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The King and the Huguenots: 1643 - 1715

from The Age of Louis XIV. The Story of Civilization, Vol. 8. 
Will and Ariel Durant. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1963, pp. 69-75

The King had not yet saved his soul, for there were 1,500,000 Protestants in France. Mazarin had continued and developed Richelieu's policy of protecting the religious freedom of the Huguenots so long as they remained politically obedient. Colbert recognized how valuable they were in the commerce and industry of France. In 1652 Louis confirmed the Edict of Nantes (1598) of his grandfather Henry IV, and in 1666 he expressed his appreciation of Huguenot loyalty during the Fronde. But it grieved him that the unity of France could not be religious as well as political; and about 1670 he wrote an ominous passage in his memoirs:

As to that great number of my subjects of the so-called Reformed religion, an evil . . . that I regard with sorrow . . . , it seems to me that those who wished to employ violent remedies did not know the nature of this evil, caused in part by the warmth of minds, which must be left to pass away and to die out insensibly, instead of exciting it anew by such contradictions. . . . I believed that the best means, in order to reduce the Huguenots of my kingdom by degrees, was, in the first place, not to constrain them at all by any new rigor, to cause that to be observed toward them that they had obtained from my predecessors, but to accord them nothing beyond this, and even to confine its execution within the narrowest limits which justice and propriety could permit.

This has an air of sincere intolerance. It is the view of an absolute king who has taken from Bossuet the motto Un roi, une loi, une foi--"One king, one law, one faith." It is no longer the tolerance of Richelieu, who appointed to office able men of any creed; Louis goes on to say that he would appoint only good Catholics to office, and trust thereby to encourage conversions.

The Church herself had never approved the toleration guaranteed by the Edict of Nantes. An assembly of the clergy in 1655 called for a stricter interpretation of the edict; their assembly of 1660 asked the King to close all Huguenot colleges and hospitals, and to exclude Huguenots from public office; their assembly of 1670 recommended that children who had reached their seventh birthday should be deemed legally capable of abjuring the Huguenot heresy, and that those who so abjured should be removed from their parents; in 1675 their assembly demanded that mixed marriages be declared null, and that the offspring of such marriages be classed as illegitimate. Pious and kindly priests like Cardinal de Bérulle contended that forcible repression by the state was the only practical way of dealing with Protestantism. One prelate after another urged upon the King the argument that the stability of his government rested on social order, which rested on morality, which would collapse without the support of the state religion. Catholic laymen joined in the argument. Magistrates reported troublesome conflicts between the rival creeds in the towns--Catholic attacks upon Protestant churches, funeral, and homes, and Protestant reprisals in kind.

Louis, against his better nature, yielded bit by bit to this campaign. Perpetually in need of money for war and elegance, he found the clergy offering him substantial grants on condition of accepting their views. Other factors drove him in the same direction. He was encouraging--bribing--Charles II to turn England toward Catholicism; how could he meanwhile allow Protestantism in France? Had not the Protestants, in the Peace of Augsburg (1555) and later, agreed to the principle Cuius region eius religio--that the religion of the ruler should be made obligatory upon his subjects? Were not Protestant rulers in Germany and the United Provinces banishing families that rejected the religion of the prince?

From the beginning of his active reign Louis--or his ministers with his consent--issued a succession of decrees that moved toward full revocation of the toleration edict. In 1661 he outlawed Protestant worship in most of the province of Gex, near the Swiss border, on the ground that Gex had been added to France since the edict; however, there were seventeen thousand Protestants in that province, and only four hundred Catholics. In 1664 advancement to mastership in the guilds was made especially difficult for any but Catholics. In 1665 boys of fourteen and girls of twelve were authorized to accept conversion to Catholicism and to leave their parents, who were thereafter required to pay them an annuity for their support. In 1666 the Huguenots were forbidden to establish new colleges, or to maintain academies for the education of the young nobility. In 1669 the emigration of Huguenots was made punishable with arrest if they were captured, and confiscation of goods; and anyone who aided a Huguenot to emigrate was subject to condemnation to the galleys for life. In 1677 Louis permitted the endowment of a "treasury of conversions," from which sums averaging six livres per head were given to Huguenots accepting conversion to the Catholic faith. In ensure durability of conversions Louis decreed (1679) the banishment of all relapsed converts, and the confiscation of their property. A protest from the Elector of Brandenburg, complaints from Colbert that these measures were depressing trade, and the King's absorption in campaigns interrupted the stream of prohibitions. But his reconciliation with monogamous Catholicism in 1681 turned him again to the holy war against the Huguenots. Now he told an aide that he felt himself "indispensably bound to effect the conversion of all his subjects and the extirpation of heresy." In 1682 he issued--and ordered all Protestant ministers to read to their congregations--an address threatening Huguenots "with evils incomparably more terribly and deadly than before." Within the next three years 570 of the 815 Huguenot churches were closed; many were torn down; and when the Huguenots tried to worship on the site of their ruined temples they were punished as rebels against the state.

Meanwhile the dragonnades had begun. It was an old custom in France to lodge troops in and at the expense of communes or homes. Louvois, minister of war, proposed to the King (April 11, 1681) that converts to Catholicism be exempt for two years from such billeting of troops. It was so ordered. Louvois now directed the military administrators of the provinces of Poitou and Limousin to house their dragoons (mounted soldiers) among Huguenots, especially among the well-to-do. In Poitou Maréchal de Marillac let his troops understand that he would not resent some apostolic zeal in their treatment of their heretic hosts. Soon the soldiers were robbing, beating, raping the Huguenots. When Louis heard of these excesses he reproved Marillac, and when they continued he dismissed him. On May 19 he ordered the suspension of conversion by billeting, and condemned the acts of violence committed in some places against the Reformers. Louvois notified provincial administrators that they might continue the dragonnades, but warned them to keep all knowledge of this from the King. The dragonnades spread through a large part of France, and brought in thousands of converts; some towns and provinces--Montpellier, Nîmes, Béarn--abjured wholesale their Calvinistic faith. The majority of the Huguenots, terrified, pretended conversion; but thousands, defying the laws, abandoned their homes and property and fled across frontiers or overseas. Louis was told that very few Huguenots were left in France, and that the Edict of Nantes had become meaningless. In 1684 the general assembly of the clergy petitioned the King that the edict be completely annulled, and that "the undisturbed rein of Jesus Christ . . . be re-established in France."

On October 17, 1685, the King revoked the Edict of Nantes as now unnecessary in a France almost entirely Catholic. All Huguenot worship and schooling were henceforth forbidden. All Huguenot conventicles were to be destroyed or transformed into Catholic churches. Huguenot clergymen were ordered to leave France within fourteen days, but emigration of other Huguenots was prohibited on pain of condemnation to the galleys for life. Half the goods of lay emigrants was pledged to informers. All children born in France were to be baptized by priests, and were to be brought up in the Catholic faith. A final clause promised that the few remaining Huguenots would be allowed to dwell peacefully in certain towns. This article was carried out in Paris and its suburbs; Huguenot tradesmen there were protected and reassured by the lieutenant of police; there were no dragonnades in or near Paris; the dancing could go on at Versailles, and the King could sleep with a good conscience. But in many provinces, under Louvois' urging, the dragonnades continued, and obdurate Huguenots were subjected to pillage and torture. Says the leading French authority on the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes:

All was permitted to the soldiers except murder. They made the Huguenots dance till exhausted; they tossed them up in blankets; they poured boiling water down their throats . . . ; They beat the soles of their feet; they pulled out the hair of beards . . . ' they burned the arms and legs of their hosts with candle flame . . . ' they forced them to hold burning charcoal in their hands . . . They burned the feet of many, holding them long before a great fire . . . They forced women to stand naked in the street, to bear the mockery and outrages of passersby. They bound a nursing mother to a bedpost, and held away from her the infant crying for her breasts; and when she opened her mouth to plead with them they spat into her mouth.

This holy terror of 1685, Michelet thought, was far worse that the Revolutionary Terror of 1793.. Some 400,000 "converts" were forced to attend Mass and receive the Eucharist; a few who spat out the consecrated wafers when they left the church were condemned to be burned alive. Obstinate Huguenot males were imprisoned in subterranean dungeons or unheated cells. Obdurate Huguenot women were sent to confinement in convents, where they received unexpectedly merciful treatment from the nuns.

Two provinces resisted with special valor. Of the Vaudois in French Dauphiné and Savoyard Piedmont we shall here later. In the valleys of the Cevennes range in Languedoc thousands of "converted" huguenots secreted retained their faith, waiting for time and chance to free them; and their "prophets," claiming divine inspiration, assured them that the time was near at hand. When the War of the Spanish Succession seemed to absorb French arms, the peasants formed rebel groups of "Camisards," who donned white shirts to be recognized by one another at night. In one foray they killed the Abbé du Chaylà, who had persecuted them with special ardor. A regiment of soldiery suddenly came down upon them, massacred them indiscriminately, and destroyed their houses and crops (1702). A remnant fought back ferociously until the conciliatory methods of Maréchal de Villars persuaded them to peace.

Of the 1,500,000 Huguenots who had been living in France in 1660, some 400,000, in the decade before and after the Revocation, escaped across guarded borders at the risk of their lives. A thousand tales of heroism survived for a century from those desperate years. Protestant countries welcomed the fugitives. Geneva, a city of sixteen thousand souls, found room for four thousand Huguenots. Charles II and James II, despite their Catholicism, offered Huguenots material aid, and eased their absorption into English economic and political life. The Elector of Brandenburg game them so friendly a reception that by 1697 over a fifth of Berlin's population was French. Holland opened its doors, built a thousand homes to house the newcomers, lent them money to set up business, and guaranteed them all the rights of citizenship; Dutch Catholics joined Protestants and Jews in raising funds for Huguenot relief. The grateful refugees not only enriched industry and trade in the United Provinces, they enlisted in Dutch and English armies fighting France. Some of them accompanied or followed William III to England to help him against James II; the French Calvinist Marshal Schomberg, who had won victories for Louis XIV, led an English army against the French, and died in defeating them in the battle of the Boyne (1690). Everywhere in these hospitable lands the Huguenots brought their skills and crafts, commerce and finance; all Protestant Europe profited from the victory of Catholicism in France. An entire quarter of London was occupied by French silk workers. Huguenot exiles in England became interpreters of English thought to France, and prepared the conquest of the French mind by Bacon, Newton, and Locke.

A minority of French Catholics privately condemned the massacres of the Revocation, and gave secret help and refuge to many victims. But the vast majority hailed the destruction of the Huguenots as the King's culminating achievement; now at land, they said, France was Catholic and one. The greatest writers--Boussuet, Fénelon, La Fontaine, La Bruyère, even the Jansenist patriarch Arnauld--extolled the courage of the King in implementing what they conceived to be the national will. "Nothing could be finer," wrote Mme. de Sévigné; "no king has done or will do anything more memorable." Louis himself was happy at having apparently completed a disagreeable but holy task. Says Saint-Simon:

He believed himself to have renewed the days of the preaching of the Apostles... The bishops wrote panegyrics of him, the Jesuits made the pulpit resound with his praises... He heard nothing but eulogies, while the good and true Catholics and bishops groaned in spirit to see the orthodox act toward error and heretics as heretical tyrants and heathen had acted against the truth, the confessors, and the martyrs. They could not endure this immensity of perjury and sacrilege.

Saint-Simon and Vauban were among the few Frenchmen who realized at the outset, the economic loss to France through the exodus of so many industrious citizens. Caen lost its textile manufactures, Lyon and Tours lost three fourths of their silk looms. Of sixty paper mills in the province of Angoumois only sixteen remained; of 109 shops in the town of Mézières eight survived; of four hundred tanneries in Tours, fifty-four were left. Ports like Marseilles declined through the loss of markets in countries that now, by the work and instructions of Huguenots, produced what formerly they had imported from France. The great reconstruction of the French economy by Colbert was partly undone; the industries that he had labored to develop in France went to nourish her competitors. As revenues from industry were sharply reduced, the government fell back into the hands of the moneylenders from whom Colbert had rescued it. The French navy lost nine thousand sailors, the army six hundred officers and twelve thousand troops; perhaps this depletion shared in the defeats that almost shattered France in the War of the Spanish Succession. And the will of Protestant Europe to unite against France had been strengthened by the ominous barbarity of the persecution, and by the please of the emigrés.


The Revocation may have been indirectly helpful to the arts, the manners, and the graces of life in France. The Calvinistic spirit, distrusting adornment, graven images, and levity, discouraged art, elegance, and wit; a Puritan France would have been an anomaly and a mistake. But the Revocation was a disaster for French religion. Bacon had remarked that the spectacle of the religious wars would have made Lucretius "seven times more epicure and atheist than he was:; what would he have said now? No stopping point was left for the Gallic mind between Catholicism and unbelief. Whereas in Switzerland, Germany, Holland, and England Protestantism had served to express rebellion against the Church, no such vehicle of resentment remained in France; the reaction against Romanism found it safer to be thoroughly skeptical than openly Protestant. The French Renaissance, unimpeded by Protestantism, passed directly into the Enlightenment after the death of the King.

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