Three hundred families of persecuted Huguenots leaving La Rochelle, 1661. (Credit: DeAgostini/Getty Images)
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Introduction

Huguenots were French Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who followed the teachings of theologian John Calvin. Persecuted by the French Catholic government during a violent period, Huguenots fled the country in the 17th century, creating Huguenot settlements all over Europe, in the United States and Africa.

Following the Reformation, John Calvin became a leading figure in Protestantism in the 16th century, famed for his intellectualism.

Calvin’s approach appealed to educated Frenchmen, and followers included some of the brightest and most elite members of Catholic-dominated France, as well as prominent tradesmen and military officers. Because of the influence wielded by followers of Calvinism, it was initially tolerated by the crown.

French Calvinists adopted the Huguenot name around 1560, but the first Huguenot church was created five years earlier in a private home in Paris.

The origin of the name Huguenot is unknown but believed to have been derived from combining phrases in German and Flemish that described their practice of home worship.

By 1562, there were two million Huguenots in France with more than 2,000 churches.

In January 1562, the Edict of St. Germain recognized the right of Huguenots to practice their religion, though with limits.

Huguenots were not permitted to practice within towns or at night, and in an effort to sate fears of rebellion, they were not allowed to be armed.

On March 1, 1562, 300 Huguenots holding religious services in a barn outside the town wall of Vassy, France, were attacked by troops under the command of  Francis, Duke of Guise.

More than 60 Huguenots were killed and over 100 wounded during the Massacre of Vassy. Francis claimed he did not order an attack but was instead retaliating against stones being thrown at his troops.

The Massacre of Vassy sparked off decades of violence known as the French Wars of Religion.

In April 1562, Protestants took control of Orleans and massacred Huguenots in Sens and Tours. In Toulouse, a riot resulted in the deaths of up to 3,000 people, many of them Huguenots.

The battling continued into February of 1563 when Francis, Duke of Guise, was assassinated by a Huguenot during a siege on Orleans and a truce was agreed upon.

Religious violence escalated again soon enough. The worst of it came as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572, which saw murders of up to 70,000 Huguenots across France, under the direction of Catherine de Medici, the regent queen and mother of King Charles IX.

During the three days of violence that began on the night of August 23, 1572,  and spread from town to town, officials recruited Catholic citizens into militia groups that hunted down Huguenot citizens, indulging not only in murder but gruesome torture, mutilation and desecration of the dead.

Violence and murder followed in 12 cities over a two-month period after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, leading to the first wave of Huguenot departures from France to England, Germany and the Netherlands.

Violence such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre became the norm, as civilian bloodshed and military battles dragged on until the Edict of Nantes in April 1598, ending the civil war and granting Huguenots their demanded civil rights.

Huguenots used their freedom to organize against the French crown, gaining political power, amassing loyal forces and forging separate diplomatic relationships with other countries.

When Louis XIV ascended the throne in 1643, persecution of the Huguenots began again, escalating to the point that he directed troops to seize Huguenot homes and force them to convert to Catholicism.

In 1685 Louis XIV enacted the Edict of Fontainebleau, which replaced the Edict of St. Germain and made Protestantism illegal. More bloodshed ensued, and over the next several years, more than 200,000 Huguenots fled France for other countries.

In 1686, Louis XIV decided he wanted to prevent Huguenots fleeing to the south to Protestant communities known as the Waldensians, or Valdois, who were settled in the Piedmont region of Italy, which was just across the border.

Troops ravaged the Protestant villages, with 12,000 Protestants rounded up into camps, where most starved to death. The few that did survive were sent to Germany.

The departure of the Huguenots was a disaster for France, costing the nation much of its cultural and economic influence. In some French cities, the mass exodus meant losing half the working population.

Huguenots were particularly prolific in the textile industry and considered reliable workers in many fields. They were also an educated group, with the ability to read and write. Many countries welcomed them and are believed to have benefited from their arrival.

Some fleeing Huguenots made their way to Geneva first, but the city could not support so many people, and only some in the clock-making profession ended up staying there.

Parts of Germany that were still recovering from the Thirty Years War welcomed the Huguenots. The city of Brandenburg went so far as to advertise their eagerness for Huguenots to settle there. Some 4,000 Huguenots settled in Berlin and are considered to have been the spark that transformed it into a major city.

The most significant population ended up in the Netherlands, with Amsterdam received the most Huguenot transplants. Other cities were keen to attract Huguenots and competed to entice them, believing that the influx of skilled, literate workers could help revive their economies.

The British were not friendly with French King Louis XIV, and the Huguenots were welcomed there.

About one-fifth of the Huguenot population ended up in England, with a smaller portion moving to Ireland. The Huguenots are credited with bringing the word “refugee” into the English language upon their arrival in the British Islands when it was first used to describe them.

From 1688 to 1689, some Huguenots settled in the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa with the sponsorship of the Dutch East India Company. The offer was initially made in 1685, but only a handful of Huguenots showed interest.

After the Edict of Nantes, however, a couple hundred took advantage of the proposal, bringing their winemaking and other skills to South Africa.

The Dutch East India Company gave the Huguenot settlers farmland, but situated them between Dutch farming properties to separate the Huguenots and prevent them from organizing against the Dutch.

Some Huguenots had emigrated far earlier than the mass movement in the 17th century, but many met with misfortune. A group of Huguenots traveled to an island in Guanabara Bay in Brazil in 1555 but were later captured and murdered by Portuguese troops.

In 1564, Norman Huguenots settled in Florida in an area that is now Jacksonville but were slaughtered by Spanish troops following an altercation with the French navy.

Beginning in 1624. Huguenots began to arrive en masse in the New York and New Jersey area. In 1628, some moved into what would become Bushwick, Brooklyn. Others moved to New Rochelle and New Paltz, New York, as well as Staten Island.

By the time of the exodus beginning in 1685, Huguenot communities sprang up in MassachusettsPennsylvania, Virginia and South Carolina. Often, the Huguenot settlers would assimilate with existing Protestant groups.

The father of Paul Revere, Apollo Rivoire, was a Huguenot, and George Washington was descended from a Huguenot named Nicolas Martiau.

The U.S. Mint in 1924 commemorated the 300th anniversary of the arrival of Huguenots into the New World with a commemorative silver coin, the Huguenot-Walloon half dollar.

For the most part, Huguenots worldwide have successfully assimilated into the mainstream culture of whichever country they settled in, and many—if they follow any religion—practice a form of the Protestant religion for which the were originally persecuted.

Throughout England, France, Australia and the United States, remnants of Huguenot culture—including French Protestant churches, French names of towns and streets as well as textile and winemaking traditions—endure as reminders of the Huguenot’s global influence.

The Huguenots. Geoffrey Treasure.
The Huguenot Refuge. Virtual Museum of Protestantism.
Huguenot History. Huguenot Society of America.
Huguenot History. Huguenot Society of England and Ireland.
The arrival and establishment of the Huguenots at the Cape of Good Hope. Huguenot Society of South Africa.