Sunday, June 2, 2019

How did the Edict of Fontainebleu brought France down?

France in the 18th century would have defeated Great Britain as the super power of the world if King Louis XIV did not introduced the Edict of Fontainebleau, a declaration of persecution of Protestant within his realm.

The Huguenots

The Edict of Fontainebleu targeted a religious sector of French society called Huguenots or French protestants and they traced their origins to the 16th century. At that period, France witnessed a great divide in society. Already, the French people had seen division based on wealth and birth – between the nobility and peasantry. With the rise of Protestantism in Europe, another cleavage rifted the country apart between religious beliefs. John Calvin led the spread of Protestantism in France and gained followers among the wealthy and educated. The Huguenots, which the French Protestants came to be known, and their high status bought them toleration within the Catholic majority Kingdom. By 1562, their number stood about 2 million worshiping in over 2,000 churches within the country.

Wave of religious violence, however, hit the late decades of the 1600's. Persecution of Protestants in Catholic Kingdoms and vice versa spread across Europe and France was no exception. In 1562, the Edict of St. Germaine limited Huguenot activities outside towns and only in daytime. This placed them in danger of bandit attacks. Worst, the King also barred them from arming themselves fearing a revolt. Soon Catholics began to attack Huguenots that sow the seeds of hatred and violence between the 2 religions.
Masscare of Protestants in Merindol (1545)
Protestants in Orleans revolted in April 1562. The revolt sparked a wave of massacres of Huguenots in Sens and Tours. Thousands died and the Wars of Religion began.

The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre revealed the hand of the royal family in the war. Huguenots entered Paris under a pretense of peace and safety only to be discovered later as false. On the night between August 23 and 24, 1572, Catholic mobs with the instigation of the Queen Mother Catherine de Medici slaughtered Huguenots in an orgy of violence. Across the country and in major cities, violent Catholic militias did the same. Over the period of August 23 and 26, 70,000 Huguenots perished violently.
The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of French Protestants (1572)
The Edict of Nantes

The Wars of Religion persisted for decades. Huguenots either fell in battle or fled the Kingdom for England, the Netherlands or some of the Protestant German States. Fighting continued until the reign of King Henry IV.

The Edict of Nantes marked the end of the Wars of Religion. King Henry IV from the Huguenot Bourbon family converted to Catholicism to receive the crown of France. As an act of reconciliation, he promulgated the Edict of Nantes on April 1598. Under the edict, Huguenots regained civil liberties and most importantly freedom of worship.

After the Edict of Nantes, Huguenots and Catholics began to live in order in France for a while. After the death of Henry IV, however, state policies continued to stifle on the activities and power of the Huguenots. Rebellions by Huguenots became common, but never rose to the same level of violence as the Wars of Religion.
Henry IV
King Louis XIV

King Louis XIV ascended to the throne in 1641. His reigned marked the height of the power of the Kingdom of France. As the Sun King, he imposed his will throughout the realm and subjugated the power of the nobility. Under his reign, however, Huguenots once more saw a persecution that changed France.

Louis wanted to unite the country under one religion – the Catholic religion. Harassment of Huguenots began to worsen in 1680’s. The military became an instrument of religious persecution with the policy of Dragonnades. It began in 1681 in the town of Poitou and meant sending a unit of rowdy and wild dragoons to stay in a Huguenot dominated town or city. The dragoons then act violently against the townspeople, stealing goods and furniture, destroying houses, and abusing bystanders. Only by converting back to Catholicism that a population spared themselves from the terror. Hence, the mere news of Dragoons coming in a Huguenot town prompted mass conversion.

In the middle of 1680’s, Louis continued to descent into Catholic fanaticism. Much driven by his aging and by his new extremely pious eloquent influential wife Madame de Maintenon. Her advice led to Louis to revoke the Edict of Nantes and to enact the Edict of Fontainebleau.
King Louis XIV
Edict of Fontainebleau

The Kingdom’s anti-Huguenot sentiment consolidated in 1685 with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the declaration of the Edict of Fontainebleau. The 12 article edict organized state policies against Huguenots. It banned the worship of Protestant belief and punished those converted Huguenots returning to Protestantism. It also denied the entry of new Protestant immigrants and expelled Huguenot pastors in the country. It closed Protestants schools and confiscated Protestant church holdings. Louis just uprooted Protestantism from the country.

The Edict led to the treatment of Huguenots as second class citizens. The government sent 12,000 Huguenots into concentration camps. They lived in poor conditions that led to majority dying of starvation and maltreatment.

The effect of the Edict of Fontainebleau led to fear and mass conversion. Many Huguenots choose to convert rather than face terrible violence and abuse. However, not all decided to turn their backs to Protestantism and decided another option – flee.

Brain Drain

As a result of the Fontainebleau Edict, many Huguenots left France for a better life in others. Around 200,000 did so and found themselves in Protestant states such as England, the Netherlands, and some of the German Protestant states. Many of the recipients of Huguenot refugee welcomed them and benefited from their talents. France just inflicted to itself a brain drain by sending away the most talented of its population out to its rivals.

Most the Huguenots who fled had been professionals and skilled workers. Skilled Huguenot clock makers fled to Geneva and contributed to its rise as a global leader in clocks. Huguenot textile weavers found themselves a new home in England and contributed to its ascension as a major textile producer. Huguenots soldiers gave their services to their new home country such as Henri de Massue who served England. He fought in the side of the English in the Spanish Succession War and granted the title of Earl of Galway as a result.

Prussia also became a major recipient of Huguenot refugees. 4,000 arrived in Berlin and they contributed in making it an economic center in the region. Textile and porcelain among others grew in the city. Intellectuals also found a home in the German capital. Marthe de Roucoulle, a French Huguenot, luckily found service as a governess to the later Kings Frederick William I and Frederick the Great.

Denis Papin a French physicist also failed to return to France after the Edict of Fontainebleau. The native of Blois assisted Christiaan Huygens in the 1670’s in his study of air and vacuum. In 1675, he went to London to work with the English physicist Robert Boyle. By 1679, he invented a steam digester otherwise known as a pressure cooker along with the valve that prevented the explosion of highly pressurized containers. By the 1680’s he had great knowledge of steam and its power. In 1690, he invested a steam piston where a closed metal cylinder with little water and a piston inside went over a fire. The steam produced by the water inside lifted the piston. It became the basic design for the steam engine.
Denis Papin (1689)
If Papin returned and had the support to develop his steam piston further, France might have been the pioneer of industrial revolution. The Edict of Fontainebleau prevented it and Papin stood with his Protestant belief and stayed in London until dying in obscurity in 1712. His design, however, led to the development of the steam engine and cemented Britain as the leader of the industrial revolution. Papin’s life paralleled the life of many talented French who decided to offer their services and knowledge to countries who welcomed them. The Edict of Fontainebleau killed the chance of a French 19th century.

Summing Up

The Edict of Fontainebleau was a just among a long list of discriminatory policies aimed towards the Huguenots. For centuries they faced violence and hardships leading to hatred of Catholics and the crown. In this violence, only France lose as the people concentrated their minds in killing each other rather than progress. The Edict of Nantes only established a break from all the violence, but state sponsored persecution persisted after the death of Henry IV.

In the reign of King Louis XIV, the Kingdom of France reached its apex, but also sowed the seeds of its fall. In a time of great intellectual progress and scientific development, France decided to shun once and for all the Huguenots – most of which the Kingdom’s most skilled and intelligent belonged. Thus, the brain drain hampered France’s economy and development leading to its financial decline ultimately leading to the end of the Kingdom in 1789. 

See also:

“The ‘Dragonnades’ (1681-1685).” Musee Protestant. Accessed May 26, 2019. URL:

“The Edict of Fontainebleau or the Revocation (1685).” Musee Protestant. Accessed May 26, 2019. URL: Editors. "Huguenots." Accessed June 2, 2019. URL:

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