Huguenotsthe common name of French Protestants during the Reformation. The name is still sometimes applied to French Protestants, especially French Calvinists. The term, of uncertain origin, came into use about 1560. The great leader of the Reformation in France was John Calvin, whose chief work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, appeared in 1536. Calvinism met severe persecution in France, but the movement grew.
In 1559 the first synod, or council, of Calvinist (or Reformed) churches met in Paris. The Huguenots won converts among many nobles and formed a loose national organization. The nobles who remained Roman Catholic feared the growing power of the Huguenots and there began in 1560 a series of wars, lasting more than 30 years. Although religion played a part, they were also partly political wars.
Huguenot leaders included Gaspard de Coligny and members of the Condé family, a branch of the House of Bourbon. The Catholic party was headed by the duke of Guise and his family. Catherine de' Medici, the queen mother and real ruler of France, tried to maintain a balance of power between the two parties. When she thought the Huguenots had grown too powerful, she won the king's consent for the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572), in which Coligny and thousands of other Huguenots were killed.
In 1589 Henry of Navarre, a Protestant, inherited the French throne as Henry IV. But the struggle continued because the Catholics would not accept a Protestant king. In 1593 Henry accepted the Catholic faith, which ended the Religious Wars. In 1598 he issued the Edict of Nantes, which granted the Huguenots liberty of conscience, full civil rights, and the right to hold public worship in towns where they had congregations. The Protestants were permitted to maintain armies and to hold their fortified towns.
Cardinal Richelieu, who in 1624 became virtual dictator of France as King Louis XIII's chief advisor, considered the separate political and military power of the Huguenots a threat to the power of the monarchy. Under Richelieu's command, the royalist armies destroyed the Huguenots' fortified towns, including their stronghold, La Rochelle, which fell in 1628. Richelieu's only aim was to break Protestant political power, and in the Treaty of Alais (1629) he guaranteed the Huguenots the religious liberties they had been granted by the Edict of Nantes.
In 1661, however, Louis XIV began a severe persecution of the Huguenots, and in 1685 he revoked the Edict of Nantes. More than 400,000 Huguenots, many of them leaders in trade, industry, and the professions, fled from France.
Many Huguenots remained at home in spite of persecution. In 1702 there was a Huguenot revolt in the mountain region of southern France. This civil war continued for several years before it was put down. The Protestants finally won freedom of religion in 1789 during the French Revolution. They flourished during the 19th century but split over theological issues, reuniting in 1907 in the National Union of the Reformed Churches of France. They joined with non-Calvinist bodies to form the Protestant Federation of France.
In the United States. In 1562 and 1564 Huguenot groups made settlements in South Carolina and Florida but the projects failed, partly because of Spanish attacks. After the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 thousands of Huguenot refugees settled in the English colonies, especially South Carolina.