The Huguenots: A People Betrayed

In My Father’s Words


03/07/1938 – 18/10/2018

The Huguenots: A People Betrayed


In 1570 Pope Pius V issued a Papal Bull deposing Queen Elizabeth I from the crown of England and absolving her Catholic subjects from any allegiance to her.  The bull spoke of the Queen as ‘being without dominion and privilege; a heretic queen who now stood deprived of her pretended right to the realm.’  It was understood that any person who took her life would be doing God’s work and would not be guilty of sin.  It was the 16th Century equivalent of a ‘fatwa’.  She was routinely referred to by the Catholic rulers of Europe as a bastard and a whore.

Elizabeth reigned from 1558 to 1603.  In those 45 years she had executed some 400 Catholics.  All were put to death for treason, many for attempts on her life, and not for heresy.

On 24th August 1572, the feast of St Bartholomew, in Paris, about 10,000 Huguenots, or French Protestants, were murdered in one night.  For this event, the Pope issued a medal to celebrate the massacre. 

At the beginning of the 16th Century the Catholic Church was a corrupt, intolerant, morally bankrupt and violent organisation, accustomed to settling religious differences by the simple expedient of killing its opponents.  Jews and Moslems had so suffered, especially at the hands of the brutal Jesuits in the Spanish Inquisition.  Many of the priests, theoretically celibate, kept wives and families.  The Pope was active in building St Peters to the greater glory of God.  He had no money, but conjured up what today we might call ‘a nice little earner’.  Anyone who had sinned could pay money to the church for the forgiveness of those sins.  The fees were, of course, on a sliding scale, so rich people could literally ‘get away with murder.’  I do not know if this practice, the selling of ‘indulgences’, included a pre payment system for sins which folks anticipated committing.

Not all the clergy were corrupt.  There were many good and holy men and women in the Church, but overall the organisation had the stench of death about it.  In this atmosphere it was inevitable that many would object.  One of these objectors was Martin Luther, a priest who had visited Rome on a number of occasions and had been appalled by the corruption he witnessed there.  In particular, he objected to the practice of selling ‘indulgences’.  In 1517 Luther pinned his famous 95 theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral.  It was a protest and the followers of Luther became Protestants.  He was excommunicated and outlawed, but his ideas survived.

In France the torch was carried for the most part by Jean Calvin, who was forced to flee to Switzerland.  The French Protestants were called Huguenots, a derogatory term, of uncertain origin, coined by their opponents.  Like the nickname ‘Desert Rats, some 400 years later, it was adopted with pride.  Prime among Calvin’s objectives was the printing of the Scriptures in French, for ordinary, non Latin reading, people to read.  This did not please the church, which caused books to be burned, presses to be destroyed, and just to make their point, the printers to be burnt at the stake.  The Pope discovered, as many other dictators have subsequently discovered, you cannot destroy ideas with fists.

As more and more French followed Calvin and became Huguenots, politics and religion became inevitably intertwined.  Three inconclusive wars were fought between 1562 and 1570.  Following a peace treaty, many Huguenots served at Court and in the Army and Navy.  In Paris on 24th August, 1572, all that ceased.

It is widely believed that, on the orders of King Charles IX, and his mother, Catherine de Medici, an attempt was made to assassinate the Huguenot leader, Admiral Coligny, and after him the Royal soldiers sought out Protestants, men, women and children.  It is impossible to be certain, but about 10,000 people were brutally murdered, often being beheaded or torn to pieces.  Their bodies were burned or thrown into the sewers.  In the following weeks, in the provinces, perhaps another 100,000 met their deaths.

War followed and it was not until 1594 that some sort of general peace came about.  Henry, Prince of Navarre and a Protestant, became king of France, but only after changing to become a Catholic.  As he said, “Paris is worth a mass.”

He introduced the Edict of Nantes, granting freedom of religion to all.  In 1610 Henry IV was murdered and again, the wheel turned against the Huguenots.   Over the next 70 years they were betrayed, more and more oppressed, losing all their freedoms.  By 1685, when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, Huguenots were forbidden to own business or land; forbidden from burying their dead during daylight; forbidden to hold religious assemblies and they had large numbers of dragoons, or soldiers billeted on them.  The punishments were ferocious; mothers sent to convents; fathers executed or sent to the galleys; children removed from their parents and preachers routinely executed.

At a time when the population of France was around 14 million, about a million Huguenots fled rather than abjure their faith.  They went to the Protestant countries of Europe, Switzerland, Holland, the German States and England.  Perhaps as many as 300,000 came to England.

Huguenot soldiers fought all over Europe against fellow, but Catholic Frenchmen.  Huguenot forces were decisive in the Battle of the Boyne, in Ireland, a battle which ensured that James II could not reclaim the British Crown.  Some of those soldiers were granted land near Lisburn in County Antrim.  A village grew on the spot and was named Hilden, after their previous home in the Rhineland.  I have traced my family as living in Hilden since 1810, all good Presbyterians.  I can go back no further but like to believe we are descended from those Huguenots of so long ago.

In an ironic twist of history, during the French Revolution, hundreds of Catholic priests, loyal to Rome, suffered the same fate that their forebears had delivered to their Huguenot counterparts.

Written by BM

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