Protestantism In France From The Accession Of Henry IV. To The Fall Of La Rochelle (1589-1628).
A Roman Catholic majority which had not yet ceased to celebrate the massacre of Protestants, and had just canonized the assassin of a king whose greatest fault was too little vigor in exterminating Protestants, was not likely to welcome a Protestant sovereign. It stood, in fact, as a thick wall of separation between Henry IV. and any real exercise of regal authority. Destitute of other means to break down this wall, what wonder that he thought once and again of the open door which a change of religious profession would set before him? With what cogency the tempter could represent that only thus would he be able to heal the woes of France, and bring to an end the long and terrible drama of civil strife! In Henry IV. the tempter found an accessible mind. He was not of the moral fibre to endure successfully so great an ordeal of conscience. While he was generous and large-hearted, and brought to the sceptre a magnanimity which was at once nature and fine art,--efficacious in a degree not often witnessed for turning opponents into friends, -- he was lacking in moral staunchness. His manners were after the corrupt pattern of the French court, and in no wise prepared him for a stern self-denial. Accordingly, he listened to the suggestions of expediency, and was received into the Roman Catholic communion in 1593. He is said to have described his own act as a sacrifice of his conviction to his duty, --a remark indicative of a rather beggarly conception of the relations which truth and duty sustain to each other and to God. 1 That Henry's casuitry, however, was not so effective as to exclude all scourgings of conscience, is sufficiently indicated by the narrative of Agrippa d'Aubigné (H.M. Baird, The Huguenots and Henry of Navarre, ii. 361, 362). The palliation for his defection lies in the enormous difficulties which environed him and threatened the welfare of his country. So serious was the outlook, that even some of his Protestant friends, including the noted Sully, looked with indulgence upon his abjuration. But others, like Duplessis Mornay and Agrippa d'Aubigné, who counseled less with worldly wisdom, plainly told the King that he was paying a greater price than any man could afford to give for an earthly crown.
The immediate results were, in a temporal point of view, undoubtedly very beneficial to France. Henry IV. won a marked ascendency, and showed himself admirably adapted to carry through a much-needed work of pacification. But how about remoter results? Would France have been afflicted with a larger aggregate of shame and horror than has fallen to her lot, if Henry IV. had not deserted the standard of his faith?
While the King became a nominal convert to the Roman Catholic religion, he did not forget his former allies. In 1598, through the Edict of Nantes, he provided for them a most valuable safeguard of religious liberty. The chief stipulations were, that the Protestants, as individuals, should not anywhere be subject to inquisition or molestation on account of their faith; that, while they were to respect the Roman Catholic holidays, they should have freedom of worship in all places where it had been enjoyed in the two preceding years, or had been guaranteed by the edict of 1577, and in certain additional places in the different sections of the realm; that they should have the same access to schools and hospitals as was accorded to Roman Catholics; that they should enjoy the common privileges of citizens, and be counted eligible to the highest offices; that in the several parliaments a special chamber should be constituted, which, inasmuch as a proportion of its members were to be Protestants, might sustain their rights under the laws. As a security for the observance of the edict, the Protestants were authorized to hold a number of fortified cities for the space of eight years.
Notwithstanding these favorable terms, Protestantism, so far as that age was concerned, had seen its best days in France. The unwonted zeal which animated the Roman Catholic Church in the last quarter of the sixteenth century, reforming religious orders, and vigorously employing all the means of propagandism, presented a natural offset to the efforts of Protestants. Moreover, the political position which the Huguenots had come to assume, set bounds to their evangelizing zeal and activity. Being a party to treaties which assigned them a certain prescribed sphere, a sense of obligation to standing agreements embarrassed all plans for aggressive movements.
The brilliant reign of Henry IV. was brought to an end by the murderous knife of Ravaillac, a fanatic, whose accomplices, if he had any, have never been discovered. Under his successor, Louis XIII., the Huguenots were obliged to feel the effects of the vigorous policy of the great minister Richelieu. The leading idea of Richelieu was centralization of power in the throne. The same general design which led him to seek a complete subjugation of the aristocracy to the royal authority, led him to seek the overthrow of the political power of the Huguenots. He saw that their possession of fortified cities was a great barrier in the way of royal supremacy. In particular, he was jealous of the communication which the Huguenots commanded with England through La Rochelle. Hence an effort was made to wrest this place from their control. The Huguenots offered a heroic resistance, but were obliged to yield. La Rochelle surrendered in 1628, after enduring the extreme horrors of famine. Richelieu was content to have destroyed the political power of the Huguenots; their religious privileges he did not attempt to cancel.