Edict of Nantes

Last updated
The Edict of Nantes Edit de Nantes Avril 1598.jpg
The Edict of Nantes

The Edict of Nantes (French: édit de Nantes), signed in April 1598 by King Henry IV of France, granted the Calvinist Protestants of France (also known as Huguenots) substantial rights in the nation, which was still considered essentially Catholic at the time. In the edict, Henry aimed primarily to promote civil unity. [lower-alpha 1] The edict separated civil from religious unity, treated some Protestants for the first time as more than mere schismatics and heretics, and opened a path for secularism and tolerance. In offering general freedom of conscience to individuals, the edict offered many specific concessions to the Protestants, such as amnesty and the reinstatement of their civil rights, including the right to work in any field or for the state and to bring grievances directly to the king. It marked the end of the religious wars that had afflicted France during the second half of the 16th century.


The Edict of St. Germain, promulgated 36 years before by Catherine de Médici, had granted limited tolerance to Huguenots but was overtaken by events, as it was not formally registered until after the Massacre of Vassy on 1 March 1562, which triggered the first of the French Wars of Religion.

The later Edict of Fontainebleau, which revoked the Edict of Nantes in October 1685, was promulgated by Louis XIV, the grandson of Henry IV. It drove an exodus of Protestants and increased the hostility of Protestant nations bordering France.


The Edict aimed primarily to end the long-running French Wars of Religion. [lower-alpha 2] Henry IV also had personal reasons for supporting the Edict. Prior to assuming the throne in 1589 he had espoused Protestantism, and he remained sympathetic to the Protestant cause: he had converted to Catholicism in 1593 only in order to secure his position as king, supposedly saying "Paris is well worth a Mass". The Edict succeeded in restoring peace and internal unity to France, though it pleased neither party: Catholics rejected the apparent recognition of Protestantism as a permanent element in French society and still hoped to enforce religious uniformity, while Protestants aspired to parity with Catholics. "Toleration in France was a royal notion, and the religious settlement was dependent upon the continued support of the crown." [1]

Re-establishing royal authority in France required internal peace, based on limited toleration enforced by the crown. Since royal troops could not be everywhere, Huguenots needed to be granted strictly circumscribed possibilities of self-defense. [1]

The Edict

Henry IV of France by Frans Pourbus the younger. Henry IV of france by pourbous younger.jpg
Henry IV of France by Frans Pourbus the younger.

The Edict of Nantes that Henry IV signed comprised four basic texts, including a principal text made up of 92 articles and largely based on unsuccessful peace treaties signed during the recent wars. The Edict also included 56 "particular" (secret) articles dealing with Protestant rights and obligations. For example, the French state guaranteed protection of French Protestants travelling abroad from the Inquisition. "This crucifies me," protested Pope Clement VIII, upon hearing of the Edict. The final two parts consisted of brevets (letters patent) which contained the military clauses and pastoral clauses. These two brevets were withdrawn in 1629 by Louis XIII, following a final religious civil war.

The two letters patent [2] supplementing the Edict granted the Protestants safe havens (places de sûreté), which were military strongholds such as La Rochelle, in support of which the king paid 180,000 écus a year, along with a further 150 emergency forts (places de refuge), to be maintained at the Huguenots' own expense. Such an act of toleration was unusual in Western Europe, [lower-alpha 3] where standard practice forced subjects to follow the religion of their ruler — the application of the principle of cuius regio, eius religio .

While it granted certain privileges to Huguenots, the edict upheld Catholicism's position as the established religion of France. Protestants gained no exemption from paying the tithe [lower-alpha 4] and had to respect Catholic holidays and restrictions regarding marriage. The authorities limited Protestant freedom of worship to specified geographic areas. The Edict dealt only with Protestant and Catholic coexistence; it made no mention of Jews, or of Muslims, who were offered temporary asylum in France when the Moriscos were being expelled from Spain. [lower-alpha 5]

The original Act which promulgated the Edict has disappeared. The Archives Nationales in Paris preserves only the text of a shorter document modified by concessions extracted from the King by the clergy and the Parlement of Paris, which delayed ten months before finally signing and setting seals to the document in 1599. A copy of the first edict, sent for safekeeping to Protestant Geneva, survives. The provincial parlements resisted in their turn; the most recalcitrant, the parlement of Rouen, did not unreservedly register the Edict until 1609. [4]

The location of the signing is uncertain. The Edict itself states merely that it is "given at Nantes, in the month of April, in the year of Our Lord one thousand five hundred and ninety-eight". By the late 19th century the Catholic tradition [5] cited the signing in the "Maison des Tourelles", home of prosperous Spanish trader André Ruiz; it was destroyed by bombing in World War II.


Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud Louis XIV of France.jpg
Louis XIV, by Hyacinthe Rigaud

The Edict remained unaltered in effect, registered by the parliaments as "fundamental and irrevocable law," with the exception of the brevets, which had been granted for a period of eight years, and were renewed by Henry in 1606 and in 1611 by Marie de Médecis, who confirmed the Edict within a week of the assassination of Henry, stilling Protestant fears of another St. Bartholomew's Day massacre. The subsidies had been reduced by degrees, as Henry gained more control of the nation. [6] By the peace of Montpellier in 1622, concluding a Huguenot revolt in Languedoc, the fortified Protestant towns were reduced to two, La Rochelle and Montauban. The brevets were entirely withdrawn in 1629, by Louis XIII, following the Siege of La Rochelle, in which Cardinal Richelieu blockaded the city for fourteen months.

During the remainder of Louis XIII's reign, and especially during the minority of Louis XIV, the implementation of the Edict varied year by year, voiced in declarations and orders, and in case decisions in the Council, fluctuating according to the tides of domestic politics and the relations of France with powers abroad. [7]

In October 1685, Louis XIV, the grandson of Henry IV, renounced the Edict and declared Protestantism illegal with the Edict of Fontainebleau. This act, commonly called the 'revocation of the Edict of Nantes,' had very damaging results for France. While the wars of religion did not re-ignite, intense persecution of Protestants took place. All Protestant ministers were given two weeks to leave the country unless they converted to Catholicism and all other Protestants were prohibited from leaving the country. In spite of the prohibition, the persecution including many examples of torture caused as many as 400,000 to flee France at risk of their lives. [8] [9] Most moved to Great Britain, Prussia, the Dutch Republic, Switzerland, South Africa and the new French colonies and the Thirteen Colonies in North America. [10] This exodus deprived France of many of its most skilled and industrious individuals, some of whom thenceforward aided France's rivals in the Netherlands and in England. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes also further damaged the perception of Louis XIV abroad, making the Protestant nations bordering France even more hostile to his regime. Upon the revocation of the edict, Frederick William, Elector of Brandenburg issued the Edict of Potsdam, which encouraged Protestants to come to Brandenburg-Prussia.

Freedom to worship and civil rights for non-Catholics in France were not restored until the signing of the Edict of Versailles, also known as the Edict of Tolerance, by Louis XVI 102 years later, on 7 November 1787. This edict was enacted by parlement two months later, less than two years before the end of the Ancien Régime and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 would fully eliminate religious discrimination in France. [11]

Literal translation

The principal and most salient provisions of Henry IV’s Edict of Nantes, as promulgated at Nantes in Brittany probably on 30 April 1598, include: [12]

Henri, by the grace of God king of France and of Navarre, to all to whom these presents come, greeting:

Among the infinite benefits which it has pleased God to heap upon us, the most signal and precious is his granting us the strength and ability to withstand the fearful disorders and troubles which prevailed on our advent in this kingdom. The realm was so torn by innumerable factions and sects that the most legitimate of all the parties was fewest in numbers. God has given us strength to stand out against this storm; we have finally surmounted the waves and made our port of safety,—peace for our state. For which his be the glory all in all, and ours a free recognition of his grace in making use of our instrumentality in the good work.... We implore and await from the Divine Goodness the same protection and favor which he has ever granted to this kingdom from the beginning....

We have, by this perpetual and irrevocable edict, established and proclaimed and do establish and proclaim:

I. First, that the recollection of everything done by one party or the other between March, 1585, and our accession to the crown, and during all the preceding period of troubles, remain obliterated and forgotten, as if no such things had ever happened....

III. We ordain that the Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion shall be restored and reëstablished in all places and localities of this our kingdom and countries subject to our sway, where the exercise of the same has been interrupted, in order that it may be peaceably and freely exercised, without any trouble or hindrance; forbidding very expressly all persons, of whatsoever estate, quality, or condition, from troubling, molesting, or disturbing ecclesiastics in the celebration of divine service, in the enjoyment or collection of tithes, fruits, or revenues of their benefices, and all other rights and dues belonging to them; and that all those who during the troubles have taken possession of churches, houses, goods or revenues, belonging to the said ecclesiastics, shall surrender to them entire possession and peaceable enjoyment of such rights, liberties, and sureties as they had before they were deprived of them....

VI. And in order to leave no occasion for troubles or differences between our subjects, we have permitted, and herewith permit, those of the said religion called Reformed to live and abide in all the cities and places of this our kingdom and countries of our sway, without being annoyed, molested, or compelled to do anything in the matter of religion contrary to their consciences, ... upon condition that they comport themselves in other respects according to that which is contained in this our present edict.

VII. It is permitted to all lords, gentlemen, and other persons making profession of the said religion called Reformed, holding the right of high justice [or a certain feudal tenure], to exercise the said religion in their houses....

IX. We also permit those of the said religion to make and continue the exercise of the same in all villages and places of our dominion where it was established by them and publicly enjoyed several and divers times in the year 1597, up to the end of the month of August, notwithstanding all decrees and judgments to the contrary....

XIII. We very expressly forbid to all those of the said religion its exercise, either in respect to ministry, regulation, discipline, or the public instruction of children, or otherwise, in this our kingdom and lands of our dominion, otherwise than in the places permitted and granted by the present edict.

XIV. It is forbidden as well to perform any function of the said religion in our court or retinue, or in our lands and territories beyond the mountains, or in our city of Paris, or within five leagues of the said city....

XVIII. We also forbid all our subjects, of whatever quality and condition, from carrying off by force or persuasion, against the will of their parents, the children of the said religion, in order to cause them to be baptized or confirmed in the Catholic Apostolic and Roman Church; and the same is forbidden to those of the said religion called Reformed, upon penalty of being punished with especial severity....

XXI. Books concerning the said religion called Reformed may not be printed and publicly sold, except in cities and places where the public exercise of the said religion is permitted.

XXII. We ordain that there shall be no difference or distinction made in respect to the said religion, in receiving pupils to be instructed in universities, colleges, and schools; nor in receiving the sick and poor into hospitals, retreats, and public charities.

See also


  1. In 1898, the tricentennial celebrated the edict as the foundation of the coming Age of Toleration; the 1998 anniversary, by contrast, was commemorated with a book of essays under the title, Coexister dans l'intolérance (Michel Grandjean and Bernard Roussel, editors, Geneva, 1998).
  2. A detailed chronological account of the negotiations that led to the Edict's promulgation has been offered by Janine Garrisson, L'Édit de Nantes: Chronique d'une paix attendue (Paris: Fayard) 1998.
  3. For Eastern Europe, see Mehmed II's Firman on the Freedom of the Bosnian Franciscans or the Warsaw Confederation.
  4. The King engaged to support the Protestant ministers in part recompense.
  5. The ordonnance of 22 February 1610 stipulated that the emigrés settle north of the Dordogne (safely away from the manipulations of Spanish agents) and that they embrace the Catholic faith; those who did not wish to do so were granted right of passage to French ports on the Mediterranean, to take ship for Barbary. [3] By the time the ordonnance was published Henri IV had been assassinated.

Related Research Articles

Huguenots Religious group composed of Calvinists from France

Huguenots were a religious group of French Protestants.

French Wars of Religion civil war from 1562–98

The French Wars of Religion were a prolonged period of war and popular unrest between Catholics and Huguenots in the Kingdom of France between 1562 and 1598. It is estimated that three million people perished in this period from violence, famine, or disease in what is considered the second deadliest religious war in European history.

An edict is a decree or announcement of a law, often associated with monarchism, but it can be under any official authority. Synonyms include dictum and pronouncement.

Catholic League (French) organization

The Catholic League of France, sometimes referred to by contemporary Catholics as the Holy League, was a major participant in the French Wars of Religion. Formed by Henry I, Duke of Guise, in 1576, the League intended the eradication of Protestants—mainly Calvinists or Huguenots—out of Catholic France during the Protestant Reformation, as well as the replacement of King Henry III.

Peace of Vervins peace treaty

The Peace of Vervins or Treaty of Vervins was signed between the representatives of Henry IV of France and Philip II of Spain under the auspices of the papal legates of Clement VIII, on 2 May 1598 at the small town of Vervins in Picardy, northern France, close to the territory of the Habsburg Netherlands.

Edict of Fontainebleau 1685 edict

The Edict of Fontainebleau was an edict issued by Louis XIV of France, also known as the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The Edict of Nantes (1598) had granted the Huguenots the right to practice their religion without persecution from the state. Though Protestants had lost their independence in places of refuge under Richelieu on account of their supposed insubordination, they continued to live in comparative security and political contentment. From the outset, religious toleration in France had been a royal, rather than a popular policy. The lack of universal adherence to his religion did not sit well with Louis XIV's vision of perfected autocracy: "Bending all else to his will, Louis XIV resented the presence of heretics among his subjects."

An edict of toleration is a declaration, made by a government or ruler, and states that members of a given religion will not be persecuted for engaging in their religious practices and traditions. The edict implies tacit acceptance of the religion rather than its endorsement by the ruling power.


Camisards were Huguenots of the rugged and isolated Cévennes region and the Vaunage in southern France. In the early 1700s, they raised an insurrection against the persecutions which followed Louis XIV's Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, making Protestantism illegal. The Camisards operated throughout the mainly Protestant Cévennes region including the Vaunage and the parts of the Camargue around Aigues Mortes. The revolt broke out in 1702, with the worst of the fighting continuing until 1704, then skirmishes until 1710 and a final peace by 1715. The Edict of Tolerance was not finally signed until 1787.


The Dragonnades were a French government policy instituted by King Louis XIV in 1681 to intimidate Huguenot families into either leaving France or converting to Catholicism. This involved the billeting of ill-disciplined dragoons in Protestant households with implied permission to abuse the inhabitants and destroy or steal their possessions. The soldiers employed in this role were satirized as "missionary dragoons".

Politique Member of a moderate group during the French Wars of Religion

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, politiques were those in a position of power who put the success and well-being of their state above all else. During the Wars of Religion, this included moderates of both religious faiths who held that only the restoration of a strong monarchy could save France from total collapse, as rulers would often overlook religious differences in order to have a strong country. References to individuals as politique often had a pejorative connotation of moral or religious indifference. The concept gained great currency after 1568 with the appearance of the radical Catholic League calling for the eradication of Protestantism in France, and by 1588 the politiques were seen by detractors as an organized group and treated as worse than heretics.

The Edict of Saint-Germain, also known as the Edict of January, was a decree of tolerance promulgated by the regent of France, Catherine de' Medici, in January 1562. It provided limited tolerance to the Protestant Huguenots in the Roman Catholic realm.

The Edict of Beaulieu was promulgated from Beaulieu-lès-Loches on 6 May 1576 by Henry III of France, who was pressured by Alençon's support of the Protestant army besieging Paris that spring.

The Peace of Alais, also known as the Edict of Alès or the Edict of Grace, was a treaty negotiated by Cardinal Richelieu with Huguenot leaders and signed by King Louis XIII of France on 28 June 1629. It confirmed the basic principles of the Edict of Nantes but differed in that it contained additional clauses that stated that the Huguenots no longer had political rights and further demanded for them to relinquish all cities and fortresses immediately.

The Secretary of State for Protestant Affairs, was the secretary of state in France during the "Ancien Régime" and Bourbon Restoration in charge of overseeing French Protestant affairs. From 1749 on, the position was combined with the position of Secretary of State of the Maison du Roi.

The Edict of Boulogne, also called the Edict of Pacification of Boulogne and the Peace of La Rochelle, was signed in July, 1573 by King Charles IX of France in the Château de Madrid in the Bois de Boulogne. It was officially registered by the Parlement of Paris on 11 August 1573. The treaty officially ended the fourth phase of the French Wars of Religion.

Articles of the Treaty of Nemours were agreed upon in writing and signed in Nemours on 7 July 1585 between the Queen Mother, Catherine de' Medici, acting for the King, and representatives of the House of Guise, including the Duke of Lorraine. Catherine hastened to Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, where on 13 July the treaty was signed between King Henry III of France and the leaders of the Catholic League, including Henri, duc de Guise. The king was pressured by members of the Catholic League to sign the accord which was recognized by contemporaries as a renewal of the old French Wars of Religion.

Persecution of Huguenots under Louis XV

The persecution of Huguenots under Louis XV refers to hostile activities against French Protestants between 1715 and 1774 during the reign of Louis XV. [bruhx2]

Edict of Compiègne

The Edict of Compiègne, issued from his Château de Compiègne by Henry II of France, 24 July 1557, applied the death penalty for all convictions of relapsed and obstinate "sacramentarians", for those who went to Geneva or published books there, for iconoclast blasphemers against images, and even for illegal preaching or participation in religious gatherings, whether public or private. It was the third in a series of increasingly severe punishments for expressions of Protestantism in France, which had for an aim the extirpation of the Reformation. By raising the stakes, which now literally became matters of life and death, the Edict had the result of precipitating the long religious crisis in France and hastening the onset of armed civil war between armies mustered on the basis of religion, the series of French Wars of Religion, which were not settled until Henri IV's edict of toleration, the Edict of Nantes (1598).

Huguenot rebellions Rebellions in the Kingdom of France

The Huguenot rebellions, sometimes called the Rohan Wars after the Huguenot leader Henri de Rohan, were an event of the 1620s in which French Calvinist Protestants (Huguenots), mainly located in southwestern France, revolted against royal authority. The uprising occurred a decade following the death of Henry IV, who, himself originally a Huguenot before converting to Catholicism, had protected Protestants through the Edict of Nantes. His successor Louis XIII, under the regency of his Italian Catholic mother Marie de' Medici, became more intolerant of Protestantism. The Huguenots tried to respond by defending themselves, establishing independent political and military structures, establishing diplomatic contacts with foreign powers, and openly revolting against central power. The Huguenot rebellions came after two decades of internal peace under Henry IV, following the intermittent French Wars of Religion of 1562–1598.

Edict of Versailles

The Edict of Versailles, commonly known as the Edict of Tolerance, was an official act that gave non-Catholics in France the right to openly practice their religions as well as legal and civil status, which included the right to contract marriages without having to convert to the Catholic faith. The edict was signed by Louis XVI on 7 November 1787, and registered in the Parlement of Paris of the Ancien Régime on 29 January 1788. Its successful enactment was due to persuasive arguments by prominent French philosophers and literary personalities of the day, including Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, the Duc de Choiseul, by Americans such as Benjamin Franklin, and especially by the joint work of Guillaume-Chrétien de Lamoignon de Malesherbes, minister to Louis XVI, and Jean-Paul Rabaut Saint-Étienne, spokesman for the Protestant community in France.



  1. 1 2 George A. Rothrock, Jr., "Some Aspects of Early Bourbon Policy toward the Huguenots" Church History29.1 (March 1960:17–24) p. 17.
  2. Texts published in Benoist 1693 I:62–98 (noted by Rothrock).
  3. L. P. Harvey, Muslims in Spain, 1500 to 1614, 2005:318
  4. Rothrock 1960:23 note 6.
  5. Reported in Baedeker, Northern France, 1889.
  6. A point made in Rothrock 1960:19.
  7. Ruth Kleinman, "Changing Interpretations of the Edict of Nantes: The Administrative Aspect, 1643–1661" French Historical Studies10.4 (Autumn 1978:541–571.
  8. "Internet History Sourcebooks". www.fordham.edu.
  9. Morison, Samuel Eliot (1972). The Oxford History of the American People . New York City: Mentor. pp.  220. ISBN   0-451-62600-1.
  10. See History of the French in Louisville.
  11. Encyclopedia of the Age of Political Ideals, Edict of Versailles (1787) Archived 2012-07-14 at the Wayback Machine , downloaded 29 January 2012
  12. History Guide, The Edict of Nantes (1598)


The source followed by most modern historians is the Huguenot refugee Élie Benoist's Histoire de l'édit de Nantes, 3 vols. (Delft, 1693–95). E.G. Léonard devotes a chapter to the Edict of Nantes in his Histoire général du protestantisme, 2 vols. (Paris) 1961:II:312–89.

Commons-logo.svg Media related to Edict of Nantes at Wikimedia Commons