The Protestants of France were known as Huguenots. They were part of a widespread movement in 16th century Christian Europe known as the Reformation. People who studied the Bible realised that the teachings and practices of the church of Rome had become far removed from the original teachings of the Gospel. Consequently they attempted to reform the church from within, but were unsuccessful. Then they began to establish their own liturgy and places of worship which were not under the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic church.
Although he was not the first French reformer, John Calvin (Jean Cauvin)(1509-1564) was a tremendously important figure in the Reformation, who gave his name to Calvinism, the form of Protestantism which became popular amongst the reformed worshippers in France, Switzerland and the French-speaking part of the Netherlands (now Belgium). Working from exile in Geneva, he supplied the new church with its theology and its form of organisation.
Despite its early successes, French Protestantism never claimed more than 10% of the population of France, and there were bitter religious wars which caused great harm and suffering between 1559 and 1598. In 1572 thousands of Huguenots were massacred in the St Bartholomew massacre in Paris. After the fall of the Huguenot stronghold of La Rochelle in 1629, the Huguenots settled down as law-abiding citizens of France, hoping to enjoy the civic and religious freedoms which had been promised them by Henry IV (who had originally been a Protestant) when he issued the Edict of Nantes in 1598.
Unfortunately this was not to be, and the Roman Catholic church did everything it could to undermine the Edict and its guarantees of Protestant freedoms. Life for the Huguenots became intolerable in the 1680's under Louis XIV who was determined to force them all to become Catholics. In 1685 he revoked the Edict of Nantes, and forced a quarter of the Huguenots into exile. Those who remained were made Catholic, whether they liked it or not. However the Protestants of France maintained their faith in secret, despite vicious persecution, and still exist today.
Huguenots chose exile in more friendly countries during a long period (probably around 1550-1750) but the main decade of exile was the 1680's when approximately 250,000 people fled France. It was at this time that the word refugee came into the English language. They went to any country that would take them, allow them religious freedom and the chance to work to support themselves and their families. The principal places of refuge were the Netherlands, England, Germany, Switzerland and Ireland, although some refugees spread to as far away as Russia, Scandinavia, the American colonies, and South Africa. Everywhere they went they brought with them their religion, their considerable artistic and industrial skills, and their habits of hard work and civic responsibility. They made good citizens and their loss was a great blow to France.
Although no Huguenot refugees ever came directly to Australia, many of the descendants of these people have come here, and have contributed much to the country's development. They came principally from England and Ireland, and were here from the beginning of European settlement: Jacob Bellet, a Huguenot silkweaver, was on the First Fleet, and Capt Edward Riou was in charge of HMS Guardian in the Second Fleet when it struck an iceberg in 1789.
In later years Huguenot descendants have come to Australia from many countries, including France, Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the Channel Islands, South Africa, and even from more unexpected places like Jamaica, India and Sri Lanka. For more information on famous individuals, select the Famous people section.