Very briefly, we give here an explanation of the Huguenot story -- with many links to articles on Wikipedia, for those who want a fuller account -- as a background to Huguenot genealogy. It is not a pretty page in French history.
The man in the picture is John Calvin, a sixteenth century French Protestant who led the Reformed Church in Geneva. It is his teachings which dominated French Protestantism, much more so than the teachings of Luther. Initially, under the kings François I and Henri II, the Protestants were tolerated. They grew more numerous and powerful and then were not tolerated anymore.
The next king, François II, persecuted them pretty regularly. His mother, Catherine d'Medicis, tried playing power games with both the Protestants and Catholics, but that only created civil war. Soon after, on Saint Bartholomew's Day, 1572, Catholics started a three day slaughter of Protestants. Depending upon who tells the story, between 2,000 and 70,000 Protestants were killed. A couple of years later the king, Henri III, had some powerful Catholics assassinated, then a cardinal. This did not go down well, so it was the king's turn to be assassinated, in 1589.
The next king, Henri IV, was Protestant, but converted to Catholicism the night of the massacre, which saved his life. It was he who, in 1598, issued the Edict of Nantes. This finally gave the Protestants some legal rights and some places of safety, which they fortified. One of the most important of these, in terms of future emigrants from France, was La Rochelle.
The Edict was just a breather. Henri Quatre, as he was known, was a much loved and respected king, but not by everyone. He was assassinated in 1610 by a Catholic. His son, Louis XIII, followed and, with his minister, Cardinal Richelieu, began to chip away at the rights and freedoms his father had granted to the Protestants.
His son, Louis XIV, after taking away many Protestant rights and imposing many hardships, finally revoked the Edict all together in 1685. Protestant worship was banned, pastors were banished, churches destroyed, and emigration prohibited, which did nothing to stop the great migration to The Netherlands, England, Germany and America that led to so many descendants far from France now trying to trace their Huguenot ancestors.
A nifty little book that gives the whole history from the point of view of La Rochelle can be downloaded in its entirety from the Internet Archive: The Huguenots of La Rochelle .
©2009 Anne Morddel