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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 22 — Protestantism in France From Death of Henry IV (1610) to the Revolution (1789)

Chapter 2 — Fall of la Rochelle, and end of the Wars of Religion

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Cardinal Richelieu – His Genius – His Schemes – Resolves to Crush the Huguenots – Siege of La Rochelle – Importance of the Town – English Fleet Sent to Succor it – Treachery of Charles I – The Fleet Returns – A Second and Third Fleet – Famine in La Rochelle – Fall of the City – End of the Religious Wars – Despotism Established in France – Fruitless Efforts of Rohan to Rouse the Huguenots – Policy of Richelieu – His Death – Louis XIII Dies.

THERE was now about to appear on the scene a man who was destined to act a great part in the affairs of Europe. The Bishop of Lucon was a member of the States-General which, as we have already said, assembled in 1614; and there he first showed that aptitude for business which gave him such unrivalled influence and unbounded fame as Cardinal Richelieu. He was a man of profound penetration, of versatile genius, and of unconquerable activity. The queen-mother introduced him to the council-table of her son Louis XIII, and there the force of his character soon raised him to the first place. He put down every rival, became the master of his sovereign, and governed France as he pleased. It vas about this time (1624) that his power blossomed. He was continually revolving great schemes, but, great as they were, his genius and activity were equal to the execution of them. Although a churchman, the aim of his ambition was rather to aggrandize France than to serve Rome. The Roman purple was to him a garment, and nothing more; or, if he valued it in any degree, it was because of the aid it brought him in the accomplishment of his political projects.

Once and again in the pursuit of these projects he crossed the Pope's path, without paying much regard to the anger or alarm his policy might awaken in the Vatican. His projects were mainly three. He found the throne weak – in fact contemned – and he wished to raise it up, and make it a power in France. he found the nobles turbulent, and all but ungovernable, and he wished to break their power and curb their pride. In the third place, he revived the policy of Henry IV, which sought to reduce the power of Austria, in both the Imperial and Spanish branches, and with this view the cardinal courted alliances with England and the German States. So far well, as regarded the great cause of Protestantism; but, unfortunately, Richelieu accounted it a necessary step toward the accomplishment of these three leading objects of his ambition, that he should first subdue the Huguenots. They had come to be a powerful' political body in the State, with a government of their own, thus dividing the kingdom, and weakening the throne, which it was one of his main objects to strengthen. The Protestants, on the other hand, regarded their political organization as their only safeguard – the bulwark behind which they fought for their religious liberties. How feeble a defense were royal promises and oaths, was a matter on which they had but too ample an experience; and, provided their political combinations were broken up, and their cautionary towns wrested from them, they would be entirely, they felt, at the mercy of their enemies. But this was what the powerful cardinal had resolved upon. The political rights of the Huguenots were an obstacle in his path, which, postponing every other project, he now turned the whole resources of the crown, and the whole might of his genius, to sweep away.

About this time all incident happened at court which is worth recording. One day Father Arnoux, the king's confessor, was preaching before his Majesty and courtiers. The Jesuit pronounced a strong condemnation on regicide, and affirmed solemnly that the Order of Jesus allowed no such practice, but, on the contrary, repudiated it. Louis XIII, in whose memory the murder of his father was still fresh, felt this doctrine to be reassuring, and expressed his satisfaction with it. A Scottish minister of the name of Primrose chanced on that day to be among the auditors of Father Arnoux, and easily saw through the sophism with which he was befooling the king.

Primrose made the Jesuit be asked if Jacques Clement had killed his king, or even a king, when he stabbed a prince excommunicated by the Pope? And further, in the event of the Pope excommunicating Louis XIII, would the Jesuits then acknowledge him as tacit king, or even as a king? And, finally, were they disposed to condemn their disciple Ravaillac as guilty of high treason? These were embarrassing questions, and the only response which they drew forth from Arnoux was an order of banishment against the man who had put them. [1]

The Huguenot body at this period had, to use the old classic figure, but one neck – that neck was their stronghold of La Rochelle, and the cardinal resolved to strike it through at a blow. La Rochelle was perhaps, after Paris, the most famous of the cities of France. It enjoyed a charter of civic independence, which dated from the twelfth century. It was governed by a mayor and council of 100. Its citizens amounted at this time to 30,000. They were industrious, rich, intelligent, and strongly attached to the Protestant faith, which they had early embraced. Not once throughout the long struggle had La Rochelle succumbed to the royal arms, though often besieged. [2] This virgin fortress was the strongest rampart of the Huguenots.

The great chiefs – Conde, Coligny, Henry of Navarre – had often :made it their head-quarters. Within its gates had assembled the famous Synod of 1571, which comprised so much that was illustrious in rank, profound in erudition, and venerable in piety, and which marks the culminating epoch of the French Reformed Church. La Rochelle was the basis of the Huguenots; it was the symbol of their

power, and while it stood their political and religious existence could not be crushed. On that very account Richelieu, who had resolved to erect a monarchical despotism in France, was all the more determined to overthrow it.

The first attempt of the cardinal against this redoubtable city was made in 1625. Arising under the Dukes of Rohan and Soubise, the two military leaders of the Protestants, disconcerted the plans which Richelieu was carrying out against Austria. He instantly dropped his schemes abroad to strike a blow at home. Sending the French fleet to La Rochelle, a great naval battle, in which Richelieu was completely victorious, was fought off the coast. La Rochelle seemed at the mercy of the victor; but the discovery of a plot against his life called the cardinal suddenly to court, and the doomed city escaped. Richelieu crushed his enemies at Paris, grasped power more firmly than ever, and again turned his thoughts to the reduction of the stronghold of the Protestants. The taking of La Rochelle was the key of his whole policy, home and foreign, and he made prodigious efforts to bring the enterprise to a successful issue. He raised vast land and naval armaments, and opened the siege in October, 1627.

The eyes of all Europe were fixed on the city, now enclosed both by sea and land, by the French armies. All felt how momentous was the issue of the conflict about to open. The, spirit of the Rochellois was worthy of the brave men from whom they were sprung, and of the place their city held in the great cause in which it had embarked. The mayor, Guiton, to an earnest Protestantism added all iron will and a dauntless courage. With nothing around them but armed enemies, the ships of the foe covering the sea, and the lines of his infantry occupying the land, the citizens were of one mind, to resist to the last. The attitude of the brave city, and the greatness of the issue that hung upon its standing or falling, as regarded the Protestant cause, awakened the sympathies of the Puritans of England. They raised a powerful army for the relief of their brethren of La Rochelle; but their efforts were frustrated by the treachery of the court. Charles I, influenced by his wife, Henrietta of France, wrote to Pennington, the commander of the fleet, "to dispose of those ships as he should be directed by the French king, and to sink or fire such as should refuse to obey these orders." When the sailors discovered that they were to act not for, but against the Rochellois, they returned to England, declaring that they "would rather be hanged at home for disobedience, than either desert their ships, or give themselves up to the French like slaves, to fight against their own religion."

Next year, after the Duke of Soubise, who commanded in La Rochelle, had visited England, the king was prevailed upon again to declare himself the protector of the Rochellois, and an army of about 7,000 marines was raised for that service. The English squadron set sail under the command of Buckingham, an incompetent and unprincipled man. Its appearance off La Rochelle, 100 sail strong, gladdened the eyes of the Rochellois; but it was only for a moment. There now commenced on the part of Buckingham a series of blunders and disasters, which, whether owing to incompetency or perfidy, tarnished the naval glory of England, and bitterly mocked the hopes of those to whom it had held out the delusive prospect of deliverance. Better, in truth, it had never come, for its appearance suggested to Richelieu the expedient which led inevitably to the fall of the city. La Rochelle might be victualled by sea, and so long as it was so, its reduction, the cardinal felt, was impracticable. To prevent this, Richelieu bethought him of the same expedient by which a conqueror of early times had laid a yet prouder city, Tyre, level with the waters. The cardinal raised a dyke or mole across the channel of about a mile's breadth, by which La Rochelle is approached, and so closed the gates of the sea against its succor. The English fleet assailed this dyke in vain. Baffled in all their attempts, they returned to their own shores, and left the beleaguered city to its fate. Famine now set in, and soon became sore in the city; but it 'would be too harrowing to dwell on its horrors. The deaths were 300 daily. The most revolting garbage was cooked and eaten. Specters, rather than men, clad in armor, moved through the streets. The houses were full of dead, which the living had not strength to bury. Crowds of old women and children went out at the gate, at times, in the hope that the sight of their great misery might move their enemies to pity, or that they might :find something by the way to assuage their hunger; but they were dealt with as the caprice or cruelty of the besiegers prompted. Sometimes they were strangled on gibbets, and sometimes they were stripped naked and scourged back into the city. Still no thought of a surrender was entertained.

For more than a year had the Rochellois waited, if haply from any quarter – the Protestants of other countries, or their brethren in the provinces – deliverance might arise. In no quarter could they descry sign or token of help; not a voice was raised to cheer, not a hand was stretched out to aid. Fifteen terrible months had passed over them. Two-thirds of the population were dead. Of the fighting men not more than 150 remained. Around their walls was assembled the whole power of France. There seemed no alternative, and on October 28th, 1628, La Rochelle surrendered at discretion. So fell the Huguenots as a political power in France. The chief obstacle in the path of Richelieu was now out of his way. The despotism which he

strove to rear went on growing apace. The throne became stronger every year, gradually drawing to itself all rights, and stretching its absolute sway over all classes, the nobles as well as the peasants, till at last Louis XIV could say, "The State, it is I." And so continued matters till the Revolution of 1789 came to cast down this overgrown autocracy.

But one is curious to know how it came to pass that the great body of the Protestants in the south of France looked quietly on, while their brethren and their own political rights were so perilously endangered in the fall of La Rochelle. While the siege was in progress, the Duke of Rohan, the last great military chief of the Protestants, traversed the whole of the Cevennes, where the Huguenots were numerous, appealing to their patriotism, to the memory of their fathers, to their own political and religious privileges – all suspended upon the issue at La Rochelle – in the hope of rousing them to succor their brethren. But his words fell on cold hearts. The ancient spirit was dead.

All the ancient privileges of La Rochelle were annulled, and the Roman Catholic religion was re-established in that city. The first mass was sung by Cardinal Richelieu himself. One cannot but admire the versatility of his genius. During the siege he had shown himself the ablest and most resolute soldier in the whole camp. All the operations of the siege were of his planning; the construction of the mole, the lines of circumvallation, all were prepared by his instructions, and executed under his superintendence; and now, the bloody work at an end, he put off his coat of mail, washed his hands, and appearing before the altar in his priestly robes, he inaugurated the Roman worship in La Rochelle by celebrating the most solemn service of his Church. A Te Deum, by Pope Urban VIII, for the fall of the stronghold of the Huguenots, showed how the matter was viewed at Rome.

After this the Protestants could offer no organized resistance, and the king, by way of setting up a monument to commemorate his triumph, placed the Huguenots under an edict of grace. This was a virtual revocation of the Edict of Nantes; the father, however, left it to the son, Louis XIV., to complete formally what he had begun; but henceforward the French Protestants held their lives, and what of their political and religious rights was left them, of grace and not of fight. Had the nation of France rest now that the wars of religion were ended? No; the wars of prerogative immediately opened. The Roman Catholic nobles had assisted Richelieu to put down the Huguenots, and now they found that they had cleared the way for the tempest to reach themselves. They were humbled in their turn, and the throne rose above all classes and interests of the State. The cardinal next gave his genius and energy to affairs abroad. He took part, as we have seen, in the Thirty Years' War, uniting his arms with those of the heroic Gustavus Adolphus, not because he wished to lift up the Protestants, but because he sought to humble the House of Austria and the Catholic League. Personal enemies the cardinal readily forgave, for, said he, it is a duty to pardon and forget offenses; but the enemies of his policy, whom he styled the enemies of Church and State, he did not pardon, "for," said he, "to forget these offenses is not to forgive them, it is to repeat them."

It was the design of God to humble one class of his enemies by the instrumentality of another, and so Richelieu prospered in all he undertook, lie weakened the emperor; he mightily raised the prestige of the French arms, and he made the throne the one power in the kingdom. But these brilliant successes added little to the personal happiness of either the king or his minister. Louis XIII was of gloomy temper, of feeble intellect, of no capacity for business; and his energetic minister, who did all himself, permitted his sovereign little or no share in the management of affairs.

Louis lived apart, submitting painfully to the control of the man who governed both the king and the kingdom. As regards the cardinal, while passing from one victory to another he was constantly followed by a menacing shadow. Ever and anon conspiracies were formed to take away his life. He triumphed over them all, and held power to the last, but neither he nor the king lived to enjoy what it took such a vast amount of toil and talent and blood to achieve. The cardinal first, and six months after, the king, were both stricken, in the mid-time of their days and in the height of their career. They returned to their dust, and that day their thoughts perished.

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