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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 2 — Genevese martyrs of liberty

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Berthelier — Apprehended — Beheaded — His Remains publicly Exposed — Bonivard — Banished — Castle of Chillon — Bishop of Geneva Dies — His Remorse — Levrier — His Arrest by the Duke — Carried to the Castle of Bonne — His Execution — What Victories of Brute Force Lead to — Momentary Triumph of the Duke — He Flees from Geneva never to Return — Lessons learned by Genevese Exiles — They Return to Act them out — Geneva's Gates Open towards the Rising Sun.

BEFORE the day of Geneva's greatness should have arrived, many of its heroic defenders would be resting in the grave, the road thither for nearly all of them being by the scaffold. Let us recount the fate of the more prominent; and, first of all, of Berthelier. One morning, as he was going to breathe the fresh air outside the walls in his favouite meadow, bathed by the waters of the Rhone, he was arrested by the duke's soldiers. [1] He bore himself with calmness and dignity both at his arrest and during the few days now left him of life. He wrote on the walls of his prison a verse of Scripture, which permits us to hope that he had cast anchor in another world than that which he was so soon to leave. His head fell by the hand of the executioner at the foot of Caesar's Tower, in the isle in the Leman, near the point where the Rhone issues from the lake. [2] His fellow-citizens beheld him die, but could not save him. The cruel deed but deepened their purpose of vengeance. The head of the patriot was fastened up on the bridge of the Arve. Blackening in the sun it was a ghastly memorial of Savoyard tyranny, and a thrilling appeal to the compatriots of Berthelier never to submit to the despot who had no other rewards than this for the noblest of Geneva's sons.

The fate of Bonivard was less tragic, but has become better known to us, from the notice bestowed upon him by a great poet. He was deprived of his priory; and while a scaffold was set up for Berthelier at one extremity of the Leman, a dungeon was found for Bonivard at the other. The modern tourist, as he passes along the lovely shores of the lake, beneath the magnificent amphitheatre of mountains that overhang Vevay, has his attention arrested by the massive and still entire walls of a castle, surrounded on all sides by the deep waters of the Leman, save where a draw-bridge joins it to the shore. This is the Castle of Chillon, the scene of Bonivard's imprisonment, and where the track worn by his feet in the rocky floor may still be traced, while the ripple of the water, which rises to the level of the loop-hole in the wall, may be heard when the wind stirs upon the lake.

At this stage of the drama, the wretched man who had filled the office of bishop, and had been the duke's co-conspirator in these attempts upon the liberty of Geneva, died (1522) miserably at Pignerol, on the southern side of the Alps, on the very frontier of the territory of the Waldenses. His dying scene was awful and horrible. Around his bed stood only hirelings. Careless of the agonies he was enduring, their eyes roamed round the room in quest of valuables, which they might carry off whenever his breath should depart. The effigies of his victims seemed traced upon the wall of his chamber. They presented to him a crucifix: he thought it was Berthelier, and shrieked out. They brought him the last Sacrament: he fancied they were sprinkling him with blood; his lips, whitened with foam, let fall execrations and blasphemies. Such is the picture which a Romanist writer draws of his last hours. But before the dark scene closed something like a ray of light broke in. He conjured his coadjutor and successor, Pierre de la Baume, not to walk in his footsteps, but to defend the franchises of Geneva. He saw in the sufferings he was enduring the punishment of his misdeeds; he implored forgiveness, and hoped God would pardon him in purgatory. [3]

But Charles III, Duke of Savoy and Piedmont, still lived, and unwarned by the miserable end of his accomplice, he continued to prosecute his guilty project. [4] Another martyr of liberty was now to offer up his life. The man who most embarrassed the duke still lived: he must be swept from his path. Charles did not believe in patriotism, and thought to buy Levrier. [5]

The judge spurned the bribe. Well, the axe will do what gold cannot. He was arrested (Easter, 1524) at the gates of St. Pierre, as he was leaving after hearing morning mass. "He wore a long camlet robe, probably his judicial gown, and a beautiful velvet cassock." [6] Mounted hastily upon a wretched nag, his hands tied behind his back, and his feet fastened below the belly of his horse, the judge was carried, in the midst of armed men, who jeered at and called him traitor, to the Castle of Bonne, where the duke was then residing.

The Castle of Bonne, now a ruin, is some two leagues from Geneva. It stands in the midst of scenery such as Switzerland only can show. The panorama presents to the eye an assemblage of valleys, with their carpet-like covering, foaming torrents, the black mouths of gorges, pines massed upon the hill-tops, and beyond, afar off, the magnificence of snowy peaks.

The tragedy enacted in this spot we shall leave D'Aubigne to tell, who has here, with his usual graphic power, set in the light of day a deed that was done literally in the darkness. "Shortly," says the historian, "after Bellegrade's" (the man who pronounced doom) "departure, the confessor entered, discharged his duty mechanically, uttered the sentence 'Ego to absolvo,'

and withdrew, showing no more sympathy for his victim than the provost had done. Then appeared a man with a cord: it was the executioner. It was then ten o'clock at night. The inhabitants of the little town and of the adjacent country were sleeping soundly, and no one dreamt of the cruel deed that was about to cut short the life of a man who might have shone in the first rank in a great monarchy. .... The headsman bound the noble Levrier, armed men surrounded him, and the martyr of law was conducted slowly to the castle-yard. All nature was dumb, nothing broke the silence of that funeral procession; Charles's agents moved like shadows beneath the ancient walls of the castle. The moon, which had not reached its first quarter, was near setting, and shed only a feeble gleam. It was too dark to distinguish the beautiful mountains, in the midst of which stood the towers whence they had dragged their victim; the trees and houses of Bonne were scarcely visible; one or two torches, carried by the provost's men, alone threw light upon this cruel scene. On reaching the middle of the castle-yard the headsman stopped, and the victim also. The ducal satellites silently formed a circle round them, and the executioner prepared to discharge his office. Levrier was calm, the peace of a good conscience supported him in this dread hour.

Alone in the night, in those sublime regions of the Alps, surrounded by the barbarous figures of the Savoyard mercenaries, standing in that feudal courtyard which the torches ilumined with a sinister glare, the heroic champion of the law raised his eyes to heaven, and said, 'By God's grace, I die without anxiety for the liberty of my country and the authority of St. Peter!' The grace of God, liberty, authority, these main principles of the greatness of nations, were his last confession. The words had hardly been uttered when the executioner swung round his sword, and the head of the citizen rolled in the castle-yard. Immediately, as if struck with fear, the murderers respectfully gathered up his remains and placed them in a coffin. 'And his body was laid in earth in the parish church of Bonne, with the head separate.' At that moment the moon set, and black darkness hid the stains of blood which Levrier had left on the court-yard." [7]

Charles of Savoy did not reflect that the victories of brute force, such as those he was now winning, but pave the way for moral triumphs. With every head that fell by his executioners, he deemed himself a stage nearer to the success he panted to attain. Some illustrious heads had already fallen; so many more, say twenty, or it might be thirty, and he would be Lord of Geneva; the small but much-coveted principality would be part of Savoy, and the object so intently pursued by himself and his ancestors for long years would be realised. The duke was but practising a deception upon himself. Every head he cut off dug more deeply the gulf which divided him from the sovereignty of Geneva; every drop of blood he spilt but strengthened the resolution in the hearts of the patriots that never should the duke call them his subjects.

"They never fail who die.
In a great cause: the block may soak their gore;
Their heads may sodden in the sun; their limbs
Be strung to city gates and castle walls —
But still their spirit walks abroad.
Though years Elapse, and others share as dark a doom,
They but augment the deep and sweeping thoughts
Which overpower all others, and conduct
The world at last to freedom." [8]

Nevertheless, what with stratagem this hour and violence the next — treachery within Geneva and soldiers and cannon outside of it — it did seem as if the duke were making way, and the proud little city must, by-and- by, lay its independence at his feet. In fact, for a moment, Geneva did succumb. On the 15th of September, 1525, the duke surprised the city with a numerous host. The patriots had nothing left them but massacre or speedy flight. Fleeing through woods or mountainous defiles, pursued by Savoyard archers, some escaped to Bern, others to Friberg. The duke, having entered the city, summoned a council of such citizens as were still to be found in it, and with the axes of his halberdiers suspended over their heads, these spiritless and lukewarm men promised to accept him as their prince. [9] But the vow of allegiance given in the "Council of Halberds" to-day was revoked on the morrow. The duke was at first stunned, and next he was terrified, at this sudden revival of opposition, when he believed it had been trampled out. Influenced by this mysterious fear, he hastily left Geneva, never again to enter it, and let fall, after having seemingly secured it, what he and his ancestors had been struggling for generations to grasp. [10]

The duke had but scattered the fire, not extinguished it. The parts of Switzerland to which the patriots had fled were precisely those where the light of the Reformation was breaking. At Bern and Friburg the exiles of Geneva had an opportunity of studying higher models of freedom than any they had aforetime come in contact with. They had been sent to school, and their hearts softened by adversity, were peculiarly open to the higher teaching now addressed to them. How often in after-years was the same thing repeated which we see realised in the case of these early champions of freedom! Were not the patriotic citizens of Spain and Italy again and again chased to the British shores? And

for what end? That there they might study purer models, be instructed in deeper and sounder principles, have their views of liberty rectified and enlarged, and on their return to their own country might temper their zeal with patience, fortify their courage with wisdom, and so speed the better in their efforts for the emancipation of their fellow-subjects. Fruitful, indeed, were the months which the Genevese exiles spent abroad. When they reunited in February, 1526, after the flight of the duke, a new era returned with them. Their sufferings had elicited the sympathy, and their characters had won the admiration, of the noblest among the citizens of the States where they had been sojourning. They recognised the important bearing upon Swiss liberty of the struggle which Geneva had maintained. It was the extreme citadel of the Swiss territory towards the south; it barred the invader's road from the Alps, and it was impossible to withhold from the little town the need of praise for the chivalry and devotion with which, single-handed, it had taken its stand at this Swiss Thermopylae, and held it at all hazards.

But it was not right, they felt, to leave this city longer in its isolation. For their own sakes, as well as for Geneva's, they must extend the hand of friendship to it. An alliance [11] offensive and defensive was formed between the three governments of Bern, Friburg, and Geneva. If the conflicts of the latter city were not yet ended, it no longer stood alone. By its side were now two powerful allies. Whoso touched its independence, touched theirs. If the Gospel had not yet entered Geneva, its gates stood open towards that quarter of the sky which the rising sun of the Reformation was flooding with his beams.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, October 22nd, 2020
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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