In 1598, France’s Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes which granted Huguenots a measure of religious and civil freedom. The edict was to put an end to the country’s long-running Wars of Religion.

Henry was a Huguenot who converted to Catholicism prior to his coronation. Perhaps it was for this reason that he issued it. The Edict of Nantes:

treated some Protestants with tolerance and opened a path for secularism. It offered general freedom of conscience to individuals and many specific concessions to the Protestants, such as amnesty and the reinstatement of their civil rights, including the right to work in any field or for the State and to bring grievances directly to the king.

If you have been able to read this series of posts regularly, you will know that skirmishes and persecution continued for some years under subsequent kings. The Huguenot city of La Rochelle on the central west coast was heavily targeted as was the southwest. How the edict was implemented varied from year to year.

Louis XIV was initially unconcerned about the Huguenots. Then in 1681, he introduced the dragonnades, whereby French troops could persecute Protestant families. The idea was to make their lives so miserable that they would convert — or revert — to Catholicism or leave the country. Those who resisted saw their families broken up. Children were sent away to live with Catholics, women were imprisoned in distant châteaux and men were often forced into becoming galley slaves.

As if that weren’t bad enough, Louis XIV married Mme de Maintenon in 1684. Being a devout Catholic and spending much time with her spiritual advisor convinced her to talk to her husband about clamping down on the Huguenots even further. Hence, the Edict of Fontainebleau of 1685, also referred to as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

From 1681 to 1701, most Huguenots left the country. Many of them were skilled craftsmen as well as members of the merchant class. They were well-educated, hard-working, creative, self-disciplined, responsible and honest people. They worked as silkweavers, winemakers, glassmakers, silversmiths, upmarket potters, cabinetmakers, clockmakers and specialised in other trades which benefited the French economy and society.

It’s interesting that northern European countries were delighted to welcome them: the Netherlands, England, Prussia and the German territories to name a few. These families sometimes sailed further abroad to North America and South Africa. The South African winemaking industry owes a big debt to the Huguenots who settled there; those who pursued the trade had owned vines in France and brought with them years of experience.

Meanwhile, back in France, Louis XV eventually relaxed the persecution of those Huguenots who stayed behind; by then, many French Catholics were beginning to realise how loyal most of the Protestant minority had been to the nation — and how much they would miss their specialised products.

Tomorrow: The full freedom and participation of Huguenots in society