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The Huguenots

Updated: Jul 18, 2022

Welcome to my 150th Post!

The French Huguenot Flag

Since a number of my relatives were Huguenots, particularly the DuBois family, I will now tell you a bit about them.

The origin of the name Huguenot is unknown but believed to have been derived from combining phrases in German and Flemish that described their practice of home worship.

John Calvin (1509-1564)

Huguenots were French Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries who followed the teachings of French theologian John Calvin. Following the Reformation, he became a leading figure in Protestantism in the 16th century, famed for his intellectualism. He believed in the sovereignty of God and introduced the concept of predestination, the doctrine that all events have been willed by God, usually with reference to the eventual fate of the individual soul. His approach appealed to educated Frenchmen, and followers included some of the brightest and most elite members of Catholic-dominated France, as well as prominent tradesmen and military officers. Because of the influence wielded by followers of Calvinism, it was initially tolerated by the crown. French Calvinists adopted the Huguenot name around 1560, but the first Huguenot church was created five years earlier in a private home in Paris.

By 1562, there were two million Huguenots in France with more than 2,000 churches.

In January 1562, the Edict of St. Germain recognized the right of Huguenots to practice their religion, though with limits. Huguenots were not permitted to practice within towns or at night, and in an effort to sate fears of rebellion, they were not allowed to be armed.

On 1 March 1562, 300 Huguenots holding religious services in a barn outside the town wall of Vassy, France when they were attacked by troops under the command of Francis, Duke of Guise. More than 60 Huguenots were killed and over 100 wounded during what would become known as the Massacre of Vassy. Francis claimed that he did not order an attack, but was instead retaliating against stones being thrown at his troops.

The Massacre of Vassy sparked off decades of violence known as the French Wars of Religion.

In April 1562, Protestants took control of Orleans and massacred many Catholic residents in Sens and Tours. In Toulouse, a riot resulted in the deaths of up to 3,000 people, many of them Huguenots.

The battling continued into February of 1563 when Francis, Duke of Guise, was assassinated by a Huguenot during a siege on Orleans and a truce was agreed upon.

Catherine de' Medici (1519 - 1589)

The religious violence soon escalated again. The wedding of the Protestant Henry, King of Navarre, and Marguerite de Valois, the King's sister, brought a great number of Huguenot notables to Paris.

On 22 August 1572, the day after the end of the wedding festivities, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a Huguenot leader, was shot in the street by a man called Maurevert from a house belonging to de Guise. However, the bullets only tore a finger from his right hand and shattered his left elbow. The would-be assassin escaped. The order had been given by Catherine de' Medici, King Charles IX's mother, due to her belief that Coligny was leading her son into a war with Spain. Charles promised to investigate the assassination in order to placate the angry Huguenots. Catherine then convinced the young 22 year old king that the Huguenots were on the brink of rebellion, and he authorized the murder of their leaders in Paris. A list of those to be killed was drawn up, headed by Coligny, who was stabbed with a sword, thrown out of his bedroom window and beheaded just before dawn on 24 August 1572. It was the start of what became known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

Once the killing started, mobs of Catholic Parisians, apparently overcome with bloodlust, began a general massacre of Huguenots. Charles issued a royal order on August 25 to halt the killing, but his pleas went unheeded as the massacres spread. Violence and murder followed in 12 cities over a two-month period after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Officials recruited Catholic citizens into militia groups that hunted down Huguenot citizens, indulging not only in murder but gruesome torture, mutilation and desecration of the dead. The mass slaughters continued into October, reaching the provinces of Rouen, Lyon, Bourges, Bourdeaux, and Orleans, leaving as many as 30,000 dead across France.

This led to the first wave of Huguenot departures from France to England, Germany and the Netherlands.

Violence such as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre became the norm, as civilian bloodshed and military battles dragged on until the Edict of Nantes in April 1598, ending the civil war and granting Huguenots their demanded civil rights.

Huguenots used their freedom to organize against the French crown, gaining political power, amassing loyal forces and forging separate diplomatic relationships with other countries.

When King Louis XIV ascended the French throne in 1643, the persecution of the Huguenots began again, escalating to the point that he directed troops to seize Huguenot homes and force them to convert to Catholicism.

In 1685 Louis XIV enacted the Edict of Fontainebleau, which replaced the Edict of St. Germain and made Protestantism illegal. More bloodshed ensued, and over the next several years, more than 200,000 Huguenots fled France for other countries, creating Huguenot settlements all over Europe, in the United States and Africa.

In 1686, Louis XIV decided he wanted to prevent Huguenots from fleeing to Protestant communities in the south known as the Waldensians, or Valdois, in the Piedmont region of Italy, just across the French border. Troops ravaged the Protestant villages, with 12,000 Protestants rounded up into camps, where most starved to death. The few that did survive were sent to Germany.

The departure of the Huguenots was a disaster for France, costing the nation much of its cultural and economic influence. In some French cities, the mass exodus meant losing half the working population. Huguenots were particularly prolific in the textile industry and considered reliable workers in many fields. They were also an educated group, with the ability to read and write. Many countries welcomed them and are believed to have benefited from their arrival.

Some fleeing Huguenots made their way to Geneva first, but the city could not support so many people, and only some in the clock-making profession ended up staying there.

Parts of Germany that were still recovering from the Thirty Years War welcomed the Huguenots. The city of Brandenburg went so far as to advertise their eagerness for Huguenots to settle there. Some 4,000 Huguenots settled in Berlin and are considered to have been the spark that transformed it into a major city. The most significant population ended up in the Netherlands, with Amsterdam received the most Huguenot transplants. Other cities were keen to attract Huguenots and competed to entice them, believing that the influx of skilled, literate workers could help revive their economies.

Beginning in 1624, Huguenots began to arrive en masse in the New York and New Jersey area. In 1628, some moved into what would become Bushwick, Brooklyn. Others moved to New Rochelle and New Paltz, New York, as well as Staten Island.

In 1661, the Huguenot DuBois family and their relations arrived in the New World. You can read more about them here.

By the time of the exodus beginning in 1685, Huguenot communities had sprung up in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and South Carolina. Often, the Huguenot settlers would assimilate with existing Protestant groups. They became farmers, laborers, ministers, soldiers, sailors, and people who engaged in government. The Huguenots supplied the colonies with excellent physicians and expert artisans and craftsmen. For example, Irénée du Pont brought his expertise for making gunpowder learned from the eminent Lavoisier; and Apollo Rivoire, a goldsmith, was the father of Paul Revere, master silversmith and renowned patriot. George Washington, himself, was the grandson of a Huguenot on his mother’s side. The Huguenots adapted themselves readily to the New World. Their descendants increased rapidly and spread quickly. Today, people of Huguenot origin are found in all parts of our country.


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