Revocation of the Edict of Nantes

Historical Context Essay

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On 22 October 1685, the Parlement of Paris registers the decree of King Louis XIV – the Edict of Fontainebleau – that effectively puts an end to the legitimate, though limited, existence of Reformed subjects in his kingdom, which was granted in 1598 by King Henry IV in the so-called Edict of Nantes.

Historical background

While the followers of the Genevan reformer John Calvin (1509-1564) were usually called Calvinists, in France they were also known as “Huguenots”. In use ever since the mid-sixteenth century, the origin of the name Huguenot remains unknown, although various theories suggest that it may have been derived from the German word Eidgenossen, a term signifying “confederates bound together by oath” and which was used to describe Genevan patriots who were hostile to the Duke of Savoy. Although initially tolerated, the Reformed movement was continuously persecuted from the mid-16th century onwards, with persecution reaching its peak in 1572 during the massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day. After the Wars of Religion culminated with the ascension to the throne of the French king Henry IV (1553-1610), a former Huguenot himself, the position of the Huguenots improved. The Edict of Nantes, issued in the spring of 1598, granted them certain liberties, while affirming Catholicism as the state religion. Huguenots were allowed to practice their religion in allocated regions, and even to have military garrisons. However, they did not have the right to spread their religion further. In fact, Huguenots were granted fewer legal rights than their Catholic compatriots. Following the Edict of Nantes, Huguenots exercised their right to establish educational systems, including the famous Academy of Saumur, founded by Philippe Duplessis-Mornay, and the Academy of Sedan, where the subsequently-famous Huguenot philosopher Pierre Bayle taught. The center of the community was the Temple, or Huguenot Church, the elders of which supervised various communal affairs.

After the assassination of Henry IV in 1610 by the Catholic fanatic François Ravaillac, the position of the Huguenots was slowly undermined by the ruling Catholic elite during the course of the reign of Louis XIII (1601-1643). Nevertheless, many Huguenots remained loyal to the King, and when the minor Louis XIV (1638-1715) faced a coup during the mid-century aristocratic rebellion known as the Fronde, the Huguenots sided with their sovereign. Despite this support, however, following the onset of his personal reign in 1661, Louis XIV gradually began to turn a blind eye to Huguenot liberties, allowing anti-Protestant tendencies in society to manifest themselves in occasional crimes, despite Huguenot pleas for justice. The King also took measures to restrict Protestant freedom of speech, forbidding criticism of the Catholic Church in an effort to promote Catholicism as the official religion of France. Throughout Louis’ personal reign, Huguenot liberties were undermined and economic activities and trade were limited, with the state even interfering in decisions regarding the clothes that Huguenot pastors and state functionaries were allowed to wear. Many churches were closed under various pretences. Huguenots were accused of siding with France’s Protestant enemies, of endangering the peace of the state, and of opposing the King. Nonetheless, most Huguenots were loyal subjects who did not see Louis XIV as directly responsible for their misfortune. Rather, as their ancestors had done during the sixteenth-century Wars of Religion, they accused the King’s counsellors of giving him bad advice. The Huguenots were encouraged to convert to Catholicism by means of material benefits, and an enormous economic pressure was put upon them, depriving them of possible sources of income. This would be done, for example, by forbidding them to exercise various professions, such as being a midwife, or by limiting their participation in guilds. These policies culminated in 1681 with the implementation of the dragonnades, a policy which constrained Protestant families to provide lodging for ill-disciplined dragoons and for ordinary infantrymen, who were given implied permission not only to make use of the entire house, but also to abuse the inhabitants morally and physically and to destroy or steal their possessions in an effort to incite Huguenots either to abjure their faith or to emigrate altogether. This caused much distress to the Huguenot population, which was still uncertain of the future.

Protestant schools were shut down and the number of academies diminished in an attempt to force Huguenots to send their children to schools run by the Jesuits, where they would be influenced by their zealous tutors. The Huguenots were also deprived of civil equality when a law was proclaimed that allowed Protestant children to convert to Catholicism as early as the age of seven, without parental permission. Some Protestant children were removed from their families without their parents’ consent and many Huguenot churches were closed down or destroyed on the basis of false accusations, depriving the congregation of places of worship. All this meant that the Edict of Nantes was effectively being emptied of meaning and power, as the King signed laws that clearly opposed its main principles, setting a precedent for local authorities to continue to undermine Protestant positions. These persecutions caused many Huguenots to seek their fortunes abroad, taking refuge in the Calvinist United Provinces of the Netherlands (The Dutch Republic), the Protestant States in Germany, and England. Despite the growing harassment and disenfranchisement of Protestant populations, however, it was not clear that Louis XIV intended to revoke the Edict of Nantes until the very last moment.

Edict of Fontainebleau

The Edict of Fontainebleau, which revoked the Edict of Nantes, was issued by the King on October 17 1685, and published five days later by the Parlement of Paris. According to the decree, Huguenots were forbidden to practice their religion altogether, including in the homes of nobles, and all Huguenot temples and schools were to be closed down. Pastors were allowed to leave France and were given two weeks to do so or to convert to Catholicism and receive financial benefits. They could even pass exams to become lawyers without the common three-year course of studies for the Doctorate in Law; all others had to stay in France. Those who left France would be allowed to return within four months from the publication of the Edict, and regain their possessions, while those who chose to stay abroad would lose everything. Furthermore, men who tried to escape France would be sent to galleys (or in the case of women, to prison). What was even more trying for the Huguenots was the clause of the edict that forced them to baptize their children into the Catholic religion and to send them to a Catholic school. Although clause 12 of the Edict stated that Huguenots could continue living in the French Kingdom without the obligation to convert, in fact they had little choice other than conversion or clandestine emigration, because of the lack of any possibility to practice their religion.

Between 70,000 and 200,000 people left France after the Edict of Fontainebleau took effect (usually referred to as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes). However, not all Huguenot refugees fled because they wanted to freely exercise their faith. Persecution deprived them of sources of income and of the means to make a living. At the same time, while they could be classified as economic migrants, it is important not to forget that their situation was caused by religious persecution. In addition, the refugees had to leave all their property and possessions behind, leading them to experience even greater financial difficulties abroad, where they often ended up dependent on the good will of the government and of the local communities in the countries of refuge.

Most of the refugees went to the countries where Huguenots had previously established communities. There, charity and moral support were more readily available to them. Each newcomer had to confirm his Huguenot faith before the consistory or explain the reasons for his abjuration. Many of the refugees first arrived in the Netherlands, while some continued their journey to a second or even a third country, even settling in America and South Africa. The refugees after the Revocation ranged from very poor to very rich, encompassing all strata of the population. While many of the refugees could read, as reading the Scripture was one of the leading Huguenot principles, only a fraction could be considered well-educated. That fraction consisted of graduates of Huguenot academies who went on to pursue careers as doctors, journalists, lawyers, men of letters, theologians, or pastors. With this knowledge they contributed to the advancement of the Dutch and English circles of the unofficial scholarly society of the time, the Republic of Letters. Huguenot scholars were among the important predecessors of the Enlightenment. At the same time, Huguenot artisans and craftsmen brought new technologies into the hosting countries, in particular in weaving, painting, and furniture-making. This at times caused jealousy among the locals and created tensions between the two groups. Nevertheless, the rulers (and in some countries, the guilds) understood the importance of these new discoveries and accepted a limited number of Huguenots in order to profit from their knowledge.

In the Netherlands, many Huguenots found refuge within the existing Walloon communities (originally referring to a region mostly referring to the Southern Netherlands, but then including the Calvinist immigrants of the previous waves of refugees originating in the sixteenth century both from the Southern Netherlands and from France) in The Hague and Rotterdam, while others settled in such cities as Utrecht, Amsterdam, Groningen, and Leeuwarden. Each city had the individual right to decide whether to let the refugees settle or not. In the United Provinces Calvinism had a privileged status: the Stadholder was a staunch defender of the Reformed faith and only adherents of this religion could be appointed to public offices. The country was known for its religious toleration, since many communities co-existed rather peacefully, albeit without possessing equal rights. Many of the Dutch Calvinists saw it as their duty to help their co-religionists, while others were worried about the economic burden that this would pose. Some cities did not allow any Huguenot settlement at all. The Walloon Churches were the places where the Dutch elite (who held the French language and manners in high esteem) and the newcomers, could have met. These contacts would at times lead to employment opportunities.

In England the major wave of refugees only arrived after the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the Catholic King James II was deposed and replaced by the Dutch William III of Orange. Nevertheless, Huguenot settlement in England had already been allowed by King Edward VI in 1550. The Huguenots settled mostly in London, but also in Kent, and even went as far as Ireland, following the route of William III’s army. There were several churches founded by Huguenots in London, which served as community centres for the refugees. Huguenot churches were encouraged to adopt the Anglican rituals for prayers, albeit in French. Some of these churches refused to conform and remained true to their own tradition.

In the German territories, Brandenburg was particularly important, where the Prince-Elector Frederick William (1620-1688) not only allowed Huguenots to settle, but gave them special status. This was one of the most successful Huguenot communities of the Refuge. Other Protestant European countries, such as Denmark, also received Huguenots, though in smaller numbers.


For at least one generation, Huguenots were hoping to return to France, eager that the King would become aware of his mistake and allow his loyal subjects to come back. They maintained their language and traditions, establishing schools that taught and held religious services in French and continuing to use this language within the family. Nevertheless, despite an attempt to preserve the language, assimilation would already begin with the second generation. The members of the communities would learn the local language and marry local people to the point that by the end of the eighteenth century Huguenot communities had ceased to exist, though in some places, such as London, a French school was active well into the nineteenth century. In the Netherlands, the so-called “Eglise Wallonne” exists in several cities to the present day.

Despite their hopes, the Huguenots never returned to France, and the waves of refugees from that country continued well into the first quarter of the eighteenth century. It was only in 1787, just over a year before the French Revolution, that King Louis XVI (1754-1793) granted religious freedom to his subjects.

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Citation: Green, Michaël. "Revocation of the Edict of Nantes". The Literary Encyclopedia. First published 10 January 2017 [, accessed 27 February 2024.]

19490 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes 2 Historical context notes are intended to give basic and preliminary information on a topic. In some cases they will be expanded into longer entries as the Literary Encyclopedia evolves.

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