No 👣 tracking social sharing

The Reformation In France During The Reign Of Francis I. (1515-1547)

The Reformation In France During The Reign Of Francis I. (1515-1547).


IN no country was the religious struggle more violent than in France. In other Romanic countries,--Italy, Spain, and Portugal, -- Protestantism was speedily led as a lamb to the slaughter. It was too feeble to resist the temporal arm, and the bigotry of the great mass of the people prevented its gaining a permanent foothold by the use of spiritual weapons. But in France a more favorable field was opened for innovating opinions. Protestantism steadily advanced for about half a century. At length, it felt that it was no longer bound passively to endure the persecuting rigors of its rival. A resort was made to arms, and civil war followed civil war in rapid succession. The St. Bartholomew massacre was only the central and more bloody scene of a long-continued tragedy. Martyrdoms, tumults, and civil wars both preceded and followed that fearful outbreak. The most violent passions were stirred. Leaders highest in rank and influence fell by the hand of the assassin. The Protestant cause was, in some instances, stained by political intrigue and by acts of savage severity. Baron des Adrets, who, however, was not much of a Protestant by conviction, and finally returned to the Romish ranks, was as cruel as the more intolerant upholders of the old Church, and repaid the atrocities which they perpetrated in Provence and Dauphiny, in the first civil war, with merciless rigor. 1 Severity was with Des Adrets a matter of policy as well as of disposition. He claimed that it was necessary to make the adversary see that Protestants were not such abject creatures as to submit to murderous violence without resentment and retaliation (De Thou, Historiarum sui Temporis, Lib. XXXI.). While he was an efficient captain, the dishonor which he brought upon the cause more than counterbalanced his services. Martin has called Des Adrets "the Montluc of the Huguenots" (Histoire de France, Livre LII.). Blaise de Montluc was a Roman Catholic leader, who openly boasted that he had executed more Huguenots than any other royal lieutenant in France.


Though the French Government, in the sixteenth century, indulged in a series of intolerant edicts and barbarous acts, it can hardly be regarded as the centre of bigoted zeal in the realm. The repressive measures which it patronized were dictated as much by political as by religious interest. The focus of bigotry and religious animosity was located elsewhere than at the throne. Among the uncompromising upholders of the old faith was the Sorbonne, or theological faculty of the Paris University. The French doctors seemed to have made no progress since the council of Constance, where indeed they opposed the extreme pretensions of the papacy, but were among the foremost in urging on the process against Huss and Jerome. So the members of the Sorbonne advocated "Gallican liberties," that is, the privileges of the Church in France, as against papal control, but still were ready to burn men who dissented, even in slight measure, from the old faith. Seconding the zeal of the learned faculty was the unthinking rage of the great mass of the Parisian populace. In the latter part of the century, the Jesuits brought their insinuating and fiery propagandism to bear, and helped to sustain the ardor of those who were bent on a policy of repression. Finally, the house of Guise re-enforced all these parties by supplying to them the effacious bond of an able leadership. The men of this house may not have been animated by the most unqualified zeal for the Roman Catholic faith; but it suited their ambitions to make use of this zeal, and no doubt they partook of it themselves in some measure.


The French sovereign who began the period showed unquestionably, in the early part of his reign, a disposition quite other than that of the typical persecutor. His temper was remote from moroseness, rigor, and stern conservatism. There was scarcely so much as seriousness in Francis I. to give edge to his religious convictions. He was the friend of pleasure, of elegance, and splendor. Though able himself to boast of only a very humble share in culture, he was a generous patron of art and literature. The Italian magnates had taught him that herein were effectual means of giving lustre to his reign, and he went zealously to work to apply the lesson. He founded St. Germain, embellished Fontainebleau, commenced the Louvre, enlarged the royal library, founded the College of France as an off set to the illiberal scholasticism of the Paris University, pensioned distinguished exponents of the new learning, and invited in foreign artists, including some of the great geniuses of the Italian schools. 1 For a condensed sketch of the Renaissance under Francis L, see Lavallée, Histoire des Français, Livre II. sect. iv, chap. vi. § 4. Evidently a man of this cast was not naturally disposed to extirpate all freedom of religious opinions. But at the same time he was far from being proof against temptations to persecute. He lived wholly in a worldly range; he had no high principles, his law was expediency. Apparent advantage, therefore, was all that was needed to incite him to persecute. And thus we have the record that the king who cultivated an alliance with foreign Protestants, and even with Turks, patronized merciless inflictions upon the Protestants in his own realm; that the fosterer of literature and art issued in one case a decree rivalling the demands of the most stupid foe of enlightenment.


The first beginnings of the Reformation in France seem to have been quite as much a native growth as in any country. It was after the first seeds of the advanced opinions had been sown, that the influence of Luther came in to quicken the growth. At a later stage Calvinistic influence took the place of Lutheran. From the time that the French edition of his Institutes began to be circulated, Calvin was the intellectual master of the Protestant movement in his native country.


Humanism was closely associated with the initiation of the Reformation in France. Lefèvre, who had been teaching at the University of Paris nearly twenty-five years when Luther published his theses, joined with the new studies a sincere love for evangelical truth. As early as 1512, in the commentaries, which he wrote on the Pauline Epistles, he gave quite distinct expression to the doctrine of justification by faith. At a later date we find him in full accord with the Reformers on the supreme eminence to be accorded to the Scriptures over all other authorities, and on the necessity of placing them in the hands of the people. 1 See his declarations in A. L. Herminjard, Correspondence des Reformateurs dans les Pays de Langue Française, I. 90, 91, 135, 136. Adding works to his faith on this subject, he projected and accomplished a translation of the New Testament. This was published in 1523, and was read, or listened to, with great eagerness by the common people, where opportunity was given, as we learn from a letter of Lefèvre to Farel. 2 Herminjard, I. 220, 221. Five years later he supplied also a French version of the Old Testament. These translations served as the basis which was improved upon by Olivétan, Calvin, and others.


The work of Lefèvre was supported by some distinguished sympathizers. Among these was Briçonnet, Bishop of Meaux. As the reforming teacher and his friends, in 1521, found it expedient to leave Paris, on account of the vexatious opposition of the Sorbonne, Briçonnet gave them a ready welcome, and gladly employed their services in his diocese. Another friend of Lefèvre was the learned nobleman Louis de Berquin. A sympathizer with the evangelical group, still more distinguished in rank, was Margaret, sister of Francis I., a princess eminent at once for her talents and her virtues. 3 The extraordinary affection of Margaret for her brother has elicited comment. Martin doubtless gives the true account of it in its moral bearings, when he says of her passionate attachment, dans cette âme naturellement honnête autant que tendre, resta un malheur at ne devint pas un crime (Histoire de France, Livre XLVII.). A ground of disparagement might be found in a romantic work of Margaret, entitled the Heptameron. This undoubtedly is too much in the vein of Boccaccio to suit a healthy moral taste. But the evidence appears to be conclusive that its faults sprang rather from the influence of the models before her, and from defective notions of literary diversion, than from any real affinity with moral laxity. Though hemmed in by her surroundings, she gave not a little of open expression to her approbation of Reformation principles. She submitted indeed to the rites of the Roman Catholic worship; but her writings, 1 Among her writings a poem, entitled the "Mirror of the Sinful Soul," was so evangelical in tone, that it was honored by the doctors of the Sorbonne with their censure, though afterwards they were very ready to disown their act (Histoire Ecclésiastique des Églises Reformées an Royaume de France, édition nouvelle, Paris, 1883, I. 23, 24). This history has been attributed to Beza. as well as her disposition to shelter the Reformers, showed well enough the direction of her religious preferences. In the line of the same evidence is the fact that Jeanne d'Albret, her daughter by her second husband, came forward to take an illustrious place among the Protestant heroines of the sixteenth century.


The reform movement had not long been in progress at Meaux when persecution arose. Some of the chief promoters of the movement were found to be poorly prepared for the ordeal. Briçonnet quailed before the first alarms, abandoned his liberal sentiments, and even put forth his hand to repress the work of religious enlightenment which he himself had been urging forward. Herminjard, i. 153-158, 171. As for Lefèvre, his course proved that he was better qualified to start others forward than to assume the leadership of a religious revolution. He was rather of a contemplative, than of a daring, belligerent nature. In 1525, with Roussel, who shared his temper and his fortunes, he retreated before the rising storm, and took refuge in Strasburg. A year or two later, the friendship of the King secured his recall to France. Under the royal protection and that of Margaret, who was his devoted patron, he was comparatively safe from molestation. While, however, Lefèvre did not retract his reformed views, he did not champion them with openness and vigor; and the report that his last days were embittered with some poignant reflections over his lack of heroic decision seems to be well authenticated. 1 H. M. Baird, in his singularly thorough work, History of the Rise of the Huguenots of France, i. 95, 96. In Louis de Berquin, persecution found a more unbending subject. He was a man in whom culture and character, the tastes of the humanist and the spirit of the confessor, were harmoniously combined. 2 Ranke says, "Of all men then living, Louis de Berquin was perhaps the one who most vitally united the ideas of Erasmus with those of Luther" (Französische Geschichte, i. 156). "In the purity and benevolence of his life," writes Martin, "he was a saint, in learning an eminent doctor, in energy and activity a man qualified for leadership." Histoire de France, Livre XLVIII. From the tuition of Lefèvre, De Berquin passed to that of Luther, some of whose writings he rendered into French with annotations. He began also to express himself with much decision in original treatises. The inevitable consequence was, that the heresy-hunter was soon upon his track. The blustering zealot Beda, syndic of the Sorbonne, stirred up the authorities; and as early as 1523, De Berquin was cast into prison. As he had no disposition to recant, it seemed probable that he would earn the honor of being the first martyr of the Reformation in France, when the orders of the King, who entertained for him a friendly regard, secured his release.


The fate which De Berquin escaped overtook ere long a number of more humble victims. Several were burned at the stake in 1525. Such was the lot of the wool-carder Leclerc, who had been converted by the evangelical labors at Meaux. Animated by a zeal which outran his discretion, he tore down a proclamation of indulgence. For this offense he was branded on the forehead with a hot iron. Later, by breaking the images in a chapel, he brought upon himself such a frenzy of rage as could be appeased only in the consuming flames. He was burned at Metz. Another confessor --the Augustinian monk, Jean Châtellain --paid the same penalty at Metz. Wolfgang Schuch, a German pastor, was sent to the stake at Nancy. In Paris, large crowds witnessed the martyrdom of the young scholar Pauvan, and of an inoffensive recluse who is known only as the Hermit of Livry.


These executions were effected during the absence of the King, while the regency was in the hands of his mother, Louise of Savoy. Perhaps the mere absence of the King had little to do with the fate of most of the victims. But it is certain that the calamity which befell his army under the walls of Pavia in 1525, and his own captivity at Madrid, stimulated the zeal of the authorities against heresy. Bigoted Romanists were very ready to impute the national calamities to the Divine displeasure against a tolerance of error. Policy agreed with this interpretation, and urged to such measures as would please the Pope and secure the loyal devotion of the clergy. Accordingly a fresh stimulus was given to persecution, and the scheme for the apprehension and punishment of heretics was brought into a greater conformity with the methods of the Inquisition than had previously been allowed by public sentiment.


Under these conditions, the attempt to destroy De Berquin was naturally renewed. Again he found his way to the prison. But once more the eager desire for vengeance was obliged to submit to a delay. The intercession of Margaret, and the orders of the King, secured a stay of proceedings; and finally, some months after the return of Francis from captivity, the reformer was set at liberty. He enjoyed, however, only a brief respite. To replenish his exhausted treasury, Francis became the ally of the clergy, and engaged to support them in their efforts to extirpate heresy. When De Berquin was arrested a third time, the King, though earnestly solicited by Margaret, made no effort to interpose. By hurrying through his process and sentence, the judges were able to escape challenge, and to bring the daring agitator to the stake, where he was first strangled and then burned. A letter of Erasmus assures us that De Berquin met his fate in a manner worthy of his record and his cause. "Neither by a look nor by any motion of his body did he give a sign of mental agitation. You would have said that he was engaged in the investigations of the study, or in the heavenly meditations of the sanctuary. Not even when the executioner with rude voice declared his crime and punishment did his countenance indicate any faltering in his constancy. Free from all appearance of audacity or ferocity, he manifested the tranquillity of a mind conscious of its own pure intention." 1 Herminjard, ii. 85.


Francis I. still had the grace or the discretion to reject some of the counsels of intolerance which came to his ears. Yet he was so far accessible to such advice as to allow his reign to be stained by acts of savage severity. In 1535, irritated by the placards against the mass which had been posted at Paris in the latter part of the preceding year, he gave the sanction of his presence to a barbarous spectacle at the metropolis, in which six persons were burned to death with special refinements of cruelty. 1 A machine was employed by which the victim was alternately lowered into and withdrawn from the flames (Garnier, Histoire de France par Velly, Villaret, et Garnier, xii. 554). Some days before, he had put on record an expression of zeal absurd in itself, and especially absurd in the patron of learning, -- an edict prohibiting any exercise of the art of printing in France.


The succeeding years witnessed new spectacles and new edicts. If Protestantism was not hunted out and burned to ashes, it was not because the King refused the necessary legal support to the work of inquisition and destruction. In 1540 came the severe edict of Fontainebleau; while the year 1545 witnessed the crowning atrocity of the reign of Francis I., the slaughter of the Vaudois or Waldenses in Provence. Here the responsibility lay with subordinates more than with the King. Influenced by false and malicious reports, he withdrew his protection. This was all that was needed to let in the full violence of the flood which had been gathering for a number of years against this innocent and exemplary people. An armed force under Baron d' Oppède, president of Provence, broke into their country. Neither age nor sex was regarded. Several thousands were butchered, several hundreds condemned to the galleys, and more than twenty towns laid utterly waste. 1 Some of the details are given in the Histoire Ecclésiastique, i. 54-64 As was usual in all similar cases of Roman Catholic barbarity, the agents of these horrors escaped unscathed. An elaborate trial indeed followed in the next reign; but the chief criminals were acquitted, and one subordinate agent paid with his life for the massacre of thousands. 2 Mezeray, Abrégé Chronologique de l'Histoire de France, iii. 191.


The river of blood which flowed in Southern France did not satiate the desire elsewhere for vengeance upon the heretic. The very next year occurred the breaking-up of a congregation in Meaux, and the burning of fourteen of its members. A representative of the Sorbonne preached a sermon in connection with the tragedy, in which he declared that God would not be God if he did not consign the fourteen heretics to eternal damnation. 3 Histoire Ecclésiastique, i. 69, 70.


Surely it was no flowery pathway which the Reform pursued during the reign of Francis I. It passed through the fire, but for its purification rather than for its destruction. As Mezeray has remarked, "For two that were put to death, a hundred sprang from their ashes." 4 III. 142.

Friends and Colleagues