The Huguenots

Huguenots is the name given to the French Protestants from the 16th Century onwards. The majority of them were following the teachings of John Calvin.

The Leader of the Huguenots - Gaspard de Coligny

Gaspard de Coligny - Gravure
National Museum of Château de Pau

There are different opinions about the etymology of the word "Huguenot". It was believed that its origin is German, deriving from the German word Eidgenossen (confederacy) which designated the people of Geneva when they joined the Swiss Confederation. Then the theory became outdated, as examples were given of the word appearing as a French surname from the 14th century onwards. A more anecdotic approach says the word arose from the fact that the Calvinists of Tours used to go outside of the Porte du roy Huguon to worship. The current edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica somehow reverts back to the German origin theory.

During the reign of Henry II, repressive measures were taken against the Huguenots. The edicts of Paris (1549), of Fontainebleau (1550), and of Chateaubriand (1551), made the Huguenots subject to both secular and ecclesiastical tribunals. At the time, most of the leaders could not separate religion from the State, so the Huguenots issue became both a religious and a political one.

The Edict of Compiègne, of July 24, 1557 imposed the death penalty for those who publicly or secretly professed a religion other than the Catholic apostolic faith. The "Chambre ardente," the extraordinary Court of Justice established to prosecute the Huguenots, appeared under Henry II's reign.

The Huguenots had not only religious, but also political interests. A distinction was made between two groups of them, the "Huguenots of religion" and the "Huguenots of state." The former were Calvinists who were resolved to stop the cruelties of religious oppression, the latter, mostly nobles, were opposing the Guises monopoly of political power. Thus, the question of religion merged with that of political reforms, as the Huguenots of state wanted to change the institutional order, using the religious opposition only to attack the authority of the crown. In essence, the aims of both classes of Huguenots were revolutionary, and were directed, one against the authority of the mediaeval church, the other against the authority of the French monarchy.

The spirit of political and religious unrest in France was becoming stronger. In December 1559, the whole of Aquitaine and Normandy were reported to be ready for action at short notice. In order to repress the spirit of rebellion the government severely prosecuted the Huguenots, as the Guises hoped that tough measures would terrify both the religious and the political Huguenots into obedience. On the contrary, rebellion in provinces intensified. At Rouen, at Bordeaux, and between Blois and Orléans, the Huguenots arrested by the King's officers were rescued by armed groups, in some cases the officers being killed.

During the autumn and winter of 1559-60, the interests of the religious and political Huguenots continued to come closer. In November 1559, a new edict ordained that all who assisted at any private assemblies, should be put to death, and their houses be pulled down and never rebuilt. Huguenot sessions were frequent in Paris and its suburbs, so by special decree the provost of the city was authorized to proclaim with the trumpet that all people who had information of Protestant assemblies should notify the magistrates, on pain of incurring the same punishment. Pardon and a reward of five hundred livres was to be given to every informer.

The so-called Conspiracy of Amboise planned, under pretext of presenting a petition to the King, to seize the cardinal of Lorraine and the duke of Guise, then to assemble the States-General for the purpose of an opening an inquiry into their administration. The aim was to prosecute the Guises for high treason. But a member of the conspiracy, an advocate of the Parlement named Avenelles, could not keep the secret, and, except the Prince of Condé, all participants were executed.

In May, 1560, the royal edict of Romorantin tacitly granted the people the freedom of conscience. The result was that the new religion was rapidly spreading into all country, and to all classes, even to the clergy, priests, monks, nuns, bishops, and many of the chief prelates. In the provinces disturbances continued to take place. In Amboise and Tours the people stormed the prisons and released all those who had been imprisoned as agitators on account of religion. Amidst this rebellions, the Catholic Guises assured both the Pope and Spain that their intention was either to crush the Huguenots, or drive them out of the country.

Francis II died at Orléans on December 5, 1560, and his death put an end to all proceedings against the prince de Condé. Encouraged by the positive attitude of Catherine de Medici, the Huguenots went ahead with the question of religious tolerance, presenting a request to the King on June 11, 1561. Meanwhile, through a tentative ordinance, the Edict of July, the Huguenots were protected, except for offenses cognizable by the secular power. But the most radical of the Huguenots, in meetings and public places, used a violent language in detraction of the Catholic church and its sacraments, determined to push their privilege of free speech to the very limit. Also, in a petition presented by the Huguenots to Charles IX they were asking that bishops, abbots, and other ecclesiastics should not be constituted in any way judges of the Huguenots, as they could not be impartial. The Huguenots went to their services armed, in spite of the laws prohibiting arms. They became bold enough to march through the streets singing their psalms. An outbreak of violence became imminent.

Still, Catherine de' Medici, advised by the chancellor L'Hôpital, the admiral Coligny, the prince of Condé, and his brother, D'Andelot, adhered to the resolution permitting the Huguenots the freedom of worship. On January 3, 1562, the chancellor made a plea for religious toleration before the Court of Parlement, which was followed by the issuance of the famous edict of toleration of January 17, known as the Edict of January, the first to grant exercise of the Reformed religion in public.

But the persistence of the political Huguenots, and the interference of the Catholic Spain in the French politics, again radicalized opinions. With the Massacre of Vassy on March 1, 1562, the long period of the Civil Wars began. In 1572, on St. Bartholomew's Day, the Huguenots in Paris were massacred, among them their leader, Gaspard de Coligny. The massacre continued for one week, and in the provinces, until autumn.

It was only on April 13 1598, when the Edict of Nantes was signed by Henry IV, that the Huguenots were granted substantial rights, together with the freedom of conscience, thus opening the path for tolerance.