The Huguenots’ Flight to Freedom
“By the King and Queen, . . . We do hereby Declare, That all French Protestants that shall seek their Refuge in, and Transport themselves into this Our Kingdom, shall not only have Our Royal Protection . . . But We will also do Our Endeavour in all reasonable Ways and Means so to Support, Aid and Assist them . . . that their living and being in this Realm may be comfortable and easy to them.”
THUS reads the 1689 declaration of William and Mary, the king and queen of England. But why did French Protestants, or Huguenots, as they came to be known, need to seek refuge and protection outside France? Why should their flight from France some 300 years ago interest us today?
Sixteenth-century Europe was racked by war and disputes involving religion. France, with its Wars of Religion (1562-1598) between Catholics and Protestants, did not escape this turmoil. In 1598, however, French King Henry IV signed an edict of tolerance, the Edict of Nantes, granting the Protestant Huguenots some religious freedom. This legal recognition of two religions was unique in Europe. For a time it put an end to the religious upheavals that had scarred 16th-century France for over 30 years.
Although intended to be “perpetual and irrevocable,” in 1685 the Edict of Nantes was revoked by the Edict of Fontainebleau. French philosopher Voltaire later described this revocation as “one of France’s great tragedies.” In the short term, it provoked the flight of about 200,000 Huguenots to other countries. Its consequences, however, went even further. But why was that earlier edict in favor of religious tolerance revoked?
Opposed From the Beginning
Even though the Edict of Nantes officially applied for almost 90 years, one historian says that it was already “dying when it was assassinated in 1685.” Indeed, the edict was not built on solid foundations. From the start, it contributed to what has been described as a “cold war” between the Catholic clergy and what they termed the “R.P.R.” (So-called Reformed Religion) From when it was issued in 1598 until about 1630, opposition to the Edict of Nantes revolved around public debates between Protestants and Catholics and around the publication of denominational literary works. However, intolerance had many faces.
After warring against the Protestants from 1621 to 1629, the French government tried to force them into the Catholic fold through a series of repressive measures. This harassment was intensified under Louis XIV, the “Sun King.” His policy of persecution led to revoking the Edict of Nantes.
As part of the clampdown, Protestant civil rights were progressively removed. Between 1657 and 1685, about 300 rulings, often suggested by the clergy, were made against the Huguenots. Those rulings attacked every aspect of their lives. For instance, a vast array of professions, such as medicine, law, and even midwifery, were forbidden to Huguenots. As to midwifery, one historian reasoned: “How was it possible to trust one’s life to a heretic whose goal was to destroy the existing order?”
The grip of oppression was further tightened in 1677. Any Huguenot who was caught trying to convert a Catholic was to be fined a thousand French pounds. State funds from exorbitant taxes were used to influence the Huguenots to convert. In 1675 the Catholic clergy gave 4.5 million French pounds to King Louis XIV, saying: “Now you must follow through on your show of gratitude by using your authority to wipe out the heresy completely.” This strategy of “buying” converts resulted in about 10,000 conversions to Catholicism within three years.
In 1663 conversion to Protestantism was made illegal. There were also restrictions as to where the Huguenots could live. An example of the extreme measures is that children at the age of seven could become Catholics against their parents’ wishes. Protestant parents were obliged to finance the education their children received from Jesuits or other Catholic instructors.
Another weapon in suppressing the Huguenots was the secretive Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement (Company of the Holy Sacrament). This was a Catholic organization that historian Janine Garrisson says amounted to a “vast network” covering the whole of France. Penetrating the highest spheres of society, it lacked neither finances nor intelligence information. Garrisson explains that its tactics were many: “From pressure to obstruction, manipulation to denunciation, the Compagnie used every means to weaken the Protestant community.” Nevertheless, most Huguenots stayed in France during this period of persecution. Historian Garrisson notes: “It is hard to understand why the Protestants did not leave the Kingdom in greater numbers as the hostility toward them gradually increased.” However, flight to freedom eventually became a necessity.
Back to Square One
The Peace of Nymegen (1678) and the Truce of Ratisbon (1684) freed King Louis XIV from external war. Across the Channel in England, a Catholic became king in February 1685. Louis XIV could take advantage of this new situation. A few years before, the Catholic clergy in France had issued the Four Gallican Articles, which restricted papal power. Pope Innocent XI then “viewed the French Church as almost schismatic.” Consequently, by revoking the Edict of Nantes, Louis XIV could enhance his tarnished reputation and restore normal relations with the pope.
The king’s policy toward the Protestants became blatantly clear. The soft method (persuasion and legislation) evidently had not worked. On the other hand, the recent dragonnades* were successful. So in 1685, Louis XIV signed the Edict of Fontainebleau, revoking the Edict of Nantes. The violent persecution associated with this revocation left the Huguenots in an even worse position than before the Edict of Nantes. What would they do now?
Hide, Fight, or Flee?
Some Huguenots chose to worship secretly. With their meeting places destroyed and their public worship banned, they turned to the ‘Church of the Desert,’ or underground worship. This was despite the fact that people who held such meetings risked being sentenced to death, according to a law passed in July 1686. Some Huguenots abjured their faith, thinking it would be possible to convert back later. Such converts practiced a superficial Catholicism that would be copied by later generations.
The government tried to consolidate conversions. To get jobs, new converts had to produce a certificate of their Catholicity signed by the parish priest, who noted attendance at church. If children were not baptized and raised as Catholics, they could be taken away from their parents. Schools were to promote Catholic education. Efforts were made to produce pro-Catholic religious works for the “people of the Book [the Bible],” as Protestants were called. The government printed over one million books and sent them to areas where large numbers had converted. The measures were so extreme that if someone who was ill refused Catholic last rites and he thereafter recovered, he was condemned to prison or the galleys for life. And when he later died, his body was merely dumped as if it were garbage, and his belongings were confiscated.
Some Huguenots turned to armed resistance. In the Cévennes region, noted for its religious fervor, militant Huguenots called Camisards revolted in 1702. Responding to the Camisards’ ambushes and night-time attacks, government troops burned villages. Although sporadic Huguenot attacks continued for some time, by 1710 the might of King Louis’ army had crushed the Camisards.
Another response of the Huguenots was to flee France. This emigration has been called a veritable diaspora. Most Huguenots were destitute when they left because the state had confiscated their possessions, the Catholic Church receiving part of the wealth. So it was not easy to flee. The French government reacted swiftly to what was happening, watching exit routes and searching ships. Pirates plundered ships leaving France, for there were bounties for capture of escapees. Huguenots who were found fleeing faced severe punishment. Making things harder, spies working within the communities tried to find out the names of those planning to flee and their routes. Intercepted letters, forgeries, and intrigues became the order of the day.
A Welcome Refuge
The Huguenots’ flight from France and their welcome in host countries was known as the Refuge. Huguenots fled to Holland, Switzerland, Germany, and England. Later some went to Scandinavia, America, Ireland, the West Indies, South Africa, and Russia.
A number of European countries passed edicts encouraging the Huguenots to immigrate. Among the incentives offered were free naturalization, exemption from taxes, and free membership in a trade guild. According to historian Elisabeth Labrousse, the Huguenots were mostly “young males . . . enterprising, energetic subjects of exceptional moral worth.” Thus France, at the height of her power, lost skilled workers in a number of trades. Yes, “possessions, fortunes and techniques” went abroad. Religious and political factors also played a part in offering refuge to the Huguenots. But what were the long-term consequences of this emigration?
The revocation of the Edict of Nantes and attendant persecution provoked negative international reaction. William of Orange was able to capitalize on the anti-French sentiment to become ruler of the Netherlands. With the help of Huguenot officers, he also became king of Great Britain, replacing Catholic James II. Historian Philippe Joutard explains that “Louis XIV’s Protestant policy was one of the principal causes of the overthrow of James II [and] the formation of the Augsburg league. . . . [These] events mark a turning point in the history of Europe, leading to the replacement of French hegemony with English hegemony.”
The Huguenots played an important cultural role in Europe. They used their newfound freedom to produce literature that helped to shape the philosophy of the Enlightenment and ideas of tolerance. For example, a French Protestant translated the works of English philosopher John Locke, propagating the idea of natural rights. Other Protestant writers emphasized the importance of freedom of conscience. The idea developed that obedience to rulers is relative and could be ignored if they broke the contract that existed between them and the people. Thus, as historian Charles Read explains, the revocation of the Edict of Nantes was “one of the obvious factors of the French Revolution.”
Given the counterproductive consequences of persecution and the loss to the state of so many valuable people, the Marquis de Vauban, military adviser to King Louis XIV, urged the king to restore the Edict of Nantes, stating: “The conversion of hearts belongs only to God.” So why did the French State not learn its lesson and reverse its decision? Certainly one contributing factor was that the king feared weakening the state. Furthermore, it was expedient to pander to the Catholic revival and religious intolerance of 17th-century France.
Events surrounding the revocation have caused some to ask, “How much pluralism can a society allow and tolerate?” Indeed, as historians have noted, it is not possible to consider the Huguenots’ story without thinking about “the mechanisms of power and their perversions.” In societies today that are increasingly multiracial and religiously diverse, the Huguenots’ flight to freedom is a poignant reminder of what happens when church-inspired politics take primacy over the best interests of the people.
See the box on page 28.
[Box on page 28]
Conversion by Terror
Some viewed the dragoons as “excellent missionaries.” Among the Huguenots, however, they aroused panic, and in some cases whole villages would convert to Catholicism upon hearing of their arrival. But who were these dragoons?
Dragoons were heavily armed soldiers billeted in houses of Huguenots with a view to intimidating the occupants. The use of dragoons in this way was known as the dragonnades. To increase the burden placed on families, the number of soldiers sent to a house was disproportionate to the family’s resources. The dragoons were authorized to brutalize families, make them suffer loss of sleep, and destroy possessions. If the occupants would abjure the Protestant faith, the dragoons would leave.
The dragonnades were used to obtain conversions in 1681 in Poitou, West France, an area with a high Huguenot concentration. Within a few months, from 30,000 to 35,000 converted. The same means was used in 1685 in other Huguenot enclaves. Within a few months, from 300,000 to 400,000 abjurations were obtained. According to historian Jean Quéniart, the dragonnades’ success “made the Revocation [of the tolerant Edict of Nantes] inevitable, because now it seemed possible.”
© Cliché Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris
[Picture on page 25]
This 1689 declaration offered refuge to French Protestants seeking relief from religious oppression
By permission of The Huguenot Library, Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland, London
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Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, 1685 (First page of the revocation shown)
Documents conservés au Centre Historique des Archives nationales à Paris
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Many Protestant temples were destroyed
© Cliché Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris