King Henry IV of France issued the Edict of Nantes on April 13, 1598 to grant French Protestants (also known as Huguenots) substantial rights in a Catholic nation. Henry wished to foster civil unity, and the Edict separated civil from religious unity, treated some Protestants for the first time as more than mere schismatics and heretics, and opened a potential path for secularism and religious tolerance. In offering general freedom of conscience to individuals, the edict offered many specific concessions to the Protestants: an amnesty, the reinstatement of their civil rights, including the right to work in any field or for the State and to bring grievances directly to the king. The Edict granted the Protestants one hundred places of safety, such as La Rochelle. Such an innovative act of toleration stood virtually alone in a Europe where standard practice involved forcing the subjects of a ruler to follow whatever religion that ruler formally adopted -- the application of the principle of cuius regio, eius religio.
The Edict aimed primarily to end the long-running, disruptive French Wars of Religion. Henry IV also had personal reasons for supporting the Edict. Prior to assuming the throne in 1589 he himself had espoused Protestantism, and he remained sympathetic to the Protestant cause: he had converted only in 1593 in order to secure his position as king, famously allegedly saying "Paris is worth a Mass". The Edict succeeded in restoring peace and internal unity to France for many years.
The original Act signed on April 30, promulgating the Edict, has disappeared. The Archives Nationales in Paris preserve only the text of a shorter document modified by the clergy and the Parlement of Paris, and signed and sealed in 1599. The content of the first edict has survived, however, thanks to a copy sent for safekeeping to Protestant Geneva.
The Edict of Nantes that Henry signed comprised four basic texts, including the principal text made up of more than ninety articles and largely based on unsuccessful peace treaties hammered out during the recent troubles. The Edict also included 56 "particular" (secret) articles dealing with Protestant rights and obligations. For example, the French state guaranteed to protect French Protestants travelling abroad from the Inquisition. "This crucifies me," protested Pope Clement VIII, upon hearing of the Edict.
In reality, the edict sustained Catholicism as the established religion of France: Protestants gained no exemption from paying the tithe and had to respect Catholic holidays and restrictions regarding marriage. The authorities limited Protestant freedom of worship to specified geographic areas, outside city walls. The Edict dealt only with Protestant and Catholic coexistence; the Edict did not include Jews or Muslims. In fact, France expelled its Muslims in 1610.
In October 1685, however, Louis XIV, the grandson of Henry IV, renounced the Edict and declared Protestantism illegal with the Edict of Fontainebleau. This act, most commonly called the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, had very damaging results for France. While the wars of religion did not re-ignite, many Protestants chose to leave France, most moving to Great Britain, Germany and the Dutch Republic. This exodus deprived France of many of its most skilled and industrious individuals, who would from now on aid France's rivals (although some have sometimes overstated this effect). The revocation of the Edict of Nantes likely also further damaged the perception of Louis XIV abroad, making the Protestant nations bordering France even more hostile to his régime.
Last updated: 10-29-2005 02:13:46