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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 13 — From Rise of Protestantism in France (1510) to Publication of the Institutes (1536)

Chapter 21 — Other and more dreadful Martyrdoms

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A Great Purgation Resolved on — Preparations — Procession — The Four Mendicants — Relics: the Head of St. Louis; the True Cross, etc. — Living Dignitaries — The Host — The King on Foot — His Penitence — Of what Sins does he Repent? — The Queen — Ambassadors, Nobles, etc. — Homage of the Citizens — High Mass in Notre Dame — Speech of the King — The Oath of the King — Return of Procession — Apparatus of Torture — Martyrdom of Nicholas Valeton — More Scaffolds and Victims — The King and People's Satisfaction — An Ominous Day in the Calendar of France — The 21st of January.

AS yet we have seen only the beginning of the tragedy; its more awful scenes are to follow. Numerous stakes had already been planted in Paris, but these did not slake the vengeance of the persecutor; more victims must be immolated if expiation was to be done for the affront offered to Heaven in the matter of the placards, and more blood shed if the land was to be cleansed from the frightful pollution it had undergone. Such was the talk which the priests held in presence of the king. [1] They reminded him that this was a crisis in France, that he was the eldest son of the Church, that this title it became him to preserve unsullied, and transmit with honor to his posterity, and they urged him to proceed with all due rigour in the performance of those bloody rites by which his throne and kingdom were to be purged. Francis I was but too willing to obey. A grand procession, which was to be graced by bloody interludes, was arranged, and the day on which it was to come off was the 21st of January, 1535. The horrors which will make this day famous to all time were not the doings of the king alone; they were not less the acts of the nation which by its constituted representatives countenanced the ceremonial and put its hand to its cruel and sanguinary work.

The day fixed on arrived. Great crowds from the country began to pour into Paris. In the city great preparations had been made for the spectacle. The houses along the line of march were hung with mourning drapery, and altars rose at intervals where the Host might repose as it was being borne along to its final resting-place on the high altar of Notre Dame. A throng of sight-seers filled the streets. Not only was every inch of the pavement occupied by human beings, but every door-step had its little group, every window its cluster of faces; even the roofs were black with on-lookers, perched on the beams or hanging on by the chimneys. "There was not," says Simon Fontaine, a chronicler of that day, and a doctor of the Sorbonne, "the smallest piece of wood or stone, jutting out of the walls, on which a spectator was not perched, provided there was but room enough, and one might have fancied the streets were paved with human heads." [2] Though it was day, a lighted taper was stuck in the front of every house "to do reverence to the blessed Sacrament and the holy relics. [3]

At the early hour of six the procession marshalled at the Louvre. First came the banners and crosses of the several parishes; next appeared the citizens, walking two and two, and bearing torches in their hands. The four Mendicant orders followed; the Dominican in his white woollen gown and black cloak; the Franciscan in his gown of coarse brown cloth, half-shod feet, and truncated cowl covering his shorn head; the Capuchin in his funnel-shaped cowl, and patched brown cloak, girded with a white three-knotted rope; and the Augustine with a little round hat on his shaven head, and wide black gown girded on the loins with a broad sash. After the monks walked the priests and canons of the city.

The next part of the procession evoked, in no ordinary degree, the interest and the awe of the spectators. On no former occasion had so many relics been paraded on the streets of Paris. [4] In the van of the procession was carried the head of St. Louis, the patron saint of France. There followed a bit of the true cross, the real crown of thorns, one of the nails, the swaddling clothes in which Christ lay, the purple robe in which he was attired, the towel with which he girded himself at the last supper, and the spear-head that pierced his side. Many saints of former times had sent each a bit of himself to grace the procession, and nourish the devotion of the on-lookers — some an arm, some a tooth, some a finger, and others one of the many heads which, as it would seem, each had worn in his lifetime. This goodly array of saintly relics was closed by the shrine of Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, borne by the corporation of butchers, who had prepared themselves for this holy work by the purification of a three days' fast. [5]

After the dead members of the Church, whose relics were enshrined in silver and gold, came a crowd of living dignitaries, in their robes and the insignia of their ecclesiastical rank. Cardinal and abbot, archbishop and bishop were there, in the glory of scarlet hat and purple gown, of cope and mitre and crozier. Now came the heart of this grand show, the Host; and in it the spectators saw One mightier than any dead saint or living dignitary in all that great procession. The Host was carried by the Bishop of Paris under a magnificent canopy, the four pillars of which were supported by four princes of the blood — the three sons of the king, and the Duke of Vend'me.

After the Host walked the king. The severe plainness of

his dress was in marked and studied contrast to the magnificence of the robes in which the ecclesiastics that preceded and the civic functionaries that followed him were arrayed. Francis I. on that day wore no crown, nor robe of state, nor was he borne along in chariot or litter. He appeared walking on foot, his head uncovered, his eyes cast on the ground, and in his hand a lighted taper. [6] The king was there in the character of a penitent. He was the chief mourner in that great national act of humiliation and repentance. He mourned with head bowed and eyes cast down, but with heart unbroken.

For what did Francis I., monarch of France, do penance? For the debaucheries that defiled his palace? for the righteous blood that stained the streets of his capital? for the violated oaths by which he had attempted to overreach those who trusted him at home, and those who were transacting with him abroad? No; these were venial offenses; they were not worth a thought on the part of the monarch. The King of France did penance for the all but inexpiable crime of his Protestant subjects in daring to attack the mass, and publish in the face of all France their Protest against its blasphemy and idolatry.

The end of the procession was not yet; it still swept on; at slow pace, and in mournful silence, save when some penitential chant rose upon the air. Behind the king walked the queen; she was followed by all the members of the court, by the ambassadors of foreign sovereigns, by the nobles of the realm, by the members of Parliament in their scarlet robes, by judges, officers, and the guilds of the various trades, each with the symbol of penitence in his hand, a lighted candle. The military guard could with difficulty keep open the way for the procession through the dense crowd, which pressed forward to touch some holy relic or kiss some image of saint. They lined the whole route taken by the processionists, and did homage on bended knee to the Host as it passed them. [7]

The long procession rolled in at the gates of Notre Dame. The Host, which had been carried thither with so much solemnity, was placed on the high altar; and a solemn mass proceeded in the presence of perhaps a more brilliant assemblage than had ever before been gathered into even the great national temple of France. When the ceremony was concluded the king returned to the bishop's palace, where he dined. After dinner he adjourned with the whole assembly to the great hall, where he ascended a throne which had been fitted up for the occasion. It was understood that the king was to pronounce an oration, and the assembly kept silence, eager to hear what so august a speaker, on so great an occasion, would say.

The king presented himself to his subjects with a sorrowful countenance; nor is it necessary to suppose that that sorrow was feigned. The affair of the placards threatened to embroil him with both friend and foe; it had crossed his political projects; and we can believe, moreover, that it had shocked his feelings and beliefs as a Roman Catholic; for there is little ground to think that Francis had begun to love the Gospel, and the looks of sadness in which he showed himself to his subjects were not wholly counterfeited.

The speech which Francis I. delivered on this occasion — and several reports of it have come down to us — was touching and eloquent. He dwelt on the many favors Providence had conferred on France; her enemies had felt the weight of her sword; her friends had had good cause to rejoice in her alliance; even when punished for her faults great mercy had been mingled with the chastisement; above all, what an honor that France should have been enabled to persevere these long centuries in the path of the Holy Catholic faith, and had so nobly worn her glorious title the "Most Christian." But now, continued the king, she that has been preserved hitherto from straying so little, seems on the point of a fatal plunge into heresy; her soil has begun to produce monsters; "God has been attacked in the Holy Sacrament," France has been dishonored in the eyes of other nations, and the cloud of the Divine displeasure is darkening over her. "Oh, the crime, the blasphemy, the day of sorrow and disgrace! Oh, that it had never dawned upon us!"

These moving words drew tears from nearly all present, says the chronicler who reports the scene, and who was probably an eye-witness of it. [8] Sobs and sighs burst from the assembly. After a pause the king resumed: "What a disgrace it will be if we do not extirpate these wicked creatures! If you know any person infected by this perverse sect, be he your parent, brother, cousin, or connection, give information against him. By concealing his misdeeds you will be partakers of that pestilent faction." The assembly, says the chronicle, gave numerous signs of assent.

"I give thanks to God," he resumed, "that the greatest, the most learned, and undoubtedly the majority of my subjects, and especially in this good city of Paris, are full of zeal for the Catholic religion." Then, says the chronicle, you might have seen the faces of the spectators change in appearance, and give signs of joy; acclamations prevented the sighs, and sighs choked the acclamations. "I warn you," continued the king, "that I will have the said errors expelled and driven from my kingdom, and will excuse no one." Then he exclaimed, says our historian, with extreme anger, "As true, Messieurs, as I am your king, if I knew one of my own limbs spotted or infected with this detestable rottenness, I would give it you to cut off. . . . And farther, if I saw one of my

children defiled by it, I would not spare him... I would deliver him up myself, and would sacrifice, him to God." [9]

The king was so agitated that he was unable to proceed; he burst into tears. The assembly wept with him. The Bishop of Paris and the provost of the merchants now approached the monarch, and kneeling before him swore, the first in the name of the clergy, and the second in that of the citizens, to make war against heresy. "Thereupon all the spectators exclaimed, with voices broken by sobbing, 'We will live and die for the Catholic religion!'" [10]

Having sworn this oath in Notre Dame — the roof under which, nearly three centuries after, the Goddess of Reason sat enthroned — the assembly reformed and set forth to begin the war that very hour. Their zeal for the "faith" was inflamed to the utmost; but they were all the better prepared to witness the dreadful sights that awaited them. A terrible programme had been sketched out; horrors were to mark every step of the way back to the Louvre, but Francis and his courtiers were to gaze with pitiless eye and heart on these horrors.

The procession in returning made a circuit by the Church of Genevieve, where now stands the Pantheon. At short distances scaffolds had been erected on which certain Protestant Christians were to be burned alive, and it was arranged that the faggots should be lighted at the moment the king approached, and that the procession should halt to witness the execution.

The men set apart to death were first to undergo prolonged and excruciating tortures, and for this end a most ingenious but cruel apparatus had been devised, which let us describe. First rose an upright beam, firmly planted in the ground; to that another beam was attached crosswise, and worked by a pulley and string. The martyr was fastened to one end of the movable beam by his hands, which were tied behind his back, and then he was raised in the air. He was next let down into the slow fire underneath. After a minute or two's broiling he was raised again, and a second time let drop into the fire; and thus was he raised and lowered till the ropes that fastened him to the pole were consumed, and he fell amid the burning coals, where he lay till he gave up the ghost. [11] "The custom in France," says Sleidan, [12] describing these cruel tragedies; "is to put malefactors to death in the afternoon; where first silence is cried, and then the crimes for which they suffer are repeated aloud. But when any one is executed for Lutheranism, as they call it — that is, if any person hath disputed for justification by faith, not by works, that the saints are not to be invocated, that Christ is the only Priest and Intercessor for mankind; or if a man has happened to eat flesh upon forbidden days; not a syllable of all this is published, but in general they cry that he hath renounced God Almighty . . . and violated the decrees of our common mother, Holy Church. This aggravating way makes the vulgar believe such persons the most profligate wretches under the cope of heaven; insomuch that when they are broiling in the flame, it is usual for the people to storm at them, cursing them in the height of their torments, as if they were not worthy to tread upon the earth."

The first to be brought forth was Nicholas Valeton, the Christian whom we have already mentioned as frequently to be seen searching the innermost recesses and nooks of the booksellers' shops in quest of the writings of the Reformers. The priests offered him a pardon provided he would recant. "My faith," he replied, "has a confidence in God, which will resist all the powers of hell. [13] He was dealt with as we have already described; tied to the beam, he was alternately raised in the air and lowered into the flames, till the cords giving way, there came an end to his agonies.

Other two martyrs were brought forward, and three times, was this cruel sport enacted, the king and all the members of the procession standing by the while, and feasting their eyes on the torments of the sufferers. The King of France, like the Roman tyrant, wished that his victims should feel themselves die.

This was on the road between the Church of Genevieve and the Louvre. The scene of this tragedy, therefore, could not be very far from the spot where, somewhat more than 250 years after, the scaffold was set up for Louis XVI., and 2,800 other victims of the Revolution. The spectacles of the day were not yet closed. On the line of march the lieutenant-criminal had prepared other scaffolds, where the cruel apparatus of death stood waiting its prey; and before the procession reached the Louvre, there were more halts, more victims, more expiations; and when Francis I. re-entered his palace and reviewed his day's work, he was well pleased to think that he had made propitiation for the affront offered to God in the Sacrament, and that the cloud of vengeance which had lowered above his throne and his kingdom was rolled away. The priests declared that the triumph of the Church in France was now for ever secured; and if any there were among the spectators whom these cruel deaths had touched with pity, by neither word nor sign dared they avow it. The populace of the capital were overjoyed; they had tasted of blood and were not soon to forego their relish for it, [14] nor to care much in after-times at whose expense they gratified it.

As there are events so like to one another in their outward guise that they seem to be the same repeated, so there are days that appear to return over

again, inasmuch as they come laden with the same good or evil fortune to which they had as it were been consecrated. Every nation has such days.

The 21st of January is a noted and ominous day in the calendar of France. Twice has that day summoned up spectacles of horror; twice has it seen deeds enacted which have made France and the world shudder; and twice has it inaugurated an era of woes and tragedies which stand without a parallel in history. The first 21st of January is that whose tragic scenes we have just described, and which opened an era that ran on till the close of the eighteenth century, during which the disciples of the Gospel in France were pining in dungeons and in the galleys, were enduring captivity and famine, were expiring amid the flames or dying on the field of battle.

The second notable 21st of January came round in 1793. This day had, too, its procession through the streets of Paris; again the king was the chief figure; again there were tumult and shouting; again there was heard the cry for more victims; again there were black scaffolds; and again the scenes of the day were closed by horrid executions; Louis XVI., struggling hand to hand with his jailers and executioners was dragged forward to the block, and there held down by main force till the axe had fallen, and his dissevered head rolled on the scaffold.

Have we not witnessed a third dismal 21st of January in France? It is the winter of 1870-71. Four months has Paris suffered siege; the famine is sore in the city; the food of man has disappeared from her luxurious tables; her inhabitants ravenously devour unclean and abominable things — the vermin of the sewers, the putrid carcasses of the streets. Within the city, the inhabitants are pining away with cold and hunger and disease; without, the sword of a victorious foe awaits them. Paris will rouse herself, and break through the circle of fire and steel that hems her in. The attempt is made, but fails. Her soldiers are driven back before the victorious German, and again are cooped up within her miserable walls. On the 21st of January, 1871, it was resolved to capitulate to the conqueror. [15]

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