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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 10 — Catherine de Medici and her son, Charles IX — conference at Bayonne — The St. Bartholomew Massacre Plotted

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The Peace Satisfactory to Neither Party–Catherine de Medici comes to the Front–The Dance of Death at the Louvre–What will Catherine's Policy be–the Sword or the Olive-branch?–Charles IX–His Training–A Royal Progress–Iconoclast Outrages–Indignation of Charles IX–The Envoys of the Duke of Savoy and the Pope– Bayonne–Its Chateau–Nocturnal Interviews between Catherine de Medici and the Duke of Alva–Agreed to Exterminate the Protestants of France and England–Testimony of Davila–of Tavannes–of Maimbourg–Plot to be Executed at Moulins, 1566–Postponed.

The Pacification of Amboise (1563) closed the first Huguenot war. That arrangement was satisfactory to neither party. The Protestants it did not content; for manifestly it was not an advance but a retrogression. That toleration which the previous Edict of January had extended over the whole kingdom, the Pacification of Amboise restricted to certain bodies, and to particular localities. The Huguenots could not understand the principle on which such an arrangement was based. If liberty of worship was wrong, they reasoned, why permit it in any part of France? but if right, as the edict seemed to grant, it ought to be declared lawful, not in a few cities only, but in all the towns of the kingdom.

Besides, the observance of the Amboise edict was obviously impracticable. Were nine-tenths of the Protestants to abstain altogether from public worship? This they must do under the present law, or undertake a journey of fifty or, it might be, a hundred miles to the nearest privileged city. A law that makes itself ridiculous courts contempt, and provokes to disobedience.

Moreover, the Pacification of Amboise was scarcely more to the taste of the Romanists. The concessions it made to the Huguenots, although miserable in the extreme, and accompanied by restrictions that made them a mockery, were yet, in the opinion of zealous Papists, far too great to be made to men to whom it was sinful to make any concession at all. On both sides, therefore, the measure was simply unworkable; perhaps it never was intended by its devisers to be anything else. In places where they were numerous, the Protestants altogether disregarded it, assembling in thousands and worshipping openly, just as though no Pacification existed. And the Roman Catholics on their part assailed with violence the assemblies of the Reformed, even in those places which had been set apart by law for the celebration of their worship; thus neither party accepted the arrangement as a final one. Both felt that they must yet look one another in the face on the battle-field; but the Roman Catholics were not ready to un- sheathe the sword, and so for a brief space there was quiet–a suspension of hostilities if not peace.

It was now that the star of Catherine de Medici rose so triumphantly into the ascendant. The clouds which had obscured its luster hitherto were all dispelled, and it blazed forth in baleful splendor in the firmantent of France. It was thirty years since Catherine, borne over the waters of the Mediterranean in the gaily-decked galleys of Pisa, entered the port of Marseilles, amid the roar of cannon and the shouts of assembled thousands, to give her hand in marriage to the second son of the King of France. She was then a girl of sixteen, radiant as the country from which she came, her eyes all fire, her face all smiles, a strange witchery in her every look and movement; but in contrast with these fascinations of person was her soul, which was encompassed with a gloomy superstition, that might more fittingly be styled a necromancy than a faith. She came with a determined purpose of making the proud realm on which she had just stepped bow to her will, and minister to her pleasures, although it should be by sinking it into a gulf of pollution or drowning it in an ocean of blood. Thirty years had she waited, foreseeing the goal afar off, and patiently bending to obstacles she had not the power summarily to annihilate.

Death had been the steady and faithful ally of this extraordinary woman. Often had he visited the Louvre since the daughter of the House of Medici came to live under its roof; and each visit had advanced the Florentine a stage on her way to power. First, the death of the Dauphin–who left no child–opened her way to the throne. Then the death of her father-in-law, Francis I, placed her on that throne by the side of Henry II. She had the crown, but not yet the kingdom; for Diana of Poictiers, as the mistress, more than divided the influence which ought to have been Catherine's as the wife. The death of her husband took that humiliating impediment out of her way. But Mary Stuart, the niece of the Guises, and the wife of the weak-minded Francis II, profited by the imbecility through which Catherine had hoped to govern. Death, however, removed this obstacle, as he had done every previous one, by striking down Francis II only seventeen short months after he had ascended the throne. Once more there stood up another rival, and Catherine had still to wait. Now it was that the Triumvirate rose and grasped with powerful hand the direction of France, Was the patience of the Italian woman to be always baulked? No: Death came again to her help. The fortune of battle and the pistol of the assassin rid her of the Triumvirate.

The Duke of Guise was dead: rival to her power there no longer existed. The way so long barred was open now, and Cathelqne boldly placed herself at the head of affairs; and this position she continued to hold, with increasing calamity to France and deepening infamy to herself, till almost her last hour. This long delay, although it appeared to be adverse, was in reality in favor of the Queen-mother. If it gave her power late, it gave it her all the more securely. When her hour at

last came, it found her in the full maturity of her faculties. She had had time to study, not only individual men, but all the parties into which France was divided. She had a perfect comprehension of the genius and temper of the nation. Consummate mistress of an art not difficult of attainment to an Italian–the art of dissembling–with an admirable intellect for intrigue, with sense enough not to scheme too finely, and with a patience long trained in the school of waiting, and not so likely to hurry on measures till they were fully ripened, it was hardly possible but that the daughter of the Medici would show herself equal to any emergency, and would leave behind her a monument which should tell the France of after times that Catherine de Medici had once governed it.

Standing as she now did on the summit, it was natural that Catherine should look around her, and warily choose the part she was to play. She had outlived all her rivals at court, and the Huguenots were now the only party she had to fear. Should she, after the example of the Guises, continue to pursue them with the sword, or should she hold out to them the olive-branch? Catherine felt that she never could be one with the Huguenots. That would imply a breach with all the traditions of her house, and a change in the whole habits of her life, which was not to be thought of. Nor could she permit France to embrace the Protestant creed, for the country would thus descend in the scale of nations, and would embroil itself in a war with Italy and Spain. But, on the other side, there were several serious considerations which had to be looked at. The Huguenots were a powerful party; their faith was spreading in France; their counsels were guided and their armies were led by the men of the greatest character and intellect in the nation. Moreover, they had friends in Germany and England, who were not likely to look quietly on while they were being crushed by arms. To continue the war seemed very unadvisable. Catherine had no general able to cope with Coligny, and it was uncertain on which side victory might ultimately declare itself. The Huguenot army was inferior in numbers to that of the Roman Catholics, but it surpassed it in bravery, in devotion, and discipline; and the longer the conflict lasted, the more numerous the soldiers that flocked to the Huguenot standard.

It was tolerably clear that Catherine must conciliate the Protestants, yet all the while she must labor to diminish their numbers, to weaken their influence, and curtail their privileges, in the hope that at some convenient moment, which future years might bring, she might be able to fall upon them and cut them off, either by sudden war or by secret masssacre. Doubtless what she now sketched was a policy of a general kind: content to fix its great outlines, and leave its details to be filled in afterwards, as circumstances might arise and opportunity offer. Accordingly, the Huguenots had gracious looks and soft words, but no substantial benefits, from the Queen-mother. There was a truce to open hostilities; but blood was flowing all the time. Private murder stalked through France; and short as the period was since the Pacification had been signed, not fewer than three thousand Huguenots had fallen by the poignard of the assassin. In truth, there was no longer in France only one nation. There were now two nations on its soil. The perfidy and wrong which had marked the whole policy of the court had so deeply parted the Huguenot and Romanist, that not the hope only, but the wish for conciliation had passed away. The part Catherine de Medici had imposed upon herself–of standing well with both, and holding the poise between the two, yet ever making the preponderance of encouragement and favor to fall on the Roman Catholic side–was an extremely difficult one; but her Italian nature and her discipline of thirty years made the task, which to another would have been impossible, to her comparatively easy.

Her first care was to mould her son, Charles IX, into her own likeness, and fit him for being an instrument, pliant and expert, for her purposes. Intellectually he was superior to his brother Francis II, who during his short reign had been treated by both wife and mother as an imbecile, and when dead was buried like a pauper. Charles IX is said to have discovered something of the literary taste and aesthetic appreciation which were the redeeming features in the character of his grandfather Francis I. In happier circumstances he might have become a patron of the arts, and have found scope for his fitful energy in the hunting-field; but what manly grace or noble quality could flourish in an air so fetid as that of the Louvre? The atmosphere in which he grew up was foul with corruption, impiety, and blood. To fawn on those he mortally disliked, to cover bitter thoughts with sweet smiles and to caress till ready to strike, were the unmanly and un-kingly virtues in which Charles was trained. His mother sent all the way to her own native city of Florence for a man to superintend the education of the prince–Albert Gondi, afterwards created Duke of Retz.

Of this man, the historian Brantome has drawn the following character: – "Cunning, corrupt, a liar, a great dissembler, swearing and denying God like a sergeant." Under such a teacher, it is not difficult to conceive what the pupil would become; by no chance could he contract the slightest acquaintance with virtue or honor. What a spectacle we are contemplating! At the head of a great nation is a woman without moral principle, without human pity, without shame: a very tigress, and she is rearing her son as the tigress rears her cubs. Unhappy France, what a dark future begins to project

its shadow across thee!

In the summer of 1565, Catherine and her son made a royal progress through France. A brilliant retinue, composed of the princes of the blood, the great officers of state, the lords and ladies of the court–the dimness of their virtues concealed beneath the splendor of their robes followed in the train of the Queen-mother and the royal scion. The wondering provinces sent out their inhabitants in thousands to gaze on the splendid cavalcade, as it swept comet-like past them. This progress enabled Catherine to judge for herself of the relative strength of the two parties in her dominions, and to shape her measures accordingly. Onward she went from province to province, and from city to city, scattering around her prodigally, yet judiciously, smiles, promises, and frowns; and who knew so well as she when to be gracious, and when to affect a stern displeasure? In those places where the Protestants had avenged upon the stone images the outrages which the Roman Catholics had committed upon living men, Catherine took care to intimate emphatically her disapproval. Her piety was hurt at the sight of the demolition of objects elevated to sacred uses.

She took special care that her son's attention should be drawn to those affecting mementoes of Huguenot iconoclast zeal. In some parts monasteries demolished, crosses overturned, images mutilated, offered a spectacle exceedingly depressing to pious souls, and over which the devout and tender-hearted daughter of the Medici could scarcely refrain from shedding tears. How detestable the nature of that religion–so was the king taught to view the matter–which could prompt to acts so atrocious and impious! He felt that his kingdom had been polluted, and he trembled– not with a well-reigned terror like his mother, but a real dread lest God, who had been affronted by these daring acts of sacrilege, should smite France with judgment; for in that age stone statues and crosses, and not divine precepts or moral virtues, were religion. The impression made upon the mind of the young king, especially in the southern provinces, where it seemed as if this impiety had reached its climax in a general sack of holy buildings and sacred furniture, was never, it is said, forgotten by him. It is believed to have inspired his policy in after-years. [1]

The Queen-mother had another object in view in the progress she was now making. It enabled her, without attracting observation, to gather the sentiments of the neighboring sovereigns on the great question of the age –namely, Protestantism–and to come to a common understanding with them respecting the measures to be adopted for its suppression. The kings of the earth were "plotting against the Lord and his anointed," and although willingly submitting to the cords with which the chief ruler of the Seven-hilled City had bound them, they were seeking how they might break the bands of that King whom God hath set upon the holy hill of Zion. The great ones of the earth did not understand the Reformation, and trembled before it. A power which the sword could slay would have caused them little uneasiness; but a power which had been smitten with the sword, which had been trodden down by armies, which had been burned at the stake, but which refused to die–a power which the oftener it was defeated the mightier it became, which started up anew to the confusion of its enemies from what appeared to be its grave, was a new thing in the earth. There was a mystery about it which made it a terror to them. They knew not whence it came, nor whereunto it might grow, nor how it was "to be met." Still the sword was the only weapon they knew to wield, and this caused them to meet often together to consult and plot.

The Council of Trent, which had just closed its sittings, had recommended–indeed enjoined–a league among the Roman Catholic sovereigns and States for the forcible suppression of the Reformed opinions; and Philip II of Spain took the lead in this matter, as became his position. His morose and fanatical genius scarcely needed the prompting of the Council. Catherine de Medici was now on her way to meet the envoy of this man, and to agree on a policy which should bind together in a common action the two crowns of Spain and France. Her steps were directed to Bayonne, the south-western extremity of her dominions; but her route thither was circuitous–being so on purpose that she might, under show of mutual congratulations, collect the sentiments of neighboring rulers. As she skirted along by the Savoy Alps, she had an interview with the ambassador of the Duke of Savoy, who carried back Catherine's good wishes, and other things besides, to his master. At Avignon, the capital of the Papacy when Rome was too turbulent to afford safe residence to her Popes, Catherine halted to give audience to the Papal legate. She then pushed forward to Bayonne, where she was to meet the Duke of Alva, who, as the spokesman of the then mightiest monarch in Christendom, was a more important personage than the other ambassadors to whom she had already given audience. There a final decision was to be come to.

The royal calvacade now drew nigh that quiet spot on the shores of the Bay of Biscay where, amid flourishing plantations and shrubs of almost tropical luxuriance, and lines of strong forts, nestles the little town of Bayonne–the "good bay"–a name its history has sadly belied. A narrow firth, which terminates in a little bay, admits the waters of the Atlantic within the walls of the town, and permits the ships of friendly Powers to lie under the shelter of its guns. The azure tops of the Pyrenees appearing in the south notify to the traveler that he has almost touched the frontier of Spain. Here, in the chateau which still stands crowning the height on the right of the harbor, Catherine

de Medici met the plenipotentiary of Philip II. [2] The King of Spain did not come in person, but sent his wife Elizabeth, the daughter of this same Catherine de Medici, and sister of Charles IX. Along with his queen came Philip's general, the well-known Duke of Alva.

This man was inspired with an insane fury against Protestantism, which, meeting a fanaticism equally ferocious on the part of his master, was a link between the two. Alva was the right hand of Philip; he was his counsellor in all evil; and by the sword of Alva it was that Philip shed those oceans of blood in which he sought to drown Protestantism. Here, in this chateau, the dark sententious Spaniard met the crafty and eloquent Italian woman. Catherine made a covered gallery be constructed in it, that she might visit the duke whenever it suited her without being observed. [3] Their meetings were mostly nocturnal, but as no one was admitted to them, the precise schemes discussed at them, and the plots hatched, must, unless the oaken walls shall speak out, remain secrets till the dread Judgment-day, save in so far as they may be guessed at from the events which flowed from them, and which have found a place on the page of history. It is certain from an expression of Alva's, caught up by the young son of the Queen of Navarre, the future Henry IV–whose sprightliness had won for him a large place in Catherine's affections, and whom she at times permitted to go with her to the duke's apartments, thinking the matters talked of there altogether beyond the boy's capacity–that massacre was mooted at these interviews, and was relied upon as one of the main methods for cleansing Christendom from the heresy of Calvin. The expression has been recorded by all historians with slight verbal differences, but substantial identity.

The idea was embodied by the duke in a vulgar but most expressive metaphor– namely, "The head of one salmon is worth that of ten thousand frogs." This expression, occurring as it did in a conversation in which the names of the Protestant leaders figured prominently, explained its meaning sufficiently to the young but precocious Henry of Navarre. He communicated it to the lord who waited upon him. This nobleman sent it in cipher to the prince's mother, Jeanne d'Albret, and by her it was communicated to the heads of Protestantism. All the Protestant chiefs, both in France and Germany, looked upon it as the foreshadowing of some terrible tragedy, hatched in this chateau, between the daughter of the fanatical House of Medici and the sanguinary lieutenant of Philip II.

Retained meanwhile in the darkness of these two bosoms, and it might be of one or two others, the secret was destined to write itself one day on the face of Europe in characters of blood; whispered in the deep stillness of these oaken chambers, it was soon to break in a thunder-crash upon the world, and roll its dread reverberations along history's page till the end of time. This, in all probability, was what was resolved upon at these conferences at Bayonne. The conspirators did not plan a particular massacre, to come off on a particular day of a particular year; what they agreed upon was rather a policy towards the Protestants of treachery and murder, which however, should circumstances favor, might any day explode in a catastrophe of European dimensions.

"The Queen of Spain," says Davila, narrating the meeting at Bayonne, "being come to this place, accompanied with the Duke of Alva and the Count de Beneventa, whilst they made show with triumphs, tournaments, and several kinds of pastimes, as if they had in eye nothing but amusement and feasting, there was held a secret conference in order to arrive at a mutual understanding between the two crowns. Their common interest being weighed and considered, they agreed in this, that it was expedient for one king to aid and assist the other in pacifying their States and purging them from diversity of religions. But they were not of the same opinion as to the way that was most expeditious and secure for arriving at this end... The duke said that a prince could not do a thing more unworthy or prejudicial to himself than to permit liberty of conscience to his people, bringing as many varieties of religion into a State as there are fancies in the minds of men; that diversities of opinion never faded to put subjects in arms, and stir up grievous treacheries and rebellions; therefore, he concluded that they ought by severe remedies, no matter whether by fire or sword, to cut away the roots of that evil." [4]

The historian says that the Queen-mother was inclined to milder measures, in the first place, being indisposed to embrue her hands in the blood of the royal family, and of the great lords of the kingdom, and that she would reserve this as the last resort. "Both parties," says he, "aimed at the destruction of the Huguenots, and the establishment of obedience. Wherefore, at last they came to this conclusion, that the one king should aid the other either covertly or openly, as might be thought most conducive to the execution of so difficult and so weighty an enterprise, but that both of them should be free to work by such means and counsels as appeared to them most proper and seasonable." [5]

Tavannes, whose testimony is above suspicion, confirms the statement of Davila. "The Kings of France and Spain at Bayonne," says he in his Memoires, "through the instrumentality of the Duke of Alva, resolved on the destruction of the Huguenots of France and Spain." [6] Maimbourg reiterates the same thing. "The two kings came to an agreement," says he, "to exterminate all the Protestants in their dominions." [7]

The massacre, it is now believed, was to have been executed in the year following (1566)

at the Assembly of Notables at Moulins. But meanwhile the dark secret of Bayonne had oozed out in so many quarters, that Conde and Coligny could not with prudence disregard it, and though they came, with their confederates, to Moulins, in obedience to the royal summons, they were so well armed that Catherine de Medici durst not attempt her grand stroke.


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Tuesday, December 11th, 2018
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