The story of the Protestants

The story of the Protestants

Marked by tragic conflict, persecutions and symbolic events, the troubled destiny of the French Reformed Church left a considerable mark on the History of France, as well as a more discreet influence on its cultural heritage.

Simplicity was always one of the prime "virtues" of Protestantism, as can be seen in the simple architecture of the Protestant churches.

But beyond the places of worship, the vestiges of the long-besieged fortresses, caves used as refuges and museums reminding us of their exile and clandestine worship, are just some of the places that tell their story, spread throughout many regions in France: from Picardie to Provence, from Poitou-Charentes to the Hautes-Alpes, from the Drôme to the Cevennes...

A little history

Pierre Vaudès, a rich merchant born in Lyon, gave up his fortune to become a preacher. He was excommunicated in about 1184, but his disciples built up communities (who were persecuted constantly) in the Italian Piemont, in the Hautes-Alpes and in Luberon, right up to the 16th century, in spite of a series of massacres.

The Counts of Toulouse, the lords of Mirepoix and a whole population (from Albi to Carcassonne and Foix) began a new form of Christian worship, based on austerity. These "Perfects" or "Cathars" were fought against mercilessly as "heretics" from 1209 to 1244 by the Catholic "Crusaders" and the Inquisition.

The Medieval Inquisition was an ecclesiastic tribunal, an exceptionally strict form of justice led by the Catholic authorities (under the protection of the Pope) from the 12th to the 15th century, in France. Other types of Inquisition and persecutions followed, both in France and in Europe.

Jean Calvin, trained as a jurist and humanist, born in Picardie, wrote the sermons of his theological doctrine between 1533 and 1550, in the wake of Martin Luther (in Germany), and launched the Christian movement of Huguenots or Protestants.

Throughout the 16th century, the Huguenots were persecuted or at war with the Catholics, in a combination of power struggles and political events over matters of religious conscience. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they were often in exile, taking refuge in countries like Switzerland. They also chose to practise their religious clandestinely in their own country: the period was known as the "desert".

The Saint Bartholomew massacre, which took place from 22 to 24 August 1572 in Paris, crystallised the political and religious rivalries and the fight against the Protestants. This tragic episode in the religious wars in France occurred during the rise to royal power of Henri de Navarre, the future Henri IV. This lover of compromise was unable to prevent this massacre aimed at the Huguenots, who were becoming numerous and (too) powerful. Henri IV later signed the Edict of Nantes, in 1598, which (temporarily) calmed the fighting.

But in 1628, Cardinal Richelieu won the (second) siege of la Rochelle, which was intended to create confusion between political and religious issues. The event remains a witness to the heroic resistance of the Huguenots in the port of La Rochelle.

Political and religious power struggles continued under the reign of Louis XIV, who eventually revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This signalled the beginning of the clandestine practice of the Protestant faith: people met in secret, far away from the cities: it was known as the "desert" period and lasted more or less up to the Revolution in 1789.

After 1685, Dragonnades (punitive expeditions against the "heretics") took place in the Cevennes (between Lozère and Gard, and between Auvergne and Languedoc). Predicants (Protestant leaders) then led a rebellion and sent troops of peasants (known as Camisards) in a guerrilla-type battle against the Dragons (soldiers of King Louis XIV). The two camps committed acts of violence until 1705.

Important landmarks

Musée virtuel du Protestantisme français [Virtual museum of French Protestantism]
This cultural information website is a rich collection of documentation and publishes numerous historic chronicles. It is a very comprehensive resource centre and gives suggestions for spiritual and tourist visits.

Places of memory, by the l'Eglise réformée de France [Reformed Church of France]
A member of the Protestant Federation of, the Reformed Church publishes historical background on its website.

Fédération protestante de France [Protestant Federation of France
Founded in 1905, the Protestant federation gathers the different faiths in an ecumenical group.

Un répertoire des temples protestants [A directory of Protestant churches]
This documentary site, begun on the initiative of one person, lists the Protestant churches in France and their history. It explains in particular that in certain regions (Saintonge-Charentes, Ariège, etc.), barns were in fact hiding places for en fait des "houses of prayer" (places of worship) to replace their churches, forbidden under Louis XIV. The Huguenots thus remained underground until 1802.

Places of memory in the Champagne region
This is similar to the previous personal website, very well documented and instructive on the history of Reformed protestants. Here again, the most dramatic events are recounted, particularly the persecutions led by the Catholic "Ligue" in the 16th century in the French countryside.

The spirit of the places...

Jean Calvin Museum, in Noyon (Picardie)
This charming village, listed on the art and history register, in the heart of Picardie, boasts a fine religious heritage, in particular a gothic cathedral. But Noyon is especially the birthplace of Jean Calvin, the French founder of the Reform in the 16th century. A museum, created in about 1930, tells us of this important character in Protestant history.

Le Musée du Désert: history of the Huguenots and Camisards in the Cevennes
The birthplace of Pierre Laporte, known as Rolland, one of the chiefs of the Camisards, has been transformed into the Museum of the Desert. It tells of this period in the history of the region and also of the spiritual aspect of Protestantism, under the aegis of the French Society of the History of Protestantism. The museum is located in the tiny village of Mas Soubeyran, near the village of Mialet, near Anduze (Gard). It is open all year round, has a collection of 25,000 exhibits and archives, receives 15,000 visitors each year, and in 2011 will be celebrating its centenary.

Reminder: The Camisards organised the Huguenot rebellion, particularly around the famous Mount Aigoual (the highest point in the massif) and on the Gard side of the Cevennes, between 1685 and 1705.

Musée du Protestantisme en Haut-Languedoc [Museum of Protestantism in Haut-Languedoc], in Ferrières (Tarn)
This museum is near Castres, in the heart of the Monts de Lacaune, in Occitan country, on the Causses, between Languedoc and Midi-Pyrenees. A beautiful medieval fortress adds to the attraction of the historic site.

Musée du Vivarais Protestant [Museum of Protestant Vivarais], in Ardèche
Marie Durand, sister of the pastor Pierre Durand, was a Huguenot "martyr" from the Ardèche region, in the 18th century. Imprisoned for 38 years in the tour de Constance – the keep in the medieval town of Aigues-Mortes (in Camargue), she was eventually freed, and returned home to die in her village of Bouschet de Pranles, in the heart of the Ardèche. The house where she was born has become a museum of Protestantism in Vivarais.

Poët-Laval (Drôme): a Protestant refuge of times gone by
This pretty hillside village which rises out of the lavender fields in the Pays de Dieulefit (valley of the Jabron) has a fortress which was once owned by the Order of Hospitaller Monks (the keep and chapel can be visited in summer, but the rest is now a "hotel de charme"). These hills in the Drome are also part of Huguenot history. There is the little museum of Dauphinois Protestantism, in a house in the old village: a former Protestant church dating back to the 17th century (bibles, various documents, objects of worship, etc.).

La Rochelle: the symbol of Huguenot resistance
The powerful towers which guard the old port remind us of the strategic importance of the town in years gone by, and of its epic destiny. The invincible centre of Huguenot culture, personified by Jean Guitton, a rich ship owner and flamboyant mayor, the city was proud and stood up to the Catholic royal power. La Rochelle was aided by the English (where the Anglican church had just come into being), by pure opportunism as they sought any means of troubling the political situation in French at the time: intolerable in the eyes of the Kingdom of France! The major port in the Charente region had to defend itself against several sieges between the 16th and 17th centuries. The first of these (by the Duke of Anjou) was heroically defeated in 1573. Later the Cardinal de Richelieu, on behalf of Louis XIII, attacked the maritime town in 1627-1628... victoriously this time.

The current Protestant church houses a museum of Protestant history in La Rochelle: open only in summer, in the afternoons from Monday to Saturday.

Châtillon-Coligny (or Châtillon-sur-Loing), a Huguenot fief in the 16th century
This charming medieval village right in the south of the Gâtinais (Paris region) preserves the memory of its lord, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, leader of the Huguenots, whose assassination sparked off the Saint Bartholomew massacre.

Château de Fontainebleau, the residence of Henri IV and meeting place for the Huguenots
Greatly appreciated by Napoleon and others, this emblematic castle played a major role at several times in history, particularly during the reign of Henri IV, a king who was torn between the two faiths, Catholicism and Protestantism.

And more...

Le Queyras, mountain country
The revocation of the Edict of Nantes by Louis XIV in 1685 caused a wave of immigration by the country people living in the High Alps (massif du Queyras) to the United States, Latin America and Germany. This little-known mini-Diaspora is not often spoken about in the 8 villages in this superb countryside "up on high" but the landscapes in this area, listed as a regional nature reserve, and its heritage (architecture, wood crafts) are well worth a visit.

Domaine du Pradel, birthplace of Olivier de Serres, in the Ardèche
The castle and domain du Pradel, in Villeneuve-de-Berg, shows the work of one of the sons of the area: the famous Olivier de Serres. Considered as the father of agronomy, this 16th century scientist was the son of a wealthy (and Protestant) family.

On the tracks of the Vaudois...

Banished from Lyon at the end of the 12th century, the disciples of Pierre Vaudès (or Valdès or even Valdo, depending on who is telling the story), settled in the high valleys in the Alps and the Luberon. The doctrine of this Vaudois church, prefiguring the Reform, was already excommunicated by the Council of Verona. This movement was first known as the Fraternity of the Poor in Lyon. In the 16th century it joined the Geneva Reform, led by Jean Calvin and Guillaume Farel.

In the Hautes-Alpes

One of their mountain refuges was located between the valleys of Freissinières and de Vallouise (in the region of Briançon). In the heart of a magnificent mountain landscape (parc national des Ecrins), the valley of Freissinières boasts high cliffs, spectacular waterfalls and discreet hillside villages (les Viollins, Dormillouse) which were founded by the Vaudois. The neighbouring valley of Vallouise also hid communities that were persecuted and massacred by the Inquisition. At the foot of the summit of Pelvoux, in a mass of rocks and magnificent mountain landscapes, history tells of the "grotte des Vaudois" at an altitude of 1700 m and also mentions La Balme (or La Baume) Chapelue: where in 1487 entire families were massacred. But nothing remains of the site now.

In Luberon Provençal

Merindol, a delightful village on the south side of the Massif du Luberon, is an example of the site of martyrdom in the Luberon, during the wars of religion. Except that this region in Provence was already the scene of massacres in the 14th century, especially by the terrible Raymond de Turenne, Lord of the Limousin and also of Baux de Provence. Later, in 1545, it was the turn of the cruel Jean de Maynier, Lord of Oppède (another village in the Luberon, this time on the north face), who pillaged the Vaudois refuges in the name of a decree by the Provencal Parliament of which he was head. Parts of the GR 6 hiking trail (which crosses Provence) and the GR 97 (Tour du Luberon) go along lovely paths which could be taken as a "trail to the memory of the Vaudois".

Things to see