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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 5 — The first martyrs of France

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The Flock at Meaux – Denis, a "Meaux Heretic" – Visited in Prison by his former Pastor, Briconnet – The Interview – Men Burned and yet they Live – Pavane – Imprisoned for the Gospel – Recants – His Horror of Mind – Anew Confesses Christ – Is Burned – His the First Stake in Paris – Martyrdom of the Hermit of Livry – Leclerc, the Wool-comber – Acts as Pastor – Banished from Meaux – Retires to Metz – Demolishes the Images at the Chapel of Mary – Procession – Astonishment of Processionists – Leclerc Seized – Confesses – His Cruel Death – Bishop Briconnet.

Briconnet had recanted: but if the shepherd had fallen the little ones of the flock stood their ground. They continued to meet together for prayer and the reading of the Scriptures, the garret of a wool-comber, a solitary hut, or a copse serving as their place of rendezvous. [1] This congregation was to have the honor of furnishing martyrs whose blazing stakes were to shine like beacons in the darkness of France, and afford glorious proof to their countrymen that a power had entered the world which, braving the terror of scaffolds and surmounting the force of armies, would finally triumph over all opposition.

Let us take a few instances. A humble man named Denis, one of the "Meaux heretics," was apprehended; and in course of time he was visited in his prison by his former pastor, Briconnet. His enemies at times put tasks of this sort upon the fallen prelate, the more thoroughly to humiliate him. When the bishop made his unexpected appearance in the cell of the poor prisoner, Denis opened his eyes with surprise, Briconnet hung his with embarrassment. The bishop began with stammering tongue, we may well believe, to exhort the imprisoned disciple to purchase his liberty by a recantation. Denis listened for a little space, then rising up and steadfastly fixing his eyes upon the man who had once preached to him that very Gospel which he now exhorted him to abjure, said solemnly, "'Whosoever shall deny me before men, him shall I also deny before my Father who is in heaven!'" Briconnet reeled backwards and staggered out of the dungeon. The interview over, each took his own way: the bishop returned to his palace, and Denis passed from his cell to the stake. [2]

That long and terrible roll on which it was so hard, yet so glorious, to write one's name, was now about to be unfolded. This was no roll of the dead: it was a roll of the living; for while their contemporaries disappeared in the darkness of the tomb and were seen and heard of no more on earth, those men whose names were written there came out into the light, and shone in glory un-dimmed as the ages rolled past, telling that not only did they live, but their cause also, and that it should yet triumph in the land which they watered with their blood. This was a wondrous and great sight, men burned to ashes and yet living.

We select another from this band of pioneers. Pavane, a native of Boulogne and disciple of Lefevre, was a youth of sweetest disposition, but somewhat lacking in constitutional courage. He held a living in the Church, though he was not as yet in priest's orders. Enlightened by the truth, he began to say to his neighbors that the Virgin could no more save them than he could, and that there was but one Savior, even Jesus Christ. This was enough: he was apprehended and brought to trial. Had he blasphemed Christ only, he would have been forgiven: he had blasphemed Mary, and could have no forgiveness. He must make a public recantation or, hard alternative, go to the stake. Terrified at death in this dreadful form, Pavane consented to purge himself from the crime of having spoken blasphemous words against the Virgin. On Christmas Eve (1524) he was required to walk through the streets bare-headed and barefooted, a rope round his neck and a lighted taper in his hand, till he came to the Church of Notre Dame. Standing before the portals of that edifice, he publicly begged pardon of "Our Lady" for having spoken disparagingly of her. This act of penitence duly performed, he was sent back to his prison.

Returned to his dungeon, and left to think on what he had done, he found that there were things which it was more terrible to face than death. He was now alone with the Savior whom he had denied. A horror of darkness fell upon his soul. No sweet promise of the Bible could he recall: nothing could he find to lighten the sadness and heaviness that weighed upon him. Rather than drink this bitter cup he would a hundred times go to the stake. He who turned and looked on Peter spoke to Pavane, and reproved him for his sin. His tears flowed as freely as Peter's did. His resolution was taken. His sighings were now at an end: he anew made confession of his faith in Christ. The trial of the "relapsed heretic" was short; he was hurried to the stake. "At the foot of the pile he spoke of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper with such force that a doctor said, 'I wish Pavane had not spoken, even if it had cost the Church a million of gold.'" [3] The fagots were quickly lighted, and Pavane stood with unflinching courage amid the flames till he was burned to ashes.

This was the first stake planted in the capital of France, or indeed within the ancient limits of the kingdom. We ask in what quarter of Paris was it set up? In the Place de Greve. Ominous spot! In the Place de Greve were the first French martyrs of the Reformation burned. Nearly three hundred years pass away; the blazing stake

is no longer seen in Paris, for there are now no longer martyrs to be consumed. But there comes another visitant to France, the Revolution namely, bringing with it a dreadful instrument of death; and where does the Revolution set up its guillotine? In the same Place de Greve, at Paris. It was surely not of chance that on the Place de Greve were the first martyrs of the Reformation burned, and that on the Place de Greve were the first victims of the Revolution guillotined.

The martyrdom of Pavane was followed, after a short while, by that of the Hermit of Livry, as he was named. Livry was a small burgh on the road to Meaux. This confessor was burned alive before the porch of Notre Dame. Nothing was wanting which his persecutors could think of that might make the spectacle of his death terrible to the on-lookers. The great bell of the temple of Notre Dame was rung with immense violence, in order to draw out the people from all parts of Paris. As the martyr passed along the street, the doctors told the spectators that this was one of the damned who was on his way to the fire of hell. These things moved not the martyr; he walked with firm step and look undaunted to the spot where he was to offer up his life. [4]

One other martyrdom of these early times must we relate. Among the disciples at Meaux was a humble wool-comber of the name of Leclerc. Taught of the Spirit, he was "mighty in the Scriptures," and being a man of courage as well as knowledge, he came forward when Briconnet apostatised, and took the oversight of the flock which the bishop had deserted. Leclerc had received neither tonsure nor imposition of hands, but the Protestant Church of France had begun thus early to act upon the doctrine of a universal spiritual priesthood. The old state of things had been restored at Meaux. The monks had re-captured the pulpits, and, with jubilant humor, were firing off jests and reciting fables, to the delight of such audiences as they were able to gather round them. [5] This stirred the spirit of Leclerc; so one day he affixed a placard to the door of the cathedral, styling the Pope the Antichrist, and predicting the near downfall of his kingdom. Priests, monks, and citizens gathered before the placard, and read it with amazement. Their amazement quickly gave place to rage. Was it to be borne that a despicable wool-carder should attack the Pontiff? Leclerc was seized, tried, whipped through the streets on three successive days, and finally branded on the forehead with a hot iron, and banished from Meaux. While enduring this cruel and shameful treatment, his mother stood by applauding his constancy. [6]

The wool-comber retired to Metz, in Lorraine. Already the light had visited that city, but the arrival of Leclerc gave a new impulse to its evangelisation. He went from house to house preaching the Gospel; persons of condition, both lay and clerical, embraced the Reformed faith; and thus were laid in Metz, by the humble hands of a wool-carder, the foundations of a Church which afterwards became flourishing. Leclerc, arriving in Metz with the brand of heretic on his brow, came nevertheless with courage unabashed and zeal unabated; but he allowed these qualities, unhappily, to carry him beyond the limits of prudence.

A little way outside the gates of the city stood a chapel to Mary and the saints of the province. The yearly festival had come round, and to-morrow the population of Metz would be seen on their knees before these gods of stone. Leclerc pondered upon the command, "Thou shalt break down their images," and forgot the very different circumstances of himself and of those to whom it was originally given. At eve, before the gates were shut, he stole out of the city and passed along the highway till he reached the shrine. He sat down before the images in mental conflict. "Impelled," says Beza, "by a Divine afflatus," [7] he arose, dragged the statues from their pedestals, and, having broken them in pieces, strewed their fragments in front of the chapel. At daybreak he re-entered Metz.

All unaware of what had taken place at the chapel, the procession marshalled at the usual hour, and moved forward with crucifixes and banners, with flaring tapers and smoking incense. The bells tolled, the drums were beat, and with the music there mingled the chant of the priest.

And now the long array draws nigh the chapel of Our Lady. Suddenly drum and chant are hushed; the banners are cast on the ground, the tapers are extinguished, and a sudden thrill of horror runs through the multitude. What has happened? Alas! the rueful sight. Strewn over the area before the little temple lie the heads, arms, legs of the deities the processionists had come to worship, all cruelly and sacrilegiously mutilated and broken. A cry of mingled grief and rage burst forth from the assembly.

The procession returned to Metz with more haste and in less orderly fashion than it had come. The suspicions of all fell on Leclerc. He was seized, confessed the deed, speedy sentence of condemnation followed, and he was hurried to the spot where he was to be burned. The exasperation of his persecutors had prepared for him dreadful tortures. As he had done to the images of the saints so would they do to him. Unmoved he beheld these terrible preparations. Unmoved he bore the excruciating agonies inflicted upon him. He permitted no sign of weakness to tarnish the glory of his sacrifice. While his foes were lopping off his limbs with knives, and tearing his flesh with red-hot pincers, the martyr stood with calm and intrepid air at the stake, reciting in a loud voice the words of the Psalm –

"Their idols are silver and

gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but they speak not; eyes have they, but they see not; noses have they, but they smell not; they have hands, but they handle not; feet have they, but they walk not; neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them. O Israel, trust thou in the Lord; he is their help and their shield." (Psalm 115:4-9.) [8]

If Leclerc's zeal had been indiscreet, his courage was truly admirable. Well might his death be called "an act of faith." He had by that faith quenched the violence of the fire – nay, more, he had quenched the rage of his persecutors, which was fiercer than the flames that consumed him. "The beholders," says the author of the Acts of the Martyrs, "were astonished, nor were they untouched by compassion," and not a few retired from the spectacle to confess that Gospel for which they had seen the martyr, with so serene and noble a fortitude, bear witness at the burning pile. [9]

We must pause a moment to contemplate, in contrasted lights, two men – the bishop and the wool-comber. "How hardly shall they who have riches enter the kingdom of heaven!" was the saying of our Lord at the beginning of the Gospel dispensation. The saying has seldom been more mournfully verified than in the case of the Bishop of Meaux. "His declension," says D'Aubigne, "is one of the most memorable in the history of the Church."

Had Briconnet been as the wool-carder, he might have been able to enter into the evangelical kingdom; but, alas! he presented himself at the gate, carrying a great burden of earthly dignities, and while Leclerc pressed in, the bishop was stopped on the threshold. What Briconnet's reflections may have been, as he saw one after another of his former flock go to the stake, and from the stake to the sky, we shall not venture to guess. May there not have been moments when he felt as if the mitre, which he had saved at so great a cost, was burning his brow, and that even yet he must needs arise and leave his palace, with all its honors, and by the way of the dungeon and the stake rejoin the members of his former flock who had preceded him, by this same road, and inherit with them honors and delights higher far than any the Pope or the King of France had to bestow – crowns of life and garlands that never fade? But whatever he felt, and what ever at times may have been his secret resolutions, we know that his thoughts and purposes never ripened into acts. He never surrendered his see, or cast in his lot with the despised and persecuted professors of those Reformed doctrines, the Divine sweetness of which he appeared to have once so truly relished, and which aforetime he labored to diffuse with a zeal apparently so ardent and so sincere. In communion with Rome he lived to his dying day. His real character remains a mystery. Is it forbidden to hope that in his last hours the gracious Master, who turned and looked on Peter and Pavane, had compassion on the fallen prelate, and that, the blush of godly shame on his face, and the tears of unfeigned and bitter sorrow streaming from his eyes, he passed into the presence of his Savior, and was gathered to the blessed company above – now the humblest of them all – with whom on earth he had so often taken sweet counsel as they walked together to the house of God?

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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