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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 11 — Second and third Huguenot Wars

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Peace of Longjumeau–Second Huguenot War–Its One Battle–A Peace which is not Peace – Third Huguenot War–Conspiracy–An Incident –Protestant Chiefs at La Rochelle–Joined by the Queen of Navarre and the Prince of Bearn–Battle of Jarnac–Death of the Prince of Conde– Heroism of Jeanne d'Albret–Disaster at Montcontour – A Dark Night –Misfortunes of Coligny–His Sublimity of Soul.

We return to the consideration of the condition of the Protestants of France. The Pacification of Amboise, imperfect from the first, was now flagrantly violated. The worshipping assemblies of the Protestants were dispersed, their persons murdered, their ministers banished or silenced; and for these wrongs they could obtain no redress. The iron circle was continually narrowing around them. Were they to sit still until they were inextricably enfolded and crushed? No; they must again draw the sword. The court brought matters to extremity by hiring 6,000 Swiss mercenaries.

On hearing of this, the Prince de Conde held a consultation with the Huguenot chiefs. Opinions were divided. Coligny advised a little longer delay. "I see perfectly well," said he, "how we may light the fire, but I do not see the water to put it out." His brother D'Andelot counselled instant action. "If you wait," he exclaimed, "till you are driven into banishment in foreign countries, bound in prisons, hunted doom by the mob, of what avail, will our patience be? Those who have brought 6,000 foreign soldiers to our very hearths have thereby declared war already." Conde and Coligny went to the Queen to entreat that justice might be done the Reformed. Catherine was deaf to their appeal. They next–acting on a precedent set them by the Duke of Guise five years before–attempted to seize the persons of the King and Queen-mother, at their Castle of Monceaux, in Brie. The plot being discovered, the court saved itself by a hasty flight. The Swiss had not yet arrived, and Catherine, safe again in Paris, amused the Protestants with negotiations. "The free exercise of their religion" was the one ever-reiterated demand of the Huguenots. At last the Swiss arrived, the negotiations were broken off, and now nothing remained but all appeal to arms.

This brings us to the second civil war, which we shall dispatch in a few sentences. The second Huguenot war was a campaign of but one battle, which lasted barely an hour. This affair, styled the Battle of St. Denis, was fought under the walls of Paris, and the field was left in possession of the Huguenots, [1] who offered the royalists battle on the following day, but they declined it, so giving the Protestants the right of claiming the victory.

The veteran Montmorency, who had held the high office of Constable of France during four reigns, was among the slain. The Duke of Anjou, the favorite son of Catherine, succeeded him as generalissimo of the French army, and thus the chief authority was still more completely centred in the hands of the Queen-mother. The winter months passed without fighting. When the spring opened, the Protestant forces were so greatly reinforced by auxiliaries from Germany, that the court judged it the wiser part to come to terms with them, and on March 20th, 1568, the short-lived Peace of Longjumeau was signed. "This peace," says Mezeray, "left the Huguenots at the mercy of their enemies, with no other security than the word of an Italian woman." [2]

The army under Conde melted away, and then Catherine forgot her promise. All the while the peace lasted, which was only six short months, the Protestants had to endure even greater miseries than if they had been in the field with arms in their hands. Again the pulpits thundered against heresy, again the passions of the mob broke out, again the dagger of the assassin was set to work, and the blood of the Huguenots ceased not to flow in all the cities and provinces of France. It is estimated that not fewer than ten thousand persons perished during this short period. The court did nothing to restrain, but much, it is believed, to instigate to these murders.

One gets weary of writing so monotonous a recital of outrage and massacre. This bloodshed, it must be acknowledged, was not all confined to one side. Some two hundred Roman Catholics, including several priests, were massacred by the Protestants. This is to be deplored, but it need surprise no one. Of the hundreds of thousands of Huguenots in France, all were not pious men; and further, while these two hundred or so of Romanists were murdered, the Huguenots were perishing in tens of thousands by every variety of cruel death, and of shocking and shameful outrage. There was no justice in the land. The crew that occupied the Louvre, and styled themselves the Government, were there, as the Thug is in his den, to entrap and dispatch his victim. There were men in France doubtless who reasoned that, although the laws of society had fallen, the laws of nature were still in force.

Matters were brought to a head by the discovery of a plot which was to be immediately executed. At a council in the Louvre, it was resolved to seize the two Protestant chiefs, the Prince of Conde and Admiral Coligny– and put them out of the way, by consigning the first to a dungeon for life, and sending the second to the scaffold. The moment they were informed of the plot, the prince and the admiral fled with their wives and children to La Rochelle. The road was long and the journey toilsome. They had to traverse three hundred miles of rough country, obstructed by rivers, and beset by the worse dangers of numerous foes. An incident which befel them by the way touched their hearts deeply, as showing the hand of God. Before them was the Loire–a broad and rapid river. The bridges were watched. How were they to cross? A friendly guide, to whom the by-paths and fords were

known, conducted them to the river's banks opposite Sancerre, and at that point the company, amounting to nearly two hundred persons, crossed without inconvenience or risk. They all went over singing the psalm, When Israel went out of Egypt. Two hours after, the heavens blackened, and the rain falling in torrents, the waters of the Loire, which a little before had risen only to their horses' knees, were now swollen, and had become impassable. In a little while they saw their pursuers arrive on the further side of the river; but their progress was stayed by the deep and angry flood, to which they dared not commit themselves. "Escaped as a bird out of the snare of the fowlers," the company of Coligny exchanged looks of silent gratitude with one another. [3]

What remained of their way was gone with lighter heart and nimbler foot; they felt, although they could not see, the Almighty escort that covered them; and so, journeying on, they came at last safely to La Rochelle.

La Rochelle was at this period a great mark of trade. Its inhabitants shared the independence of sentiment which commerce commonly brings in its train, having early embraced the Reformation, the bulk of its inhabitants were by this time Protestants. An impression was abroad that another great crisis impended; and under this belief, too well founded, all the chiefs and captains of the army were repairing with their followers to this stronghold of Huguenotism. We have seen Conde and Coligny arrive here; and soon thereafter came another illustrious visitor–Jeanne d'Albret. The Queen of Navarre did not come alone; she brought with her, her son Henry, Prince of Bearn, whose heroic character was just then beginning to open, and whom his mother, in that dark hour, dedicated to the service of the Protestant cause. This arrival awakened the utmost enthusiasm in La Rochelle among both citizens and soldiers. Conde laid his command of the Huguenot army at the feet of the young Prince of Bearn–magnanimously performing an act which the conventional notions of the age exacted of him, for Henry was nearer the throne than himself. The magnanimity of Conde evoked an equal magnanimity. "No," said Jeanne d'Albret; "I and my son are here to promote the success of this great enterprise, or to share its disaster. We will joyfully unite beneath the standard of Conde. The cause of God is dearer to me than my son."

At this juncture the Queen-mother published an edict, revoking the Edict of January, forbidding, on pain of death, the profession of Protestantism, and commanding all ministers to leave the kingdom within a fortnight. [4] If anything was wanting to complete the justification of the Protestants, in this their third war, it was now supplied. During the winter of 1569, the two armies were frequently in presence of one another; but as often as they essayed to join battle, storms of unprecedented violence broke out, and the assailants had to bow to the superior force of the elements. At last, on the 15th March, they met on the field of Jarnac. The day was a disastrous one for the Protestants. Taken at unawares, the Huguenot regiments arrived one after the other on the field, and were butchered in detail, the enemy assailing in overwhelming numbers. The Prince of Conde, after performing prodigies of valor, wounded, unhorsed, and fighting desperately on his knees, was slain. [5] Coligny, judging it hopeless to prolong the carnage, retired with his soldiers from the field; and the result of the day as much elated the court and the Roman Catholics, as it engendered despondency and despair in the hearts of the Protestants. While the Huguenot army was in this mood–beaten by their adversaries, and in danger of being worse beaten by their fears–the Queen of Navarre suddenly appeared amongst them. Attended by Coligny, she rode along their ranks, having on one hand her son, the Prince of Bearn, and on the other her nephew, Henry, son of the fallen Conde. "Children of God and of France," said she, addressing the soldiers, "Conde is dead; but is all therefore lost? No; the God who gave him courage and strength to fight for this cause, has raised up others worthy to succeed him. To those brave warriors I add my son. Make proof of his valor: Soldiers! I offer you everything I have to give–my dominions, my treasures, my life, and what is dearer to me than all, my children. I swear to defend to my last sigh the holy cause that now unites us!" With these heroic words she breathed her own spirit into the soldiers. They looked up; they stood erect; the fire returned to their eyes. Henry of Navarre was proclaimed general of the army, amid the plaudits of the soldiers; and Coligny and the other chiefs were the first to swear fidelity to the hero, to whom the whole realm was one day to vow allegiance.

Thus the disaster of Jarnac was so far repaired; but a yet deeper reverse awaited the Huguenot arms. The summer which opened so ominously passed without any affair of consequence till the 3rd of October, and then came the fatal battle of Montcontour. It was an inconvenient moment for Coligny to fight, for his German auxiliaries had just mutinied; but no alternative was left him. The Huguenots rushed with fury into action; but their ranks were broken by the firm phalanxes on which they threw themselves, and before they could rally, a tremendous slaughter had begun, which caused something like a panic amongst them. Coligny was wounded at the very commencement; his lower jaw was broken, and the blood, oozing from the wound and trickling down his throat, all but choked him. Being unable to give the word of command, he was carried out of the battle. A short hour only did the fight rage; but what disasters were crowded into that space of time! Of the 25,000 men

whom Coligny had led into action, only 8,000 stood around their standards when it was ended. Ammunition, cannon, baggage, and numerous colors were lost. Again the dark night was closing in around French Protestantism.

As Coligny was being carried out of the field, another litter in which lay a wounded soldier passed him by. The occupant of that other litter was Lestrange, an old gentleman, and one of the admiral's chief counsellors. Lestrange, happening to draw aside the curtains and look out, recognised his general. "Yes," said he, brushing away a tear that dimmed his eye–" Yes, God is very sweet." This was all he spoke. It was as if a Divine hand had dropped a cordial into the soul of Coligny. Speaking afterwards to his friends of the incident, he said that these words were as balm to his spirit, then more bruised than his body. There is here a lesson for us–nay, many lessons, though we can particularize only one. We are apt to suppose that those exemplify the highest style of piety, and enjoy most of the Spirit's presence, who are oftenest in the closet engaged in acts of devotion, and that controversy and fighting belong to a lower type of Christianity. There are exceptions, of course; but the rule, we believe, is the opposite. We must distinguish between a contentious lot and a contentious spirit; the former has been assigned to some of the most loving natures, and the most spiritual of men. That is the healthiest piety that best endures the wear and tear of hard work, just as those are the healthiest plants which, in no danger of pining away without the shelter of a hot-house, flourish in the outer air, and grow tall, and strong, and beautiful amid the rains and tempests of the open firmament. So now: breaking through the clouds and dust of the battle-field, a ray from heaven shot into the soul of Coligny.

The admiral had now touched the lowest point of his misfortunes. We have seen him borne out of the battle, vanquished and wounded almost to death. His army lay stretched on the field. The few who had escaped the fate of their comrades were dispirited and mutinous. Death had narrowed the circle of his friends, and of those who remained, some forsook him, and others even blamed him. To crown these multiplied calamities, Catherine de Medici came forward to deal him the coup de grace. At her direction the Parliament of Paris proclaimed him an outlaw, and set a price of 30,000 crowns upon his head. His estates were confiscated, his Castle of Chatillon was burned to the ground, and he was driven forth homeless and friendless. Were his miseries now complete? Not yet. Pius V cursed him as "all infamous, execrable man, if indeed he deserved the name of man." It was now that Coligny appeared greatest. Furious tempests assailed him from all quarters at once, but he did not bow to their violence. In the presence of defeat, desertion, outlawry, and the bitter taunts and curses of his enemies, his magnanimity remained unsubdued, and his confidence in God unshaken. A glorious triumph yet awaited the cause that was now so low. Perish it could not, and with it he knew would revive his now sore-tarnished name and fame.

He stood upon a rock, and the serenity of soul which he enjoyed, while these tempests were raging at his feet, is finely shown in the letters which at that time he addressed to his children for his wife, the heroic Charlotte Laval, was dead two years, and saw not the evil that came upon her house. "We must follow Jesus Christ," wrote Coligny (October 16th, 1569), "our Captain, who has marched before us. Men have stripped us of all they could; and if this is still the will of God, we shall be happy, and our condition good, seeing this loss has not happened through any injury we have done to those who have inflicted it, but solely through the hatred they bear toward me, because it has pleased God to make use of me to aid his Church. For the present, it suffices that I admonish and conjure you, in the name of God, to persevere courageously in the study of virtue."


Lectionary Calendar
Friday, September 21st, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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