French Protestants
1500's and 1600's

Huguenots were a group of Protestants who became the center of political and religious quarrels in France in the 1500's and 1600's. French Protestantism, though influenced by Martin Luther and French reformers of the early 1500's, was dominated by the teachings of John Calvin. Calvin was a French Protestant leader who headed the Reformed Church in Geneva, Switzerland.

King Francis I tolerated the Huguenots for much of his reign (1515-1547), which helped them grow. During the reign of Henry II (1547-1559), the Huguenots became a large and influential group. As they grew strong, the government persecuted them more and more. Such important people as Admiral Gaspard de Coligny and Anthony, king of Navarre, were Huguenots. The Guise family led French Roman Catholics and influenced Henry's son, King Francis II, against the Huguenots.

After Francis II died in 1560 and Charles IX became king, the queen mother, Catherine de Medicis, dominated the French government. For a time, she encouraged the Huguenots as a balance against the Guises. But feelings in both parties became so bitter that civil war broke out. The Huguenots had some of France's best military leaders and a well-organized army. Catherine, fearing Coligny's influence on her son, allied herself with Henry, the Duke of Guise. Some historians suspect but cannot prove that Catherine and Guise were responsible for the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day, which occurred in 1572. In the massacre, pro-Catholic forces murdered thousands of Huguenots.

Henry III, who succeeded Charles IX in 1574, feared the popularity of the Guise family and had the Duke of Guise and his brother, a cardinal, assassinated in 1588. These murders aroused public feeling against Henry, and he allied himself with Henry of Navarre and the Huguenots. In 1589, Henry III was assassinated, and Henry of Navarre, a Protestant, became king.

Most of France was Catholic, and Henry realized he must become a Catholic to be a successful king. But in 1598, Henry issued the Edict of Nantes, which gave the Huguenots freedom of worship in 100 communities. The edict also gave them much political independence. The Huguenots thus formed a sort of Protestant republic within the Catholic kingdom.

The Huguenots lost their political independence under Louis XIII, who was king from 1610 to 1643, and his minister, Cardinal Richelieu. But they did not lose their freedom of worship until 1685, when Louis XIV repealed the Edict of Nantes. After the repeal, about 200,000 Huguenots fled to such places as the Netherlands, England, Brandenburg (now part of Germany), and America. Many Huguenots were craftworkers or textile workers, and they contributed to the prosperity of the countries where they settled. The Huguenots who remained in France regained their civil rights during the French Revolution (1789-1799).

The struggle between Huguenots and Catholics in France contributed to the growth of freedom and democracy in Europe. Arguments for civil disobedience and rebellion against tyranny emerged among both groups. Some writers suggested that the source of political authority should not lie in a hereditary monarchy, but with the people. These ideas influenced English thought of the 1600's and, later, the American and French revolutions.

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