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Bible Encyclopedias

1911 Encyclopedia Britannica

Edict of Nantes

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The law promulgated in April 1598 by which the French king, Henry IV., gave religious liberty to his Protestant subjects, the Huguenots. The story of the struggle for the edict is part of the history of France, and during the thirty-five years of civil war which preceded its grant, many treaties and other arrangements had been made between the contending religious parties, but none of these had been satisfactory or lasting. The elation of the Protestants at the accession of Henry IV. in 1589 was followed by deep depression, when it was found that not only did he adopt the Roman Catholic faith, but that his efforts to redress their grievances were singularly ineffectual. In 1594 they took determined measures to protect themselves; in 1597, the war with Spain being practically over, long negotiations took place between the king and their representatives, prominent among whom was the historian J. A. de Thou, and at last the edict was drawn up. It consisted of 95 general articles, which were signed by Henry at Nantes on the 13th of April 1598, and of 56 particular ones, signed on the 2nd of May. There was also some supplementary matter.

The main provisions of the edict of Nantes may be briefly summarized under six heads: (r) It gave liberty of conscience to the Protestants throughout the whole of France. (2) It gave to the Protestants the right of holding public worship in those places where they had held it in the year 1576 and in the earlier part of 1577; also in places where this freedom had been granted by the edict of Poitiers (1577) and the treaties of Nerac (1579) and of Felix (1580).(1580). The Protestants could also worship in two towns in each bailliage and senechausee. The greater nobles could hold Protestant services in their houses; the lesser nobles could do the same, but only for gatherings of not more than thirty people. Regarding Paris, the Protestants could conduct worship within five leagues of the city; previously this prohibition had extended to a distance of ten leagues. (3) Full civil rights were grantedto the Protestants. They could trade freely, inherit property and enter the universities, colleges and schools. All official positions were open to them. (4) To deal with disputes arising out of the edict a chamber was established in the parlement of Paris ( le chambre de l'edit). This was to be composed of ten Roman Catholic, and of six Protestant members. Chambers for the same purpose, but consisting of Protestants and Roman Catholics in equal numbers, were established in connexion with the provincial parlements. (5) The Protestant pastors were to be paid by the state and to be freed from certain burdens, their position being made practically equal to that of the Roman Catholic clergy. (6) A hundred places of safety were given to the Protestants for eight years, the expenses of garrisoning them being undertaken by the king.

In many ways the terms of the edict were very generous to the Protestants, but it must be remembered that the liberty to hold public worship was made the exception and not the rule; this was prohibited except in certain specified cases, and in this respect they were less favourably treated than they were under the arrangement made in 1576.

The edict was greatly disliked by the Roman Catholic clergy and their friends, and a. few changes were made to conciliate them. The parlement of Paris shared this dislike, and succeeded in reducing the number of Protestant members of the chambre de l'edit from six to one. Then cajoled and threatened by Henry, the parlement registered the edict on the 25th of February 1 599. After similar trouble it was also registered by the provincial parlements, the last to take this step being the parlement of Rouen, which delayed the registration until 1609.

The strong political position secured to the French Protestants by the edict of Nantes was very objectionable, not only to the ardent Roman Catholics, but also to more moderate persons, and the payments made to their ministers by the state were viewed with increasing dislike. Thus about 1660 a strong movement began for its repeal, and this had great influence with the king. One after another proclamations and declarations were issued which deprived the Protestants of their rights under the edict; their position was rendered intolerable by a series of persecutions which culminated in the dragonnades, and at length on the 18th of October 1685 Louis revoked the edict, thus depriving the Protestants in France of all civil and religious liberty. This gave a new impetus to the emigration of the Huguenots, which had been going on for some years, and England, Holland and Brandenburg received numbers of thrifty and industrious French families.

The history of the French Protestants, to which the edict of Nantes belongs, is dealt with in the articles France: History,and Huguenots. For further details about the edict see the papers and documents published. as Le Troisieme centenaire de l'edit de Nantes (1898); N. A. F. Puaux, Histoire du Protestantisme francais (Paris, 18 94); H. M. Baird, The Huguenots and the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (London, 1895); C. Benoist, La Condition des Protestants sous le regime de l'edit de Nantes et apres sa revocation (Paris, 1900); A. Lods, L'Edit de Nantes devant le parlement de Paris (1899); and the Bulletin historique et litteraire of the Societe de l'Histoire du Protestantisme Fran9ais.

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Bibliography Information
Chisholm, Hugh, General Editor. Entry for 'Edict of Nantes'. 1911 Encyclopedia Britanica. 1910.

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