The National Huguenot Society has a timeline of important Huguenot dates which provide a decent overview of their history with regard to French religious and civil life.

John Calvin decided to become a Protestant in 1533. In 1536, he published the first edition of his apologetic work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. That same year, he fled France for Basel, then Geneva.

By the 1550s, the Reformed faith was gaining more converts in France. This is a summary of what happened next:

25 May 1559 First Synod of the French Reformed Church held in Paris, followed by persecutions and issuance of Edict prohibiting “heretical” worship
1559 Attempt to replace Catholic Guises with Huguenot Condé as regent
1560 Huguenots petition the King and threaten revolt if persecution persists
1 March 1562 Massacre at Vassay begins French religious wars; Condé assassinated
1562 Huguenots sign manifesto saying they were forced to take arms
1 May 1562 Arrival at St. John’s River, in Florida, of the first pilgrimage by Huguenots to North America
1564 Death of John Calvin
1565 Huguenot colony massacred at St. John, FL
24 August 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in which tens of thousands of Huguenots were killed
1585 Huguenots/Protestants expelled from France
13 April 1598 Edict of Nantes by Henry of Navarre which granted religious and civil liberties to the Huguenots promises protection
18 October 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV which was published 22 October 1685, and resulted in persecution of the Huguenots; 400,000 flee France to other countries
28 November 1787 Promulgation of the Edict of Toleration


Now for a few extra notes from Wikipedia’s article on the French Wars of Religion:

1/ Francis I, who reigned between 1515 and 1547, was tolerant of ‘Lutheran’ practice for many years. Some of these Lutherans were actually Zwinglians. With the Affair of the Placards — involving militant Protestants protesting with anti-Catholic posters — in 1534, John Calvin left France for Basel. A number of those militant Protestants were burned at the stake in front of Notre-Dame de Paris. The incident enabled the Catholic Church to tighten its definition of heresy and enable Francis I to crack down on Protestant dissenters.

2/ In 1545, Francis I ordered a crackdown on the Waldenses in Provence. Those men who were not killed by French soldiers in the Massacre of Mérindol were forced into hard labour as galley slaves.

3/ By the 1550s, half of French nobility adhered to Calvinism, including Henry IV of Navarre. He converted to Catholicism only when he ascended the throne after his cousin Henry III’s death. Clearly, Calvinism was a force with which to be reckoned and a clear threat to the monarchy.

4/ In 1559, Henry II died, creating a power vacuum between Catholics and Protestants. Henry’s successor Francis II was only 15 years old. Hence the petition (see table above) of Huguenots to the palace to allow the Prince of Condé, Louis I of Bourbon, act as Regent. This would have removed the Catholic Guises from power. However, Mary Queen of Scots was a relative of theirs and a strong ally. The Guises were able to maintain their position.

5/ In 1560, the Prince of Condé attempted unsuccessfully to abduct Francis II in what became known as the Amboise plot or Amboise conspiracy. Condé’s arrest heightened religious tension in France. It was at this time that the word Huguenot became commonly used to refer to French Protestants. Francis II died later that year. His mother Catherine de Medici acted as Regent for his brother Charles IX. During the next two years, religious strife broke out in several French cities.

6/ In 1562, the Regency approved the Edict of Saint-Germain — the Edict of January — which attempted to quell disturbances. It allowed for public Protestant worship outside town limits and private worship within them.  However, within two months, an employee of the Guise family murdered Huguenots at a service in the Champagne region. This became known as the Massacre of Vassy.

7/ Tensions continued to escalate around the country. The first all-out religious war took place between 1562 and 1563. Condé led the Protestant faction. Fatalities on both sides forced Catherine de Medici to mediate; the result was the Edict of Amboise in 1563.

8/ For the next four years, an ‘Armed Peace’ reigned. However, both Catholics and Protestants were unhappy with the Edict of Amboise. The unrest affected or attracted the attention of other European countries. Charles IX, by then an adult, declared his support for Catholics in Flanders. The Spanish (Catholic) Philip II reinforced the territory along the Rhine, all the way to Italy. Huguenots unsuccessfully tried to abduct Charles IX in the Surprise of Meaux, near Paris.  These skirmishes provoked a second war between 1567 and 1568. It was resolved with the Peace of Longjumeau, which granted more liberties and privileges to Protestants.

9/ The third war started almost immediately after and lasted until 1570. William of Orange sent troops in to support his fellow Protesants but was paid off by the French Crown and withdrew. Protestant militias from Germany helped their co-religionists. Elizabeth I of England financed much of the Huguenot effort. France’s Catholics had help from the Duchy of Anjou, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany and the Papal States. Staggering debt forced Charles IX to call a halt to the war and the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye of 1570 granted more concessions to the Protestants.

10/ Interestingly, Charles IX was becoming friendly with Huguenot leaders, such as Admiral Coligny. Catherine de Medici was concerned because the Huguenots were being funded by the English and the Dutch.

11/ The Duke of Guise and a few supporters killed Admiral Coligny and several of his men in Paris.  They threw Coligny’s body out the window whereby a Parisian mob — we know what they are like — seized upon it and eventually burned it.

12/ Coligny’s assassination provoked the infamous St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in August 1572. Both Catholic and Protestant rulers were horrified, including the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II.  Over 10,000 Huguenots met with their death. This is, even today, one of France’s major historic dates to know and remember. Also, because so many of the Huguenot leaders died, Protestants felt endangered. It was at this time they started to leave the country. Others reverted to Catholicism as a survival tactic.

13/ The fourth war, which took place between 1572 and 1573 and included the Siege of La Rochelle, ended when the Duke of Anjou — who was leading the Catholics — was elected to the throne in Poland. The Edict of Boulogne severely curtailed public exercise of Protestant worship.

14/ A fifth war started the following year, ending in 1576. The Huguenots were more successful. Charles IX had also died, leaving Catherine de Medici in charge until the Duke of Anjou — the new King of Poland — could return to France as Henry III. The Edict of Beaulieu granted Protestants more concessions.

15/ The sixth war started soon afterward and lasted until 1577. The Guises were unhappy with the Edict of Beaulieu. The Protestants were developing a stronghold in the southwest, which — even today — is still quite Protestant compared with other French regions. England and some of the German states sent money their way. The Edict of Poitiers revoked many of the concessions of the previous Edict of Beaulieu.

16/ The wars continued with their respective treaties. Two of the Guises were lured to their deaths in 1588. The Catholics did not think Henry III was doing enough to combat Huguenots. The following year, a Dominican monk knifed Henry III in the spleen at Saint-Cloud, outside Paris, during a private audience. On his deathbed, the king begged his cousin Henry of Navarre to convert to Catholicism and take the throne.

17/ Henry’s conversion concerned French Huguenot noblemen. They also disliked Spanish support for the Catholic cause. The wars continued. In 1598, the famous Edict of Nantes was signed. It finally put an end to the French Wars of Religion, although no one had much confidence in it, despite that it offered concessions to both Catholics and Protestants.

18/ Conflict continued. Louis XIII — Henry’s successor — attempted to return the southwest to Catholicism. The implementation of the Edict of Nantes varied from year to year.

19/ Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685 with the Edict of Fontainebleau. Prior to that in 1681, he instituted a policy of dragonnades, whereby troops harrassed Protestant families, sometimes pressganging the men into military service. The object was to force conversion or emigration. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes was the last straw. It was at this time that the last of the influential Huguenots left for other parts of the world — northern Europe, the Americas and South Africa.

20/ It was not until Louis XVI’s reign nearly a century later that the remaining Protestants were granted fuller privileges of worship in 1787 under the Edict of Toleration (or Tolerance), also known as the Edict of Versailles. The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 went further in stipulating equality among Frenchmen. However, it was Napoleon Bonaparte who, in his Organic Articles of 1802, granted the freedom of both Catholics and Protestants to worship freely.