The Huguenots were highly influential in the creation of Modern Freemasonry. This short paper outlines the backstory, explains why England was viewed as offering protection, and how Freemasonry became a route to social and political assimilation.
The Protestant Reformation emerged in Germany in the second decade of the sixteenth century and spread rapidly to France where Jean Vallière, its first French martyr, was executed in 1523. Protestantism challenged the established Catholic order and ‘L’affaire des placards’ in October 1534, a poster protest in Paris against the abuses of the Catholic Mass, was mirrored in Blois, Orléans, Rouen and Tours. The French authorities offered rewards for information on those involved and twenty-four deemed heretics were arrested and executed. Leading Protestants were driven into exile, including John Calvin, who fled to Basel and then Geneva, which became a centre for the reformist doctrines set out in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvinism rippled out from Geneva and took hold elsewhere, including the Low Countries. Calvin left Geneva in 1538 and joined Martin Bucer, a German Protestant reformer, in Strasbourg. Despite Francis I’s June 1540 Edict of Fontainebleau which stated that Protestantism was heresy – ‘high treason against God and mankind’ – to be penalised by torture, forfeiture of property and execution, some French émigrés returned home to France and a small Calvinist community became established at Meauz in the mid-1540s and, notwithstanding harassment, Calvinism slowly expanded.
Henry II’s Edict of Châteaubriant in June 1551 demanded that the civil and ecclesiastical courts step up their punishment of Protestant heretics and imposed further restrictions, including a prohibition on the sale or printing of any book that had not been approved by the Faculty of Theology at the University of Paris. But the Edict proved ineffectual. In 1559, representatives from fifteen churches attended a synod in Paris to establish a French Reformed Church. This grew quickly, and within two years the number of affiliated churches approached 2,000. Such expansion threatened the entrenched power of the Catholic aristocracy and Church hierarchy in France. And their reaction was violence, followed by intense repression.
The Duke of Guise, head of one of France’s most influential families, approved an attack on Huguenot congregants at Vassy in March 1562, in which the duke’s troops killed over sixty and wounded another hundred. The violence presaged what would be almost 200 years of Protestant persecution in France and was followed a decade later in 1572 by the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The wedding of Margaret de Valois, the sister of Charles IX, the French king, to Henry de Navarre, King of Navarre, a Protestant, meant that many Huguenot leaders were present in Paris for the celebrations. It was the catalyst for an attempt to assassinate the Huguenots’ political leadership, in particular Gaspard de Coligny, Seigneur de Châtillon, a charismatic French aristocrat and decorated admiral, an advisor and friend of Charles IX. The plot failed initially, with Coligny wounded, but not fatally. However, sparked by fear of retaliation and encouraged by Catholic nobles, Charles IX was persuaded to allow Coligny and other Huguenot aristocrats to be killed on the basis of false allegations of treason made against them.
Coligny’s death at the hands of Guise’s assassins kindled mob violence against the Huguenots which spread out from Paris to cities and towns across France in a tide of violence that lasted almost a month. The word ‘massacre’ is appropriate to describe the events on and after St Bartholomew’s Day (pictured in the banner heading). Estimates of the number of Huguenots killed vary but span a range from 10,000 to as many as 80,000 or more.
The established Church viewed the slaughter as securing deliverance from heresy and the demise of a conspiracy to overturn the French state. The pope, Gregory XIII, sent Charles IX a symbolic golden rose to celebrate the event and ordered that a Te Deum be sung and a medal struck. Europe’s Protestant countries were horrified and a contemporary report of the massacre by Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I’s ambassador to France at that time, reinforced England’s anti-Catholic, pro-Huguenot policies.
The Huguenots attempted to resist further repression but this proved unsuccessful despite the subsequent coronation of Henry de Navarre as Henry IV. His Edict of Nantes and two royal brevets offered only modest protections. Henry had been obliged to convert to Catholicism: around 85% of France was Catholic and Henry needed the Church’s support to govern. He was assassinated in 1610 and Huguenot persecution resumed under his son, Louis XIII, expressed not least in the siege and unconditional surrender of La Rochelle in 1627-28, in which the city’s population plunged from 27,000 to 5,000 through starvation and disease.
Although the Huguenots were no longer a material political threat, the Church maintained its anti-Protestant stance and harassment continued throughout the seventeenth century. Around 600 of France’s 800 Protestant churches were razed in the decades to 1680, and thousands of Huguenots were converted forcibly to Catholicism. Those who refused faced violence, the confiscation of their estates and property, and imprisonment, torture, or even death.
Louis XIII was succeeded by Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’, and Huguenot mistreatment became more entrenched. It reached an apogee in the early 1680s with the Dragonnades, the billeting of French dragoons on Huguenot households, a policy that begat violence, rape and theft. And in 1685, Louis XIV rescinded his grandfather’s Edict of Nantes, removing its limited protections and depriving French Protestants of their remaining civil and religious liberties. Despite the risk of arrest, Huguenot migration from France accelerated. Indeed, it became a torrent, with almost a third of France’s Huguenot population fleeing, an estimated 250,000 people, with more in later years. Many migrated to the Low Countries – the United Provinces. Others travelled to the Protestant German states and Switzerland. Some migrated to Scandinavia, North America and Southern Africa. But the most common destination was England, with some 50-80,000 refugees, the majority of whom settled in London. They joined an existing Huguenot community of some 5-10,000, the product of flight since the late sixteenth century.
The influx represented 10% or so of London’s c.500,000 population and had a considerable economic impact. The British establishment was sympathetic and worked to ensure that their co-religionists received financial support. Contributions were made from the Civil List, with William and Mary donating £40,000 between 1689 and 1693, as well as by the aristocracy and Parliament. Money was also gathered via parish collections across England. Around £100,000 was raised, with subsequent annual contributions from the Royal Bounty Fund.
Political sanctuary in England made the Huguenots among the most patriotic subjects, with a powerful allegiance to the monarch. This was especially evident in the military, where hundreds of Huguenot officers joined William III’s army, including Henri de Massue, 2nd Marquis de Ruvigny. Massue’s military prowess at the Battle of Aughrim in Ireland in 1691 led to his appointment as commander-in-chief of William’s forces, and he was later ennobled in the Irish peerage as Viscount Galway. He was created Earl of Galway in 1697. William III established five Huguenot regiments, with a further three battalions raised in 1689, around 13,000 officers and men. Alongside, another 1,000 or so former French officers were supernumeraries, attached to English regiments and serving on half pay until vacancies became available. In total, a fifth or more of English army officers were Huguenots, a significant component of the 3,000 Huguenot officers who left Louis XIV’s service after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
Although the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht which ended the War of the Spanish Succession brought some three decades of relative peace between Britain and France, persecution of the Huguenots continued and Louis XIV refused to recognise the Protestant faith in France. Two years later, England’s Huguenots faced another trial: the invasion of the Pretender – the 1715 Jacobite Rising. The prospect of James Stuart, a Catholic, on the British throne supported by Europe’s Catholic monarchs and Pope Clement XI was regarded as an existential threat.
That position would not alter for more than three decades as the 1715 Rising was followed in 1717 and 1719 by two more attempted invasions of Britain supported by Spain and Sweden, and in 1721 by the treachery of the Bishop of Rochester: the Atterbury Plot. Other threats would follow and culminate in the 1745 Jacobite Rising.
Entrenched religious and political insecurities were at the root of the widespread belief among Whigs and Huguenots that the institutions that shielded them and maintained the Hanoverian status quo required – if not demanded – their support. The same pattern was etched onto English Freemasonry, with the Grand Lodge of England configured to promote and defend the Enlightenment philosophical legacy of the Glorious Revolution, advance a pro-Hanoverian agenda, and thus offer protection and support to Britain’s Huguenot community.
A circle of senior freemasons, Jean Theophilus Desaguliers and Charles Delafaye among them, ensured that Freemasonry’s Charges, Regulations and Ritual endorsed Enlightenment philosophical and political principles. It is not possible to conceive that this was other than intentional and in part a response to the threat posed to the safety of England’s Huguenot community.