A Short Huguenot History



The French branch of the Reformation came to be referred to as the Huguenots. In the main 
they followed the teachings of the French-born Reformer John Calvin. 

By the middle of the 1550's the first congregations became established in France, and 
before the decade was finished there were over 70 churches, which met for their first Synod 
in 1559. In 1559, a sickly fifteen year old Charles IX ascended to the throne. The government 
was run by his mother, Catherine Medicis. Three powerful families contended for supreme power 
in France. Each was territorially based in a section of the country. Two of the families 
developed strong Huguenot sympathies.

At first, Catherine Medicis tried to promote peace between the Catholics and Protestants 
by granting certain privileges to the Huguenots by means of the Edict of St. Germain (1561).
The peace became short-lived when on 1st March, 1562 a number of Catholics descended on a 
large Huguenot assembly in Vassy, killing 1200. This ignited the the Wars of Religion which 
would rip apart, devastate, and bankrupt France for the next three decades.

By August 1570, the Regent Catherine de Medici was forced to declare the Peace of St. Germain 
to prevent the Huguenots from taking Paris. Their leader and spokesman, Gaspard Coligny, 
succeded in obtaining freedom of religious practice in all cities except Paris. Coligny was 
the Admiral of the French navy as well as Governor of Picardy. He joined the Protestants in 
1559.  The Peace of St Germain had illustrated clearly just how much power was vested in the 
Huguenots. The Catholics feared this power and it was decided to eliminate the Huguenots, 
particularly their leaders. With the marriage of Prince Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot, to 
Marguerite Valois (daughter of Catherine Medici) on 23rd and 24th August, 1572 a golden 
opportunity presented itself. It happened during the wedding, when thousands of Huguenots 
converged on Paris for the wedding celebrations.

At some point during the night of August 23, the decision was taken at the Louvre to kill 
Coligny and the Huguenot leaders gathered around him. Charles IX was certainly there along 
with Catherine de' Medici and Henri d'Anjou. It may not have been originally intended to be 
a general massacre. Charles IX was reputedly badgered into this decision by Catherine and his 
councillors, and when he finally broke he is alleged to have said, "Well, then kill them all 
that no man be left to reproach me."  The killing spread into the country side and lasted for 
3 days.  The powerful Huguenot Henry of Navarre's life was spared by pretending to support 
the Roman Catholic faith.  Despite persecution, Protestantism continued to flourish in Orange, 
Uzès, and especially Nîmes even though religious battles occurred regularly. 

When Henry of Navarre (King Henry IV) came to the throne in 1589 he pressed for the basic 
civil rights for the Huguenots although he himself had turned back to Catholicism. The 1598 
Edict of Nantes temporarily brought relief to the persecuted church. However, in 1685 King Louis
XIV of France revoked the edict. This drove the bulk of the Huguenots out of the country. France
lost so many highly skilled and industrious people in this "brain and skill drain," that its 
economy suffered severely. It is estimated that more than 250,000 French fled.  Perhaps that 
many more were killed in France before they could flee. Chief of state Richelieu, whose obsession
was the unification of all aspects of French society into a form approved by Paris, eventually 
suppressed or destroyed Huguenot communities throughout France.  The bloodiest of these 
skirmishes was in the Atlantic coast port of La Rochelle, but also destroyed were the Provençal 
strongholds at Uzès and Les Baux. The holocaust continued until the French Revolution.  Many 
Huguenots who did not find their death in local prisons or execution on the wheel of torture, 
were shipped to sea to serve their sentences as galley slaves. They were chained down to row 
galley slave ships which were not part of the French Navy (the French Navy was mostly Huguenot). 
The mortality rate was frightful. Few were released alive, most rowed to glory.  One Huguenot
that survived was Jean MARTEIHLE from Bergerac.  In his autobiography, he mentions a distant
cousin, Samuel de RIVASSON.  My GGGGGGGG Grandfather, Rev. Pierre de RIVASSON was the pastor
of the Bergerac Huguenot church in the 1680's. His notes have survived including the horrible 
treatment given to his family and torture that resulted in his death.  The Huguenots were a 
martyr church for over 200 years.


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