The Development of Protestantism in 16th Century France
Graham Noble investigates the causes of the rise and fall of French Protestantism.
Within 20 years of Martin Luther pinning his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, a Protestant Reformation had begun to take shape in northern Europe. His ideas were never to find a natural home in France, but a different form of the religion, stemming from Calvin's Geneva, won supporters and gained coherence from the middle of the century. Churches burgeoned and congregations swelled as the Calvinist movement grew in spectacular style, attracting followers from every social class. By the 1560s, perhaps 1,250 churches were serving an adult population of 2 million so-called 'Huguenots', about 10 per cent of the total population of the State, including amongst them a third of the French aristocracy. Consequently, on the eve of the Wars of Religion, the triumph of French Protestantism seemed not just possible but, to many, inexorable. According to one's faith, either a divine revelation of religious truth was at hand or the punishment of God was being loosed upon a sinful world.
Yet the Protestant miracle never took place. Around 30,000 Calvinists were slaughtered in the massacres of 1572 and, as fighting fragmented and foreign powers became increasingly involved, the cause was lost to political and military necessity. The Civil Wars, which might have led to the triumph of Protestantism, ended by sanctioning it under royal licence, constricting its development and tying its future to the goodwill of Catholic Kings of France as yet unborn. So, how are we to explain the progress that French Protestantism made in this period?