The Huguenots were French Protestants who followed the teachings of John Calvin, and who, due to religious persecution, were forced to flee France to other countries in the 16th and 17th centuries. Some remained, practicing their faith in secret. The Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther in Germany about 1517, spread rapidly in France, especially among those having grievances against the established order of government. As Protestantism grew and developed in France, it abandoned the Lutheran form and embraced Calvinism.
The new “Reformed religion” practiced by many members of the French nobility and middle-class was based on a belief in salvation through individual faith without the need for the intercession of a church hierarchy (the Lutheran view) and on the belief in an individual’s right to interpret scriptures for themselves (the Calvinist addition). Protestants believed that Christ was the only intercessor, the only priest, necessary for salvation. This belief placed French Protestants in direct theological conflict with both the Catholic Church and the King of France in the theocratic system which prevailed at that time. No other country called their Protestants Huguenots. They preferred the Presbyterian form of church governance, but in the New World, the Huguenots would eventually merge with the Episcopal Church (the American equivalent of England’s Anglican Church).
Because of their rejection of the Pope and the Catholic belief in transubstantiation, as well as opposition to the corrupt hierarchy of the papists and the absurd notion of the “divine right of kings,” Protestants were soon accused of heresy (viewed also as treason against the Catholic government) against the established religion of France (Catholicism), and a General Edict urging extermination of these heretics (Huguenots) was issued in 1536. Nevertheless, Protestantism continued to spread and grow, and around 1555 the first Huguenot church was founded in a home in Paris. The number and influence of the French Reformers (Huguenots) continued to increase after this event, leading to an escalation in hostility and conflict between the Catholic Church/State and the Huguenots.
Huguenot numbers peaked near two million by 1562, concentrated mainly in the southern and central parts of France, about one-eighth the number of French Catholics. In that year, some 1200 Huguenots were slain at Vassey, France, thus igniting the French Wars of Religion which would devastate France for the next 35 years. The Edict of Nantes, signed by King Henry IV (Henry of Navarre) in April, 1598, ended the Wars of Religion, and allowed the Huguenots some religious freedom, including the free exercise of their religion in 20 specified towns of France. Francis II and his wife Mary Queen of Scots, both virulent Catholics, began abusing Huguenots with torture and burning. After Francis’ death, Mary returned to Scotland (and would later be executed for treason against Elizabeth I of England). The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by King Louis XIV in October 1685 renewed persecution of the Huguenots, and hundreds of thousands of Huguenots fled France to other countries, despite laws prohibiting emigration. The Edict of Toleration in November 1787 partially restored the civil and religious rights of Huguenots in France, too late to help the diaspora. Voltaire declared that this disgraceful abuse by Louis XIV was “one of the greatest calamities to befall France.”
Since the French Huguenots were artisans, craftsmen, physicians, and professional people, they were well-received in the countries to which they fled. Most went initially to Germany, the Netherlands, and England, although some found their way to places as remote as South Africa (which has a Huguenot Museum in Franschhoek–French Hook). Considerable numbers of Huguenots migrated to British North America, especially to the Carolinas, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York. Their character and talents in the arts, sciences, and industry were such that they were a substantial loss to the French society from which they had been forced to withdraw, and a corresponding gain to the communities and nations in which they settled.
The exact origin of the word Huguenot is unknown, but many consider it to be a combination of Flemish and German. Protestants who met to study the Bible in secret were called Huis Genooten, meaning “house fellows.” They were also referred to as Eid Genossen, or “oath fellows” meaning persons bound by an oath. Two possible but different derivations incorporating this concept can be found in the Encyclopedia Britannica:
1. Huguenot, according to Frank Puaux, one-time President of the Société Française de l’Histoire du Protestantisme Français and author of the article about Huguenots in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica: “is the name given from about the middle of the sixteenth century to the Protestants of France. It was formerly explained as coming from the German Eldgenosen, the designation of the people of Geneva at the time when they were admitted to the Swiss Confederation. This explanation is now abandoned. Huguenot(s) is old French common in 14th to 15th-century charters. As the Protestants called the Catholics papistes (papists), so the Catholics called the protestants huguenots. The Protestants at Tours used to assemble by night near the gate of King Hugo, whom the people regarded as a spirit. A monk’s sermon declared that the Lutherans ought to be called Huguenots, as kinsmen of King Hugo, inasmuch as they would only go out at night as he did. This nickname became popular from 1560 on.”
The Encyclopedia Britannica offers a different explanation: “The origin of the name is uncertain, but it appears to have come from the word aignos, derived from the German Eldgenosen (confederates bound together by oath), which used to describe, between 1520 and 1524, the patriots of Geneva hostile to the Duke of Savoy. The spelling Huguenot may have been influenced by the personal name Hugues (“Hugh”); a leader of the Geneva movement was one Bésançon Hugues (d. 1532).”
The Languedoc version of the Huguenot Cross, discovered by the Reverend Andrew Maihlet in the Province of Languedoc reveals insignia of the Society, consisting of an open four-petal Lily of France (fleur-de-lis)–reminiscent of the Mother Country–in which each petal radiates outward in the shape of a “V” to form a Maltese Cross. The four petals signify the Four Gospels. Each petal, or arm, has at its outside periphery two rounded points at the corners. These rounded points are regarded as signifying the Eight Beatitudes. The four petals are joined together by four fleur-de-lis, also reminiscent of the Mother Country of France. Each fleur-de-lis has three petals. The twelve petals of the four fleur-de-lis signify the Twelve Apostles. An open space in the shape of a heart is formed between each fleur-de-lis and the arms of the two petals with which it is joined. This shape–a symbol of loyalty–suggests the seal of the great French Reformer, John Calvin. A descending dove pendant representing the Saint Esprit or “Sainted Spirit”– the guide and counselor of the Church–is suspended from a ring of gold attached to the lower central petal. In times of Persecution, a tear-drop (usually made of pearl) supplanted the Dove.
Important Dates in Huguenot History
1533 John Calvin flees Paris
29 Jan 1536 General Edict urges extermination of heretics (Huguenots)
1536 John Calvin becomes pastor in Geneva, Switzerland
1550s Calvinism comes to France with thousands of converts
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 Conde as regent
1560 Huguenots petition the King and threaten revolt if persecution persists
1 March 1562 Massacre at Vassay begins French religious wars; Conde assassinated
1562 Huguenots sign manifesto saying they were forced to take arms
1 May 1562 Arrival at St. John’s River, Florida, of the 1st pilgrimage by Huguenots to America
1564 Death of John Calvin
1565 Huguenot colony massacred at St. John, FL by Spaniards
24 August 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre–10s of 1000s of Huguenots are killed
1585 Huguenots/Protestants are expelled from France
13 April 1598 Edict of Nantes by Henry of Navarre grants limited religious and civil liberties to the Huguenots
18 October 1685 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV results in persecution of the Huguenots; 400,000 flee France to other countries
28 November 1787 Edict of Toleration (100 years after the diaspora)
Virginia/Huguenot Origins in France
The following places of origin (in the modern French regions) of many of our Huguenot ancestors have been cited in Baird’s Huguenot Emigration to America and The Huguenot, vol. 25. (The Huguenot Society). Bold indicates the region and names follow. Those in red are my family’s ancestors.
Jean Le Vilain
Tessy sur Vire
Abraham Saye /Sées
Pierre le Grand
Bohain [? may be Holland]
Thomas, Jean, & Louis duPré
Abraham Michaux (the Michaux family is prominent in Manakintown, VA records)
Jean Jacques Flournoy
Pays de la Loire
Olivier de la Muce
Abraham Sallé (a prominent member of VA)
Nicolas Martiau (another prominent member of Manakintown, VA)
Island of Ré
Jean La Chaumette (Shumate)
St. Fort de Conac
Vallon en Vivarais
Benjam De Joux
St. Martin de Courconas
Gévaudan, near Digne
If this information is helpful to you, please let me know. Sources around the web include The Huguenot Society, wikipedia, Encyclopedia Britannica, huguenot-manakin.org, europeanhistoryonline.com, and others.