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In the 16th and 17th centuries, members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France were called Huguenots.

Origin of the Name

Originally a term of derision, the origin is uncertain. It may have been derived from the name, Besançon Hugues, the leader of the "Confederate Party" in Geneva, in combination with a frankish corruption of the German word for conspirator or confederate: eidgenossen. Hugues' party was called "the confederates", because they favored an alliance between the city-state of Geneva and the Swiss Confederation. This theory of origin has support from the fact that the label, Huguenot, was first applied in France to the conspirators (all of whom were aristocratic members of the Reformed Church) who were involved in the Amboise plot: a foiled attempt to usurp power over France from the reigning house of Guise, which would have had the side-effect of forging relations with the Swiss. Thus, Hugues plus eidgenot becomes Huguenot, with the intention of associating the Protestant cause with some very unpopular politics.

Religious beliefs

The Huguenots may be traced to the pro-reform and Gallican Catholics, like Jacques Lefevre. Later they were followers of the Lutheran movement, and finally, Calvinists. They shared John Calvin's fierce reformation beliefs which decried the priesthood, sacraments and doctrines of the Catholic Church. They were believers that salvation is an act of God as much as was creation, and thus that the elect were fit for salvation only because of God's predestined mercy toward them. This dual emphasis on creation and salvation, and God's sovereignty over both, is thought by some to be a cornerstone principle for their developments in architecture, textiles and other mercantiles.

Above all, they were known for their fiery criticisms of worship as it was performed in the Roman Catholic Church. They believed the ritual, images, saints, pilgrimages, prayers, and hierarchy of the Catholic Church were useless to help anyone toward redemption. The Christian faith is to be lived out in a strict and godly life, in obedience to biblical laws, out of gratitude for God's mercy - not in performing rituals and obsession with death and the dead. As other Protestants also believed at the time, they thought that the Roman church needed to be radically cleansed 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 more fierce as events unfolded, and stirred up the hostility of the Catholic establishment.

Huguenots faced periodic persecution from the outset of the Reformation; but they were initially protected from Parlementary measures designed for their extermination, by Francis I. The Affair of the Placards, 1534, changed the king's posture toward them, who then stepped away from restraining persecution of the movement . Still, the growth of the Huguenots between 1555 and 1562 was explosive, and was chiefly amongst the nobles and city-dwellers. It was during this time that the Protestants began to be called, Huguenots; but they called themselves reformés, "Reformed". They organized their first national synod in 1558, in Paris. By 1562 there was a total membership estimated at at least a million, especially numerous in the south and central parts of the country. The Huguenots in France never numbered more than a little over two million, compared to approximately sixteen million Catholics during the same period.

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 were subject to iconoclast attacks, in which altars and images in churches, and sometimes the buildings themselves were torn apart. Bourges, Montauban and Orleans suffered particularly.

Wars of Religion

In reaction to the growing Huguenot influence, and the famous excesses 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. These bonds of peace became the knots of war; when they were cut by violence, the divisions were all the more irreconcilable.

Tensions led to eight civil wars, interrupted by periods of relative quiet, between 1562 and 1598. With each break in peace, the Reformed trust in the Catholic throne diminished, and the violence became more severe, and Protestant demands became more grand, until a lasting cessation of open hostility was finally achieved in 1598.

The French Wars of Religion began with a massacre of 30 Huguenots at Vassy (some sympathetic sources say 1000 or more), and the wounding of about 200, on March 1, 1562. The Huguenots were transformed into a definitely political movement. The Protestant pulpits were used to rally 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 were allied with them, whose wealth and holdings added to the Protestant strength, which at its height grew to sixty fortified cities, and was a constant threat to the Catholic crown, and Paris, during the French Wars of Religion.

In 1572, 70,000 Huguenots were killed in Paris, and other towns in the weeks following: an event since remembered as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Amnesty was granted the next year. The 5th holy war against the Huguenots began on February 23, 1574, and conflict continued periodically until 1598 when king Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes, which granted the Protestants equality with Catholics under the throne, religious freedom within their domains, and simultaneously protected Catholic interests by discouraging the founding of new Protestant churches in the Catholic-controlled regions.


Louis XIV began persecuting Protestants again and using his soldiers to inflict Dragonnades making life so intolerable that many fled. He finally revoked the "irrevocable" Edict of Nantes in 1685 and declared Protestantism illegal with the Edict of Fontainebleau. After this, many Huguenots fled to surrounding Protestant countries, England, and Prussia whose Calvinist Great Elector Frederick William welcomed them to help rebuild his war-ravaged and underpopulated country. On December 31, 1687 a band of Huguenots set sail from France to the Cape of Good Hope.

Many fled to the 13 colonies of Great Britain in North America. Among them was a silversmith called Apollos Rivoire, who would later anglicize his name to Paul Revere. He would, still later, give his name and his profession to his son, Paul Revere, a famous United States revolutionary.

A leading Huguenot theologian and writer who led the exile community in London was Andre Lortie (or Andrew Lortie), who became known for articulating the Huguenot criticism on the Holy See and transubstantiation.

Huguenot refugees flocked to Shoreditch, London in large numbers. They established a major weaving industry in and around Spitalfields, and in Wandsworth. The Truman Brewery appeared in 1724, although it was known as the Black Eagle Brewery then. Huguenot refugees fled Tours, France virtually wiping out the great silk mills they had built. Some of them brought their skills to Northern Ireland and were responsible for the founding of the great Irish linen industry.

A third of American Presidents have some proven Huguenot ancesty as do Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and other leading statesmen, and according to often repeated belief, one quarter or more of all Englishmen.

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