Persecution Of The Protestants In France

Chapter I --Persecution Of The Protestants In France


THE Huguenots enjoyed comparative quiet and freedom during the ministry of Cardinal Mazarin. Colbert, who held a prominent place in the royal council after the death of Mazarin, sought also to protect them. It was one of his chief ambitions to promote the manufacturing industries of France, and, in this endeavor, the intelligent and enterprising Huguenots were his main dependence. A very large proportion of the skilled artisans of the country came from their ranks. But even the powerful patronage of Colbert was not wholly effectual, and during his ministry the first of those repressive and atrocious decrees-which stained the reign of Louis XIV. were issued.


The motive for the persecution was in part political and in part religious. As respects the former incentive, however, it should be noticed that it came rather from the region of doctrinaire politics than from that of practical statesmanship. The absolute monarchy of Louis XIV. was intolerant of dissent. It was conceived that the ideal of national unity required a homogeneous realm, and that this could be realized only through a uniform system of faith and worship. The Protestants were objectionable simply because they were not conformed to the national pattern, which was represented by the throne. There was no just occasion to question their loyalty, nor was it seriously questioned. On the contrary, it was obviously the conviction that the Protestants were reduced to a well nigh passive state, which emboldened the government to proceed to a sweeping proscription of their religion. The mainspring of attack was not suspicion, but confidence,-the confidence of the French monarch in his invincible headship. As Voltaire remarks, "The glory which had surrounded Louis for [nearly] fifty years, his power, his firm and vigorous government, had taken from the Reformed party, as from all orders in the State, all idea of resistance." 1 Siècle de Louis XIV., chap. xxxvi. The events of the persecution confirm this opinion. Aggression had reached the point of intolerable rigor before there was any rebellion, and then it was on a limited scale, a desperate expedient of the more daring to retain some security for the rights of conscience. As respects the religious incentive in the persecution, it was common to the great body of Roman Catholic clergy. The King's Jesuit advisers may have been among the foremost instigators of the crusade. But it is not necessary to throw the responsibility upon any one party. The tolerance which had been accorded to the Huguenots was the purchase of their swords. Grudgingly conceded, the product of necessity rather than of choice, it had no adequate safeguard when once the necessity which introduced it seemed to have vanished. The bigotry of monks, priests, and bishops brought against it a continual pressure. There were, indeed, honorable exceptions to this temper, but they formed too small a minority to exercise any perceptible influence. It was not requisite that the Pope should help to kindle the spirit of intolerance by his paternal counsels. In fact, the Pope had little to do with the great final attempt to exterminate French Protestantism. It was a Gallican enterprise. At its crisis the relations of France with the Roman court were the reverse of harmonious. The Pope indeed applauded the "Very Christian" persecutor for his splendid services to the Church. But his tardiness in proffering congratulations, as well as some side remarks, indicate that he was largely influenced by a sense of professional requirements. There was no such spontaneity in his rejoicing as in that which, a hundred years before, had burst forth at the news of the St. Bartholomew massacre.


As early as 1656 a disposition was manifest to interpret the Edict of Nantes in a narrow and partisan fashion, to the disadvantage of the Protestants. In 1663 a marked infringement upon the design of that instrument appeared in the prohibition that Protestants, having once espoused Romanism, should return to the so-called Reformed religion, and that priests or religionists should embrace the Reformation. The penalty for the violation of this edict, as subsequently declared, was nothing less than confiscation of goods and perpetual banishment. A declaration of the government, in 1665, authorized Protestant sons and daughters, who had reached the ages of fourteen and twelve respectively, to change their religion and to leave their parents, demanding of them an annuity. Soon after, an attempt was made to wrest all the higher education from the Protestants, and private individuals of that class were prohibited from keeping academies. They were likewise debarred from offices, and hindered from engaging in various occupations or from promotion in such as were open to them. To repressive measures proselyting expedients on a large scale were joined. In l676 certain revenues were appropriated to the buying up of converts. As all the tricks of persuasion were joined with this expedient, not a few were won from the lower ranks; but they proved unstable converts, and it was found necessary to repeat and to sharpen the regulations against backsliders. In 1682 the royal decrees again crossed the precincts of the family, and the age at which children might profess conversion to Romanism, with consequent title to training in that religion, was reduced from twelve or fourteen to seven. Well may we believe, as a writer of the era testifies, that the hearts of Huguenot fathers and mothers were stricken with grief and terror by this menace against their dearest rights.

1 "Tous les pères qui avoient un peu de piété, et toutes les mères, encore plus tendres et plus sensibles, se sentirent frappez au cœur; et ne s´attendant qu´à voir tous les jours leurs enfans arrachez d´entre leurs bras, sous le pretexte qu´ils anroient témoigné quelque desir de se faire Catholiques." (Benoît, Histoire de l´Édit de Nantes, liv. xvii., tome iv. p. 446.)


The constant multiplication of vexatious and tyrannical measures began to drive the Huguenots out of the kingdom. But even the privilege of exile was now grudged the unfortunates. Restriction was placed upon emigration in 1669, and in subsequent years new and more rigorous limitations were imposed. An edict of 1682 declared that Protestants, especially sailors and mechanics, who should attempt to quit the realm with their families, should be liable to the penalty of the galleys for life. This oppression, from which one was not even permitted to escape by exile, was, at least in principle, far more odious than that terrible expulsion of the Moors which had moved the iron soul of Richelieu with indignation." 2 Martin, Age of Louis XIV., i. 553, 554.


The death of Colbert (1683) removed the last means of shelter from the Protestants. The savage Louvois, who succeeded him as the King's most influential minister, had no scruples about seconding the most intolerant suggestions of the Jesuit confessor, La Chaise. He represented to Louis that everything had been matured for decisive action, that it was only necessary to show the troops to the Protestants to complete their motives for a change of religion. The King accepted the barbarous counsel. To be sure, he gave directions that the soldiers should commit no disorders, and should simply exact a certain sum of money from the Protestants upon whom they were quartered. But the soldiers quickly formed the conclusion, that, if they were successful, their license would be overlooked. And in truth very little ever came up to contradict their conclusion. Thus the horrors of the Dragonnades were inaugurated. Wearied well nigh to death by the intolerable impositions of the soldiers, multitudes of the Huguenots recanted.


Louis, in the intoxication of victory, thought that he might now openly abrogate the solemn pledge with which Henry IV. had bound himself and hie successors, and on the 17th of October, 1685, he signed the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. A special council of conscience, composed of two jurisconsults and two theologians, had advised him of his right to take this step.


With the Revocation came the order for demolishing the churches of the Huguenots and the closing of their schools, prohibiting assemblies for the exercise of the Huguenot religion, banishing ministers of the said religion, and requiring children who should be born in the future to be baptized and educated as subjects of the Roman Catholic Church. The only favorable stipulation was, that, "till it should please God to enlighten them like others," they were not to be molested on account of their religion, provided they made this a private matter and were strictly loyal.


From this last provision it was judged that the King did not intend to force all the Protestants to abjure their faith, and many were led to hope for release from their oppressors. But no release was intended. On the contrary, Louvois gave this diabolical direction: "Let the soldiers be allowed to live very licentiously." Thus faithlessness and cruelty joined hands in the treatment of the Huguenots.


"The chiefs of the Dragonnades judged it necessary to restrain bad converts by making examples of the obstinate; hence arose an inundation of horrors. Everything, in fact, was allowed the soldiers but rape and murder; and even this restriction was not always respected; besides, many of the unfortunate died, or were maimed for life, in consequence of the treatment to which they had been subjected; and the obscene tortures inflicted on women differed little from the last outrage, but in a perversity more refined. All the diabolic inventions of the highwaymen of the Middle Ages to extort gold from their captives were renewed here and there to secure conversions; the feet of the victims were scorched, they were strappadoed, suspended by the feet; young mothers were tied to the bedposts, while their infants of the breast were writhing with hunger before their eyes. From torture to abjuration, and from this to communion, there was often not twenty-four hours' distance, and their executioners were their guides and witnesses. Nearly all the bishops lent themselves to this impious practice.' Among the Reformed whom nothing could shake, those who encouraged others to resistance, by the influence of their character or social position, were sent to the Bastille, or other state prisons; some were entombed in subterranean dungeons,-in those dark pits, stifling and deadly cold, invented by feudal barbarism. The remains of animals in a state of putrefaction were sometimes thrown in after them to redouble the horror."


"The abduction of children put the final seal to the persecution. The edict of revocation had only declared that children subsequently born should be brought up in the Catholic religion. An edict of January, 1686, prescribed that children from five to sixteen years of age should be taken from their heretical relatives and put in the hands of Catholic relatives, or, if they had none, of Catholics designated by the judges! The crimes that we have just indicated might, in strictness, be attributed to the passions of subaltern agents; but this mighty outrage against the family and nature must be charged to the government alone." 1 Martin, Age of Louis XIV., ii. 43-45.


The dragonnade system was extended over the larger part of the realm. The Vaudois in Dauphiny were invaded. Many fled to their brethren in the mountainous region of Piedmont. But the French government persuaded the Duke Amadeus to refuse them an asylum. Assailed by both French and Piedmontese troops, thousands were slaughtered. Nevertheless, a few valiant and steadfast men were able to maintain themselves among the rocks. In France, at large, the increased rigors aroused, instead of crushing, the spirit of the Huguenots. Many thousands, rather than sacrifice their faith, braved the perils of emigration.


How was the result viewed at court? In those gilded saloons shut out from communication with the misery of the Dragonnades only one side of the subject was regarded. The groans of the tortured, the imprisoned, the exiled, and the dying were unheard. The impoverishment of France through the loss of her most virtuous and enterprising sons and daughters was not considered. All attention was centered upon the grand fact of a Roman Catholic triumph. Louis XIV. was lauded to the skies, and hailed as a new Constantine, a new Charlemagne. The voice of Bossuet joined with others in the chorus of praise.

1 "Touch's de tant de merveilles, épanchons nos cœurs sur la piété de Louis; poussons jusqu´au ciel nos acclamations, et dison à ce nouveau Théodose, à ce nouveau Marcien, à ce nouveau Charlemagne, ce que les six cent trent Pères dirent autrefois dans le concile de Chalcédoine: ‘Vous avez affermi la foi, vous avez exterminé les hérétiques: c'est le digne ouvrage de votre règne.’" (Oraison Funèbre de Michel le Tellier.)
Medals were struck representing the King crowned by religion. Madame de Sévigné pronounced his deed the fairest and most memorable among royal exploits.
2 "Les dragons ont été de très bons missionnaires jusqu'ici; lea prédicateurs qu'on envoie présentement rendront l'ouvrage parfait. Vous aurez vu, sans doute, l'édit par lequel le roi révoque celui de Nantes. Rien n'est si beau que tout ce qu´il contient, et jamais aucun roi n'a fait et ne fera rien de plus mémorable." (Lettre au Comte de Bussy, 28 0ct., 1685.)
The Duke of St. Simon, who was closely connected with the court, indicates that there were some who did not share in this exultation. "The King," he says, "heard nothing but eulogies, while the good and true Catholics and the true bishops groaned in spirit to see the orthodox act towards error and heretics as heretical tyrants and heathen had acted against the truth, the confessors, and the martyrs." (Memoirs, abridged translation by Bayle St. John, vol. iii. chap. i.)
Was ever illusion more complete! This vaunted triumph was a deadly thrust at both national and religious prosperity. France had robbed herself of her best citizens. At the lowest reasonable estimate, a hundred thousand had taken the path of exile. Some have placed the exodus as high as four hundred thousand, but it, is hardly probable that it much exceeded half that number.
1 Benoît, a few years after the Revocation, reckoned the number of exiles at more than two hundred thousand (Histoire de l´Édit de Nantes, tome v. p. 1014). Martin's estimate is about the same.
The real loss, however, was much larger than is indicated by estimates of the emigration. Many who remained were so crippled and depressed as never to render the industrial service which otherwise they would have afforded. Moreover, a resentment was kindled in the Protestant states of Europe, which acted very unfavorably upon the foreign relations of France. William of Orange found himself powerfully assisted by the Revocation and the Dragonnades in his attempts to form a coalition against Louis, and raised effectual barriers in the way of his ambitious schemes. The exiled Huguenots added to the strength and prosperity of the several Protestant nations. Holland supplied an abode to many of them. Berlin, then a city of only twelve or fifteen thousand inhabitants, received a valuable acquisition in the French refugees, to whom she gave a cordial welcome. Others of the expatriated multitude settled in England. The American Colonies also received some, and here, as elsewhere, they distinguished themselves as competent and industrious citizens. Three out of the seven Presidents of the Revolutionary Congress were men of Huguenot antecedents. 2 Henry Laurens, John Jay, and Elias Boudinot.


The material loss, however, can hardly be counted the most serious result that came to France from the savage persecution. The French mind was too elastic to admit of the ecclesiastical success of such a policy of repression. The authority of the Romish Church was undermined in the very act of enforcing its supremacy. "The attempt to impose by physical force an iron stereotyped uniformity produced a formidable recoil, and that at no distant date, against the whole theory of authoritative teaching. The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes furnished a magazine of specious argument for the school of Bayle and the 'philosophes,' the 'libertins,''the free-thinkers,' which rose into notice almost immediately afterwards;- a school which was destined, eventually, not only to subvert the national Church of France, but to imperil the very existence of Christianity, and to sap the foundations of the social fabric. Nothing in all history is more solemnly instructive than the progress of that momentous reaction." 1 W. H. Jervis, History of the Church of France, ii. 69.


Custom perpetuated, for a considerable time, the practice of bestowing fulsome praises on Louis as a great Christian hero and conqueror. But it was not long before the veil of delusion was partly rent away. The policy of intolerance was not abandoned, but more or less of doubt and indecision was manifested in its prosecution. Alternations of indulgence and severity indicated that "the infallible monarch" had lost his presence of mind.


Acts of oppression were still sufficiently frequent and notable to keep alive resentment. The hearts of the faithful were inflamed by the sight of preachers sent to the gallows, and their auditors consigned to the galleys. An enthusiasm tinged more or less with fanaticism was awakened especially in the mountainous district of the South, the Cévennes. Men to whom prophetic gifts were accredited began to appear (about 1700) in the secret assemblies of the Cévennese. The apparent stir in their midst increased the persecutions, and several of the congregations which they assembled in the wilderness were massacred by the soldiers. At length, after months of suffering, patience became exhausted. The tyrant of the Cévennes, the archpriest Du Cheyla, who had practised the most abominable cruelties, was set upon by an infuriated band and killed. This was the starting point of a revolt which, if not formidable in point of numbers, was powerful enough to wrest victories from the oppressor, and to cause much trouble in the work of subjugation. Foremost among the leaders of the revolting sectaries, or Camisards, as they were called on account of their white shirts, were two young men, Roland and Cavalier. The latter finally accepted the favorable terms which were stipulated in the name of the government (1704). Roland, on the other hand, rejected the offered peace. Shortly afterwards a traitorous act delivered him into the hands of his enemies, but they were able to possess only his dead body, as he disdained to be made a prisoner. After the death of their most valiant leader, the Cévennese had little heart for further opposition.


The death of Father La Chaise (1709) and the advent of a new confessor to Louis were in no wise favorable to the Protestants. For Le Tellier, the new confessor, was the very opposite of an improvement on La Chaise. A signal expression of his spirit appeared in an edict that was issued in March, 1715. The edict affected to consider that the Reformed religion had long been abolished, and that, properly speaking, Protestants had no place in France. One inference drawn was, that persons who died without requesting the rites of the Romish Church were backsliders, and were to be buried as such on the highway. A second inference, though not stated, was designed; namely, that since the Roman Catholic was the only Church in France, all marriages outside of that Church were invalid, and children born of such were only bastards. This scheme to dishonor a whole people at once in the cradle and on the death-bed is what Henri Martin has termed "the master-piece of that spirit of falsehood which France has baptized by the name of Jesuitism." It was indeed a fiery trial to which French Protestantism was subjected. A remnant survived the trial, but it was only a remnant.