Migratory flows (16th–19th century)

Gradual then radical abrogation

The Protestants' situation began to deteriorate in 1610 when they lost the loyal friend they had on the throne. According to Élisabeth Labrousse, the Edict of Nantes then closed shut, « like a tomb » on the Huguenots. With the Peace of Alès in 1629, the Protestants must forego the privileges granted in the Edict, not least their right to a military capability.

Thereafter, under Richelieu[1], and especially under Mazarin[2], their religious rights are eroded. For all that the Protestants remain the king's subjects, their situation becomes more and more precarious, whether from a financial point of view (the stipends fixed by the Edict of Nantes are no longer paid to them) or from a pastoral one (they are forbidden to supplement their clergy with foreign pastors, notably from Geneva). Under attack from the catholic clergy they become defensive. They do not condemn the pastoral objectives of reclamation since they entertain the same ambitions ; they do however strongly dispute the methods used to achieve these objectives.

The early years of Louis XIV's personal reign, starting in 1661 are decisive. In his Memoirs, drafted circa 1669-1670 for the instruction of the Dauphin[3], the king explains that the Huguenots are too numerous to be annihilated, which leads him to an other solution to force them back : On the one hand “press” them hard, that is henceforward interpret the Edict of Nantes as narrowly as possible in order to make the practice of Protestant worship more and more difficult and to fragment the communities ; on the other hand « to attract, even to reward those who might be receptive » in other words induce the Protestants to abjure[4], if need be by means of social or financial inducements. A carrot and stick policy was deployed : on the one hand financial inducements granted to the new converts by an ad hoc fund, the Caisse des économats which became known as the “converts fund”. Meanwhile, on the other hand, anti-Huguenot legislation proliferated. Although most court decisions were not implemented, given the weakness of royal administration, their proliferation ended up creating at best a sense of insecurity, at worst daily harrying.

As from 1670, writes Élizabeth Labrousse, « the Edict of Nantes was applied so incompletely – and with so much unpredictability – that, to all intent and purposes, one might as well consider it ‘revoked' ». For instance, the king's officers make sure that no temple (as reformed churches are called) has been built where not authorised and they have some destroyed, thus forcing the Huguenots to walk ever further to attend Sunday worship : around 1680, only about half of the temples allowed by the Edict of Nantes remained standing. Pastors are prohibited from preaching anywhere bar the place where they live, or from preaching in the open air. Also forbidden are the colloques[5] – local church meetings – as is the singing of psalms[6] outside places of worship; now, this was a pursuit the Huguenots readily indulged in, in the street, walking, working. Burials are only allowed at daybreak and nightfall which significantly restricts the social dimension of such collective acts. Royal officers restrict the reach of reformed schools. They allow local vicars to visit sick Huguenots unattended with a view to extract their abjuration on their death bed. One of the most significant rulings will, from 1679 impose the Roman Catholic faith on the royal commissioner assigned by the court to the supervision of Synodal proceedings in the coordinating body for France's Reformed churches.

These measures yielded a growing number of abjurations but they were not equal to rooting out Protestantism. The king therefore decided upon open persecution that would become known as dragonnades. In 1681, he sent in the Poitou then in Languedoc, that is in parts of the countryside most densely populated with Protestants, a large contingent of dragoons (mounted troop) instructed to do anything they could to make the Protestants' life untenable – while taking good care of never incommoding the Catholics, including those freshly converted. In order to be rid of the soldiers' presence (at a time when there were no barracks), all a Protestant family need do is abjure The arrival of military units is a calamity for a village community, even if they are not the enemy : cultivations are trampled over, food stores are plundered, houses are vandalised, men humiliated, women assaulted, sometimes raped. In the Poitou, this collective punishment saw 30,000 abjurations recorded in the region in a matter of weeks and it lead some to flee abroad by sea, notably towards England. Even the pastors lead in growing number the way to abjuration .

Gravure d'Engelmann, 1686

The Edict of Fontainebleau, which revoked in September 1685 the Edict of Nantes is therefore no bolt out of the blue. It rounds off a long standing drive entailing the reduction of liberties, the fall in the number of congregations, the dislocation of worship, the emasculation of resistance forces. It boils down to an order to destroy all the temples without exception, a ban on Protestant worship in any shape or form be it out in the open or in a barn ; pastors are obliged to choose between immediate exile or abjuration while, conversely, the other members of the community are forbidden to leave the kingdom on pain of being seized along with their property. The situation is far removed from the state of civil war in the 16th century. The Huguenot do not take up arms against the king's soldiers and, when some of them, the Camisards[7] made a military stand around the years 1702-1706, the armed rebellion was crushed.


Confronted to what it experienced as an utter disaster, the Protestant population reacted diversely, offering three types of response : first of all, abjuration. One pastor out of five or so determined to abjure ; in their wake the most part of the Protestant population, at any rate more than half a million worshippers accepted to join the Catholic church. In many cases, their Catholicism was nothing but pretence : when Louis XIV[8] signed, in 1787 an Edict of Toleration[9], several hundred thousand French people would declare themselves Protestant, descendants of those who had abjured, living proof that the Reformed faith had been kept alive in the secrecy of their homes by generations who sprang out in the open at the first opportunity. Next came clandestinity : some communities chose to defy the ban on worship and to meet clandestinely. They formed the Church in the Desert[10], particularly active in the Cévennes and who would, within a generation have acquired an effective and discreet organisation connected with the Churches of the Refuge[11]. Finally there was flight and exile – met with greater or lesser success. As the edict forbids the Protestants from leaving the kingdom, those who are caught in the act are severely punished : families are split, the women are sometimes imprisoned or sent to convents whence escape was rare ; the children are entrusted to religious institutions ; able men are chained to each other and condemned to walk in this condition through vast tracts of the kingdom, headed for the ports of Dunkirk to the North or Marseilles on the Mediterranean, there to be handed over to penal colonies and galley slavery for the greater prestige of the king.

The Revocation is the short-lived victory of a religious intransigence that brooked no other belief. For most 21st century men and women it represents one of the greatest, if not the greatest of Louis XIV's failings. This said, historians can no longer make theirs uncritically the words of Saint-Simon, as if the Revocation were an act of pure malice. It behoves to replace this royal act in the context of a worldview that understood religious tolerance as an openness to error. In this respect, the Huguenot Philosopher Pierre Bayle[12]'s thinking, when he advocates precisely the rights of the erroneous conscience, notably in his 1686 Philosophical Commentary does not reflect the views of the vast majority of his fellow countrymen no more indeed than that of all Protestants. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes is not a programme for the physical elimination of the Huguenots but an attempt at bringing the facts in line with the then prevailing understanding of the world.

  1. Cardinal Richelieu (1585-1642)

    Armand Jean du Plessis, Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu Churchman and statesman, very influential minister of Louis XIII.

  2. Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661)

    Churchman and statesman. Succeeding Richelieu, he advised Louis XIII and then queen regent Ann of Austria. The power broker during Louis XIV's minority.

  3. Dauphin

    The heir to the throne. Louis XIV's son died before his father.

  4. Abjure

    Whereas recanting refers to the confession of error and formal abandon of one's faith, be it under order from an ecclesiastical authority, abjuration stipulates a renunciation under oath. The Catholic encyclopaedia further indicates that the “term is restricted to the renunciation of heresy [... upon] reconciliation with the Church”. What might be seen by one party, negatively, as recanting the other would see, in a positive light, as conversion.

  5. Colloque

    French reformed churches are decentralised. They are structured from the bottom up whereby parishes meet at local level in assemblies called colloques thence in regional and national assemblies called synods (cf. the organisation of the Presbyterian churches).

  6. psalms

    The 150 psalms from the Bible were given French versified translation and musical settings and were frequently sung in Reformed churches

  7. Camisards

    The name given to the Protestants from the Cévennes (the hilly northern edge of the Languedoc) who tried to rise against Louis XIV's troops at the very beginning of the 18th century.

  8. Louis XVI (1754-1793)

    King of France from 1794 to 1792. Remembered as a week sovereign, he no less contributed significantly to the success of the American Revolutionary War, supporting the rebels first with arms and money then by sending substantial land and sea forces. His indecisiveness cost him dear during the French Revolution (partly caused by the American adventure) ; first upheld as the king of a constitutional monarchy, his bowing to conservative pressures to flee the country led to an unpopularity that turned into mistrust, and his eventual deposition, judgment and execution.

  9. Edict of Toleration

    The Edict of Toleration signed at Versailles in 1787 allowed the Protestants living in France their civil rights.

  10. The Church in the Desert

    The Church in the Desert : in reference to Biblical texts that frequently introduce the meeting with God in the desert, the persecuted Protestant Church readily perceived itself a Church in the Desert. At the heart of the Cevennes a Musée du Désert keeps up the memory of the persecution.

  11. Churches of the Refuge

    Communities of Protestant refugees abroad who worship in French. There were churches of the refuge in Switzerland, Germany, the Low Countries, England. Several churches like the French Church (now in Soho Square but for 300 years in Threadneedle Street as mentioned by Pepys) are today heirs to the post 1685 Churches of the Refuge.

  12. Pierre Bayle (1647-1707)

    French philosopher, author of an extensive Historical and Critical Dictionary. Strongly influenced by Protestantism, Bayle emerges as a forerunner of the critical method and the ideals of religious toleration and freedom of thought

AccueilAccueilImprimerImprimer Michel Grandjean, professeur à l’Université de Genève (Suisse) Paternité - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de ModificationRéalisé avec Scenari (nouvelle fenêtre)