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Summary and Significance of the Edict of Nantes (1598)

Mary Anthony
France was torn amidst the religious conflicts between two major Christian sects that left a bloody legacy in French history for more than 36 years. The Edict of Nantes became a negotiating decree and brought about a peaceful coexistence among the Roman Catholics and Protestants. Historyplex provides a summary and significance of the Edict of Nantes (1598).
When the Edict of Nantes was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685, some Protestants fled to Canterbury and took resort in the Black Prince's Chantry, which was a crypt of the South Transept of Canterbury Cathedral. This crypt is now known as the Huguenot Chapel and to this day, every Sunday, divine services are held in French.
Inspired by the Protestant Reformation of 1517, France moved towards Protestantism under the leadership of humanist Faber Stapulensis, the Bishop of Meaux, Guillaume Briconnet, and Gulliaume Farel.
The sovereigns of the nation like Francis I (1515-1547) and Henry II (1547-1559) who were staunch Roman Catholics did not entertain the reforms of these 'Lutherans' or 'bibliens', hence widely persecuted and subjected them to continue as minorities.
Continuing the barbaric persecution, the troops of Francis, Duke of Guise, massacred Huguenot believers in Wassy, on March 1, 1562, triggering a series of religious wars that engulfed France for many years.
It was only through the Edict of Nantes, in 1598, that the Protestants received religious tolerance in a Catholic dominated land, and hence, it is also known as the Edict of Tolerance. Given below are the salient features of this historic order.

Brief History and Background

➔ Protestants were regarded as heretics, and hence, termed as the 'vile race of Huguenots'. Huguenots was an obscure name given by the Catholics to the followers of Protestantism in the 15th-16th centuries, it is derived from the German word 'eidgenossen' or 'eiguenot' meaning confederates.
This derogatory word was used for the first time in 1520, in Geneva, for the early disciples of the Reformation, and afterwards for the ardent followers of John Calvin.
➔ John Calvin, also known as the 'Father of Huguenots', was an intellectual theologian who worked on the principals set by Martin Luther and made a dynamic impact on the doctrines of Protestantism. Under his guidance, religious ideas flourished far and wide.
In 1536, he published the famed text Institutes of the Christian Religion that standardized the hypotheses of Protestantism. His revolutionized religious dogmas stressed the sovereignty of the word of God and divine fore ordination.
➔ Protestantism in Geneva reached its zenith under John Calvin's influence, he created a tribunal, which was governed by ministers of religion and laypeople to control church discipline. The tribunal frequently advocated penalties to the secular courts, which were promptly followed.
➔ As Protestantism in France started gaining ground, a series of persecutions followed ordered by the monarchs as well as the Catholic church. Politically-backed religious Catholic groups, known as leagues, were formed to curb the Huguenots.
One such group was led by the Duke of Guise, who also had an eye for the throne and wished to replace King Henry III, who was a Protestant. This group was involved in the Massacre of Wassy, which triggered the religious wars.
➔ These civil wars were fought between the period of 1562-98, and are also known as the Huguenot Wars. The Guise family played a pivotal role during all the civil wars along with the crown reagent Catherine de Medici.
During the first three civil wars, Catherine de Medici tried to find a balance between the Catholic and Protestant sides, and a temporary pacification was obtained in 1570.
➔ August 24, 1572 proved to be the worst day ever for the Huguenots as 5,000 to 30,000 were massacred in what came to be known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, thus launching the fourth and fifth religious wars.
➔ Henri de Guise and Henry III were assassinated in 1588 and 1589, respectively. The next ruler King Henry IV took the throne in 1598, by converting to Catholicism. He believed that France needed a better future than the ongoing religious wars. It was he who signed the Edict of Nantes which finally ceased the civil wars.

Significance and Aftermath

➔ The edict was the scripted manifestation of a compromise between the Catholic religion of the state and the substantial minority of the French population. Its main intention was to obtain religious tolerance and offer the reformed Protestants a comparatively secure social life and restricted freedom of worship.
➔ 95 articles ascertained the Huguenots freedom of scruples and declared pardon from past brutalities. Four separate documents made up the Edict of Nantes.
The first consisted of ninety-two general articles, the second consisted of fifty-six 'secret articles' that granted freedom from the general articles to particular towns and individuals. The final two documents were royal writs, known as brevets.
➔ The first two documents had to be registered in the chief judicial courts of the Parliament of France in order to be forced as law, the royal brevets contained the most controversial laws regarding Protestantism, and they were subjected to end with the death of Henry IV.
➔ The general articles allowed the Huguenots' right to freedom of scruples and liberal right to worship in all towns that they occupied as of August 1597. It also guaranteed them the right to hold political office and advocate special new courts to enforce the edict.
➔ The two royal brevets supplied the Huguenots with lavish royal funds to help secure the French Calvinist Church and strengthen the fortified military posts in the towns under their control. These two royal orders were successful and lasted only until Henry IV remained on the throne. The edict lasted until it was revoked in 1685.
➔ The edict is criticized for the fact that it asserted the age-old French inheritance of 'one king, one faith, one law' rather than focusing on tolerance and secularism.
Catholic worship was allowed throughout France, whereas the protestants were banned from worshiping in Catholic regions, at court, and in Paris. The edict reintroduced Catholicism in places where Huguenots had long prohibited it, mainly in Béarn.


➔ The religious zealots condemned the new edict and to show their resistance, they assassinated King Henry IV in 1610, while he was traveling from Louvre. Henry IV's son, Louis XIII, was raised as a devout Catholic, and he resumed the persecutions by defeating the Huguenots in 1628, with the siege of La Rochelle, and created absolute Catholic monarchy.
➔ Louis XIII deprived the Huguenots of their previous military independence & grants through the Grace of Alais in 1629. The edict was bitterly resented by Pope Clement VIII, by the French Catholic clergy & the French parliaments. In 1629, Cardinal de Richelieu, chief minister of King Louis XIII, repealed the edict's political articles at the Peace of Alais.
➔ When Henry IV's grandson, Louis XIV, came to power he revoked the entire Edict of Nantes and replaced it with the Edict of Fontainebleau on August 18, 1685. This is known as the greatest act of religious intolerance in history.
➔ Under the new edict, all reformist churches and schools were destroyed, Huguenots were forcibly converted to Catholicism, their children were baptized and schooled as Catholics. Huguenots were prohibited from leaving France, and if their ministers subjected themselves to conversion, they were provided with increased salary.
➔ In spite of the restrictions on emigration, 170,000 Huguenots fled and colonized in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, England, the English colonies in America (mainly New York, Massachusetts, and South Carolina), and North America.
An estimated one million Protestants stayed in France by settling in the isolated Cévennes Mountains and came to be known as the Camisards. Louis XIV planned the Camisard War (1702-05) in order to remove them. This proved fatal for France as it lost its intellectual and talented subjects in vast numbers.
The effects of the religious wars as well as the revoking and persecutions were devastating on the French economy. It was only during the French Revolution, 1789 - 1799, that the Huguenots who had stayed back as minorities regained their civil rights.