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The Edict of Nantes

September 1998 | by Stuart Fisher

Emigration of the Huguenots 1566
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World Cup fever is just about over. Like most of the nation I followed the fortunes of Glen Hoddle’s men with great enthusiasm, but I was also intrigued to know that their base camp for the competition was at Nantes. Perhaps this ancient city had only a passing concern for most fans, but, for any Evangelical, Nantes should hold a far greater interest.

Exactly four hundred years ago, in 1598, King Henry IV issued the now famous Edict of Nantes. For French Huguenots (see article ET May 98), this was a major turning-point in their struggle for religious freedom. The Edict set out some guarantees of protection for the Huguenots and made provisions to enable them to pursue their faith in a measure of freedom.

The events leading up to this remarkable act of toleration portray a complex tapestry of French life, with a dark backcloth of spiritual ignorance and superstition, mixed with the garish hues of papal opulence and power: a tapestry stained with the blood of war and persecutions, but threaded throughout with the gold of remarkable men and women. They would only own the one true gospel, and were prepared to die for it. These were the Huguenots, the children of the Reformation.

Martin Luther
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Gospel religion

Inspired by the teachings of Luther and especially Calvin, Protestantism was introduced to France in the 1520s. Initially gospel religion was well received across the spectrum of French society, even gaining the patronage of King Francis I and his sister, Queen Margaret of Navarre. The honeymoon was, however, short-lived. The forces of established religion were becoming alarmed at the Huguenots’ increasing influence. Alarm turned to intolerance as the power of Catholicism, aided and abetted by warring political factions, sought to crush the rising movement. There followed a series of persecutions against the Huguenots, punctuated only by a pattern of violent religious wars. Champions arose on both sides and sometimes other nations were drawn into the conflict that has stained this period of French history.

The darkest day of all took place on 24 August 1572, known as St Bartholomew’s Massacre. Two years of uneasy peace had lulled the Huguenots into a false sense of security. A plot was hatched by King Charles IX and his overbearing mother, Catherine de Medici, who were then able to slaughter thousands of Huguenots on that fateful day.

Henry IV of France by Frans Pourbus the younger.
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Religious tolerance

The eighth war took place in the reign of Charles IX’s successor, Henry III. In 1587 the Huguenots, ably led by Henry of Navarre, were victorious at Coutras. With the Catholics in disarray, and the assassination in 1588 of their leader, Henry l de Lorrain the duc de Guise, Henry III rallied to the Huguenot cause. On his death in 1589, Henry Navarre became the first Bourbon king of France, Henry IV. Ever the pragmatist, Henry sought a final solution to the religious conflict by converting to Catholicism in 1593, but also issued the Edict of Nantes, granting religious tolerance to the Huguenots.

Issuing the Edict as a Catholic King, Henry IV hoped his Catholic subjects would not feel he was betraying their interests. But at the same time, concerned about the continual threat of Spanish intervention, Henry also sought to placate the Huguenots with concessions, in the hope of rallying their support should the need arise. Thus for the sake of his throne a compromise package was produced for his Huguenot citizens.

Terms of the Edict

The terms of the Edict granted liberty of conscience to all Huguenots throughout France. Specified towns were allowed to build churches for Protestant worship. Some nobles were even permitted to hold services in their homes. Recognized Huguenot pastors were paid by the government. A five-mile exclusion zone was placed around Paris, however, preventing Huguenot influence in that city. Civil concessions were also granted enabling some Huguenots to hold official positions. The four universities of Montauban, Montpellier, Sedan and Saumur were allowed to come under Protestant influence. A court known as the Chambre de I’Edict was set up to give Huguenots representation in a parliament and, as a guarantee of protection, 100 fortified cities were given to them for eight years.

Though the provisions of the Edict were never fully carried out, it did produce a remarkable period of peace and stability, even of slow economic progress, in which Huguenots were able to flourish. These were days when the gospel had free course, the true church of God grew and the Huguenot universities became strongholds of Protestant theology. This period of respite was, however, short-lived. It was only twelve years old when, in 1610, Henry IV was assassinated by a monk, Francois Ravaillac.

Louis XIV SOURCE Wikipedia
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With the accession of the boy king Louis XIII and the influence of his mother and other court officials, plots were afoot to restore the old order. The famous edict was given scant regard and a series of persecutions commenced against the Huguenots. The next king, Louis XIV, pursuing an absolutist policy, only furthered this trend. The Huguenots took to arms once more and bravely resisted, as fresh wars broke out. Perhaps the most remarkable event of this period was their stout resistance to the king’s forces at the fortress-stronghold of La Rochelle, which finally fell in 1628.

The Edict revoked

The Edict of Nantes was only a ghost of a charter when it was finally revoked in 1685. Life for French Protestants now became intolerable, as old animosities were reopened. Within a day of the revocation, their adversaries acted. Places of worship were destroyed and former rights were trampled upon. Huguenots found themselves in a nightmare world, bereft of their freedoms. They were now mercilessly persecuted and forced under torture to abjure their faith. Acts of barbarity were performed on defenceless people.

Many bravely resisted and remained true to the faith. Others were crushed in spirit. In the blood-crazed frenzy of the king, even some of the ablest and most commercially creative of his subjects, were butchered because of their faith, or were imprisoned or exiled as galley slaves. This blood-bath of persecution not only stained the reputation of France for generations to come, but also deprived it economically and socially. Yet a faith born in adversity and nurtured in the cradle of suffering is a strong vibrant faith. It was one that could stand for the honour of Christ and the glory of his gospel to future generations.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon
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Escape

There were others who agonized over the decision to stay or leave, and chose the latter. Even for them, escape was fraught with danger. The borders were patrolled and each fugitive had a price on his head. Many risked life and limb for their freedom. Some disguised themselves, others lay buried under cargoes as they were smuggled out. Still others were either caught and returned or brutally killed. Like the dispersion in the Acts, the Huguenot emigrants settled in other nations, spreading the gospel vigorously. Fleeing to England, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the colonies in North America, these people were to provide the spiritual backbone of future generations of Protestants in these countries. A good example of this can be seen in the ancestry of the Spurgeon family in Essex. This family, which exhibited an outstanding line of piety and generations of able preachers including its most famous son, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, can be traced back to Dutch Huguenot settlers.

Relevance for today

It is right that we should remember these things. The Edict of Nantes was a breakthrough giving a brief measure of liberty to evangelicalism in France. To be reminded of the hardships these people endured, simply for the freedom to do what we now take for granted, should fill us with a deep sense of thankfulness to a God who has spared us and given us our liberty. All liberty comes at a price. The religious freedoms we now enjoy in this land, only came as a result of the struggles of earlier generations of godly men and women.

It should also remind us that we can never rely on man-made solutions for the preservation of God’s work. Whilst we do everything in our power to ensure that our leaders maintain a constitution that upholds religious freedom and moral laws, we must never become dependent upon man’s legislation. Our trust must only be in the God who is our Refuge. No one knows what twists and turns our nation might take in the future, changes that could make our evangelical stand difficult. How would we react? Would our faith remain intact? How would we compare with those brave people of four centuries ago? Can we learn from them?

God was their strength and help. They were a people who in all their suffering were able to look to a better country: ‘…a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them’ (Hebrews 11:16).

Other events in this period
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