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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 12 — Synod of la Rochelle

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Success as Judged by Man and by God—Coligny's Magnanimous Counsels—A New Huguenot Army—Dismay of the Court—Peace of St. Germain-en-Laye—Terms of Treaty—Perfidiousness—Religion on the Battle-field—Synod of La Rochelle — Numbers and Rank of its Members —It Ratifies the Doctrine and Constitution of the French Church as Settled at its First Synod.

We left Protestantism in France, and its greatest champion, Admiral de Coligny, reeling under what seemed to be a mortal blow. The Prince of Conde was dead; the battle of Montcontour had been lost; the army mostly lay rotting on the field; and a mere handful of soldiers only remained around the standard of their chief. Many who had befriended the cause till now abandoned it in despair, and such as still remained faithful were greatly disheartened, and counseled submission. Catherine de Medici, as we have seen, thinking that now was the hour of opportunity, hastened to deal what she did not doubt would be the finishing blow to the Protestant cause, and to the man who was preeminently its chief. It was now, in the midst of these misibrtunes, that Coligny towered up, and reached the full stature of his moral greatness; and with him, rising from its ashes, soared up anew the Protestant cause.

Success in the eye of the world is one thing; success in the eye of God is another and a different thing. When men are winning battles, and every day adding to the number of their friends, and the greatness of their honored— "These men," says the world, "are marching on to victory." But when to a cause or to a party there comes defeat after defeat, when friends forsake, and calamities thicken, the world sees nothing but disaster, and prognosticates only ruin. Yet these thing may be but the necessary steps to success.

Chastened by these sore dispensations, they who are engaged in the work of God are compelled to turn from man, and to fortify themselves by a yet more entire and exclusive reliance on the Almighty. They cleanse themselves from the vitiating stains of flattery and human praise; they purge out the remaining leaven of selfishness; God's Spirit descends in richer influences upon them; the calm of a celestial power fills their souls; they find that they have been cast down in order that they may be lifted up, and that, instead of ruin, which the world's wise men and their own fears had foretold, they are now nearing the goal, and that it is triumph that awaits them. So was it with Protestantism in France at this hour. The disaster which had overtaken it, and in which its enemies saw only ruin, was but the prelude to its vindicating for itself a higher position than it had ever before attained in that nation.

The heads of the Protestant cause and the captains of the army gathered round Admiral de Coligny, after the battle, but with looks so crestfallen, and speaking in tones so desponding, that it was plain they had given up all as lost. Not so Coligny. The last to unsheathe the sword, he would be the last to return it to its scabbard, nor would he abandon the enterprise so long as a single friend was by his side.

"No," said Coligny, in answer to the desponding utterances of the men around him, "all is not lost; nothing is lost; we have lost a battle, it is true; but the burial trenches of Montcontour do not contain all the Huguenots; the Protestants of France have not been conquered; those provinces of the kingdom in which Protestantism has taken the deepest root, and which have but slightly felt the recent reverses, will give us another army." The Protestants of Germany and England, he reminded them, were their friends, and would send them succors; they must not confine their eye to one point, nor permit their imagination to dwell on one defeat; they must embrace in their survey the whole field; they must not count the soldiers of Protestantism, they must weigh its moral and spiritual forces, and, when they had done so, they would see that there was no cause to despair of its triumph. By these magnanimous words Coligny raised the spirit of his friends, and they resolved to continue the struggle. [1]

The result justified the wisdom as well as the courage of the admiral. He made his appeal to the provinces beyond the Loire, where the friends of Protestantism were the most numerous. Kindling into enthusiasm at his call, there flocked to his standard from the mountains of Bearn, from the cities of Dauphine, and the region of the Cevennes, young and stalwart warriors, who promised to defend their faith and liberties till death. [2] When the spring opened the brave patriot-chief had another army, more numerous and better disciplined than the one he had lost, ready to take the field and strike another blow. The fatal fields of Jarnac and Montcontour were not to be the grave of French Huguenotism.

When the winter had passed, and after some encounters with the enemy, which tested the spirit of his army, Coligny judged it best to march direct on Paris, and make terms under the walls of the capital. The bold project was put in instant execution. The tidings that Coligny was approaching struck the Government with consternation. The court, surrendering itself to the pleasant dream that Protestantism lay buried in the gory mounds of its recent battle-fields, had given itself up to those pleasures which ruin, body and soul, those who indulge in them. The court was at its wits' end. Not only was the redoubtable Huguenot chief again in the field, he was on his road to Paris, to demand a reckoning for so many Pacifications broken, and so much blood spilt. The measure which the court adopted to ward off the impending danger was a weak one. They sent the Duke of Anjou—the third son of Catherine de Medici,

the same who afterwards ascended the throne under the title of Henry III—with an army of gallants, to stop Coligny's march. The stern faces and heavy blows of the mountain Huguenots drove back the emasculated recruits of Anjou. Coligny continued his advance. A few days more and Paris, surrounded by his Huguenots, would be enduring siege. A council of war was immediately held, attended by the King, the Queen-mother, the Duke of Anjou, and the Cardinal of Lorraine. It was resolved, says Davila, to have recourse to the old shift, that namely of offering peace to the Huguenots.

The peace was granted, Davila tells us—and he well knew the secrets of the court—in the hope "that the foreign troops would be sent out of France, and that artifice and opportunity would enable them to take off the heads of the Protestant faction, when the common people would yield, and return to their obedience." [3] This ending of the matter, by "artifice and opportunity," the historian goes on to remark, had been long kept in view. Catherine de Medici now came to terms with Coligny, the man whom a little time ago she had proclaimed an outlaw, setting a price upon his head; and on the 8th of August, 1570, the Peace of St. Germain-en-Laye was signed.

The terms of that treaty were unexpectedly favorable. Its general basis was an amnesty for all past offenses; the right of the Huguenots to reside in any part of France without being called in question for their religious opinions; liberty of worship in the suburbs of two towns in each province; admissibility of the Protestants to most of the offices of state, and the restoration of all confiscated property. As a guarantee for the faithful execution of the treaty, four cities were put into the hands of the Protestants—La Rochelle, La Charite, Cognac, and Montauban. The torn country had now a little rest; sweet it was for the Huguenots to exchange camps and battle-fields for their peaceful homes. There was one drawback, however, the remembrance of the many Pacifications that had been made only to be broken. This was the third in the space of seven years. Meanwhile the daughter of the Medici held out the olive-branch: but so little was she trusted that none of the Huguenot chiefs presented themselves at court, nor did they even deem themselves secure in their own castles; they retired in a body within the strongly fortified city of La Rochelle.

Davila admits that the Protestants had good grounds for these suspicions. The peace was the gift of the Trojans; and from this time the shadow of the St. Bartholomew massacre begins to darken the historian's page. "The peace having been concluded and established," says he, "the stratagem formed in the minds of the king and queen for bringing the principal Huguenots into the net began now to be carried out, and they sought to compass by policy that which had so often been attempted by war, but which had been always found fruitless and dangerous." [4] Davila favors us with a glimpse of that policy, which it was hoped would gain what force had not effected. The king "being now come to the age of two-and-twenty, of a resolute nature, a spirit full of resentment, and above all, an absolute dissembler," scrupulously observed the treaty, and punished the Roman Catholic mobs for their infractions of it in various places, and strove by "other artifices to lull to sleep the suspicions of Coligny and his friends, to gain their entire confidence, and so draw them to court." Maimbourg's testimony, which on this head may be entirely trusted, is to the same effect. "But not to dissemble," says he, "as the queen did in this treaty, there is every appearance that a peace of this kind was not made in good faith on the part of this princess, who had her concealed design, and who granted such things to the Huguenots only to disarm them, and afterwards to surprise those upon whom she wished to be revenged, and especially the admiral, at the first favorable opportunity she should have for it." [5]

When from the stormy era at which we are now arrived—the eighth year of the civil wars—we look back to the calm day-break under Lefevre, we are touched with a tender sorrow, and recall, with the din of battle in our ears, the psalms that the reapers, as they rested at mid-day, were wont to sing on the harvest-fields of Meaux. The light of that day-break continued to wax till the morning had passed into ahnost noon-day. But with the war came an arrest of this most auspicious progress. Piety decayed on the battle-field, and the evangelization began to retrograde. "Before the wars" says Felice, "proselytism was conducted on a large scale, and embraced whole cities and provinces; peace and freedom allowed of this; afterwards proselytes were few in number, and obtained with difficulty, now many corpses were there heaped up as barriers between the two communions; how many bitter enemies, and cruel remembrances, watched around the two camps to forbid approach." [6] Still, if the root of that once noble vine which stretched its branches on the one side to the Pyrenees, and on the other to the English sea, is still in the soil of France, we owe it to the heroes of the Huguenot wars. Different circumstances demand the display of different graces. Psalms and hymns became the first Protestants of France. Strong cries to God, trust in his arm, and strivings unto blood formed the worship of the Huguenots. They were martyrs, though they died in armor. The former is the lovelier picture, the latter is the grander. In truth, times like those in which Coligny lived, act on the spiritual constitution much as a stern climate acts on the physical. The sickly are dwarfed by it, the robust are nourished into yet greater robustness. The oak that battles

with the winds, shows its boughs sorely gnarled, and its trunk sheathed in a bark of iron, but within there flows a current of living sap, which enables it to live and ripen its acorns through a thousand years. And so of the Christian who is exposed to such tempests as those amid which Coligny moved; what his piety loses in point of external grace, it acquires In respect of an internal strength, which is put forth in acts of faith in God, and in deeds of sacrifice and service to man.

Meanwhile the great winds were holden that they might not blow on the vine of France, and during these two tranquil years a synod of the Reformed Church was held at La Rochelle (1571). This synod marks the acme of Protestantism in France. To borrow a figure from classic times, the doors of the temple of Janus were closed; war's banner was furled; and the Huguenots went up to their strong city of La Rochelle, and held their great convocation within its gates. The synod was presided over by Theodore Beza. Calvin was dead, having gone to the grave just as these troubles were darkening over France; but his place was not unworthily filled by his great successor, the learned and eloquent Beza. The synod was attended by the Queen of Navarre, Jeanne d'Albret, who was accompanied by her son, the Prince of Bearn, the future Henry IV. There were present also Henry, the young Prince of Conde; Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France; the Count of Nassau; the flower of the French noblesse; the pastors, now a numerous body; the captains of the army, a great many lay deputies, together with a miscellaneous assemblage composed of the city burghers, the vine-dressers of the plains, and the herdsmen of the hills. They sat day by day to receive accounts of the state of Protestantism in the various provinces, and to concert measures for the building up of the Reformed Church in their native land.

We have already related the meeting of the first synod of the French Protestant Church at Paris, in 1559. At that synod were laid the foundations of the Church's polity; her confession of faith was compiled, and her whole order and organization were settled. Five national synods had assembled in the interval, and this at La Rochelle was the seventh; but neither at this, nor at the five that preceded it, had any alteration of the least importance been made in the creed or in the constitution of the French Church, as agreed on at its first national synod, in 1559. This assembly, so illustrious for the learning, the rank, and the numbers of its members, set the seal of its approval on what the eleven pastors had done at Paris twelve years before. There is no synod like this at La Rochelle, before or since, in the history of the French Protestant Church. It was a breathing-time, short, but beyond measure refreshing. "The French Church," says one, "now sat under the apple-tree; God spread a table for her in the presence of her enemies."

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