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Nantes, Edict of

Nantes, Edict of, 1598, decree promulgated at Nantes by King Henry IV to restore internal peace in France, which had been torn by the Wars of Religion; the edict defined the rights of the French Protestants (see Huguenots). These included full liberty of conscience and private worship; liberty of public worship wherever it had previously been granted and its extension to numerous other localities and to estates of Protestant nobles; full civil rights including the right to hold public office; royal subsidies for Protestant schools; special courts, composed of Roman Catholic and Protestant judges, to judge cases involving Protestants; retention of the organization of the Protestant church in France; and Protestant control of some 200 cities then held by the Huguenots, including such strongholds as La Rochelle (see Rochelle, La), with the king contributing to the maintenance of their garrisons and fortifications. The last condition, originally devised for an eight-year period but subsequently renewed, was to serve as guarantee to the Huguenots that their other rights would be respected; however, it gave French Protestantism a virtual state within a state and was incompatible with the centralizing policies of cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin and of Louis XIV. The fall (1628) of La Rochelle to Richelieu's army and the Peace of Alais (1629) marked the end of Huguenot political privileges. After 1665, Louis XIV was persuaded by his Roman Catholic advisers to embark on a policy of persecuting the Protestants. By a series of edicts that narrowly interpreted the Edict of Nantes, he reduced it to a scrap of paper. Finally, in 1685, he declared that the majority of Protestants had been converted to Catholicism and that the edict of 1598, having thus become superfluous, was revoked. No French Protestants were allowed to leave the country; those who openly remained Protestants were promised the right of private worship and freedom from molestation, but the promise was not kept. Thousands fled abroad to escape the system of dragonnades, and several provinces were virtually depopulated. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes weakened the French economy by driving out a highly skilled and industrious segment of the nation, and its ruthless application increased the detestation in which England and the Protestant German states held the French king. Its object—to make France a Catholic state—was fulfilled on paper only, for many secretly remained faithful to Protestantism, while the prestige of the Roman Catholic Church suffered as a result of Louis's intolerance.

See W. J. Stankiewicz, Politics and Religion in Seventeenth Century France (1960).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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