This series has seven easy 5 minute installments. This first installment: Persecutions Lead up to Revocation.
The Edict of Nantes of 1598 ended the religious wars in France. It recognized the rights of Catholics and Protestants (called “Huguenots”). A little less than a century later, Louis XIV revoked it and expelled the Protestants. This forced emigration of a skilled workforce benefited other countries in Europe as exemplified in the picture below.
This selection is from Histoire de France by Bon Louis Henri Martin published in 1836. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Henri Martin is one of the noteworthy historians of France. His history of France ran 19 volumes.
It was one of the glories of Henry of Navarre to end the religious wars of France by publishing the Edict of Nantes (1598), which placed Catholics and Protestants on a practically equal footing as subjects. By the revocation of that edict, in 1685, Louis XIV opened the way for fresh persecution of the Huguenots. Of the hundreds of thousands whom the King and his agents then caused to flee the country and seek civil and religious liberty in other lands, many crossed the sea and settled in the colonies of North America, especially in South Carolina.
By revoking the Edict of Nantes Louis XIV arrayed against himself all the Protestant countries of Europe. By seizures of territory he also offended Catholic states. In 1686 the League of Augsburg combined the greater part of Europe for resisting his encroachments.
This period of the “Huguenots of the Dispersion” was marked by complicated strifes in politics, religion, and philosophy. It was one of the most reactionary epochs in French history. No writer has better depicted the time, with the severities, atrocities, and effects of the revocation of the great edict, than Martin, the celebrated historian of his country.
For many years the government of Louis XIV had been acting toward the Reformation as toward a victim entangled in a noose which is drawn tighter and tighter till it strangles its prey. In 1683 the oppressed had finally lost patience, and their partial attempts at resistance, disavowed by the most distinguished of their brethren, had been stifled in blood. After the truce of Ratisbon, declarations and decrees hostile to Protestantism succeeded each other with frightful rapidity; nothing else was seen in the official gazette. Protestant ministers were prohibited from officiating longer than three years in the same church (August, 1684); Protestant individuals were forbidden to give asylum to their sick coreligionists; the sick who were not treated at home were required to go to the hospitals, where they were put in the hands of churchmen. A beautiful and touching request, written by Pastor Claude, was in vain presented to the King in January, 1685. Each day beheld some Protestant church closed for contraventions either imaginary or fraudulently fabricated by persecutors. It was enough that the child of a “convert” or a bastard (all bastards were reputed Catholic) should enter a Protestant church for the exercise of worship, to be interdicted there.
If this state of things had continued long, not a single Protestant church would have been left. The Protestant academy or university of Saumur, which had formed so many eminent theologians and orators, was closed; the ministers were subjected to the villein tax for their real estate (January, 1685). The quinquennial assembly of the clergy, held in May, presented to the King a multitude of new demands against the heretics; among others, for the establishment of penalties against the “converts” who did not fulfill their duties as Catholics. The penalty of death, which had been decreed against emigrants, was commuted into perpetual confinement in the galleys, by the request of the clergy. The first penalty had been little more than a threat; the second, which confounded with the vilest miscreants, unfortunates guilty of having desired to flee from persecution, was to be applied in the sternest reality! It was extended to Protestants living in France who should authorize their children to marry foreigners. It was interdicted to Reformers to follow the occupation of printer or bookseller. It was forbidden to confer on them degrees in arts, law, or medicine. Protestant orphans could have only Catholic guardians. Half of the goods of emigrants was promised to informers. It was forbidden to Reformers to preach or write against Catholicism (July, August, 1685).
A multitude of Protestant churches had been demolished, and the inhabitants of places where worship had been suppressed were prohibited from going to churches in places where it was still permitted. Grave difficulties resulted with respect to the principal acts of civil life, which, among Protestants as among Catholics, owed their authenticity only to the intervention of ministers of religion. A decree in council of September 15, 1685, enacted that, in places deprived of the exercise of worship, a pastor chosen by the intendant of the generality should celebrate, in the presence of relatives only, the marriages of Reformers; that their bans should be published to the congregations, and the registries of their marriages entered on the rolls of the local court. Similar decrees had been issued concerning baptisms and burials. Hitherto Protestantism had been struck right and left with all kinds of weapons, without any very definite method: these decrees seemed to indicate a definite plan; that is, the suppression of external worship, with a certain tolerance, at least provisionally, for conscience, and a kind of civil state separately constituted for obstinate Protestants.
This plan had, in fact, been debated in council. “The King,” wrote Madame de Maintenon, August 13, 1684, “has it in mind to work for the entire conversion of heretics; he has frequent conferences for this purpose with M. le Tellier and M. de Chateauneuf (the secretary of state charged with the affairs of the so-called Reformed religion), in which they wish to persuade me to take part. M. de Chateauneuf has proposed means that are unsuitable. Things must not be hastened. It is necessary to convert, not to persecute. M. de Louvois prefers mild measures which do not accord with his nature and his eagerness to see things ended.”
The means proposed by Chateauneuf was apparently the immediate revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which was judged premature. As to the “mildness” of Louvois, it was soon seen in operation. Louvois pretended to be moderate, lest the King, through scruples of humanity, should hesitate to confer on him the management of the affair. He had his plan ready: it was to recur to the “salutary constraint” already tried in 1681 by the instrumentality of soldiers to the Dragonade. Colbert was no longer at hand to interpose obstacles to this.
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