The Edict of Nantes was issued on April 13, 1598 by Henry IV of France to grant French Protestants (also known as Huguenots) substantial rights in a Catholic nation. The main concern was civil unity, and the Edict separated civil from religious unity, treated some Protestants for the first time as more than mere schismatics and heretics, and opened a path for secularism and tolerance. In offering general freedom of conscience to individuals, the edict offered many specific concessions to the Protestants: an amnesty, the reinstatement of their civil rights, including the right to work in any field or for the State and to bring grievances directly to the king. The Protestants were granted one hundred places of safety, such as La Rochelle.
The Edict was introduced primarily to end the long-running, disruptive French Wars of Religion. Henry IV also had personal reasons for supporting the Edict. Until assuming the throne Henry himself had been a Protestant, and he remained sympathetic to their cause: he converted in order to become king, famously saying, "Paris is worth a Mass." The Edict succeeded in restoring peace and internal unity to France for many years.
The original Act signed on April 30, promulgating the Edict, has disappeared. The only text preserved in the Archives Nationales in Paris is a shorter document modified by the clergy and the Parlement of Paris, that was signed and sealed in 1599. The content of the first edict is known, thanks to a copy sent for safekeeping to Protestant Geneva.
The Edict of Nantes that Henry signed was made up of four basic texts, including the principal text made up of more than ninety articles, which was largely based on unsuccessful peace treaties that had been hammered out during the recent troubles. There were also 56 "particular" (secret) articles dealing with Protestant rights and obligations, which guaranteed things like the protection of the French state from the Inquisition to French Protestants travelling abroad. "This crucifies me," protested Pope Clement VIII, upon hearing of the Edict.
In reality, the edict sustained Catholicism as the established religion of France: Protestants were not excused from paying the tithe and had to respect Catholic holidays and restrictions regarding marriage. Protestant freedom of worship was limited to specified geographic areas, outside city walls. The Edict dealt only with Protestant and Catholic coexistence; Jews and Muslims were not included. The Muslims, for instance, were expelled from France in 1610.
In 1685, however, Louis XIV renounced the Edict and declared Protestantism illegal with the Edict of Fontainebleau. This Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, as it is better known, had very damaging results. While the wars of religion did not reignite, many Protestants chose to leave France, most moving to Great Britain, Germany and the Dutch Republic. This exodus deprived France of many of its most skilled and industrious individuals, who would from now on aid France's rivals. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes also further damaged the perception of Louis XIV abroad, making the Protestant nations surrounding France even more hostile.