St Bartholomew and the Huguenots

On this day 1572 Europe was shocked by the anti-Protestant violence in Paris which came to be known as the St Bartholomew’s day massacre. In today’s blog and as a preview of her forthcoming volume of essays, Huguenot Networks, Dr Vivienne Larminie, Research Fellow in the Commons 1640-60 Section, discusses the impact of the massacre…  

This past week marked the seventieth anniversary of ‘Partition’, which saw the births of the separate nations of India and Pakistan. Commemorations of the end of the Raj and independence from imperial rule have been attended by some sadness. Eye-witness accounts of the experiences of thousands of refugees, and of the communal violence against religious minorities, which sometimes descended into horrific massacre, have been widely aired.

Inter-communal strife, refugees and massacres are all too familiar and recurrent. Sometimes they have arisen from attempted solutions to deep-seated differences which have gone awry. One of the darkest and most notorious episodes in early modern Europe was the massacre of St Bartholomew’s day in Paris on 24 August 1572.  In a context of religious civil war, some prominent French Huguenots (Calvinist Protestants) came to what was largely a Catholic city to attend the wedding of King Charles IX’s sister Margaret to Protestant leader Henry of Navarre. But a marriage that was meant to heal divisions merely exacerbated them. When some of the Huguenot nobles were assassinated on royal orders, mobs, incited by preachers and other partisans, roamed the streets and searched homes, killing Protestants they found – estimates suggest at least 2,000. The horrific spectacle was witnessed first hand by foreign visitors like Philip Sidney, the shock reverberated round Europe and continued to have an impact for decades. Eighty years later, during the British civil wars and interregnum, political writer James Howell remembered ‘the horrid massacre upon St Bartholomew’s, at which time brother did butcher brother’, wondering how it were ‘possible that a race of peeple adoring one God, born in one Countrey, fellow subjects to one King … eating the same bread, breathing the same air, shold prove such tygers?’ [A German Diet, or The ballance of Europe (1653), 54]. When, following the Restoration of the monarchy, the Cavalier Parliament of Charles II passed an Act of Uniformity requiring English clergy to subscribe – on pain of losing their parish positions – to the doctrine and discipline set out in the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer, and stipulated 24 August 1662 as the deadline for compliance, for those ministers who had sought a more reformed and/or a more tolerant church it rubbed salt into a deep wound.

Meanwhile, in the few weeks following the St Bartholomew’s day massacre the violence had spread through France, causing several thousand further deaths. The civil wars continued until Henry of Navarre, who had escaped the massacre by the skin of his teeth, became king of France as Henry IV in 1589.  In order to secure his kingdom Henry converted to Catholicism. In 1598 he issued the Edict of Nantes, which, along with complementary documents, permitted Protestants freedom of worship in places where they were already established, certain military strongholds to guarantee their safety, and other limited rights.  The Edict was unusual for its time in the extent to which it allowed a minority to practise publicly a faith different from that of the ruler.  Over succeeding decades insecurities periodically spilled over into further conflict and the Huguenots’ rights were eroded.  In 1685, after some years of organised pressure on their communities – for example, the billeting of troops on Protestant households (the dragonnades) – Louis XIV revoked the Edict and required his Calvinist subjects to renounce their faith (abjure) and embrace Catholicism.

The St Bartholomew’s massacre and the civil wars had encouraged waves of Protestant refugees and migrants to leave France for safer havens, in particular the United Provinces (now the Netherlands), the Swiss Confederation and England.  Partly because they were more susceptible to Protestantism (with its emphasis on individual conscience and the written Word of God), partly because they had the means to travel, those who fled were disproportionately nobles, the educated, and artisans and craftsmen with portable skills.  When the revocation of the Edict of Nantes provoked a much larger exodus, this is thought to have had far-reaching negative consequences on the French economy and considerable positive benefits for those of the Netherlands, Germany and Britain.  However, for individual refugees – the English word derives from the French refugiés – rebuilding lives in foreign countries was often difficult.

Huguenot Networks, a forthcoming collection of essays I have edited, explores how this religious minority not only gained a toehold in countries of exile, but also wove itself into their political, social, and religious fabric.  Contributors use correspondence, memoirs, parish registers, government records, and many other sources from across Europe to trace the refugees from provincial France to far-flung destinations, examining the familial, scholarly and business links which eased their path and the financial transactions which sustained them.  On arrival at their destination – or temporary staging-post – immigrants sought employment which matched their skill-sets; often this involved adaptation and compromise within a new set of economic, religious and political realities; sometimes it gave rise to significant and important contributions to the public life of the host nation.

A particular focus is London, the nucleus of many international Huguenot networks and a place where the impact of Huguenots was profound – on banking, charitable activity, and journalism, for example.  In future blogs based on the new volume I will talk about the interaction of the refugee French church established in Westminster in the 1640s with peers and MPs during the Civil War, and the implications of that for our understanding of the implementation of parliamentary legislation. Charles Littleton, another of our research fellows and also a contributor to the volume, will introduce the Huguenots who were at the forefront of early reporting on proceedings in Parliament, and who used this to promote a Huguenot political agenda.


For more information on Vivienne’s forthcoming volume, see here.

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