Britain has never had a monarch like Louis XIV of France. Also known as the Sun King, he reigned for almost 70 years up to 1712 and was the most powerful and influential ruler in Europe. Everything he did had an aura of splendour: whether it was his military conquests; the grandeur and opulence of his palace at Versailles; or his cultivation of French craftsmanship, etiquette and taste; the Sun King outshone all others.
Louis exemplified absolute monarchy; he was a Catholic and a believer in the divine power of kings. That was bad news for the French Protestants, better known as the Huguenots. An absolute monarch cannot tolerate dissent, and the Huguenots, by the very nature of their religious beliefs, were dissenters. Huguenots comprised about 10% of the French population, and their rejection of Catholicism was an affront to Louis’ divine power. That could not be tolerated; and in 1681 he gave instructions that they should be brought to heel.
Oppression of French Protestants was not new, as I described in Part 1. Under Louis, the Huguenots were not the targets of a sudden outburst of barbarism as occurred a century earlier, but of a cynical and escalating policy of oppression. It started with the imposition of the Dragonnades, whereby Protestant households were required to billet troops (dragoons) at their own expense, and suffer theft, vandalism and abuse in return. The Huguenots were denied public office, and restricted in their business activities. The clear understanding was that they could be spared all these troubles if they converted to the Catholic faith. Unsurprisingly, many did*.
Those who retained their faith faced ever increasing persecution: their churches were demolished; their schools closed and their children forcibly educated in the Catholic catechism. Even the dying and the dead could not escape. Huguenots who had played the system by abjuring** during their lifetime, and who then recanted on their death beds, were dragged through the streets as though they were convicts on the way to the gallows. Corpses of recanters that had already been buried were exhumed, and one enterprising official even charged an admission fee for people to see the body of “a damned woman”***.
The Edict of Nantes (1598) had granted limited freedom of worship and other civil rights to the Huguenots, but by 1685 Louis felt able to revoke the Edict on the grounds that there were so few Protestants left that it had become irrelevant. His actions were supported by the Catholic majority. There was little sympathy towards the Huguenots, whom they regarded, as Nancy Mitford**** succinctly put it, as “too rich, successful and clannish”. I’m sure we can think of other minorities that have suffered a similar prejudice in more recent times.
The apparent success of this policy (if you ignore human suffering, and Louis was adept at that) seems to have blinded him and his advisors to the predictable consequences of his actions. To their surprise, many Huguenots decided that they preferred to emigrate than to abjure. Worse still, the émigrés constituted some of the most skilled, hard working and accomplished members of French society including silk weavers, cabinet makers, silversmiths, gun manufacturers, merchants, financiers and military commanders. It was a huge blunder, and the only ones who benefitted were France’s enemies, who were quick to accept the windfall they had been offered.
It is their experiences that we will follow in the next part of this series.
* Louis XIV by Vincent Cronin, 1965, p269. Pau, Montpelier and Nimes were converted in their entirety; 20,000 in the vicinity of Montauban; and 60,000 in Bordeaux.
** Abjure means to renounce one’s faith, a traumatic decision for any devout person in the seventeenth century.
*** Louis XIV by Philippe Erlanger, 1970, p264.
**** The Sun King, Nancy Mitford ,1966, p143. A gossipy account of life at the court of Louis XIV; a ‘good read’.