The Edict of Nantes was issued by King Henry IV of France in April 1598 to protect the rights of the Protestants, known as Huguenots, living in France. Though France was still at this point a predominantly Catholic nation, the king hoped to bring an end to the religious wars that had ravaged France for much of the late 16th century. By granting certain protections and rights to his Protestant subjects, Henry believed that he could restore unity to France. The Edict succeeded in doing so, though it made neither Protestants nor Catholics happy. Catholics did not agree with the acceptance of Protestantism as an officially-sanctioned religion in France, and Protestants believed the Edict fell short of granting them actual equality.
The Edict gave full civil rights to French Protestants, including the right to worship in public. It officially recognized Protestantism as a religion in its own right, rather than as a heretical version of Catholicism. Huguenots were also allowed to hold official state positions and could worship as freely as they liked in their own homes without fear of persecution. However, these freedoms were limited to certain areas of the country, and Catholicism was reestablished as the official religion of the kingdom.
In 1685, King Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, which revoked the Edict of Nantes and declared that it was once again illegal to follow the Protestant religion in France. In the following years, many French Protestants left the country for more tolerant regimes. Religious freedom for Protestants was not restored until 1787, when King Louis XVI signed the Edict of Versailles.
The Edict of Nantes is seen by many scholars as an important step on the path to religious freedom and the development of the modern secular state. While it did not provide full equality for non-Catholics, and did nothing to address other religions, it did protect individual freedom of conscience and established the principle that civil unity did not require religious unity.