Show Notes for Episode 427: Huguenot Heritage in France

Category: French History

Discussed in this Episode

  • Catherine de Medici
  • Duc de Guise
  • Wars of Religion
  • Saint Barthélemy's Day Massacre
  • Protestant cities like Montpellier and Montauban
  • Dragonades
  • Reformed Church
  • Protestant Temples

Huguenots  and France: HISTORY AND MEMORY

The story of Protestantism in France goes back 500 years, to the early 1500’s. Like Catharism three hundred years earlier, this “new” reformed version of Christianity, took hold very quickly and attracted the upper, educated classes first. Menacing the established order of things, both in the Catholic Church and in the Monarchy, the advent of this newer form of Christianity very quickly led to a genuine Civil War. Forever changing the landscape of the country, and leading to a massive emigration, these new Christians, called “Huguenots” as they fled, were and are an essential part of France’s past and present.

Places of Memory to Visit:

There are many Protestant Temples (not churches) throughout the country still now, but most of them are modern and very modest in size. The majority of these churches are in the two regions of France where there were the most members of the Reformed Church from the beginning; in Alsace-Lorraine, and in Languedoc/Occitanie. But there are small Protestant churches in most major cities.

Besides  Protestant temples, there are some museums dedicated to the history and life of the Hugeunots and there are also several chateaux particulary in the Loire Valley, that played a part in this dramatic story.

The biggest and most important of the Protestant Temples are in Nîmes: the Grand Temple and the Petit Temple, and in St Jean du Gard.

There are Protestant cemeteries, mostly private, in Nîmes, Montpellier, Bordeaux, Castres and Cournonsec, the oldest dating back to 1782 in Nîmes.

Museums of Protestant History

The Museum of Protestantism of La Rochelle

The Musée du Desert in Mialet (Hérault)

The Musée Jeanne d’Albret in Orthez in Aquitaine (Pyrenees Atlantiques)

The Musée du Vivarais Protestant in the Alps (open in the summer)

The Musée du Protestantisme Dauphinois in the area close to Grenoble

The Musée du Protestantism: de la Réforme à la Laïcité : in the Tarn at Ferrières

The château of Talcy near Blois is the most important château connected to the history of the Huguenots. Because Jean Calvin, the “father” of the French Reformed Church studied law in Orleans and in Tours, the region of the Loire Valley is closely associated with the beginning of the “new” religion. Attacked by the French troops the château of Talcy was the site of a famous battle.

Bourges, in the center of France, is also closely associated with Protestantism, mainly because Marguerite de Navarre, the sister of the king, François I, was the Duchess of Berry and Bourges is its capital. In the church of the Palace of the Dukes of Berry it is possible to see Calvin’s pulpit!

Tours was one of the first cities to have a major part of its population convert to the “new” religion. That was because it was a prosperous, largely middle class city, famous for its drapers, silversmiths, and watchmakers who were a literate class with a certain education and open spirit.

Why Huguenots? One story is that the members of this new reformed church gathered to sing and pray out in the open (no churches or buildings would admit them then!) and they did so next to the Hugon Tower in Tours. To mock them, they were called the Huguenots… In fact, no one really knows for sure the exact origin of the word, but it quickly became a derogotory term for the members of the Reformed Church, and since then, it is associated with the millions who fled to other countries; Holland, England, Northern Germany, North America and South Africa.


At the end of the 1500’s, it was estimated that 7 to 8 million French had moved out of Catholicism, out of a total population of about 18 million! It was for this reason, besides the genuine disaccords on positions of dogma, that the kings, starting with Charles IX, and his cousins, the Dukes of Guise, a powerful royal family who were fanatic Catholics and who wanted the throne, began what became the most murderous period in France, far more devastating than the Revolution. This war was continued by Louis XIII, also a fanatic Catholic, and very ironically, the son of Henry IV, the only Protestant king France ever had.

The Beginning of Protestantism in France

The first official declared reform of Catholicism during the 1500’s began in Germany with the writings and declarations of Luther. He had been a monk, and was most concerned with the role of Rome and the power it wielded. However, in terms of dogma and theology, his ideas were not very different from Rome’s. But his writings and ideas inspired others to question the authority of the Catholic church. In France where the authority of the Catholic Church had been unquestioned for centuries, certain clergy and philosophers began to write about reforms. One of the biggest issues was the idea of translation of the bible into French, so that everyone could understand what was written. This was a revolutionary idea: it meant the enormous power of the clergy was being questioned and that anyone who could read might be able to understand and even question what was in the Bible.

Jean Calvin: The conceptor of French Protestantism

Jean Calvin, born in Noyon, in 1509, was a Catholic who trained as a lawyer even though he started out in seminary. His father decided he wanted his son to have a good wealthy life and so sent him to study law in Orleans. But Calvin was also interested in theology. He had access to and read Luther’s writings which were distributed in Alsace where he also did part of his studies (and which was German).

His interest in theology and his legal training led him to make a real distinction between religious dogma and law, and “earthly” or man made law, a difference that Luther did not make. And so Calvin began to write. In 1536 he published a work called The Institution of the Christian Religion, which questioned some of the ideas but also some of the politics of the Church. He had to leave for Alsace, and from there to Switzerland because of his ideas. Interestingly, the first Protestant church was established in Meaux, in the Champagne region in 1540.

These new “REFORMED” ideas very quickly spread throughout the kingdom of France. Even the king’s sister, Marguerite, a royal princess, took up the new religion and worked her influence to convince others to join. Royals, aristocrats, upper class artisans, educated people all through France starting to move away from the Catholic Church to this new “Reformed” church.

There were several other philosophers and clergy who also participated in this Reformation but Calvin, who by this time had become a pasteur (a minister of the reformed church) was the most important and influential.  Chased out of Switzerland for a couple of years because of his too radical ideas, he returned to Switzerland and lived in Geneva for the rest of his life.

By the 1550’s so many educated and well placed people in France had moved to this new church that the traditionalist part of the Royal Family decided it had to eliminate it (shades of Catharism!) This was especially true in Champagne, Normandy, Languedoc and Provence.

Beginning of Division of France

In fact in France, the hatred of the Reformed Church and those who adhered to it was as much a political power struggle as it was a threat to the authority of Rome. Several important members of the Royal family, the king’s sister, his first cousins the Coligny, some of the Bourbons pleaded for religious tolerance and the acceptation of the new Reformed church. Even Catherine de Medici, the mother of the kings who was Regente for several years, and who was Catholic, pleaded for religious tolerance because she knew there would be a civil war if that didn’t happen. She held a conference and invited Catholic and Reformed clergy to attend, to try to work out their differences, but it failed

1562 – Religious War Begins with the Massacre de Wassy in Champagne

In spite of an edict approved by Catherine de Medici that allowed Protestants to worship outside of the walls of the cities, an incident in Wassy, in Champagne started the war. A group of worshippers were “caught” using a barn inside the city walls by the Duke of Guise and his soldiers on their way to Paris. Fanatic Catholic, he ordered his troops to stop the worshippers and it degenerated into a massacre of over 50 civils, women and children included.

Religious freedom and political power blend together to create an atmosphere of fear and oppression. Protestants began to be killed just because they were members of the Reformed Church. Calvin convinced many of them to flee to Switzerland, Alsace, to the Northern countries, the Netherlands, western Germany, or England. In fact many French families did leave, but others went south, to the Cevennes, to Ariège, to the Occitania and Languedoc regions where there was already a huge population that has converted to the Reformed Church. Montpellier opened the first school of Reformed or Calvinistic Theology in France.

1572: The St Barthélemy Day Massacre in Paris: Open Civil War

The leaders of the Protestant church were convoked to Paris for a meeting in the hopes of reconciling the different religious groups. Instead, they were ambushed on the streets of Paris. These were noblemen, clergy, important people. Most of them were slaughtered, and the waves of attacks began throughout the country.

Cities that were a majority Catholic, like Toulouse, chased out all the Protestants. Cities like Montauban or Montpellier, majority Protestant, chased out all the Catholics. People were displaced everywhere. Many were killed. This is the period of the huge exodus from France. Families split apart.

1598: The Edict of Nantes

Henry IV, the Protestant, first cousin of the kings, became King of France against all odds! He signed the famous Edict of Nantes, that allows for religious tolerance and freedom of worship for all. Members of the Reformed Church could create places of worship LEGALLY, and openly.

“Safe” cities were created where Protestants could live in peace and not be chased or harrassed. They were; La Rochelle, Montauban, Castres, Montpellier, Nîmes, Uzès, Privas and Montélimar – the last three are in the Cevennes region.

Hostilities continue, families often split in two  and the hatred of each other continued. But Protestantism in all its forms was now ‘legal’. But France had lost a good chunk of its population.

1610: The Assassination of Henry IV:

He was king from 1589 until his death, killed by a fanatic Catholic, Ravaillac, in 1610.  Even though the Edict of Nantes was not revoked until 1685, the fighting continued between the Catholics and the Protestants under the reign of his son, Louis XIII and the Prime Minister Richelieu, who was a Cardinal and who hated the Protestants. They declare Protestantism “illegal” and there is a revolt in the south where the cities of the Midi and the West – this is the Rohan War.

The cities of Alès and Montpellier were completely destroyed in 1622.

La Rochelle suffered 13 months of siège in 1628

1629 : The Truce of Alès : Fighting stopped in return for the destruction of ALL the fortifications of Protestant strongholds.

1685 : The Edict of Nantes is Revoked. That is the end of tolerance and religious freedom until the Revolution over 100 years later.


Millions of Protestants left France, impoverishing it for a very long time. They were the middle class, the artisans, the educated classes and many of the minor nobility too. Those who stayed basically either went into hiding (as thousands did in the Cevennes region) or fled to Alsace or Switzerland, or, finally, accepted re-conversion to Catholicism to hold on to their property and businesses.

Clandestine, private cemeteries (the Protestants were not allowed to be buried in public cemeteries) were made, hidden away.

Even into the 1760’s, when the Affaire Calas became a “huge scandal, the hatred of Protestants led to incredible injustice.
As with the Ladinos, the Jews who ‘converted” to Catholicism in Spain and Portugal but who secretly kept their faith, so the Protestants had secret places of worship.

The oppression of the Protestants really continued through the entire 17th and 18th centuries, with Protestantism flourishing but hidden in the south or northeast, until 1789. With the Revolution, religious freedom and even more importantly, the power and role of the Catholic Church was rejected.
But the damage done by the mass emigration and the centuries of oppression, effected France for a very long time.


It is estimated that there are no more than 2 or 3 million Protestants in France now. That includes new groups like the Evangalist churches. Of those, about 26 % are in Alsace or Franche-Comté because of the tradition of Lutherianism in Germany and the closeness to Geneva for Calvinism. The other important area with a large population of Protestants is still Occitania-Languedoc, especially in and around Montpellier and the remote rural Cevennes. Nîmes has the largest Protestant church and Montpellier still has the school of theology.

The trauma and the scars of the War of Religion and questions of religious tolerance are still sensitive issues today. France lost an enormous, and very enlightened part of its population because of religious intolerance and struggles for power.

This is a fascinating and important part of the history of France that everyone should know about.

Keyboard at a Protestant Church in Strasbourg

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Category: French History