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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 17 — Protestantism in France From Death of Francis I (1547) to Edict of Nantes (1598)

Chapter 1 — Henry II and parties in France

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Francis I—His Last Illness—Waldensian Settlement in Provence— Fertility and Beauty—Massacre—Remorse of the King — His Death— Lying in State—Henry II—Parties at Court—The Constable de Montmorency— Thc Guises—Diana of Poictiers—Marshal de St. Andre—Catherine de Medici.

We have rapidly traced the line of Waldensian story from those early ages when the assembled barbes are seen keeping watch around their lamp in the Pra del Tor, with the silent silvery peaks looking down upon them, to those recent days when the Vaudois carried that lamp to Rome and set it in the city of Pius IX. Our desire to pursue their conflicts and martyrdoms till their grand issues to Italy and the world had been reached has carried us into modern times. We shall return, and place ourselves once more in the age of Francis I.

We resume our history at the death-bed of that monarch. Francis died March 31st, 1547, at the age of fifty-two, "of that shameful distemper," says the Abbe Millot, "which is brought on by debauchery, and which had been imported with the gold of America." [1] The character of this sovereign was adorned by some fine qualities, but his reign was disgraced by many great errors. It is impossible to withhold from him the praise of a generous disposition, a cultivated taste, and a chivalrous bearing; but it is equally impossible to vindicate him from the charge of rashness in his enterprises, negligence in his affairs, fickleness in his conduct, and excess in his pleasures. He lavished his patronage upon the scholars of the Renaissance, but he had nothing but stakes wherewith to reward the disciples of Protestantism. He built Fontainebleau, and began the Louvre. And now, after all his great projects for adorning his court with learned men, embellishing his capital with gorgeous fabrics, and strengthening his throne by political alliances, there remains to him only "darkness and the worm." Let us enter the royal closet, and mark the setting of that sun which had shed such a brilliance during his course. Around the bed upon which Francis I lies dying is gathered a clamorous crowd of priests, courtiers, and courtesans, [2] who watch his last moments with decent but impatient respect, ready, the instant he has breathed his last, to turn round and bow the knee to the rising sun. Let us press through the throng and observe the monarch. His face is haggard. He groans deeply, as if he were suffering in soul. His starts are sudden and violent. There flits at times across his face a dark shadow, as if some horrible sight, afflicting him with unutterable woe, were disclosed to him; and a quick tremor at these moments runs through all his frame. He calls his attendants about him and, mustering all the strength left him, he protests that it is not he who is to blame, inasmuch as his orders were exceeded. What orders? we ask; and what deed is it, the memory of which so burdens and terrifies the dying monarch?

We must leave the couch of Francis while we narrate one of the greatest of the crimes that blackened his reign. The scene of the tragedy which projected such dismal shadows around the death-bed of the king was laid in Provence. In ancient times Provence was comparatively a desert. Its somewhat infertile soil was but thinly peopled, and but indifferently tilled and planted. It lay strewn all over with great boulders, as if here the giants had warred, or some volcanic explosion had rained a shower of stones upon it. The Vaudois who inhabited the high-lying valleys of the Pied-montese Alps, cast their eyes upon this more happily situated region, and began to desire it as a residence. Here, said they, is a fine champaign country, waiting for occupants; let us go over and possess it. They crossed the mountains, they cleared the land of rocks, they sowed it with wheat, they planted it with the vine, and soon there was seen a smiling garden, where before a desert of swamps, and great stones, and wild herbage had spread out its neglected bosom to be baked by the summer's sun, and frozen by the winter's winds. "An estate which before their establishment hardly paid four crowns as rental, now produced from three to four hundred." [3] The successive generations of these settlers flourished here during a period of three hundred years, protected by their landlords, whose revenues they had prodigiously enriched, loved by their neighbors, and loyal to their king.

When the Reformation arose, this people sent delegates—as we have related in the previous book—to visit the Churches of Switzerland and Germany, and ascertain how far they agreed with, and how far they differed from themselves. The report brought back by the delegates satisfied them that the Vaudois faith and the Protestant doctrine were the same; that both had been drawn from the one infallible fountain of truth; and that, in short, the Protestants were Vaudois, and the Vaudois were Protestants. This was enough. The priests, who so anxiously guarded their territory against the entrance of Lutheranism, saw with astonishment and indignation a powerful body of Protestants already in possession. They resolved that the heresy should be swept from off the soil of France as speedily as it had arisen. On the 18th of November, 1540, the Parliament of Aix passed an arret to the following effect: — "Seventeen inhabitants of Merindol shall be burnt to death" (they were all the heads of families in that place); "their wives, children, relatives, and families shall be brought to trial, and if they cannot be laid. hold on, they shall be banished the kingdom for life. The houses in Merindol shall be burned and razed to the ground, the woods cut down, the fruit-trees torn up, and the place rendered uninhabitable, so that none may be built there." [4]

The president of the Parliament of Aix, a humane man, had influence with the king to stay the execution

of this horrible sentence. But in 1545 he was succeeded by Baron d'Oppede, a cruel, intolerant, bloodthirsty man, and entirely at the devotion of Cardinal Tournon—a man, says Abbe Millot, "of greater zeal than humanity, who principally enforced the execution of this barbarous arret." [5] Francis I offered them pardon if within three months they should enter the pale of the Roman Church. They disdained to buy their lives by apostacy; and now the sword, which had hung for five years above their heads, fell with crushing force. A Romanist pen shall tell the sequel: —

"Twenty-two towns or villages were burned or sacked, with an inhumanity of which the history of the most barbarous people hardly presents examples. The unfortunate inhabitants, surprised, during the night, and pursued from rock to rock by the light of the fires which consumed their dwellings, frequently escaped one snare only to fall into another; the pitiful cries of the old men, the women, and the children, far from softening the hearts of the soldiers, mad with rage like their leaders, only set them on following the fugitives, and pointed out the places whither to direct their fury. Voluntary surrender did not exempt the men from execution, nor the women from excesses of brutality which made Nature bhsh. It was forbidden, under pain of death, to afford them any refuge. At Cabrieres, one of the principal towns of that canton, they murdered more than seven hundred men in cold blood; and the women, who had remained in their houses, were shut up in a barn filled witth straw, to which they set fire; those who attempted to escape by the window were driven back by swords and pikes. Finally, according to the tenor of the sentence, the houses were razed, the woods cut down, the fruit-trees pulled up, and in a short time this country, so fertile and so populous, became uncultivated and uninhabited." [6]

Thus did the red sword and the blazing torch purge Provence. We cast our eyes over the purified land, but, alas! we are unable to recognize it. Is this the land which but a few days ago was golden with the yellow grain, and purple with the blushling grape; at whose cottage doors played happy children; and from whose meadows and mountain-sides, borne on the breeze, came the bleating of flocks and the lowing of herds? Now, alas! its bosom is scarred and blackened by smouldering ruins, its mountain torrents are tinged with blood, and its sky is thick with the black smoke of its burning woods and cities.

We return to the closet of the dying monarch. Francis is still protesting that the deed is not his, and that too zealous executioners exceeded his orders. Nevertheless he cannot banish, we say not from his memory, but from his very sight, the awful tragedy enacted on the plains of Provence. Shrieks of horror, wailings of woe, and cries for help seem to resound through his chamber. Have his ministers and courtiers no word of comfort wherewith to assuage his terrors, and fortify him in the prospect of that awful Bar to which he is hastening with the passing hours? They urged him to sanction the crime, but they leave him to bear the burden of it alone. He summons his son, who is so soon to mount his throne, to his bedside, and charges him with his last breath to execute vengeance on those who had shed this blood. [7] With this slight reparation the unhappy king goes his dark road, the smoking and blood-sprinkled Provence behind him, the great Judgment-seat before him.

Having breathed his last, the king lay in state, preparatory to his being laid in the royal vaults at St. Denis. Two of his sons who had pre-deceased him—Francis and Charles—were kept unburied till now, and their corpses accompanied that of their father to the grave. Of the king's lying-in-state, the following very curious account is given us by Sleidan:—

"For some days his effigies, in most rich apparel, with his crown, scepter, and other regal ornaments, lay upon a bed of state, and at certain hours dinner and supper were served up before it, with the very same solemnity as was commonly performed when he was alive. When the regal ornaments were taken off, they clothed the effigies in mourning; and eight-and-forty Mendicant friars were always present, who continually sung masses and dirges for the soul departed. About the corpse were placed fourteen great wax tapers, and over against it two altars, on which from daylight to noon masses were said, besides what were said in an adjoining chapel, also full of tapers and other lights. Four-and-twenty monks, with wax tapers in their hands, were ranked about the hearse wherein the corpse was carried, and before it marched fifty poor men in mourning, every one with a taper in his hand. Amongst other nobles, there were eleven cardinals present."

Henry II now mounted the throne of France. At the moment of his accession all seemed to promise a continuance of that prosperity and splen-dor which had signalized the reign of his father. The kingdom enjoyed peace, the finances were flourishing, the army was brave and well-affected to the throne; and all men accepted these as auguries of a prosperous reign. This, however, was but a brief gleam before the black night. France had missed the true path. Henry had worn the crown for only a short while when the clouds began to gather, and that night to descend which is only now beginning to pass away from France. His father had early initiated him into the secrets of governing, but Henry loved not business. The young king sighed to get away from the council-chamber to the gay tournament, where mailed and plumed warriors pursued, amid applauding spectators, the mimic game of war. What good would this princedom do him if it brought him not pleasure? At his court there lacked not persons,

ambitious and supple, who studied to flatter his vanity and gratify his humors. To lead the king was to govern France, and to govern France was to grasp boundless riches and vast power. It was under this feeble king that those factions arose, whose strivings so powerfully influenced the fate of Protestantism in that great kingdom, and opened the door for so many calamities to the nation. Four parties were now formed at court, and we must pause here to describe them, otherwise much that is to follow would be scarcely intelligible. In the passions and ambitions of these parties, we unveil the springs of those civil wars which for more than a century deluged France with blood.

At the head of the first party was Anne de Montmorency, High Constable of France. Claiming descent from a family which had been one of the first to be baptised into the Christian faith, he assumed the glorious title of the First Christian and Premier Baron [8] of France. He possessed great strength of will, and whatever end he proposed to himself he pursued, without much caring whom he trod down in his way to it. He had the misfortune on one occasion to give advice to Francis I which did not prosper, and this, together with his head-strongness, made that monarch in his latter days banish him from the court. When Francis was dying he summoned his son Henry to his bedside, and earnestly counselled him never to recall Mont-morency, fearing that the obstinacy and pride which even he had with difficulty repressed, the weaker hands to which he was now bequeathing his crown [9] would be unequal to the task of curbing.

No sooner had Henry assumed the reins of government than he recalled the Constable. Montmorency's recall did not help to make him a meeker man. He strode back to court with brow more elate, and an air more befitting one who had come to possess a throne than to serve before it. The Constable was beyond measure devout, as became the first Christian in France. Never did he eat flesh on forbidden days; and never did morning dawn or evening fall but his beads were duly told. It is true he sometimes stopped suddenly in the middle of his chaplet to issue orders to his servants to hang up this or the other Huguenot, or to set fire to the corn-field or plantation of some neighbor of his who was his enemy; but that was the work of a minute only, and the Constable was back again with freshened zeal to his Paternosters and his Ave-Marias. It became a proverb, says Brantome, "God keep us from the Constable's beads." [10] These singularities by no means lessened his reputation for piety, for the age hardly placed acts of religion and acts of mercy in the same category. Austere, sagacious, and resolute, he constrained the awe if not the love of the king, and as a consequence his heavy hand was felt in every part of the kingdom.

The second party was that of the Guises. The dominancy of that family in France marks one of the darkest eras of the nation. The House of Lorraine, from which the Lords of Guise are descended, derived its original from Godfrey Bullen, King of Jerusalem, and on the mother's side from a daughter of Charlemagme. Anthony, flourishing in wealth and powerful in possessions, was Duke of Lorraine; Claude, a younger brother, crossed the frontier in 1513, staff in hand, attended by but one servant, to seek his fortunes in France. He ultimately became Duke of Guise. This man had six sons, to all of whom wealth seemed to come at their wish. Francis I, perceiving the ambition of these men, warned his son to keep them at a distance. [11] But the young king, despising the warning, recalled Francis de Lorraine as he had done the Constable Montmorency, and the power of the Guises continued to grow, till at last they became the scourge of the country in which they had firmly rooted themselves, and the terror of the throne which they aspired to mount.

The two brothers, Francis and Charles, stood at the head of the family, and figured at the court. Franzis, now in the flower of his age, was sprightly and daring; Charles was crafty, but timid; Laval says of him that he was "the cowardliest of all men." The qualities common to both brothers, and possessed by each in inordinate degree, were cruelty and ambition. Rivals they never could. become, for though their ambitions were the same, their spheres lay apart, Francis having chosen the profession of arms, and Charles the Church. This division of pursuits doubled their strength, for what the craft of the one plotted, the sword of the other executed. They were the acknowledged heads of the Roman Catholic party. "But for the Guises," says Mezeray, "the new religion would perhaps have become dominant in France."

The third party at the court of France was that of Diana of Poictiers. This woman was the daughter of John of Poicters, Lord of St. Valier, and had been the wife of Seneschal of Normandy. She was twenty years older than the king, but this disparity of age did not hinder her from becoming the mistress of his heart. The populace could not account for the king's affection for her, save by ascribing it to the philtres which she made him drink. A more likely cause was her brilliant wit and sprightly manners, added to her beauty, once dazzling, and not yet wholly faded. But her greed was enormous. The people cursed her as the cause of the taxes that were grinding them into poverty; the nobility hated her for her insulting airs; but access there was none to the king, save through the good graces of Diana of Poictiers, whom the king created Duchess of Valentinois. The title by embellishing made

only the more conspicuous the infamy of her relation to the man who had bestowed it. The Constable on the one side, and the Guises on the other, sought to buttress their own power by paying court to Diana. [12] To such a woman the holy doctrines of Protestantism could not be other than offensive; in truth, she very thoroughly hated all of the religion, and much of the righteous blood shed in the reign of Henry II is to be laid at the door of the lewd, greedy, and cruel Diana of Poictiers.

The fourth and least powerful faction was that of the Marshal de St. Andre. He was as brave and valiant as he was witty and polite; but he was drowned in debt. Though a soldier he raised himself not by his valor, but by court intrigues; "under a specious pretense for the king's service he hid a boundless ambition, and an unruly avarice," said his Romanist friends, "and was more eager after the forfeited estates than after the overthrow of the rebels and Huguenots." [13] Neither court nor country was likely to be quiet in which such a man figured.

To these four parties we may add a fifth, that of Catherine de Medici, the wife of Henry. Of deeper passions but greater self-control than many of those around her, Catherine meanwhile was "biding her time." There were powers in this woman which had not yet disclosed themselves, perhaps not even to herself; but when her husband died, and the mistress no longer divided with the wife the ascendency over the royal mind, then the hour of revelation came, and it was seen what consummate guile, what lust of power, what love of blood and revenge had slumbered in her dark Italian soul. As one after another of her imbecile sons, each more imbecile than he who had preceded him—mounted the throne, the mother stood up in a lofty and yet loftier measure of truculence and ambition. As yet, however, her cue was not to form a party of her own, but to maintain the poise among the other factions, that by weakening all of them she might strengthen herself.

Such were the parties that divided the court of Henry II. Thrice miserable monarch! without one man of real honor and sterling patriotism in whom to confde. And not less miserable courtiers! They make a brave show, no doubt, living in gilded saloons, wearing sumptuous raiment, and feasting at luxuriant tables, but their hearts all the while are torn with envy, or tortured with fear, lest this gay life of theirs should come to a sudden end by the stiletto or the poison-cup. "Two great sins," says an old historian, "crept into France under this prince's reign—atheism and magic."


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Saturday, September 23rd, 2017
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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