Huguenots were French Protestants, the term possibly deriving from mispronunciation of the Swiss-German Eidgenosse, meaning sworn companion or confederate. They were at the centre of political and religious disputes in France in the 16th and 17th centuries. Under Henri II (1547-59) they formed a powerful group which included the king of Navarre and Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France, and was opposed by the Catholic party led by the Guise family. When Charles IX succeeded to the throne the Queen Mother Catherine de Medici first encouraged the Huguenots, to balance the power of the Guises. Then, fearing Coligny's influence on her son, she allied herself with the Guises and supported the Massacre of St Bartholomew (August 1572) in which thousands of Huguenots perished.
The massacre initiated the French wars of religion, although the issues were more complex than a simple religious dispute. The weakening of royal authority after the death of Henri II; political, personal, and religious rivalry among a nobility anxious to profit from the crown's decline; and Spanish pressure on behalf of the Catholic party all helped prolong and intensify the dispute. After Huguenot victories at Arques (1589) and Ivry (1590) the Huguenot leader Henri IV of Navarre became king of France in 1598. Although he converted to Catholicism, the religion of the majority of his subjects, he did not forget the Huguenots. In 1598 the Edict of Nantes granted them equality before the law and freedom of worship in specified strongholds, Protestant islands in a Catholic sea.
This independence was uncomfortable for a monarchy bent on increasing central control, but Louis XIII's chief minister Cardinal Richelieu would probably have tolerated it had the Huguenots not forced the issue. In May 1625 the citizens of La Rochelle rose in rebellion, hoping that Huguenots elsewhere would join them. The town was taken in 1629 after a prolonged siege, and the Edict of Ales revoked the military clauses of the Edict of Nantes but confirmed its religious concessions.
Louis XIV was less tolerant. Restrictions were imposed on their weddings and funerals, and Huguenots were bribed to convert to Catholicism. Marshal Turenne, one of the most prominent, changed his faith in 1668. Pressure on the Huguenots mounted, and in 1685 Louis removed their religious liberties altogether by revoking the Edict of Nantes. The Duc de Saint-Simon in his Diaries declared that this, ‘without the least pretext or any necessity, depopulated a quarter of the kingdom, ruined its commerce and weakened it in all parts’. Attempts at forcible conversion involved the quartering of troops—often dragoons, hence dragonnades—on Huguenot households. Repression inspired revolts, like risings in the Cevennes in 1689 and 1692 and the Camisards war of 1702. Persecution included the execution of Huguenot ministers, the dispatch of laymen to the galleys, and the desecration of the dead. Huguenots were only granted freedom of worship in 1802.
The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the persecution which followed it encouraged perhaps 400, 000 Huguenots to emigrate to Britain, Prussia, the Netherlands, and North America. They spanned the full spectrum of society, and they and their descendants made their mark on many professions: David Garrick the actor, the textile manufacture Samuel Courtauld, and the silversmith Paul de Lamerie were all of Huguenot descent.
They showed a particular aptitude for soldiering, and many of the 600 Huguenot officers who fled abroad resumed their old profession. The British army was full of Huguenots. The Duke of Schomberg, commander in Ireland for William of Orange and killed on the Boyne, had been a marshal of France. Other prominent Huguenots included Henri de Massue de Ruvigny, Earl of Galway, defeated commander at Almanza; Louis Dejean, who commanded a regiment at Culloden; and FM Jean Louis, Lord Ligonier, C-in-C of the army 1757-66. The martial tradition proved durable. Maj P. A. Charrier, commanding 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers in August 1914, regarded the war as an excellent opportunity to get to grips with France's ancient foe, and was killed fighting a spirited rearguard action that month.
Huguenots were well represented in the Prussian army of Frederick ‘the Great’—they included the overbearing Gen de la Motte Fouqué as well as Lt Gens Hautcharmoy and Pennavaire—and their influence persisted. In 1870-1 Col von Verdy du Vernois was responsible for Moltke the Elder's intelligence: a Frenchman described him as ‘revenge for the dragonnades’. Huguenots appeared in several other European armies and in that of the USA. Their most recent distinguished representative was Gen Sir Peter de la Cour de la Billière, commander of British forces in the Gulf.