In the 16th century Protestantism gains ground in a number of European countries as a movement against Catholicism. This leads to ever more passionate contrasts of belief and even religious wars. In this period, Spain has the hegemony of Europe and there appears the contrast between pro-Spanish Catholicism and anti-Spanish Calvinism.
The English name Huguenot for a Calvinist derives from the French names Huguenot and Eydguenot, which in turn are derived from the Swiss word Eidgenosse (confederate). The name has also been influenced by the name of Besançon Hugues, the Protestant leader in the city of Geneva (Switzerland).
In France, religious wars last from 1560 - 1598. Huguenot Henry of Bourbon (Henry IV) defends himself against Spanish attack. From one moment to the other he becomes Catholic and makes peace with Spain. He reigns as King of France 1589 - 1610. The Huguenots are outraged at the kings betrayal. Henry IV appeases them by granting important prerogatives in some 200 'places de sûreté' (cities of refuge) like freedom of religion, civil rights, own administration, and armies. These prerogatives are laid down in the Treaty of Nantes - 1598. Although the Treaty appeases the Hugenots, they now form their own state within the French state.
About 1640 France succeeds in breaking the Spanish hegemony. Under the absolute rule of king Louis XIV, France becomes a modern and powerful country. He pursues a policy focused on enlarging his territory. This leads to many wars.
The Sun King persecutes the Jansenists (Catholics who do not agree with the order of Jesuits), but also the Huguenots. When Louis withdraws the Treaty of Nantes in 1685 (Treaty of Fontainebleau, read the original text or view the document ), many Huguenot refugees settle in various countries around France for fear of religious persecution.
From the moment that circumstances worsen for the Huguenots in France many decide to emigrate. Among other places they are lured to the Republic of the United Provinces (the present-day Netherlands) by its prosperity and by the fact that Calvinism is the acknowledged religion there. Local and provincial authorities, prompted by religious solidarity or economic interest, help skilled workers to settle and allow them tax facilities and other favours. Between 1681 and 1684 the city of Amsterdam accepts more than 2.000 of these refugees. After the revocation of the Treaty of Nantes in 1685 even more people decide to leave France. The United Provinces profit most of all from this influx.
Between 1700 and 1850 Amsterdam is a tolerant and economically attractive city. No doubt this has been the reason for French families like Bienfait, Boissevain, Guépin and Mercier to settle there. In the course of the 18th and particularly the 19th century the families develop further both economically and socially. The Boissevain family is very large and its diversity in activities in the fields of business, social life, science, and art should be noted.
In the course of the generations the family spreads further over the rest of the Netherlands and Europe.