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1685 France: The Huguenot Réfugié

The French word 'réfugié specifically referred to the Huguenots or Protestants fleeing France after the Edict of Nantes was revoked in1685. Within a decade Refugee had become a common English term referring generally to all people forced to flee danger and seek safety elsewhere.

1685 France: The Huguenot Réfugié, Protestant vs Catholics

King Henry IV of France

Henry IV of France was a thoughtful leader, he was known by the names Good King Henry (le bon roi Henri) and Henry the Great (Henri le Grand). During his reign he sought to eliminate corruption and was a great advocate for education.

Henry radically changed the direction of his nation at a time when France was in dire need of strong leadership. His decisive action brought the thirty six year French Wars of Religion to an end.

Henry had been baptised a Catholic but was raised in the Protestant faith by his mother, Queen Jeanne III of Navarre. She had also been the acknowledged spiritual and political leader of the French Huguenot movement and a key figure in the French Wars of Religion.

Having seen the horrors of the religious wars up close by surviving numerous assissination attempts including the bloody St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, he understood the volatility of the times.

The St Bartholomew Massacre had begun as a single assassination attempt on the life of Admiral Gaspard II de Coligny, a Huguenot who supported war against Spain. This failed but turned into mass violence after the instigators tried to cover their tracks.

The assassination of one man turned into the massacre of thousands.

They said the River Seine had been dyed blood red on that day. Five thousand Protestants had been killed (Baker).


The foundations of the French Wars of Religion were evident early on in the 16th Century.

The 16th century began in France as a time of relative peace, prosperity, and optimism, but horizons soon darkened under the clouds of religious schism, heresy persecutions, and civil war.

French theologians condemned Martin Luther’s ideas as early as 1521, but his views continued to spread underground. The movement remained small and clandestine until the 1550s, when the penetration of John Calvin’s ideas from nearby Geneva resulted in the formation of Reformed churches, whose growing membership demanded the right to worship openly

Militancy increased on both sides of the religious divide, and civil war broke out in 1562 (Diefendorf).

The French Wars of Religion lasted 36 years - (1562-1598)

Catholicism was the fiercely dominant religion in France at this time and the Huguenot Protestants, despite being the underdog were equally fierce and tenacious.

Angry religious factions simmered for years with numerous violent confrontations before the first war began, often manipulating events in a bid to to force the hand of the Monarchs.

The French Wars of Religion consisted of eight wars.

The First war was between 1562-1563. Second between 1567-1568. Third between 1568-1570. Fourth between 1572-1573. Fifth between 1574-1576. Sixth between 1576-1577.

Seventh between 1579-1580. Eigth between 1585-1589.

They ended when King Henry IV of France signed the Edict of Nantes.

King Henry's Conversion

Creative Commons Licence -
Henry IV, Musée des Augustins - Public Domain

In 1598 King Henry IV recognised that France was never going to accept a Huguenot King. He had tried to reign as a Protestant for four years, but was constantly opposed by the outraged Catholic League who believed he had no right to the Crown. It was clear that he would need to to convert to Catholicism.

The Catholic League agreed to compromise their stand after Henry converted and after he gave them around 7 million écus (a type of French coin). The value of this gift is said to have been greater than France's annual revenue. Henry converted, for Peace's sake.

He then issued a Royal Proclamation known as the Edict of Nantes and signed it at Nantes in Brittany on April 13, 1598. The underlying goal of all his endeavours was to transition France away from endless wars towards becoming a more stable and tolerant nation.

The Edict of Nantes

The edict allowed Huguenots the right to freely practise their religion in designated cities and towns across France, as well as the right to protect these places with their own government supported militia. They had the right to make and sell arms.

The edict also allowed them to become judges and administrators and to have their own government supported schools and universities.

They were free to travel in France without fear of having their property taken from them and they were permitted to bury their loved ones in their own cemetries.

It is considered one of the first significant moves towards religious tolerance in Europe, allowing Huguenots the freedom to believe as their conscience directed.

The Assassination of King Henry IV.

The Edict of Nantes was resented by Pope Clement VIII and the Roman Catholic clergy in France and parlements, which were the courts of final appeal in the judicual system.

The Parlement's role was to give assent to laws and edicts issued by the Crown in order to make them official.

In essence the Edict had some strong enemies.

In all Henry survived twelve assassination attempts, some say at least twelve.

He died on 14 May 1610 by the hand of François Ravaillac, a Catholic Zealot.

Henry's widow, Marie de' Medic served as regent for their nine-year-old son, Louis XIII, until 1617.

She confirmed the Edict of Nantes twelve days after her husband's assassination but Huguenots did not have the same level of confidence in her that they. had placed in her husband.

Another season of unrest began and Marie managed to negotiate a treaty with Catholics threatening a new uprising. The Treaty of Loudun was signed and she managed to secure six more years of protection for the Huguenot cities.

King Louis XIII

The presence of Huguenot strongholds became intolerable for Henry IV's successor, his son Louis XIII. Under him, the domination of the Catholic clergy grew rapidly. The king took a Jesuit for his confessor, and his new minister, Charles-Albert de Luynes, pledged to exterminate the heretics (Davis).

At the general assembly of Catholic clergy in 1617, Louis XIII, instead of respecting the will of his father, ordered the restitution of possessions to the Catholic Church. He marched on to the province of Béarn, took the stronghold of Navarriens, and reestablished Catholicism (Davis).

King Louis XIV Revoked the Edict of Nantes

On October 18, 1685, Louis XIV formally revoked the Edict of Nantes, eighty seven years after it's establishment.

The Edict of Fontainebleau also known as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, was the Royal Proclamation that officially made Hugeonots, that had not converted to Catholicism, unwelcome in France. The legal recognition of Protestantism in France ended.

The Dragonnades
Cartoon of a French dragoon intimidating a Huguenot in the Dragonnades - public domain

Louish XIV reigned from 1643 until his death in 1715. His intiial goal was to replace the tolerance of Huguenots with religious uniformity.

At first he tried to bribe Huguenots to convert to Catholicism but later sunk to violent intimidation.

In 1681 he instigated the Dragonnades, a harsh policy designed to intimidate Huguenots into converting.

Dragoons, members of mounted infantry, were sent to be billeted in Huguenot households with permission to cause havoc, steal and destroy belongings. Abuse of hosts was par for the course.

Only new converts to Catholicism could refuse to billet a Dragoon.

In the 1670s Louis turned his attention to Huguenots churches and schools, ordering the destruction of both.

Louis XIV claimed that the French Huguenot population was reduced from about 900,000 or 800,000 adherents to just 1,000 or 1,500. He exaggerated the decline, but the dragonnades were devastating for the French Protestant community (wikipedia).

Responses to Huguenot Persecution

Protestant England was infuriated by the treatment of the Huguenots publishing literature decrying the inhumanity.

The Huguenots Fled France for other lands.

Side Note: during the reign of King Henry IV of France the colonisation of the Americas had begun. Specifically, the French colonies in Acadia and Canada (Port-Royal and Quebec) were founded.

Huguenot Asylum Seekers began fleeing before the Edict of Nantes was revoked. They understood the precariousness of their situation and the dangers of staying.

The bulk of Huguenot émigrés moved to Protestant states such as the Dutch Republic, England and Wales, Protestant-controlled Ireland, the Channel Islands, Scotland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, the electorates of Brandenburg and the Palatinate in the Holy Roman Empire, and the Duchy of Prussia.

Some fled as refugees to the Dutch Cape Colony, the Dutch East Indies, various Caribbean colonies, and several of the Dutch and English colonies in North America.[22] A few families went to Orthodox Russia and Catholic Quebec. (Wikipedia).

The exodus of Huguenots from France created a brain drain, as many of them had occupied important places in society. The kingdom did not fully recover for years (Wikipedia).

The French crown's refusal to allow non-Catholics to settle in New France may help to explain that colony's low population compared to that of the neighbouring British colonies, which opened settlement to religious dissenters (Wikipedia).

In October 1985, to commemorate the tricentenary of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, President François Mitterrand of France announced a formal apology to the descendants of Huguenots around the world (Wikipedia).



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