however, as another war broke out just a few months later in September.

Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

The third war of religion (1568–1570) ended with the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye. The treaty was negotiated by Catherine de Médicis and Jeanne d’Albret, who arranged a marriage between Catherine’s daughter Marguerite de Valois and Jeanne’s Protestant son Henry of Navarre. The marriage took place with great pomp on August 18, 1572.

Just four days later, however, on August 22, an attempt was made on the life of the Huguenot leader and military commander Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. Two days after that, while Coligny was convalescing, assassins murdered him and threw his lifeless body out a window. Thus began the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which radically modified the relations between the Huguenots and the king. With the suspected complicity of Charles IX and his mother Catherine, thousands of his Reformed subjects were murdered in Paris and the provinces during the three days of the massacre. The Catholic populations of many cities joined in the butchery “to extirpate the entire Protestant movement, root and branch.”16 Henry of Navarre was spared upon his promise to convert to Catholicism.

With the king’s determination to persecute the Huguenots, the former argument of manipulation by counselors was no longer valid. From now on, the king was seen as a tyrant who persecuted his subjects for their religion. The Huguenots therefore took up arms in active resistance against the sovereign himself. The Edict of Beaulieu in May 1576 under King Henry III ended the fifth war of religion and granted Huguenots the right to public worship. This resulted in the formation of the Catholic League in defense of the Catholic cause, led by Henry, Duke of Guise. When Francis, Duke of Anjou, died in 1584 during the reign of his brother Henry III, Henry of Navarre became the legitimate heir to the throne. The interests of the Huguenots turned to defending his right to the crown.17

Henry of Navarre had been raised in the Reformed faith after his mother’s public confession of faith on Christmas Day in 1560. Under his father’s influence, he converted to Catholicism in 1562, but then he returned to the Reformed confession after his father’s death that same year. Henry III outlawed the Reformed religion in July 1585, which invalidated Navarre’s succession to the crown.

During the years 1588 and 1589, Navarre multiplied military activity in Normandy and around Paris. He and Henry III drew closer after Henry’s rupture with the Catholic League and the assassination by the king’s bodyguard in 1588 of Henry of Guise, the leader of the Catholic League and lieutenant general of the king’s army. In turn, Henry III was assassinated at Saint-Cloud in August 1589 at the hands of a radical Dominican monk. Before his death, Henry III implored Navarre to convert to Catholicism and recognized him as his successor.18

Henry’s Compromise

Eventually, Henry of Navarre converted to Catholicism to end decades of bloodshed and exercise his claim to the throne. He was crowned Henry IV in 1594, and the Wars of Religion ended with the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The edict imposed religious coexistence, although Protestants did not obtain full religious freedom. The edict was more favorable to the Catholic Church, with Protestant worship authorized only in places where it existed in 1597. Royal texts until this time had referred to Protestantism as the new religion (nouvelle religion). In the preamble to the Edict of Nantes, they now belonged to the So-Called Reformed Religion (la religion prétendue réformée), with the king’s wish that these subjects would return to the true religion, now his own.19

Modern historians have generally lauded Henry IV for sacrificing his religious scruples and adopting the religion of the majority to end the interminable civil wars. One historian describes him as “cynical” who nonetheless “saved France from religious discord.”20

Henry IV survived multiple plots against his life before falling at the hand of a Catholic zealot on May 14, 1610. With his death, the Protestant cause lost its greatest protector, and his murder strengthened an absolute monarchy. The crime of lèse-majesté reinforced the will to elevate kings to a sacred and inviolable place, supporting the doctrine of divine right. The throne was placed so high that to disobey the king was tantamount to disobeying God. As a result, the slightest threat to kings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to ruthless repression.21

Desert Years

After Henry’s death in 1610, his son Louis XIII (1601–1643) undermined the Edict of Nantes. Throughout the seventeenth century, by bribes, forced conversions, and exile, the Huguenots were reduced in number and influence, and therefore also in their capacity to resist oppression. Louis XIV (1638–1715), Henry’s grandson, was led to believe that these efforts had reduced the number of Huguenots to the point where the Edict of Nantes was no longer needed. In reality, there were still around eight hundred thousand Protestants at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685.22

When the edict was revoked, the Protestant religion was outlawed, pastors were ordered to either abjure their faith or leave the kingdom within fifteen days, and emigration for laypeople was forbidden under the pain of death, life sentence on the king’s galleys, or imprisonment. Despite the prohibition against emigrating, tens of thousands fled and found refuge in Protestant nations.23 According to some estimates, “nearly 150,000 refugees were to flee France by land and sea over the course of a decade, finding shelter in neighboring Protestant states from Germany to England.”24 Those who remained were subject to strict observance of the Catholic religion, though there was resistance to the king’s edict in regions of the kingdom where Huguenots were concentrated.

Thus began a period known as the “Church of the Desert,” as believers met clandestinely in remote areas. Lacking pastoral leadership, some self-appointed prophets arose and called for armed resistance. During the War of the Camisards (1702–1705) in the Cévennes region of southern France, peasant warriors held out against overwhelming odds and fought valiantly until they could no longer resist. Hundreds of villages were burned to the ground. After the rebellion was crushed, Reformed believers experienced persecution in varying degrees throughout the eighteenth century. Many faced forced conversions, confiscation of their lands, kidnapping of their children, life sentences on the king’s galleys for men, and life imprisonment for women who would not renounce their religion.

Repression of Protestantism continued until the Edict of Toleration in 1787 under Louis XVI (1754–1793), which granted civil rights to Protestants and ended state-sponsored persecution. The French Revolution in 1789 then overthrew the monarchy and the Catholic Church, with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette guillotined during the Reign of Terror in 1793. The Revolution ended when Napoleon Bonaparte seized power through a coup d’état in 1799. He imposed the Concordat with Rome in 1801 and the Organic Articles in 1802 to provide legal recognition for Protestantism and freedom of worship. Three confessions — Lutheran, Reformed, and later Jewish — were legally recognized and subsidized alongside the Catholic Church. The Huguenots were integrated into French society, and as religious liberty gained ground, their distinct identity as a persecuted minority faded.

Protestantism diversified in France during the nineteenth century as many Reformed churches divided over theological issues under the influence of Enlightenment rationalism. Then, in 1905, the Concordat was abrogated with the Law of Separation of Church and State. The law ended the conflict between monarchist and anticlerical political factions, the state declared neutrality in religious matters, and churches under the Concordat lost state subsidies.

Rich Heritage

Reformed Protestants in France no longer describe themselves as Huguenots. The term looks back to a specific period from the mid-sixteenth century to the eighteenth century. Those who use the word Huguenot today generally trace a genealogical connection to Huguenot ancestors who lived during the persecutions of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, when waves of Huguenots emigrated to places of refuge.

Some countries of refuge have societies composed of “descendants of the Huguenots (French Protestants) who escaped religious persecution in France.”25 There are also periodic gatherings in France to mark important dates in Huguenot history. The Museum of the Desert in France organizes an annual Protestant assembly to remember the intense period of persecution after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, when Protestantism was outlawed and Protestants gathered illegally in secret.

Many Reformed churches in France would consider themselves spiritual descendants of the Huguenots and lay claim to a Calvinistic heritage, although with varying degrees of fidelity to sixteenth-century Reformed teachings. As an example of faithfulness to Reformation teachings, the Faculté Jean Calvin in Aix-en-Provence today serves French churches as an evangelical Calvinist establishment, with an emphasis on the grace of God and salvation in Jesus Christ.

The Huguenots have been mythologized and demonized; their exploits have been exaggerated and underestimated; they have been vilified and venerated. Some became Huguenots by religious conviction; others by political ambition. What is incontestable is that Huguenots embraced the Reformation teachings of Calvin, which made them enemies of the established church. We honor their memory when we remember their tragic and heroic history. We follow their example when we remain committed to the truth of God’s word in the face of religious or state opposition.

  1. Jean-Pierre Babelon, Henri IV (Paris: Fayard, 1982), 76. 

  2. Guillaume de Félice, Histoire des Protestants, 1521–1787 (repr., Marseille: Éditions Théotex, 2020), 46. 

  3. Auguste Brachet, An Etymological Dictionary of the French Language (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1878), 200. 

  4. Hugues Daussy, “Les huguenots entre l’obéissance au roi et l’obéissance à Dieu,” Nouvelle Revue du XVIe Siècle 22, no. 1 (2004): 49–50. 

  5. John Calvin, L’Institution chrétienne, vol. 4 (Chicago: Éditions Kerygma, 1978), 480–81. 

  6. Daussy, “Les huguenots,” 52–54. 

  7. Daussy, “Les huguenots,” 56–57. 

  8. Philip Benedict and Nicolas Fornerod, “Les 2,150 ‘églises’ réformées de France de 1561–1562,” Revue Historique 651, no. 3 (July 2009): 529–30. 

  9. Galand-Willemen and Petris, Michel De L’Hospital: Chancelier-Poète (Geneva: Droz, 2020), 9. 

  10. Babelon, Henri IV, 445. 

  11. The Estates-General (les états généraux) were assemblies convened by the king to provide counsel or vote on subsidies. The three estates were clergy, nobility, and commoners. 

  12. Bernard Cottret, Histoire de la réforme protestante, XVI–XVIII siècle (Paris: Perrin, 2001), 183. 

  13. Babelon, Henri IV, 94. 

  14. Galand-Willemen and Petris, Michel De L’Hospital, 37–38. 

  15. Babelon, Henri IV, 139. 

  16. Robert M. Kingdon, Myths about the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres, 1572–1576 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), 35. 

  17. Daussy, “Les huguenots,” 61–62. 

  18. Jean-Christian Petitfils, L’Assassinat d’Henri IV (Paris: Perrin, 2009), 43–44. 

  19. Charles Alfred Janzé, Les Huguenots: Cent ans de persécutions, 1685–1789 (Paris: Grassart, 1886), 39–40. 

  20. Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 539. 

  21. Petitfils, L’Assassinat, 276. 

  22. Patrick Cabanel, “Enchanter, désenchanter l’histoire du Refuge huguenot,” Revue d'histoire du protestantisme 2, no. 3 (July–September 2017), 410. 

  23. The English words “refuge” and “refugee” come from the French words refuge and réfugié

  24. Owen Stanwood, The Global Refuge: Huguenots in an Age of Empire (New York: Oxford University Press), 5. 

  25. “Home,” The National Huguenot Society, accessed November 6, 2023, https://nationalhuguenotsociety.org

(PhD, Columbia International University) is an elder at Grace Church of Philly and has planted churches in the US, France, and Romania since 1982. He is the author of seven books, including three on French history: Rise of French Laïcité, The French Huguenots and Wars of Religion, and French Protestantism’s Struggle for Survival and Legitimacy, 1517–1905.