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Who were the Huguenots?
John Calvin (1509 - 1564), 
religious reformer.
The Huguenots were French Protestants who were members of the Reformed Church which was established in 1550 by John Calvin. The origin of the name Huguenot is uncertain, but dates from approximately 1550 when it was used in court cases against "heretics" (dissenters from the Roman Catholic Church). As nickname and even abusive name it's use was banned in the regulations of the Edict of Nantes which Henry IV (Henry of Navarre, who himself earlier was a Huguenot) issued in 1559. The French Protestants themselves preferred to refer to themselves as "réformees" (reformers) rather than "Huguenots."

It was much later that the name "Huguenot" became an honorary one.

A general edict which encouraged the extermination of the Huguenots was issued on January 29th, 1536 in France. On March 1st, 1562 some 1200 Huguenots were slain at Vassy, France. This ignited the the Wars of Religion which would rip apart, devastate, and bankrupt France for the next three decades.

During the infamous St Bartholomew Massacre of the night of 23/24 August, 1572 more than 8000 Huguenots, including Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, Governor of Picardy and leader and spokesman of the Huguenots, were murdered in Paris. It happened during the wedding of Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot, to Marguerite de Valois (daughter of Catherine de Medici), when thousands of Huguenots converged on Paris for the wedding celebrations.
Catherine de
Medici
It was Catherine de Medici who persuaded her weakling son Charles IX to order the mass murder, which lasted three days and spread to the countryside. On Sunday morning August 24th, 1572 she personally walked through the streets of Paris to inspect the carnage. Henry of Navarre's life was spared by pretending to support the Roman Catholic faith. In 1593 he made his "perilous leap"and abjured his faith in July 1593, and 5 years later he was the undisputed monarch as King Henry IV (le bon Henri, the good Henry) of France.
When the first rumours of the massacre reached the Vatican in Rome on 2 September 1572, pope Gregory XIII was jubilant and wanted bonfires to be lit in Rome. He was persuaded to wait for the official communication; the very morning of the day that he received the confirmed news, the pope held a consistory and announced that "God had been pleased to be merciful". Then with all the cardinals he repaired to the Church of St. Mark for the Te Deum, and prayed and ordered prayers that the Most Christian King might rid and purge his entire kingdom (of France) of the Huguenot plague.

On 8 September 1572 a procession of thanksgiving took place in Rome, and the pope, in a prayer after mass, thanked God for having "granted the Catholic people a glorious triumph over a perfidious race" (gloriosam de perfidis gentibus populo catholico loetitiam tribuisti).

Pope Gregory 13 medal for Huguenot massacreGregory XIII engaged Vasari to paint scenes in one of the Vatican apartments of the triumph of the Most Christian King over the Huguenots. He had a medal struck representing an exterminating angel smiting the Huguenots with his sword, the inscription reading: Hugonottorium strages (Huguenot conspirators). In France itself, the French magistracy ordered the admiral to be burned in effigy and prayers and processions of thanksgiving on each recurring 24th August, out of gratitude to God for the victory over the Huguenots.

The Edict of Nantes was signed by Henry IV on April 13th, 1598, which brought an end to the Wars of Religion.

Henry IV, himself a
former Huguenot
(as Henry of Navarre)
The Huguenots were allowed to practice their faith in 20 specified French "free" cities. France became united and a decade of peace followed. After Henry IV was murdered in 1610, however, the persecution of the "dissenters" resumed in all earnestness under the guidance of Cardinal Richelieu. The Huguenot free cities were lost one after the other after they were conquered by the forces of Cardinal Richelieu, and the last and most important stronghold, La Rochelle, fell in 1629 after a siege lasting a month. 

Richelieu, who relent-
lessly persecuted the
Huguenots.

Louis XIV
Louis XIV (the Sun King, 1643-1715) began to apply his motto l'état c'est moi (I am the state) and introduced the infamous Dragonnades - the billeting of dragoons in Huguenot households. He began with a policy of une foi, un loi, un roi (one faith, one law, one king) and revoked the Edict of Nantes on 22 October 1685. The large scale persecution of the Huguenots resumed.
Protestant churches and the houses of "obstinates" were burned and destroyed, and their bibles and hymn books burned. Emigration was declared illegal. Many Huguenots were burned at the stake.

Stake
Scenes like these were common during the persecution of the Huguenots in France during the sixteenth and seventeenth century.
Click on picture above for enlargement.

At least 200 000 French Huguenots fled to countries such as Switzerland, Germany, England, America, and South Africa, where they could enjoy religious freedom. Between 1618 and 1725 between 5000 and 7000 Huguenots reached the shores of America.

The organised large scale emigration of Hugenots to the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa occurred during 1688 - 1689. However, even before this large scaale emigration individual Huguenots such as François Villion (1671) and the brothers François and Guillaume du Toit (1686) fled to the Cape of Good Hope. In 1692 a total of 201 French Huguenots had settled at the Cape of Good Hope. Most of them settled in an area now known as Franschhoek ("French Corner"), some 70 km outside Cape Town, where many farms still bear their original French names.

A century later the promulgation of the Edict of Toleration on 28 November 1787 partially restored the civil and religious rights of the Huguenots in France.

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