A Brief History of the Huguenots

13 May 2013

The Old Port at La Rochelle, one of the largest Protestant strongholds.

The Old Port at La Rochelle, one of the largest Protestant strongholds.


The Huguenots (properly pronounced yu-geh-noh) belonged to the Protestant Reformed Church of France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. France was a diverse territory at that time. Widespread dissatisfaction with corruption in the Catholic Church had led many to leave in favor of Martin Luther and John Calvin.

The total number of Huguenots peaked in the mid-sixteenth century when their numbers were estimated to be about 2 million (as compared to 16 million Catholics in the same period). Tensions were high between Catholics and the Huguenots.

The Edict of January, put forth by Catherine de Medici in 1562, attempted to quell the violence between the two groups, but it failed. The period from 1562 to 1598 is known as the French Wars of Religion. Henry IV, who recanted Protestantism for Catholicism when he ascended the throne in 1589, issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598, which, while enforcing Catholicism as the state religion, provided legitimacy for the Huguenots and a great degree of freedom.

Unfortunately, the peace did not last long, especially after Louis XIII ascended the throne in 1610. By this time, the majority of remaining Huguenots lived in the provinces of Aunis, Guyenne, Poitu, and Saintonge. As the seventeenth century progressed, the persecution continued. In 1685, Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, which revoked the Edict of Nantes and declared Protestantism to be illegal.

Huguenots started fleeing persecution in France in the mid-sixteenth century. Many went to nearby Eurpoean countries, such as England, Ireland, Wales, The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, and the Scandinavian countries. One group tried to settle in South America, at what is today Rio de Janeiro. Another group went to South Africa, where their descendants today are marked with their French surnames.

Many went to what is today the United States. They created the town of New Paltz, where they built what is today the oldest street in the country. They also formed the town of New Rochelle (named after the Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle in France).

Many Huguenots were members of the merchant class. They promoted the settlement of New France with the crown in the seventeenth century to increase business opportunities. While the official policy of the crown was to prevent Huguenots from settling in the colony, reality proved quite different.

Merchants travelled to oversee their business interests. And the colony was desperately in need of settlers, especially craftsmen. Although the Jesuits and other clergy were opposed, the civil authorities were quite tolerant of the Huguenots immigrating. In fact, during the seventeenth century, about one-third of all immigrants from France to New France came from the Huguenot strongholds of Aunis, Guyenne, Poitu, and Saintonge.

Unfortunately, they could not officially worship in Protestant churches.  Starting in 1659, the Catholic Church required many of these immigrants to formally abjure their Protestant faith. But even for those who did not, because there were no official Protestant churches, and with their children and grandchildren marrying Catholics, the Huguenots were fully assimilated. Some of ancestors were among this group.

In the late nineteenth century, as the tercentenary of the Edict of Nantes approached, many descendants looked for ways to honor their ancestors. Thus were founded a number of Hugenot societies around the world, whose members are mostly descendants of the Huguenots. In the United States, we have both the Huguenot Society of America was founded in 1883. There are also societies in Australia, Great Britain and Ireland, and South Africa. Cyndi’s List has a list of societies with websites.