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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 7 — Massacre at Vassy and commencement of the civil wars

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Spring-time of French Protestantism—Edict of January—Toleration of Public Worship—Displeasure of the Romanists—Extermination—The Duke of Guise—Collects an Army—Massacres the Protestants of Vassy —The Duke and the Bible — He Enters Paris in Triumph—His Sword Supreme—Shall the Protestants take up Arms?—Their Justification— Massacres—Frightful State of France—More Persecuting Edicts— Charlotte Laval—Coligny sets out for the Wars.

The failure of the Colloquy of Poissy was no calamity to either Protestantism or the world. Had the young Reform thrown itself into the arms of the old Papacy, it would have been strangled in the embrace. The great movement of the sixteenth century, like those of preceding ages, after illuminating the horizon for a little while, would again have faded into darkness.

By what means and by what persons the Gospel was spread in France at this era it is difficult to say. A little company of disciples would start up in this town, and in that village, and their numbers would go on increasing, till at last the mass was forsaken, and instead of the priest's chant there was heard the Huguenot's psalm. The famous potter, Palissy, has given us in his Memoirs some interesting details concerning the way in which many of these congregations arose. Some poor but honest citizen would learn the way of peace in the Bible; he would tell it to his next neighbor; that neighbor would tell it in his turn; and in a little while a small company of simple but fervent disciples would be formed, who would meet regularly at the midnight hour to pray and converse together. Ere their enemies were aware, half the town had embraced "the religion;" and then, taking courage, they would avow their faith, and hold their worship in public. As the rich verdure spreads over the earth in spring, adding day by day a new brightness to the landscape, and mounting ever higher on the mountain's side, so, with the same silence, and the same beauty, did the new life diffuse itself throughout France. The sweetness and joy of this new creation, the inspired Idyll alone can adequately depict — "Lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone: the flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land. The fig-tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines with the grape give a good smell."

Like that balmy morning, so exquisitely painted in these words, that broke on the heathen world after the pagan night, so was the morning that was now opening on France. Let the words of an eye-witness bear testimony: —"The progress made by us was such," says Palissy, "that in the course of a few years, by the time that our enemies rose up to pillage and persecute us, lewd plays, dances, ballads, gourmandisings, and superfiuities of dress and head-gear had almost entirely ceased. Scarcely was there any more bad language to be heard on any side, nor were there any more crimes and scandals. Law-suits greatly diminished..Indeed, the Religion made such progress, that even the magistrates began to prohibit things that had grown up under their authority. Thus they forbade innkeepers to permit gambling or dissipation to be carried on within their premises, to the enticement of men away from their own homes and families.

"In those days might be seen on Sundays bands of workpeople walking abroad in the meadows, in the groves, in the fields, singing psalms and spiritual songs, and reading to and instructing one another. They might also be seen girls and maidens seated in groups in the gardens and pleasant places, singing songs or sacred themes; or boys, accompanied by their teachers, the effects of whose instructions had already been so salutary that those young persons not only exhibited a manly bearing, but a manful steadfastness of conduct. Indeed, these various influences, working one with another, had already effected so much good that not only had the habits and modes of life of the people been reformed, but their very countenances seemed to be changed and improved." [1]

On the 17th of January, 1562, an Assembly of Notables was convened at St. Germain. [2] This gave the Chancellor de l'Hopital another opportunity of ventilating his great idea of toleration, so new to the men of that age. If, said the chancellor, we cannot unite the two creeds, does it therefore follow that the adherents of the one must exterminate those of the other? May not both live together on terms of mutual forbearance? An excommunicated man does not cease to be a citizen. The chancellor, unhappily, was not able to persuade the Assembly to adopt his wise principle; but though it did not go all lengths with L'Hopital, it took a step on the road to toleration. It passed an edict, commonly known as the "Edict of January," "by which was granted to the Huguenots," says Davila, "a free exercise of their religion, and the right to assemble at sermons, but unarmed, outside of the cities in open places, the officers of the place being present and assistant." [3] Till this edict was granted the Protestants could build no church within the walls of a city, nor meet for worship in even the open country. Doubtless they sometimes appropriated a deserted Popish chapel, or gathered in the fields in hundreds and thousands to hear sermons, but they could plead no statute for this: it was their numbers solely that made them adventure on what the law did not allow. Now, however, they could worship in public under legal sanction.

But even this small scrap of liberty was bestowed with the worst grace, and was lettered by qualifications and restrictions which were fitted, perhaps intended, to annul the privilege it professed to grant. The Protestants might indeed worship in public, but in order to do so they must go outside the gates of their city. In many towns they were the

overwhelming majority: could anything be more absurd than that a whole population should go outside the walls of its own town to worship? The edict, in truth, pleased neither party. It conferred too small a measure of grace to awaken the lively gratitude of the Protestants; and as regards the Romanists, they grudged the Reformed even this poor crumb of favor.

Nevertheless, paltry though the edict was, it favored the rapid permeation of France with the Protestant doctrines. The growth of the Reformed Church since the death of Henry II was prodigious. At the request of Catherine de Medici, Beza addressed circular letters at this time to all the Protestant pastors in France, desiring them to send in returns of the number of their congregations. The report of Beza, founded on these returns, was that there were then upwards of 2,150 congregations of the Reformed faith in the kingdom. Several of these, especially in the great cities, were composed of from 4,000 to 8,000 communicants. The Church at Paris had no less than 20,000 members. As many as 40,000 would at times convene for sermon outside the gates of the capital. This multitude of worshippers would divide itself into three congregations, to which as many ministers preached; with a line of horse and foot, by orders from Catherine de Medici, drawn round the assembly to protect it from the insults of the mob. [4] The number of the Reformed in the provincial cities was in proportion to those of Paris. According to contemporary estimates of the respective numbers of the two communions, the Reformed Church had gathered into its bosom from one fourth to one half of the nation—the former is the probable estimate; but that fourth embraced the flower of the population in respect of rank, intelligence, and wealth.

The chiefs of Romanism beheld, with an alarm that bordered on panic, all France on the point of becoming Lutheran. The secession of so great a kingdom from Rome would tarnish the glory of the Church, dry up her revenues, and paralyse her political arm. Nothing must be left undone that could avert a calamity so overwhelming. The Pope, Philip II of Spain, and the Triumvirate at Paris took counsel as to the plan to be pursued, and began from this hour to prosecute each his part, in the great task of rolling back the tide of a triumphant Huguenotism. They must do so at all costs, or surrender the battle. The Pope wrote to Catherine de Medici, exhorting her as a daughter of Italy to rekindle her dying zeal—not so near extinction as the Pope feared—and defend the faith of her country and her house. The wily Catherine replied, thanking her spiritual father, but saying that the Huguenots were, meanwhile, too powerful to permit her to follow his advice, and to break openly with Coligny. The King of Navarre, the first prince of the blood, was next tampered with. The Romanists knew his weak point, which was all inordinate ambition to be what nature—by denying him the requisite talents—had ordained he should not be, a king in his own right, and not a titular sovereign merely. They offered him a kingdom whose geographical position was a movable one, lying sometimes in Africa, sometimes in the island of Sardinia, seeing the kingdom itself was wholly imaginary. They even flattered him with hopes that he might come to wear the crown of Scotland. The Pope would dissolve his marriage with Jeanne d'Albret, on the ground of heresy, and he would then secure him the hand of the young and beautiful Mary Stuart. Dazzled by these illusions, which he took for realities, the weak, unstable, unprincipled Antoine de Bourbon passed over to the Roman camp, amid the loud vauntings of those who knew how worthless, yet how handy, the prize was. [5]

The way was thus prepared so far for the execution of bolder measures. The Duke of Guise, quitting Paris, spent the winter on his family estates in Lorraine, and there, unobserved, began to collect an army, to cooperate with the troops which the King of Spain had promised to send him. He hoped to take the field in spring with such a force as would enable him to root out Huguenotism from the soil of France, and restore the supremacy of the old faith.

But matters so fell out that the duke was obliged to begin his campaign sooner than he had intended. All that winter (1562) the populace of Paris had been kept in a state of great excitement. The Romanists believed that they were being betrayed. They saw the Queen-mother, whose present policy it was to play off the Huguenots against the Triumvirate, favoring the "religion." Then there was the Edict of January, permitting the free exercise of the Protestant worship. In the eyes of every Roman Catholic this edict was abomination—a disgrace to the statute-book—a bulwark to the Huguenots, whom it protected in their psalm-singing and sermonizing.

The pulpits of Paris thundered against the edict. The preachers expatiated on the miseries, temporal and eternal, into which it was dragging down France. They told how they were nightly besieged by souls from purgatory, dolefully lamenting the cruelty of their relations who no longer cared to say mass for their deliverance. Visions of hell, moreover, had been made to them, and they saw it filled with Huguenots. They turned their churches into arsenals, and provided the mob with arms. [6] The Duke of Guise had been heard to say that he "would cut the knot of the edict with his sword," [7] and when the Parisians saw the Huguenots in thousands, crowding out at the city gates to sermon, and when they heard their psalm borne back on the breeze, they said, "Would that the duke were here, we would make these men pipe to another tune." These were unmistakable signs that the moment for action was come. The duke was sent for.

The message

found him at his Chateau of Joinville. He lost no time in obeying the summons. He set out on Saturday, the 28th of February, 1562, accompanied by his brother the cardinal, 200 gentlemen, and a body of horse. Three leagues on the road to Paris is the town of Vassy. It contained in those days 3,000 inhabitants, about a third of whom had embraced the Reformed faith. It stood on lands which belonged to the duke's niece, Mary Stuart of Scotland, and its Protestant congregation gave special umbrage to the Dowager-Duchess of Guise, who could not brook the idea that the vassals of her granddaughter should profess a different faith from that of their feudal superior. The duke, on his way to this little town, recruited his troop at one of the villages through which he passed, with a muster of foot-soldiers and archers. "The Saturday before the slaughter," says Crespin, "they were seen to make ready their weapons—arquebuses and pistols." [8]

On Sunday morning, the 1st of March, the duke, after an early mass, resumed his march. "Urged by the importunities of his mother," says Thaunus, "he came with intention to dissolve these conventicles by his presence." [9] He was yet a little way from Vassy when a bell began to ring. On inquiring what it meant, seeing the hour was early, he was told that it was the Huguenot bell ringing for sermon. Plucking at his beard, as his wont was when he was choleric, he swore that he would Huguenot them after another fashion, [10] Entering the town, he met the provost, the prior, and the curate in the market-place, who entreated him to go to the spot where the Protestants were assembled. [11] The Huguenot meeting-house was a barn, about 100 yards distant, on the city wall. A portion of the duke's troop marched on before, and arrived at the building. The Protestants were assembled to the number of 1,200; the psalm and the prayer were ended, and the sermon had begun. The congregation were suddenly startled by persons outside throwing stones at the windows, and shouting out, "Heretics! rebels! dogs!" Presently the discharge of fire-arms told them that they were surrounded by armed men. The Protestants endeavored to close the door, but were unable from the crowd of soldiers pressing in, with oaths and shouts of "Kill, kill!" "Those within," says Crespin, "were so astonied that they knew not which way to turn them, but running hither and thither fell one upon another, flying as poor sheep before a company of ravening wolves. Some of the murderers shot of their pieces at those that were in the galleries; others cut in pieces such as they lighted upon; others had their heads cleft in twain, their arms and hands cut off, and thus did they what they could to hew them all in pieces, so as many of them gave up the ghost even in the place. The walls and galleries of the said barn were dyed with the blood of those who were everywhere murdered."

Hearing the tumult, the duke hastened to the spot. On coming up he was hit with a stone in the face. On seeing him bleeding, the rage of his soldiers was redoubled, and the butchery became more horrible. Seeing escape impossible by the door or window, many of the congregation attempted to break through the roof, but they were shot down as they climbed up on the rafters. One soldier savagely boasted that he had brought down a dozen of these pigeons. Some who escaped in this way leaped down from the city walls, and escaped into the woods and vineyards. The pastor, M. Morel, on his knees in the pulpit invoking God, was fired at. Throwing off his gown, he attempted to escape, but stumbling over a dead body, he received two sabre-cuts, one on the shoulder, another on the head. A soldier raised his weapon to hough him, but his sword broke at the hilt. Supported by two men the pastor was led before the duke. "Who made you so bold as to seduce this people?" demanded the duke. "Sir," replied M. Morel, "I am no seducer, for I have preached to them the Gospel of Jesus Christ." "Go," said the duke to the provost, "and get ready a gibbet, and hang this rogue." These orders were not executed. The duke's soldiers were too busy sabreing the unarmed multitude, and collecting the booty, to hang the pastor, and none of the town's-people had the heart to do so cruel a deed. [12]

When the dreadful work was over, it was found that from sixty to eighty persons had been killed, and 250 wounded, many of them mortally. The streets were filled with the most piteous spectacles. Women were seen with dishevelled hair, and faces besmeared with blood from their streaming wounds, dragging themselves along, and filling the air with their cries and lamentations. The soldiers signalized their triumph by pulling down the pulpit, burning the Bibles and Psalters, plundering the poor's-box, spoiling the killed of their raiment; and wrecking the place. The large pulpit Bible was taken to the duke. He examined the title-page, and his learning enabled him to make out that it had been printed the year before. He carried it to his brother the cardinal, who all the time of the massacre had been loitering by the wall of the churchyard, and presented the Bible to him as a sample of the pestiferous tenets of the Huguenots. "Why, brother," said the cardinal, after scanning its title-page a moment, "there is no harm in this book, for it is the Bible—the Holy Scripture." "The duke being offended at that answer," says Crespin, "grew into a greater rage than before, saying, 'Blood of God! —what!—how now!—the Holy Scripture! It is a thousand and five hundred years ago since Jesus Christ suffered his death and passion, and it is but a year ago

since these books were imprinted; how, then, say you that this is the Gospel?'" [13]

The massacre at Vassy was the first blow struck in the civil wars of France, and it is important to note that it was the act of the Romanists. Being done in violation of the Edict of January, which covered the Protestants of Vassy, and never disowned or punished by any constituted authority of the nation, it proclaimed that the rule of law had ceased, and that the reign of force had begun. A few days afterwards the duke entered Paris, more like a conqueror who had routed the enemies of France, than a man dripping with the blood of his fellow-subjects. Right and left of him rode the Constable and the Marshal St. Andre, the other two members of the Triumvirate, while the nobles, burgesses, and whole populace of the capital turned out to grace his entry, and by their enthusiastic cheers proclaim his welcome. As if he had been king, they shouted, "Long life to Guise!" [14] The blood of Vassy, said the mob of Paris, be on us, and on our children.

The Protestants of France had for some time past been revolving the question of taking up arms and standing to their defense, and this deplorable massacre helped to clear their minds. The reverence, approaching to a superstition, which in those days hedged round the person of a king, made the Huguenots shrink with horror from what looked like rebellion. But the question was no longer, Shall we oppose the king? The Triumvirate had, in effect, set aside both king and regent, and the duke and the mob were masters of the State. The question was, Shall we oppose the Triumvirate which has made itself supreme over throne and Parliament? Long did the Huguenots hesitate, most unwilling were they to draw the sword; especially so was the greatest Huguenot that France then contained, Coligny. Ever as he put his hand upon his sword's hilt, there would rise before him the long and dismal vista of battle and siege and woe through which France must pass before that sword, once unsheathed, could be returned into its scabbard. He, therefore, long forbore to take the irrevocable step, when one less brave or less foreseeing would have rushed to the battle-field. But even Coligny was at last convinced that farther delay would be cowardice, and that the curse of liberty would rest on every sword of Huguenot that remained longer in its scabbard.

Had the Edict of January, which gave a qualified permission for the open celebration of the Reformed worship, been maintained, the Protestants of France never would have thought of carrying their appeal to the battle-field. Had argument been the only weapon with which they were assailed, argument would have been the only weapon with which they would have sought to defend themselves; but when a lawless power stood up, which trampled on royal authority, annulled laws, tore up treaties, and massacred Protestant congregations wholesale; when to them there no longer existed a throne, or laws, or tribunals, or rights of citizenship; when their estates were confiscated, their castles burned, the blood of their wives and children spilt, their names branded with infamy, and a price put upon their heads, why, surely, if ever resistance was lawful in the case of any people, and if circumstances could be imagined in which it was dutiful to repel force by force, they were those of the French Protestants at that hour.

Even when it is the civil liberties only of a nation that are menaced by the tyrant or the invader, it is held the first duty of the subject to gird on his sword, and to maintain them with his blood; and we are altogether unable to understand why it should be less his duty to do so when, in addition to civil liberty, tke battle is for the sanctity of home, the freedom of conscience, and the lives and religion of half a nation. So stood the case in France at that hour. Every end for which government is ordained, and society exists, was attacked and overthrown. If the Huguenots had not met their foes on the battle-field, their name, their race, their faith would have been trodden out in France.

Far and wide over the kingdom flew the news of the Massacre of Vassy. One party whispered the dreadful tale in accents of horror; another party proclaimed it in a tone of exultation and triumph. The impunity, or rather applause, accorded to its author emboldened the Romanists to proceed to even greater excesses. In a few weeks the terrible scenes of Vassy were repeated in many of the towns of France. At Paris, at Senlis, at Meaux, at Amiens, at Chalons, at Tours, at Toulouse, and many other towns, the fanatic mob rose upon the Protestants and massacred them, pillaging and burning their dwelllings. All the while the cathedral bells would be tolled, and the populace would sing songs of triumph in the streets. At Tours 300 Protestants were shut up in their church, where they were kept three days without food, and then brought out, tied two and two, led to the river's brink, and butchered like sheep. Children were sold for a crown a-piece. The President of Tours was tied to two willow-trees, and disembowelled alive. [15] At Toulouse the same horrible scenes were enacted on a larger scale. That city contained at this time between 30,000 and 40,000 Protestants—magistrates, students, and men of letters and refinement. The tocsin was rung in all the churches, the peasantry for miles around the city was raised en masse; the Huguenots took refuge in the Capitol of Toulouse, where they were besieged, and finally compelled to surrender. Then followed a revolting massacre of from 3,000 to 4,000 Protestants. [16]

The Seine, the Loire, and the Garonne were dyed with Protestant blood, and ghastly corpses, borne on the bosom

of the stream, startled the dwellers in distant cities and castles, and seemed to cry for justice, as they floated away to find burial in the ocean.

The Duke of Guise now repaired to Fontainebleau, whither the King and the Queen-mother had fled, and compelled them to return to Paris. Catherine de Medici and her son were now wholly in the hands of the duke, and when they entered the Castle of Vincennes, about a mile from Paris, "the queen bore a doleful countenance, not able to refrain from tears; and the young king crying like a child, as ff they had been both led into captivity." [17] The Parliament was not less obsequious. Its humble office was to register arrets at the duke's bidding. These persecuting edicts followed each other with alarming rapidity during the terrible summer of 1562, than which there is no more doleful year in the French annals, not even excepting perhaps the outstanding horror of 1572—the Massacre of St. Bartholomew. The Popish mob was supplied with arms and formed into regiments. The churches served as club-houses. When the tocsin sounded, 50,000 men would turn out at the summons. All Huguenots were ordered to quit Paris within twenty-four hours; [18] after this, any one seen in the streets, and suspected of being a Huguenot, was mobbed and dispatched. Advantage was in some cases taken of this to gratify private revenge. One had only to raise the cry of Huguenot against those at whom one happened to have a spite, or to whom one owed money, and the bystanders did the rest. On the 8th of June the Parliament passed a law empowering any one who should meet a Huguenot to kill him on the spot. The edict was to be read by the curets every Sunday after the sermon that follows high mass. [19] The peasantry provided themselves with scythes, pikes, cutlasses, knives, and other cruel weapons, and scoured the country as if they had been ridding it of wild beasts. The priests facetiously called this "letting slip the big hound." [20] They selected as captain, sometimes a monk, sometimes a brigand; and on one occasion, at least, a bishop was seen marching at their head.

Their progress over the country, especially in the south, where the Protestants were numerous, could be traced in the frightful memorials they left on their track—corpses strewed along the roads, bodies dangling from the trees, mangled victims dyeing the verdure of the fields with their blood, and spending their last breath in cries and supplications to Heaven.

On the 18th of August, 1562, the Parliament issued yet another decree, declaring all the gentlemen of "the religion" traitors to God and the king. From this time the conflict became a war of province against province, and city against city, for the frightful outrages to which the Protestants were subjected provoked them into reprisals. Yet the violence of the Huguenot greatly differed from the violence of the Romanist. The former gutted Popish cathedrals and churches, broke down the images, and drove away the priests. The latter burned houses, tore up vines and fruit-trees, and slaughtered men and women, often with such diabolical and disgusting cruelty as forbids us to describe their acts. In some places rivulets of Huguenot blood, a foot in depth, were seen flowing. Those who wish to read the details of the crimes and woes that then overwhelmed France will find the dreadful recital, if they have courage to peruse it, in the pages of Agrippa d'Aubigne, De Thou, Beza, Crespin, and other historians. [21]

But before these latter edicts were issued the Huguenots had come to a decision. While Coligny, shut up in his Castle of Chatilion, was revolving the question of civil war, events were solving that question for him.

Wherever he looked he saw cities sacked, castles in flames, and men and women slaughtered in thousands; what was this but civil war? The tidings of to-day were ever sadder than those of yesterday, and the tidings of to-morrow would, he but too surely guessed, be sadder than those of to-day.

The heart of his wife, the magnanimous Charlotte Laval, was torn with anguish at the thought of the sufferings her brethren and sisters in the faith were enduring. One night she awoke her husband from sleep by her tears and sobs. "We lie here softly," said she, "while our brethren's bodies, who are flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, are some of them in dungeons, and others lying in the open fields, food for dogs and ravens. This bed is a tomb for me, seeing they are not buried. Can we sleep in peace, without hearing our brethren's last groanings?" "Are you prepared," asked the admiral in reply, "to hear of my defeat, to see me dragged to a scaffold and put to death by the common hangman? are you prepared to see our name branded, our estates confiscated, and our children made beggars? I will give you," he continued, "three weeks to think on these things, and when you have fortified yourself against them, I will go forth to perish with my brethren." "The three weeks are gone already," was the prompt and noble reply of Charlotte Laval. "Go in God's name and he will not suffer you to be defeated." [22]

A few mornings only had passed when Admiral Coliguy was seen on his way to open the first campaign of the civil wars.


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Tuesday, September 18th, 2018
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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