corner graphic   Hi,    
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

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 4 — A gallery of portraits

Resource Toolbox

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19

National Decadence—Francis II—Scenes Shift at Court—The Guises and the Queen-mother—Anthony de Bourbon—His Paltry Character— Prince of Conde—His Accomplishments—Admiral Coilgny—His Conversion— Embraces the Reformed Faith—His Daily Life—Great Services—Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre—Greatness of her Character—Services to French Protestantism—Her Kingdom of Navarre—Edict Establishing the Reformed Worship in it—Her Cede— Her Fame.

Henry II went to his grave amid the deepening shadows of fast-coming calamity. The auspicious signs which had greeted the eyes of men when he ascended the throne had all vanished before the close of his reign, and given place to omens of evil. The finances were embarrassed, the army was dispirited by repeated defeat, the court was a hotbed of intrigue, and the nation, broken into factions, was on the brink of civil war. So rapid had been the decline of a kingdom which in the preceding reign was the most flourishing in Christendom.

Henry II was succeeded on the throne by the eldest of his four sons, under the title of Francis III. The blood of the Valois and the blood of the Medici —two corrupt streams—were now for the first time united on the throne of France. With the new monarch came a shifting of parties in the Louvre; for of all slippery places in the world those near a throne are the most slippery. The star of Diana of Poictiers, as a matter of course, vanished from the firmament where it had shone with bright but baleful splendor. The Constable Montmorency had a hint given him that his health would be benefited by the air of his country-seat. The king knew not, so he said to him, how to reward his great merits, and recompense him for the toil he had undergone in his service, save by relieving him of the burden of affairs, in order that he might enjoy his age in quiet, being resolved not to wear him out as a vassal or servant, but always to honor him as a father. [1] The proud Constable, grumbling a little, strode off to his Castle of Chantilly, ten leagues from Paris. The field cleared of these parties, the contest for power henceforward lay between the Guises and the Queen-mother.

Francis II was a lad of sixteen, and when we think who had had the rearing of him, we are not surprised to learn that he was without principles and without morals. Feeble in mind and body, he was a tool all the more fit for the hand of a bold intriguer. At the foot of the throne from which she had just descended stood the crafty Italian woman, his mother, Catherine de Medici: might she not hope to be the sovereign-counselor of her weak-minded son? During the lifetime of her husband, Henry II, her just influence as the wife had been baulked by the ascendency of the mistress, Diana of Poictiers. That rival had been swept from her path, but another and more legitimate competitor had come in the room of the fallen favorite. By the side of Francis II, on the throne of France, sat Mary Stuart, the heir of the Scottish crown, and the niece of the Guises. The king doted upon her beauty, [2] and thus the niece was able to keep open the door of the royal closet, and the ear of her husband, to her uncles. This gave the Guises a prodigious advantage in the game that was now being played round the person of the king. And when we think how truculent they were, and how skilled they had now become in the arts by which princes' favor is to be won, it does not surprise us to learn that in the end of the day they were foremost in the race. Catherine de Medici was a match for them any day in craft and ambition, but with the niece of her rivals by the king's side, she found it expedient still to dissemble, and to go on a little while longer disciplining herself in those arts in which nature had fitted her to excel, and in which long practice would at last make her an expert, and then would she grasp the government of France.

The question which the Queen-mother now put, "What shall be my policy?" was to be determined by the consideration of who were her rivals, and what the tactics to which they were committed. Her rivals, we have just said, were the Guises, the heads of the Roman Catholic party. This threw Catherine somewhat on the other side. She was nearly as much the bigot as the Cardinal of Lorraine himself, but if she loved the Pope, still more did she love power, and in order to grasp it she stooped to caress what she mortally hated, and reigned to protect what she secretly wished to root out. Thus did God divide the counsels and the arms of these two Powerful enemies of his Church. Had the Guises stood alone, the Reformation would have been crushed in France; or had Catherine de Medici stood alone, a like fate would have befallen it; but Providence brought both upon the scene together, and made their rivalry a shield over the little Protestant flock. The Queen-mother now threw herself between the leaders of the Reformed, and the Guises who were for striking them down without mercy. The new relation of Catherine brings certain personages upon the stage whom we have not yet met, but whom it is fitting, seeing they are to be conspicuous actors in what is to follow, we should now introduce.

The first is Anthony de Bourbon, Duke of Vendome, and first prince of the blood. From the same parent stock sprang the two royal branches of France, the Valois and the Bourbon. Louis IX (St. Louis) had four sons, of whom one was named Philip and another Robert. From Philip came the line of the Valois, in which the succession was continued for upwards of 300 years. From Robert, through his son's

marriage with the heiress of the Duchy of Bourbon, came the house of that name, which has come to fill so large a space in history, and has placed its members upon the thrones [3] of France, and Spain, and Naples. Princes of the blood, and adding to that dignity vast possessions, a genius for war, and generous dispositions, the Bourbons aspired to fill the first posts in the kingdom. Their pretensions were often troublesome to the reigming monarch, who found it necessary at times to visit their haughty bearing with temporary banishment from court. They were under this cloud at the time when Henry II died. On the accession of Francis II they resolved on returning to court and resuming their old influence in the government; but to their chagrin they found those places which they thought they, as princes of the blood, should have held, already possessed by the Guises. The latter united with the Queen-mother in repelling their advances, and the Bourbons had again to retire, and to seek amid the parties of the country that influence which they were denied in the administration.

Anthony de Bourbon had married Jeanne d'Albret, who was the most illustrious woman of her time, and one of the most illustrious women in all history. She was the daughter of Margaret of Valois, Queen of Navarre, whose genius she inherited, and whom she surpassed in her gifts of governing, and in her more consistent attachment to the Reformation. Her fine intellect, elevated soul, and deep piety were unequally yoked with Anthony de Bourbon, who was a man of humane dispositions, but of low tastes, indolent habits, and of paltry character. His marriage with Jeanne d'Albret brought him the title of King of Navarre; but his wife was a woman of too much sense, and cherished too enlightened a regard for the welfare of her subjects, to give him more than the title. She took care not to entrust him with the reins of gevernment. Today, so zealous was he for the Gospel, that he exerted himself to have the new opinions preached in his wife's dominions; and tomorrow would he be so zealous for Rome, that he would persecute those who had embraced the opinions he had appeared, but a little before, so desirous to have propagated. "Unstable as water," he spent his life in travelling between the two camps, the Protestant and the Popish, unable long to adhere to either, and heartily despised by both. [4] The Romanists, knowing the vulgar ambition that actuated him, promised him a territory which he might govern in his own right, and he kept pursuing this imaginary princedom. It was a mere lure to draw him over to their side; and his life ended without his ever attaining the power he was as eager to grasp as he was unable to wield. He died fighting in the ranks of the Romanists before the walls of Rouen; and, true to his character for inconsistency to the last, he is said to have requested in his dying moments to be re-admitted into the Protestant Church.

His brother, the Prince of Conde, was a person of greater talent, and more manly character. He had a somewhat diminutive figure, but this defect was counterbalanced by the graces of his manner, the wit of his discourse, and the gallantry of his spirit. [5] He shone equally among the ladies of the court and the soldiers of the camp. He could be oozy with the one, and unaffectedly frank and open with the other. The Prince of Conde attached himself to the Protestant side, from a sincere conviction that the doctrines of the Reformation were true, that they were favorable to liberty, and that their triumph would contribute to the greatness of France. But the Prince of Conde was not a great man. He did not rise to the true height of the cause he had espoused, nor did he bring to it that large sagacity, that entire devotion of soul, and that singleness of purpose which were required of one who wouht lead in such a cause. But what was worse, the Prince of Conde had not wholly escaped the blight of the profligacy of the age; although he had not suffered by any means to the same extent as his brother, the King of Navarre. A holy cause cannot be effectually succoured save by holy hands. "It may be asked whether the Bourbons, including even Henry IV, did not do as much damage as service to the Reformation. They mixed it up with politics, thrust it into the field of battle, dragged it into their private quarrels, and then when it had won for them the crown, they deserted it." [6]

The next figure that comes before us is a truly commanding one. It is that of Gaspard de Coligny, better known as Admiral de Coligny. He towers above the Bourbon princes, and illustrates the fact that greatness of soul is a much more enviable possession than mere greatness of rank. Coligny, perhaps the greatest layman of the French Reformation, was descended from an ancient and honorable house, that of Chatillon. He was born in the same year in which Luther commenced the Reformation by the publication of his Theses, 1517. He lost his father on the 24th of August, 1522, being then only five years of age. The 24th of August was a fatal day to Coliguy, for on that day, fifty years afterwards, he fell by the poignard of an assassin in the St. Bartholomew Massacre. His mother, Louise de Montmorency, a lady of lofty virtue and sincere piety, was happily spared to him, and by her instructions and example those seeds were sown in his youthful mind which afterwards bore so noble fruit in the cause of his country's religion and liberty. He was offered a cardinal's hat if he would enter the Church. He chose instead the profession of arms.

He served with great distinction in the wars of Flanders and Italy, was knighted on the field of battle, and returning home in 1547 he married a daughter of the illustrious house of Laval—a woman of magnanimous soul and enlightened piety, worthy of being the wife of such a man, and by whose prompt and wise counsel he was guided at more than one critical moment of his life. What he might have been as cardinal we do not know, but in his own profession as a soldier he showed himself a great reformer and administrator. Brantome says of the military ordinances which he introduced into the French army, "They were the best and most politic that have ever been made in France, and, I believe, have preserved the lives of a million of persons; for, till then, there was nothing but pillage, brigandage, murders, and quarrels, so that the companies resembled hordes of wild Arabs rather than noble soldiers." [7]

At an early age Coligny was taken prisoner by the Spaniards, and to beguile the solitary hours of his confinement, he asked for a Bible and some religious books. His request was complied with, and from that incident dates his attachment to the Reformed doctrines. But he was slow to declare himself. He must be fully persuaded in his own mind before openly professing the truth, and he must needs count the cost. With Coligny, Protestantism was no affair of politics or of party, which he might cast aside if on trial he found it did not suit. Having put his hand to the plough, he must not withdraw it, even though, leaving castle and lands and titles, he should go forth an outcast and a beggar. For these same doctrines men were being every day burned at the stake.

Before making profession of them, Coligny paused, that by reading, and converse with the Reformed pastors, he might arrive at a full resolution of all his doubts. But the step was all the more decisive when at last it was taken. As men receive the tidings of some great victory or of some national blessing, so did the Protestants of France receive the news that Coligny had cast in his lot with the Reformation. They knew that he must have acted from deep conviction, that his choice would never be reversed, and that it had brought a mighty accession of intellectual and moral power to the Protestant cause. They saw in Coligny's adherence an additional proof of its truth, and a new pledge of its final triumph. Protestantism in France, just entering on times of awful struggles, had now a leader worthy of it. A captain had risen up to march before its consecrated hosts, and fight its holy battles.

From the moment he espoused the Protestant cause, Coligny's character acquired a new grandeur. The arrangements of his household were a model of order. He rose early, and having dressed himself, he summoned his household to prayers, himself leading their devotion. Business filled up the day and not a few of its hours were devoted to the affairs of the Church; for deputies were continually arriving at the Castle of Chatillon from distant congregations, craving the advice or aid of the admiral. Every other day a sermon was preached before dinner when it chanced, as often happened, that a minister was living under his roof. At table a psalm was sung, and a prayer offered. After an early supper came family devotions, and then the household were dismissed to rest. It mattered not where Colby was, or how occupied— in the Castle of Chatillon surrounded by his children and servants, or in the camp amid the throng of captains and soldiers—this was ever the God-fearing manner of his life. Not a few of the nobles of France felt the power of his example, and in many a castle the chant of psalms began to be heard, where aforetime there had reigned only worldly merriment and boisterous revelry.

To the graces of Christianity there were added, in the character of Coligny, the gifts of human genius. He excelled in military tactics, and much of his life was passed on the battle-field; but he was no less fitted to shine in senates, and to guide in matters of State. His foresight, sagacity, and patriotism would, had he lived in happier times, have been the source of manifold blessings to his native country. As it was, these great qualities were mainly shown in arranging campaigns and fighting battles.

Protestantism in France, so at least Coligny judged, had nothing for it but to stand to its defense. A tyranny, exercised in the king's name, but none the less art audacious usurpation, was trampling on law, outraging all rights, and daily destroying by horrible deaths the noblest men in France, and the Protestants felt that they owed it to their faith, to their country, to the generations to come, and to the public liberties and Reformation of Christendom, to repel force by force, seeing all other means of redress were denied them. This alone made Coligny unsheathe the sword. The grand object of his life was freedom of worship for the Reformed in France. Could he have secured that object, most gladly would he have bidden adieu for ever to camps and battle-fields, and, casting honors and titles behind him, been content to live unknown in the privacy of Chatillon. This, however, was denied him. He was opposed by men who "hated peace," and so he had to fight on, almost without intermission, till the hour came when he was called to seal with his blood the cause he had so often defended with his sword.

Before quitting this gallery of portraits, there is one other figure which must detain us a little. Her name we have already mentioned incidentally, but her great qualities make her worthy of more lengthened observation. Jeanne d'Albret was the daughter of the accomplished and pious Margaret of

Valois; but the daughter was greater than the mother. She had a finer genius, a stronger character, and she displayed the graces of a more consistent piety. The study of the Bible drew her thoughts in her early years to the Reformation, and her convictions ripening into a full belief of its truth, although untoward circumstances made her long conceal them, she at last, in 1560, made open profession of Protestantism. At that tune not only did the Protestant cause underlie the anathemas of Popes, but the Parliament of Paris had put it beyond the pale of law, and having set a price upon the heads of its adherents, it left them to be hunted down like wild beasts. Jeanne d'Albret, having made her choice, was as resolute as her husband, Anthony de Bourbon, was vacillating. Emulating the noble steadfastness of Coligny, she never repented of her resolution. Whether victory shone or defeat lowered on the Reformed cause, Jeanne d'Albret was ever by its side. When overtaken by disaster, she was ever the first to rally its dispirited adherents, and to bring them succor. Her husband forsook her; her son was taken from her; nothing daunted, she withdrew to her own principality of Bearn, and there devised, with equal wisdom and spirit, measures for the Reformation of her own subjects, at the same time that she was aiding, by her counsels and her resources, the Protestants in all parts of France.

Her little kingdom lay on the slope of the Pyrenees, looking toward France, which it touched on its northern frontier. In former times it was divided into Lower Navarre, of which we have spoken above, and Upper Navarre, which lay on the southern slope of the Pyrenees, and was conterminous with Old Castile. Though but a small territory, its position gave Navarre great importance. Seated on the Pyrenees, it held in the one hand the keys of France, and in the other those of Spain. It was an object of jealousy to the sovereigns of both countries. It was coveted especially by the Kings of Spain, and in the days of Jeanne's grandfather Upper Navarre was torn from its rightful sovereigns by Ferdinand, King of Arragon, whose usurpation was confirmed by Pope Julius II. The loss of Upper Navarre inferred the loss of the capital of the kingdom, Pampeluna, which contained the tombs of its kings. Henceforward it became a leading object with Jean d'Albret to recover the place of his fathers' sepulchers, that his own ashes might sleep with theirs, but in this he faded; and when his granddaughter came to the throne, her dominions were restricted to that portion of the ancient Navarre which lay on the French side of the Pyrenees.

In 1560, we have said, Jeanne d'Albret made open profession of the Protestant faith. In 1563 came her famous edict, dated from her castle at Pau, abolishing the Popish service throughout Bearn, and introducing the Protestant worship. The majority of her subjects were already prepared for this change, and the priests, though powerful, did not venture openly to oppose the public sentiment. A second royal edict confiscated a great part of the temporalities of the Church, but without adding them to the crown. They were divided into three parts. One-third was devoted to the education of the youth, another third to the relief of the poor, and the remaining third to the support of the Protestant worship. The private opinion of the Roman Catholic was respected, and only the public celebration of this worship forbidden. All trials and punishment for differences of religious opinions were abolished. Where the majority of the inhabitants were Protestant, the cathedrals were made over to them for their use, the images, crucifixes, and relics being removed. Where the inhabitants were equally divided, or nearly so, the two faiths were permitted the alternate use of the churches. The monasteries were converted into schools, thus anticipating by three centuries a measure long afterwards adopted by the Italian and other Continental Governments.

Colleges were founded for the higher education. Jeanne caused the Bible to be translated into the dialects of her dominions. She sent to Geneva for ministers, and recalled the native evangelists who had been driven out of Navarre, in order to the more perfect instruction of her subjects in the doctrines of the Word of God. Thus did she labor for the Reformation of her kingdom. The courage she displayed may be judged of, when we say that the Pope was all the while thundering his excommunications against her; and that the powerful Kings of Spain and France. affronted by the erection of an heretical establishment on the frontiers of their dominions, were threatening to overrun her territory, imprison her person in the dungeons of the Inquisition, and raze her kingdom from the map of Europe.

In the midst of these distractions the Queen of Navarre gave herself to the study of the principles of jurisprudence. Comparing together the most famous codes of ancient and modern times, she produced, after the labor of seven years, a body of laws for the government of her kingdom, which was far in. advance of her times. She entertained the most enlightened views on matters then little cared for by kings or parliaments. By her wise legislation she encouraged husbandry, improved the arts, fostered intelligence, and in a short time the beautiful order and amazing prosperity of her principality attracted universal admiration, and formed a striking contrast to the disorder, the violence, and misery that overspread the lands around it. In her dominions not a child was permitted to grow up uneducated, nor could a beggar be seen. The flourishing condition of Bearn showed what the mightier realms of Spain and France would have become, had their peoples been so wise as to welcome the Reformation. The code of the wise queen continued in operation in the territories of the House of D'Albret down to almost our own times. She is still remembered in these

parts, where she is spoken of as the "good queen."

We have dwelt the longer upon these portraits because one main end of history is to present us with such. The very contemplation of them is ennobling. In a recital like the present, which brings before us some of the worst of men that have ever lived, and portrays some of the darkest scenes that have ever been enacted, to meet at times and characters, like those we have just passed in review, helps to make us forget the wickedness and worthlessness on which the mind is apt to dwell disproportionately, if not exclusively. All is not dark in the scene we are surveying; beams of glory break in through the deep shadows. Majestic and kingly spirits pass across the stage, whose deeds and renown shall live when the little and the base among their fellows, who labored to defame their character and to extinguish their fame, have gone down into oblivion, and passed for ever from the knowledge of the world. Thus it is that the good overcomes the evil, and that the heroic long survives the worthless. The example of great men has a creative power: they reproduce, in the ages that come after, their own likeness, and enrich the world with men cast in their own lofty and heroic mould. Humanity is thus continually receiving seeds of greatness into its bosom, and the world is being led onwards to that high platform where its Maker has destined that it shall ultimately stand.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, October 31st, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
Search Historical Writings
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology