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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 14 — Negotiations of the court with the Huguenots

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Dissimulation on a Grand Scale — Proposed Expedition to Flanders— The Prince of Orange to be Assisted—The Proposal brings Coligny to Court—The King's Reception of him — Proposed Marriage of the King's Sister with the King of Navarre—Jeanne d'Albret comes to Court — Her Sudden Death—Picture of the French Court—Interview between Charles IX and the Papal Legate—The King's Pledge—His Doublings.

Great difficulties, however, lay in the path of the policy arranged between the Queen-mother and Alva. The first was the deep mistrust which the Protestants cherished of Catherine and Charles IX. Not one honest peace had the French court ever made with them. Far more Protestants had perished by massacre during the currency of the various Pacifications, than had fallen by the sword in times of war. Accordingly, when the Peace of St. Germain-en-Laye was made, the Huguenot chiefs, instead of repairing to court, retired within the strongly fortified town of La Rochelle. They must be drawn out; their suspicions must be lulled to sleep, and their chief men assembled in Paris. This was the point to be first effected, and nothing but patience and consummate craft could achieve it.

No ordinary illusion could blind men who had been so often and so deeply duped already. This the French court saw. A new and grander style of stratagem than any heretofore employed was adopted. Professions, promises, and dignities were profusely lavished upon the Huguenots, but, over and above, great schemes of national policy were projected, reaching into the future, embracing the aggrandisement of France, coinciding with the views of the Huguenot chiefs, and requiring their cooperation in order to their successful execution. This gave an air of sincerity to the professions of the court which nothing else could have done, for it was thought impossible that men who were cogitating plans so enlightened, were merely contriving a cunning scheme, and weaving a web of guile. But Catherine was aware that she was too well known for anything less astute to deceive the Huguenot leaders. The proposal of the court was that the young King of Navarre should marry Margaret de Valois, the sister of Charles IX, and that an armed intervention should be made in the Low Countries in aid of the Prince of Orange against Philip of Spain, and that Coligny should be placed at the head of the expedition. These were not new ideas. The marriage had been talked of in Henry II's time, while Margaret and Henry of Navarre were yet children; and as regards the intervention in behalf of the Protestants of the Low Countries, that was a project which the Liberal party, which had been forming at the Louvre, headed by Chancellor l'Hopital, had thrown out. They were revived by Catherine as by far her best stratagem: "the King and Queen-mother," says Davila, "imparting their private thoughts only to the Duke of Anjou, the Cardinal of Lorraine, the Duke of Guise, and Alberto Gondi, Count of Retz." [1]

Charles IX instantly dispatched Marshal de Biron to La Rochelle, to negotiate the marriage of his sister with the Prince of Bearn, and to induce his mother, the Queen of Navarre, to repair to court, that the matter might be concluded. The king sent at the same time the Marshal de Cosse to La Rochelle, to broach the project of the Flanders expedition to the Admiral de Coligny, "but in reality," says Sully, "to observe the proceedings of the Calvinists, to sound their thoughts, and to beget in them that confidence which was absolutely necessary for his own designs." [2] After the repeated violations of treaties, Pacifications, and oaths on the part of Catherine and her son, it was no easy matter to overcome the deeply-rooted suspicions of men who had so often smarted from the perfidy of the king and his mother. But Catherine and Charles dissembled on this occasion with an adroitness which even they had never shown before. Admiral de Coligny was the first to be won. He was proverbial for his wariness, but, as sometimes happens, he was now conquered on the point where he was strongest. Setting out from La Rochelle, in despite of the tears and entreaties of his wife, he repaired to Blois (September, 1571), where the court was then residing. On entering the presence of the king, Coligny went on his knee, but Charles raised and embraced him, calling him his father. The return of the warrior to court put him into a transport of joy. "I hold you now," exclaimed the king; "yes, I hold you, and you shall not leave me again; this is the happiest day of my life." "It is remarkable," says the Popish historian Davila, after relating this, "that a king so young should know so perfectly how to dissemble." [3] The Queen-mother, the Dukes of Anjou and Alencon, and all the chief nobles of the court, testified the same joy at the admiral's return. The king restored him to his pensions and dignities, admitted him of his council, and on each succeeding visit to the Louvre, loaded him with new and more condescending caresses and flatteries.

Charles IX was at this time often closeted with the admiral. The topic discussed was the expedition to Flanders in aid of William of Orange in his war with Spain. The king listened with great seeming respect to the admiral, and this deference to his sentiments and views, in a matter that lay so near his heart, inspired Coligny doubtless with the confidence he now began to feel in Charles, and the hopes he cherished that the king was beginning to see that there was something nobler for himself than the profligacies in which his mother, for her own vile ends, had reared him, and nobler for France than to be dragged, for the Pope's pleasure, at the chariot-wheel of Spain. The admiral would thus be able to render signal service to Protestantism in all the countries of

Europe, as well as rescue France from the gulf into which it was fast descending; and this hope made him deaf to the warnings, which every day he was receiving from friends, that a great treachery was meditated. And when these warnings were reiterated, louder and plainer, they only drew forth from Coligny, who longed for peace as they only long for it who have often gazed upon the horrors of the stricken field, protestations that rather would he risk mas-sacre — rather would he be dragged as a corpse through the streets of Paris, than rekindle the flames of civil war, and forego the hope of detaching his country from the Spanish alliance.

The admiral, having been completely gained over, used his influence to win Jeanne d'Albret to a like confidence. Ever as the marriage of her son to the daughter of Catherine de Medici was spoken of, a vague but dreadfid foreboding oppressed her. She knew how brilliant was the match, and what important consequences might flow from it.

It might lead her son up the steps of the throne of France, and that would be tantamount to the establishment of Protestantism in that great kingdom; nevertheless she could not conquer her instinctive recoil from the union. It was a dreadful family to marry into, and she trembled for the principles and the morals of her son. Perefixe, afterwards Archbishop of Paris, who cannot be suspected of having made the picture darker than the reality, paints the condition of the French court in one brief but terrible sentence. He says that "impiety, atheism, necromancy, most horrible pollutions, black cowardice, perfidy, poisonings, and assassinations reig-ned there in a supreme degree." But Catherine de Medici urged and re-urged her invitations. "Satisfy," she wrote to the Queen of Navarre, "the extreme desire we have to see you in this company; you will be loved and honored therein as accords with reason, and what you are." At last Jeanne d'Albret gave her consent to the marriage, and visited the court at Blois in March, l572, to arrange preliminaries. The Queen-mother but trifled with and insulted her after she did come. Jeanne wrote to her son that she could make no progress in the affair which had brought her to court. She returned to Paris in the beginning of June. She had not been more than ten days at court, when she sickened and died. The general belief, in which Davila and other Popish historians concur, was that she died of subtle poison, which acted on the brain alone, and which exuded from certain gloves that had been presented to her. This suspicion was but natural, nevertheless we are inclined to think that a more likely cause was the anxiety and agitation of mind she was then enduring, and which brought on a fever, of which she died on the fifth day. [4] She was but little cared for during her illness, and after death her corpse was treated with studied neglect.

"This," says Davila, "was the first thunderbolt of the great tempest." The king was dissembling so perfectly that he awakened the suspicions of the Papists. Profound secrecy was absolutely necessary to the success of the plot, and accordingly it was disclosed, in its details, to only two or three whose help was essential to its execution. Meanwhile the admirable acting of the king stumbled the Romanists: it was so like sincerity that they thought it not impossible that it might turn out to be so, and that themselves and not the Huguenots would be the victims of the drama now in progress. The courtiers murmured, the priests were indignant, the populace expected every day to see Charles go over to the "religion;" and neither the Pope nor the King of Spain could comprehend why the king was so bent on marrying his sister to the son of the Protestant Queen of Navarre. That, said the direct and terrible Pius V, was to unite light and darkness, and to join in concord God and Belial. Meanwhile, Charles IX, who could not drop the mask but at the risk of spoiling all, contemplated with a certain pride the perfection of his own dissimulation. "Ah, well," said he one evening to his mother, "do I not play my role well?" "Yes, very well, my son," replied Catherine, "but it is nothing if it is not maintained to the end." [5] And Charles did maintain it to the end, and even after the St. Bartholomew, for he was fond of saying with a laugh, "My big sister Margot caught all these Huguenot rebels in the bird-catching style. What has grieved me most is being obliged to dissimulate so long." [6]

The marriage, we have said, was the hinge on which the whole plot turned; for ordinary artifices would never have enabled Catherine and Charles to deceive on a great scale. But Pius V either did not quite comprehend this, or he disapproved of it as a means of bringing about the massacre, for he sent his legate, Cardinal Alexandrino, to Paris to protest against the union.

At his interview with the legate, Charles IX pleaded the distractions of his kingdom, and the exhaustion of his treasury, as his reasons for resorting to the marriage rather than continuing the civil wars. But these excuses the legate would not accept as sufficient. "You are in the right," replied Clmrles. "And if I had any other means of taking vengeance on my enemies, I would never consent to this marriage; but I can find no other way." And he concluded by bidding the legate assure the Pope that all he was doing was with the best intention, and for the aggrandizement of the Roman Catholic religion; and taking a valuable ring from his finger he offered it to Alexandrino as "a pledge of his indefectible obedience to the 'Holy See,' and his resolution to implement whatever he had promised to do in opposition to the

impiety of these wicked men." [7] The legate declined the ring on the pretext that the word of so great a king was enough. Nevertheless, after the massacre, Charles IX sent the ring to Rome, with the words ne pietas possit mea sanguine salvi engraven upon it. Clement VIII, who was auditor and companion to Alexandrino on his mission to France, afterwards told Cardinal d'Ossat that when the news of the St. Bartholomew Massacre reached Rome, the cardinal exclaimed in transport of joy, "Praise be to God, the King of France has kept his word with me!" [8]

Action was at the same time taken in the matter of supporting the Protestant war in the Low Countries, for the dissimulation had to be maintained in both its branches. A body of Huguenot soldiers, in which a few Papists were mingled, was raised, placed under Senlis, a comrade of Coligny's in faith and arms, and dispatched to the aid of William of Orange. Senlis had an interview with Charles IX before setting out, and received from him money and encouragement. But the same court that sent this regiment to fight against the Duke of Alva, sent secret information to the duke which enabled him to surprise the Protestant soldiers on the march, and cut them in pieces. "I have in my hands," wrote the Duke of Alva to his master, Philip II, "a letter from the King of France, which would strike you dumb if you were to see it; for the moment it is expedient to say nothing about it." [9] Another piece of equal dissimulation did Charles IX practice about this time. The little Party at the French court which was opposed to the Spanish alliance, and in the same measure favored the success of William of Orange in Flanders, was headed by the Chancellor l'Hopital. At the very time that Charles IX was making Coligny believe that he had become a convert to that plan, Chancellor l'Hopital was deprived of the seals, and banished from court. [10]

The inconsistencies and doublings of Charles IX. are just enough to give some little color to a theory which has found some advocates — namely, that the St. Bartholomew Massacre was unpremeditated, and that it was a sudden and violent resolve on the part of Catherine de Medici and the Guises, to prevent the king yielding to the influence of Admiral de Coligny, and putting himself at the head of a Huguenot crusade in favor of Protestantism. [11] Verily there never was much danger of this; but though the hesitations of Charles impart some feasibility to the theory, they give it no solid weight whatever. All the historians, Popish and Protestant~ who lived nearest the time, and who took every care to inform themselves, with one consent declare that the massacre was premeditated and arranged. It had its origlnation in the courts of Paris, Madrid, and the Vatican. A chain of well-established facts conducts us to this conclusion. Most of these have already come before us, but some of them yet remain to be told. But even irrespective of these facts, looking at the age, at Charles IX., and at the state of Christendom, can any man believe that the King of France should have seriously contemplated, as he must have done if his professions to the Huguenots were sincere, not only proclaiming toleration in France, but becoming the head of an armed European confederation in behalf of Protestantism? This is wholly inconceivable.


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Monday, September 24th, 2018
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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