The Huguenots were French Protestants who were members of the Reformed Church which was
established in 1550 by John Calvin.
Used originally as a term of derision, the derivation of the name Huguenot remains uncertain.
Various theories have been promoted .
The nickname may have been a French corruption of the German word Eidgenosse, meaning a
Confederate, perhaps in combination with a reference to the name Besançon Hugues (d 1532).
Geneva was John Calvin's adopted home and the center of the Calvinist movement. In Geneva,
Hugues was the leader of the "Confederate Party," so called because it favored an alliance
between the city-state of Geneva and the Swiss Confederation. This theory of origin has support
from the alleged fact that the label Huguenot was first applied in France to those conspirators (all of
them aristocratic members of the Reformed Church) involved in the Amboise plot of 1560: a foiled
attempt to transfer power in France from the influential House of Guise, a move which would have
had the side-effect of fostering relations with the Swiss. Thus, Hugues plus Eidgenosse becomes
Huguenot, with the intention of associating the Protestant cause with some very unpopular politics.
Like the first hypothesis, several others account for the name as being derived from German as
well as French.
The French Protestants themselves preferred to refer to themselves as "réformees" (reformers)
rather than "Huguenots".
Since the eighteenth century they have been commonly designated "French Protestants", the title
being suggested by their German co-religionists, or "Calvinists".
Early history and beliefs
The availability of the Bible in local language was important to the spread of the Protestant
movement and the development of the Reformed church in France, and the country had a long
history of struggles with the papacy by the time the Protestant Reformation finally arrived. Around
1294, a French version of the Scriptures was prepared by the Catholic priest, Guyard de Moulin.
The first known Provençal language translation of the Bible had been prepared by the 12th century
religious radical, Pierre de Vaux (Peter Waldo). Long after the sect was suppressed by the Roman
Catholic Church, the remaining Waldensians sought to join William Farel and the Protestant
Reformation, and Olivetan would publish a French Bible for them, but those who emerged from
secrecy were eradicated by Francis I in 1545. A two-volume folio version of this translation
appeared in Paris, in 1488.
Other predecessors of the Reformed church included the pro-reform and Gallican Roman
Catholics, like Jacques Lefevre. The Gallicans briefly achieved independence for the French
church, on the principle that the religion of France could not be controlled by the Bishop of Rome, a
foreign power. In the time of the Protestant Reformation, Lefevre, a professor at the University of
Paris, prepared the way for the rapid dissemination of Lutheran ideas in France with the publication
of his French translation of the New Testament in 1523, followed by the whole Bible in the French
language, in 1528. William Farel was a student of Lefevre who went on to become a leader of the
Swiss Reformation, establishing a Protestant government in Geneva. Jean Cauvin (John Calvin),
another student at the University of Paris, also converted to Protestantism. The French Confession
of 1559 shows a decidedly Calvinistic influence. Sometime between 1550 and 1580, members of
the Reformed church in France came to be commonly known as Huguenots.
Criticisms of Roman Catholic Church
Above all, Huguenots became known for their fiery criticisms of worship as performed in the Roman
Catholic Church, in particular the focus on ritual and what seemed an obsession with death and the
dead. They believed the ritual, images, saints, pilgrimages, prayers, and hierarchy of the Catholic
Church did not help anyone toward redemption. They saw Christian faith as something to be
expressed in a strict and godly life, in obedience to Biblical laws, out of gratitude for God's mercy.
Like other Protestants of the time, they felt that the Roman church needed radical cleansing of its
impurities, and that the Pope represented a worldly kingdom, which sat in mocking tyranny over the
things of God, and was ultimately doomed. Rhetoric like this became fiercer as events unfolded,
and stirred up the hostility of the Catholic establishment.
Violently opposed to the Catholic Church, the Huguenots attacked images, monasticism, and
church buildings. Most of the cities in which the Huguenots gained a hold saw iconoclast attacks, in
which altars and images in churches, and sometimes the buildings themselves were torn down. The
cities of Bourges, Montauban and Orleans saw substantial activity in this regard.
Reform and growth
Huguenots faced periodic persecution from the outset of the Reformation; but Francis I (reigned
1515–1547) initially protected them from Parlementary measures designed for their extermination.
The Affair of the Placards of 1534 changed the king's posture toward the Huguenots: he stepped
away from restraining persecution of the movement.
Huguenot numbers grew rapidly between 1555 and 1562, chiefly amongst the nobles and city-
dwellers. During this time, their opponents first dubbed the Protestants Huguenots; but they called
themselves reformés, or "Reformed." They organized their first national synod in 1558, in Paris.
By 1562, the estimated number of Huguenots had passed one million, concentrated mainly in the
southern and central parts of the country. The Huguenots in France likely peaked in number at
approximately two million, compared to approximately sixteen million Catholics during the same
Wars of religion
Main article: French Wars of Religion
In reaction to the growing Huguenot influence, and the aforementioned instances of Protestant zeal,
Catholic violence against them grew, at the same time that concessions and edicts of toleration
became more liberal.
In 1561, the Edict of Orléans, for example, declared an end to the persecution; and the Edict of
Saint-Germain recognized them for the first time (January 17, 1562); but these measures disguised
the growing strain of relations between Protestant and Catholic.
Tensions led to eight civil wars, interrupted by periods of relative calm, between 1562 and 1598.
With each break in peace, the Huguenots' trust in the Catholic throne diminished, and the violence
became more severe, and Protestant demands became grander, until a lasting cessation of open
hostility finally occurred in 1598.
The wars gradually took on a dynastic character, developing into an extended feud between the
Houses of Bourbon and Guise, both of which — in addition to holding rival religious views — staked
a claim to the French throne. The crown, occupied by the House of Valois, generally supported the
Catholic side, but on occasion switched over to the Protestant cause when politically expedient.
Millais' painting, A Huguenot and his Catholic lover on the eve of St. Bartholomew's day. The
French Wars of Religion began with a massacre at Vassy on March 1, 1562, when 23, (some
sources say hundreds) of the Huguenots were killed, and about 200 were wounded.
The Huguenots transformed themselves into a definitive political movement thereafter. Protestant
preachers rallied a considerable army and a formidable cavalry, which came under the leadership
of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. Henry of Navarre and the House of Bourbon allied themselves to
the Huguenots, adding wealth and holdings to the Protestant strength, which at its height grew to
sixty fortified cities, and posed a serious threat to the Catholic crown and Paris over the next three
St. Bartholomew's Day massacre
An Eyewitness Account of the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre by François Dubois (1790 -
In what became known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 24 August – 17 September 1572,
Catholics killed thousands of Huguenots in Paris. Similar massacres took place in other towns in the
weeks following, with death toll estimates again ranging wildly, from thousands to as high as
110,000. An amnesty granted in 1573 pardoned the perpetrators.
On the night of 23/24 August, 1572 more than 8 000 Huguenots, including Admiral Gaspard de
Coligny, Governor of Picardy and leader and spokesman of the Huguenots, were murdered in
Paris. It happened during the wedding of Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot, to Marguerite de Valois
(daughter of Catherine de Medici), when thousands of Huguenots converged on Paris for the
It was Catherine de Medici who persuaded her weakling son Charles IX to order the mass murder,
which lasted three days and spread to the countryside. On Sunday morning August 24th, 1572 she
personally walked through the streets of Paris to inspect the carnage. Henry of Navarre's life was
spared when he pretended to support the Roman Catholic faith. In 1593 he made his "perilous leap"
and abjured his faith in July 1593, and 5 years later he was the undisputed monarch as King Henry
IV (le bon Henri, the good Henry) of France.
When the first rumours of the massacre reached the Vatican in Rome on 2 September 1572, pope
Gregory XIII was jubilant and wanted bonfires to be lit in Rome. He was persuaded to wait for the
official communication. The very morning of the day that he received the confirmed news, the pope
held a consistory and announced that "God had been pleased to be merciful". Then with all the
cardinals he repaired to the Church of St. Mark for the Te Deum, and prayed and ordered prayers
that the Most Christian King might rid and purge his entire kingdom (of France) of the Huguenot
Edict of Nantes
The fifth holy war against the Huguenots began on February 23, 1574. The conflict continued
periodically until 1598, when Henry of Navarre, having succeeded to the French throne in 1589 as
Henry IV, and recanted his Protestantism in favour of Roman Catholicism, issued the Edict of
Nantes. The Edict granted the Protestants equality with Catholics under the throne and a degree of
religious and political freedom within their domains. The Edict simultaneously protected Catholic
interests by discouraging the founding of new Protestant churches in the Catholic-controlled
With the proclamation of the Edict of Nantes, and the subsequent protection of Huguenot rights,
pressures to leave France abated, as did further attempts at colonization. However, under King
Louis XIV (reigned 1643–1715), chief minister Cardinal Mazarin (who held real power during the
king's minority up to his death in 1661) resumed persecution of the Protestants using soldiers to
inflict dragonnades that made life so intolerable that many fled.
Edict of Fontainebleau
The king revoked the "irrevocable" Edict of Nantes in 1685 and declared Protestantism illegal with
the Edict of Fontainebleau. After this, huge numbers of Huguenots (with estimates ranging from
200,000 to 1,000,000) fled to surrounding Protestant countries: England, the Netherlands,
Switzerland, Norway, Denmark and Prussia — whose Calvinist Great Elector Frederick William
welcomed them to help rebuild his war-ravaged and underpopulated country. The Huguenot
population of France had dropped to 856,000 by the mid 1660s, of which a plurality was rural. The
greatest populations of surviving Huguenots resided in the regions of Basse-Guyenne, Saintonge-
Aunis-Angoumois and Poitou.
Exodus and Early emigration
The first Huguenots to leave France seeking freedom from persecution had done so years earlier
under the leadership of Jean Ribault in 1562. The group ended up establishing the small colony of
Fort Caroline in 1564, on the banks of the St. Johns River, in what is today Jacksonville, Florida.
The colony was the first attempt at any permanent European settlement in the present-day United
States, but the group survived only a short time. In September 1565, an attack against the new
Spanish colony at St. Augustine backfired, and the Spanish wiped out the Fort Caroline garrison.