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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 17 — Resurrection of Huguenotism — Death of Charles IX

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After the Storm — Revival—Siege of Sancerre—Horrors—Bravery of the Citizens—The Siege Raised—La Rochelle—The Capital of French Protestantism — Its Prosperous Condition—Its Siege—Brave Defense— The Besiegers Compelled to Retire—A Year after St. Bartholomew—Has Coligny Risen from the Dead?—First Anniversary of the St. Bartholomew — The Huguenots Reappear at Court—New Demands— Mortification of the Court—A Politico-Ecclesiastical Confederation formed by the Huguenots—The Tiers Parti— Illness of Charles IX. — Hie Sweat cf Blood — Remorse — His Huguenot Nurse — His Death.

When the terrible storm of the St. Bartholomew Day had passed, men expected to open their eyes on only ruins. The noble vine that had struck its roots so deep in the soil of France, and with a growth so marvellous was sending out its boughs on every side, and promising to fill the land, had been felled to the earth by a cruel and sudden blow, and never again would it lift its branches on high. So thought Charles IX and the court of France. They had closed the civil wars in the blood of Coligny and his 70,000 fellow-victims. The governments of Spain and Rome did not doubt that Huguenotism had received its death-blow. Congratulations were exchanged between the courts of the Louvre, the Escorial, and the Vatican on the success which had crowned their projects. The Pope, to give enduring expression to these felicitations, struck, as we have seen, a commemorative medal. That medal said, in effect, that Protestantism had been! No second medal, of like import, would Gregory XIII, or any of his successors, ever need to issue; for the work had been done once for all; the revolt of Wittemberg and Geneva had been quelled in a common overthrow, and a new era of splendor had dawned on the Popedom.

In proportion to the joy that reigned in the Romanist camp, so was the despondency that weighed upon the spirits of the Reformed. They too, in the first access of their consternation and grief, believed that Protestantism had been fatally smitten. Indeed, the loss which the cause had sustained was tremendous, and seemed irretrievable. The wise counselors, the valiant warriors, the learned and pious pastors—in short, that whole array of genius, and learning, and influence that adorned Protestantism in France, and which, humanly speaking, were the bulwarks around it—had been swept away by this one terrible blow.

And truly, had French Protestantism been a mere political association, with oniy earthly bonds to hold its members together, and only earthly motives to inspire them with hope and urge them to action, the St. Bartholomew Massacre would have terminated its career. But the cause was Divine; it drew its life from hidden sources, and so, flourishing from what both friend and foe believed to be its grave, it stood up anew, prepared to fight ever so many battles and mount ever so many scaffolds, in the faith that it would yet triumph in that land which had been so profusely watered with its blood.

The massacre swept the cities and villages on the plains of France with so unsparing a fury, that in many of these not a Protestant was left breathing; but the mountainous districts were less terribly visited, and these now became the stronghold of Huguenotism. Some fifty towns situated in these parts closed their gates, and stood to their defense. Their inhabitants knew that to admit the agents of the government was simply to offer their throats to the assassins of Charles; and rather than court wholesale butchery, or ignominiously yield, they resolved to fight like men. Some of these cities were hard put to it in the carrying out of this resolution. The sieges of La Rochelle and Sancerre have a terribly tragic interest. The latter, though a small town, held out against the royal forces for more than ten months. Greatly inferior to the enemy in numbers, the citizens labored under the further disadvantage of lacking arms. They appeared on the ramparts with slings instead of fire-arms; but, unlike their assailants, they defended their cause with hands unstained with murder. "We light here," was the withering taunt which they flung down upon the myrmidons of Catherine —"We fight here: go and assassinate elsewhere." Famine was more fatal to them than the sword; for while the battle slew only eighty- four of their number, the famine killed not fewer than 500. The straits now endured by the inhabitants of Sancerre recall the miseries of the siege of Jerusalem, or the horrors of Paris in the winter of 1870-71. An eye-witness, Pastor Jean de Lery, has recorded in his Journal the incidents of the siege, and his tale is truly a harrowing one. "The poor people had to feed on dogs, cats, mice, snails, moles, grass, bread made of straw, ground into powder and mixed with pounded slate; they had to consume harness, leather, the parchment of old books, title-deeds, and letters, which they softened by soaking in water." These were the revolting horrors of their cuisine. "I have seen on a table," says Lery, "food on which the printed characters were still legible, and you might even read from the pieces lying on the dishes ready to be eaten." The mortality of the young by the famine was frightful; scarce a child under twelve years survived. Their faces grew to be like parchment; their skeleton figures and withered limbs; their glazed eye and dried tongue, which could not even wail, were too horrible for the mother to look on, and thankful she was when death came to terminate the sufferings of her offspring. Even grown men were reduced to skeletons, and wandered like phantoms in the street, where often they dropped down and expired of sheer hunger. [1] Yet that famine could not subdue their resolution. The defense of the town went on, the inhabitants choosing to brave the horrors which they knew rather than, by surrendering to such a foe, expose themselves to horrors which they knew

not. A helping hand was at length stretched out to them from the distant Poland. The Protestantism of that country was then in its most flourishing condition, and the Duke of Anjou, Catherine's third son, being a candidate for the vacant throne, the Poles made it a condition that he should ameliorate the state of the French Huguenots, and accordingly the siege of Sancerre was raised.

It was around La Rochelle that the main body of the royal army was drawn. The town was the capital of French Protestantism, and the usual rendezvous of its chiefs. It was a large and opulent city, "fortified after the modern way with moats, walls, bulwarks, and ramparts." [2] It was open to the sea, and the crowd of ships that filled its harbor, and which rivaled in numbers the royal navy, gave token of the enriching commerce of which it was the seat. Its citizens were distinguished by their intelligence, their liberality, and above all, their public spirit. When the massacre broke out, crowds of Protestant gentlemen, as well as of peasants, together with some fifty pastors, fleeing from the sword of the murderers, found refuge within its walls. Thither did the royal forces follow them, shutting in La Rochelle on the land side, while the navy blockaded it by the sea. Nothing dismayed, the citizens closed their gates, hoisted the flag of defiance on their walls, and gave Anjou, who conducted the siege, to understand that the task he had now on hand would not be of so easy execution as a cowardly massacre planned in darkness, like that which had so recently crimsoned all France, and of which he had the credit of being one of the chief instigators. Here he must fight in open day, and with men who were determined that he should enter their city only when it was a mass of ruins. He began to thunder against it with his cannon; the Rochellese were not slow to reply. Devout as well as heroic, before forming on the ramparks they kneeled before the God of battles in their churches, and then with a firm step, and singing the Psalms of David as they marched onward, they mounted the wall, and looked down with faces undismayed upon the long lines of the enemy. The ships thundered from the sea, the troops assailed on land; but despite this double tempest, there was the flag of defiance still waving on the walls of the beleaguered city. They might have capitulated to brave men and soldiers, but to sue for peace from an army of assassins, from the train-bands of a monarch who knew not how to reward men who were the glory of his realm, save by devoting them to the dagger, rather would they die a hundred times. Four long months the battle raged; innumerable mines were dug and exploded; portions of the wall fell in and the soldiers of Anjou hurried to the breach in the hope of taking the city. It was now only that they realized the full extent of the difficulty. The forest of pikes on which they were received, and the deadly volleys poured into them, sent them staggering down the breach and back to the camp. Not fewer than twenty-nine times did the besiegers attempt to carry La Rochelle by storm; but each time they were repulsed, [3] and forced to retreat, leaving a thick trail of dead and wounded to mark their track. Thus did this single town heroically withstand the entire military power of the government. The Duke of Anjou saw his army dwindling away. Twenty-nine fatal repulses had greatly thinned its ranks. The siege made no progress. The Rochellese still scowled defiance from the summit of their ruined defences. What was to be done?

At that moment a messenger arrived in the camp with tidings that the Duke of Anjou had been elected to the throne of Poland. One cannot but wonder that a nation so brave, and so favorably disposed as the Poles then were towards Protestantism, should have made choice of a creature so paltry, cowardly, and vicious to reign over them. But the occurrence furnished the duke with a pretext of which he was but too glad to avail himself for quitting a city which he was now convinced he never would be able to take. Thus did deliverance, come to La Rochelle. The blood spilt in its defense had not been shed in vain. The Rochellese had maintained their independence; they had rendered a service to the Protestantism of Europe; they had avenged in part the St. Bartholomew; they had raised the renown of the Huguenot arms; and now that the besiegers were gone, they set about rebuilding their fallen ramparts, and repairing the injuries their city had sustained; and they had the satisfaction of seeing the flow of political and commercial prosperity, which had been so rudely interrupted, gradually return.

By the time these transactions were terminated, a year wellnigh had elapsed since the great massacre. Catherine and Charles could now calculate what they had gained by this enormous crime. Much had France lost abroad, for though Catherine strove by enormous lying to persuade the world that she had not done the deed, or at least that the government had been forced in self-defense to do it, she could get no one to believe her. To compensate for the loss of prestige and influence abroad, what had she gained at home? Literally nothing. The Huguenots in all parts of France were coming forth from their hiding-places; important towns were defying the royal arms; whole districts were Protestant; and the denlands of the Huguenots were once more beginning to be heard, loud and firm as ever. What did all this mean? Had not Alva and Catherine dug the grave of Huguenotism? Had not Charles assisted at its burial? and had not the Pope set up its gravestone? What right then had the Huguenots to be

seen any more in France? Had Coligny risen from the dead, with his mountain Huguenots, who had chased Anjou back to Paris, and compelled Charles to sign the Peace of St. Germain? Verily it seemed as if it were so. A yet greater humiliation awaited the court. When the 24th of August, 1573—the anniversary of the massacre—came round, the Huguenots selected the day to meet and draw up new demands, which they were to present to the government.

Obtaining an interview with Charles and his mother, the delegates boldly demanded, in the name of the whole body of the Protestants, to be replaced in the position they occupied before St. Bartholomew's Day, and to have back all the privileges of the Pacification of 1570. The king listened in mute stupefaction. Catherine, pale with anger, made answer with a haughtiness that ill became her position. "What! " said she, "although the Prince of Conde had been still alive, and in the field with 20,000 horse and 50,000 foot, he would not have dared to ask half of what you now demand." But the Queen-mother had to digest her mortification as best she could. Her troops had been worsted; her kingdom was full of anarchy; discord reigned in the very palace; her third son, the only one she loved, was on the point of leaving her for Poland; there were none around her whom she could trust; and certainly there was no one who trusted her; the only policy open to her, therefore, was one of conciliation. Hedged in, she was made to feel that her way was a hard one. The St. Bartholomew Massacre was becoming bitter even to its authors, and Catherine now saw that she would have to repeat it not once, but many times, before she could erase the "religion," restore the glories of the Roman Catholic worship in France, and feel herself firmly seated in the government of the country.

To the still further dismay of the court, the Protestants took a step in advance. Portentous theories of a social kind began at this time to lift up their heads in France. The infatuated daughter of the Medici thought that, could she extirpate Protestantism, Roman Catholicism would be left in quiet possession of the land; little did she foresee the strange doctrines foreshadowings of those of 1789, and of the Commune of still later days— that were so soon to start up and fiercely claim to share supremacy with the Church.

The Huguenots of the sixteenth century did not indeed espouse the new opinions which struck at the basis of government as it was then settled, but they acted upon them so far as to set up a distinct politico-ecclesiastical confederation. The objects aimed at in this new association were those of self-government and mutual defense. A certain number of citizens were selected in each of the Huguenot towns. These formed a governing body in all matters appertaining to the Protestants. They were, in short, so many distinct Protestant municipalities, analogous to those cities of the Middle Ages which, although subject to the sway of the feudal lord, had their own independent municipal government. Every six months, delegates from these several municipalities met together, and constituted a supreme council. This council had power to impose taxes, to administer justice, and, when threatened with violence by the government, to raise soldiers and carry on war. This was a State within a State. The propriety of the step is open to question, but it is not to be hastily condemned. The French Government had abdicated its functions. It neither respected the property nor defended the lives of the Huguenots. It neither executed the laws of the State in their behalf, nor fulfilled a moment longer than it had the power to break them the special treaties into which it had entered. So far from redressing their wrongs, it was the foremost party to inflict wrong and outrage upon them. In short, society in that unhappy country was dissolved, and in so unusual a state of things, it were hard to deny the Protestants the fight to make the best arrangements they could for the defense of their natural and social rights.

At the court even there now arose a party that threw its shield over the Huguenots. That party was known as the Politiques or Tiers Parti. [4] It was compesed mostly of men who were the disciples of the great Chancellor de l'Hopital, whose views were so far in advance of the age in which he lived, and whose reforms in law and the administration of justice made him one of the pioneers of better and more tolerant times. The chancellor was now dead—happily for himself, before the extinction of so many names which were the glory of his country—but his liberal opinions survived in a small party which was headed by the three sons of the Constable Montmorency, and the Marshals Cose and Biron. These men were not Huguenots; on the contrary, they were Romanists, but they abhorred the policy of extermination pursued toward the Protestants, and they lamented the strifes which were wasting the strength, lowering the character, and extinguishing the glory of France. Though living in an age not by any means fastidious, the spectacle of the court—now become a horde of poisoners, murderers, and harlots—filled them with disgust. They wished to bring back something like national feeling and decency of manners to their country. Casting about if haply there were any left who might aid them in their schemes, they offered their alliance to the Huguenots. They meant to make a beginning by expelling the swarm of foreigners which Catherine had gathered round her. Italians and Spaniards filled the offices at court, and in return for their rich pensions rendered no service but flattery, and taught no arts but those of magic and assassination. The leaders of the Tiers Parti hoped by the assistance of the Huguenots to expel these creatures from the

government which they had monopolized, and to restore a national regime, liberal and tolerant, and such as might heal the deep wounds of their country, and recover for France the place she had lost in Europe. The existence of this party was known to Catberine, and she had divined, too, the cleansing they meant to make in the Augean stable of the Louvre. Such a reformation not being at all to her taste, she began again to draw toward the Huguenots. Thus wonderfully were they shielded.

There followed a few years of dubious policy on the part of Catherine, of fruitless schemes on the part of the Politiques, and of uncertain prospects to all parties. While matters were hanging thus in the balance, Charles IX died. [5] His life had been full of excitement, of base pleasures, and of bloody crimes, and his death was full of horrors. But as the curtain is about to drop, a ray—a solitary ray—is seen to shoot across the darkness. No long time after the perpetration of the massacre, Charles IX began to be visited with remorse. The awful scene would not quit his memory. By day, whether engaged in business or mingling in the gaieties of the court, the sights and sounds of the massacre would rise unbidden before his imagination; and at night its terrors would return in his dreams. As he lay in his bed, he would start up from broken slumber, crying out, "Blood, blood!" Not many days after the massacre, there came a flock of ravens and alighted upon the roof of the Louvre. As they flitted to and fro they filled the air with their dismal croakings. This would have given no uneasiness to most people; but the occupants of the Louvre had guilty consciences. The impieties and witchcrafts in which they lived had made them extremely superstitious, and they saw in the ravens other creatures than they seemed, and heard in their screams more terrible sounds than merely earthly ones. The ravens were driven away; the next day, at the same hour, they returned, and so did they for many days in succession.

There, duly at the appointed time, were the sable visitants of the Louvre, performing their gyrations round the roofs and chimneys of the ill-omened palace, and making its courts resound with the echoes of their horrid cawings. This did not tend to lighten the melancholy of the king.

One night he awoke with fearful sounds in his ears. It seemed—so he thought—that a dreadful fight was going on in the city. There were shoutings and shrieks and curses, and mingling with these were the tocsin's knell and the sharp ring of fire-arms—in short, all those dismal noises which had filled Paris on the night of the massacre. A messenger was dispatched to ascertain the cause of the uproar. He returned to say that all was at peace in the city, and that the sounds which had so terrified the king were wholly imaginary. These incessant apprehensions brought on at last an illness. The king's constitution, sickly from the first, had been drained of any original vigor it ever possessed by the vicious indulgences in which he lived, and into which his mother, for her own vile ends, had drawn him; and now his decline was accelerated by the agonies of remorse — thee Nemesis of the St. Bartholomew. Charles was rapidly approaching the grave. It was now that a malady of a strange and frightful kind seized upon him. Blood began to ooze from all the pores of his body. On awakening in the morning his person would be wet all over with what appeared a sweat of blood, and a crimson mark on the bed-clothes would show where he had lain. Mignet and other historians have given us most affecting accounts of the king's last hours, but we content ourselves with an extract from the old historian Estoile. And be it known that the man who stipulated orders for the St. Bartholomew Massacre that not a single Huguenot should be left alive to reproach him with the deed, was waited upon on his death-bed by a Huguenot nurse! "As she seated herself on a chest," says Estoile, "and was beginning to doze, she heard the king moan and weep and sigh. She came gently to his bedside, and adjusting the bed-clothes, the king began to speak to her; and heaving a deep sigh, and while the tears poured down, and sobs choked his utterance, he said, 'Ah, nurse, dear nurse, what blood, what murders! Ah, I have followed bad advice.

Oh, my God, forgive me! Have pity on me, if it please thee. I do not know what will become of me. What shall I do? I am lost; I see it plainly.' Then the nurse said to him, 'Sire, may the murders be on those who made you do them; and since you do not consent to them, and are sorry for them, believe that God will not impute them to you, but will cover them with the robe of his Son's justice. To him alone you must address yourself.'" Charles IX died on the 30th of May, 1574, just twenty-one months after the St. Bartholomew Massacre, having lived twenty-five years and reignned fourteen. [6]


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