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The Huguenots

The name Huguenot (meaning "confederate") was applied to French Protestant followers of John Calvin in the 16th and 17th centuries. By 1560, the Huguenots may have accounted for only 10 percent of the French population, but their number included many prominent officials and noblemen. France was marred by the Wars of Religion (1562-98), which pitted Roman Catholic forces against the Protestants. The most infamous event of this period was the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, in which tens of thousands of Huguenots were killed. (Huguenot sources claimed 70,000 deaths, but most other authorities cite a number closer to 30,000.) Despite such reverses, the Protestant forces in France continued to grow in influence and secured almost full freedom of religion through the Edict of Nantes (1598). By this time the Huguenots claimed much of their support from middle-class businesspeople and craftsmen — the backbone of the French economy. The tide shifted against the Protestants during the reigns of kings Louis XIII and Louis XIV, when Roman Catholicism was in the ascendant. In 1685, the Edict of Nantes was revoked, which removed the religious safeguards enjoyed by the Huguenots. What followed was the almost total evacuation of the Huguenot population, leaving France solidly Roman Catholic, but lacking many of its most productive citizens. Huguenot refugees settled in New York, Massachusetts and South Carolina, as well as many western European countries.