King Louis XVI of France issued the Edict of Versailles, also known as the Edict
of Tolerance, which granted French Jews and Protestants (Huguenots) civil status
within Roman Catholic France and guaranteed them the freedom to practice their
faiths. The Huguenots had originally been granted the same rights accruing to
French Catholic subjects and the freedom to practice their faith when Henry IV
(1586 –1610) of France signed the Edict of Nantes (April 13, 1598), but that freedom
was revoked by Louis XIV in his Edict of Fontainebleau (October 18, 1685),
also known as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The French revolutionary
National Assembly restored the civil rights of the Huguenots in December 1789;
however, it was not until the complete separation of the French government and
the de facto state Roman Catholic Church in 1905 that there was complete religious
freedom in France.
The Edict of Nantes granted the Huguenots the following freedoms: to worship
in the Protestant manner in approximately 200 towns under the governance of
Protestant lords; to practice their trades and participate in all political processes;
and to bring disputes before special courts, called Chambres de l’Edit, composed
of equal numbers of Catholic and Protestant judges. The edict also established 70
places where Protestants could seek refuge if they felt it necessary to fl ee. These
freedoms allowed the party of French Protestants, also known as the Cause, to increase
suffi ciently in size, independence, and economic importance to give pause to
Louis XIII (reigned 1610 –1643) and his chief minister from 1624 to 1642, Cardinal
Richelieu (1585 –1642). Richelieu used the Protestant riots of 1621–1622 as an excuse
to revoke the privileges granted to Protestant enclaves, except Montauban and
La Rochelle, the latter of which was later laid siege to in 1628, and again in 1629,
resulting in the Peace of Alais. Although he had promised continuing religious tolerance,
Richelieu revoked the political privileges and power of the Huguenots.
The religious privileges granted by the Edict of Nantes slowly eroded under
Louis XIV, and the conversion of Protestants to Catholicism was promoted. Louis
XIV eventually revoked all freedoms given to the Protestants with the Revocation
of the Edict of Nantes. Fearing increased persecution, between 200,000 and one
million French Protestants responded by fl eeing France. Though Louis XV (1710 –
1774) continued to allow the persecution of Protestants—Protestant baptisms and
marriages were, for example, declared null and void—anti-Protestant laws were
rarely used after the Calas Case (1762 –1664). No Protestant property was seized after
this time, few Protestant clergy and no Protestant laity were hanged, and raids on
open-air religious meetings ceased. As toleration of challenges to French Catholicism
by French intellectuals and philosophes such as Voltaire and Diderot in eighteenthcentury
Paris grew, the city became a refuge for the more vocal Protestants.
Louis XVI’s Edit of Versailles (Tolerance) again allowed French Protestants to
openly practice their religious faith and again recognized Protestant baptisms and
marriages. Louis XVI had been encouraged in this action by French philosophical
and literary personalities, the most persuasive of which was Anne-Robert-Jacques
Turgot, and by Americans such as Benjamin Franklin. See also Religion.
FURTHER READING: Baird, Henry Martyn. History of the Rise of the Huguenots of France.
Kila, MT: Kessinger, 2006; Kuiper, B. K. The Church in History. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans,
1995; Martyn, W. Carlos. A History of the Huguenots. Ann Arbor: Scholarly Publishing Offi ce,
University of Michigan Library, 2005; Sutherland, N. M. The Huguenot Struggle for Recognition.
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980.