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In the 16th and 17th centuries, the name of Huguenots came to apply to members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France.


Origin of the name

Originally a term of derision, the origin remains uncertain. It may have derived from the personal name of Besançon Hugues , the leader of the "Confederate Party" in Geneva, in combination with a Frankish corruption of the German word for conspirator or confederate: eidgenosse. 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 first applied in France to the conspirators (all of them aristocratic members of the Reformed Church) involved in the Amboise plot of 1560: a foiled attempt to usurp power in France from the influential House of Guise, which would have had the side-effect of fostering relations with the Swiss. Thus, Hugues plus eidgenot becomes Huguenot, with the intention of associating the Protestant cause with some very unpopular politics.

O.I.A. Roche, in his book The Days of the Upright, A History of the Huguenots, writes that "Huguenot" is

"a combination of a Flemish and a German word. In the Flemish corner of France, Bible students who gathered in each other's houses to study secretly were called Huis Genooten, or "house fellows," while on the Swiss and German borders they were termed Eid Genossen, or "oath fellows," that is, persons bound to each other by an oath. Gallicized into "Huguenot," often used deprecatingly, the word became, during two and a half centuries of terror and triumph, a badge of enduring honor and courage."

Religious beliefs

Huguenot predecessors included the pro-reform and Gallican Catholics, like Jacques Lefevre. Later, Huguenots followed the Lutheran movement, and finally, Calvinism. They shared John Calvin's fierce reformation beliefs which decried the priesthood, sacraments and doctrines of the Catholic Church. They believed in salvation as an act of God as much as in creation as an act of God, and thus that only God's predestined mercy toward the elect made them fit for salvation. Some see this dual emphasis on creation and on salvation, and God's sovereignty over both, as a cornerstone principle for Huguenot developments in architecture, textiles and other merchandise.

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 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 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 them: he stepped away from restraining persecution of the movement . Still, 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, "Reformed". They organized their first national synod in 1558, in Paris. By 1562 they had a total membership estimated at at least a million, especially numerous in the south 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 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 saw 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 violence unleashed them, the divisions became all the more irreconcilable.

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 more grand, 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, which - in addition to holding rival religious views - both 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.

The French Wars of Religion began with a massacre at Vassy on March 1, 1562, in which at least 30 (some sympathetic sources say 1000 or more) 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 decades.

In what became known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 24 August - 17 September 1572 Catholics killed many Huguenots in Paris; similar massacres took place in other towns in the weeks following, with an estimated total death toll of 70,000. An amnesty granted in 1573 justified those who had killed. The fifth holy war against the Huguenots began on February 23, 1574, and conflict continued periodically until 1598 when Henry of Navarre, having converted to Catholicism and become King of France as Henry IV, issued the Edict of Nantes, which 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 regions.

Note the difficulty of the French vocabulary of the day, depending on the point of view. Protestants considered themselves to practice a "reformed" religion (religion réformée) — which of course implied that the Catholic religion was in need of reforms. In opposition, Catholics, when talking in polite terms, called the protestant religion the "allegedly reformed religion" (religion prétendue réformée, or RPR) — with an obvious pejorative undertone of "pretense".


Louis XIV (reigned 1643 - 1715), who assumed control of the French government in 1661, resumed persecution of the Protestants, 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, huge numbers of Huguenots (with estimates ranging from 200,000 to 500,000) fled to surrounding Protestant countries: England, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark 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 colony at the Cape of Good Hope.

Barred from settling in New France, many Huguenots moved instead to the 13 colonies of Great Britain in North America, the first in 1624 (in 1924 a commemorative half dollar, known as the Huguenot-Walloon Half Dollar, was coined in the United States to celebrate the 300th anniversary of this settlement), among them 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, the famous United States revolutionary. Huguenot immigrants founded New Rochelle, New York (named after the town of La Rochelle in France), and a neighborhood in New York City's borough of Staten Island was named "Huguenot" after them.

A leading Huguenot theologian and writer who led the exiled Huguenot community in London, Andre Lortie (or Andrew Lortie ), became known for articulating Huguenot criticism of 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 , then known as the Black Eagle Brewery, appeared in 1724. Huguenot refugees fled Tours, France virtually wiping out the great silk mills they had built. Some of them took their skills to Northern Ireland and assisted in the founding of the Irish linen industry.

The exodus of Huguenots from France created a kind of brain drain from which the kingdom would not fully recover for years. The French crown's refusal to allow Protestants to settle in New France was a factor behind that colony's slow population growth, which may have ultimately led to its conquest by the British. By the time of the French and Indian War, there may have been more people of French ancestry living in Britain's American colonies than there were in New France.

A third of American Presidents have some proven Huguenot ancestry, as do Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and other leading statesmen, and (according to an oft-repeated belief) one quarter or more of all Englishmen.

Persecution of Protestants ended in 1764, and the French Revolution of 1789 finally made them full-fledged citizens.

Le Chambon-sur-Lignon

During the Second World War, the mostly Protestant population of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon in southern France hid and sheltered between 3,000 to 5,000 Jews from the Nazis. Pastor André Trocmé lead the community in this effort. Israel's Holocaust Memorial Museum Yad Vashem recognised Trocmé and thirty-four other residents of the area as "Righteous Among the Nations."

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Last updated: 09-03-2005 18:37:12