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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 6 — The prisons and the galleys

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"New Catholics" – Suspected and Watched – New and Terrible Persecutions – Described by Quick – The Dungeons – Their Horrors – M. de Marolles, and other Prisoners – Other Modes of Punishment – Transportation – Sold into Foreign Slavery – Martyrdom of Fulcran Rey – Claude Brousson – his Preaching – His Martyrdom – Drums round the Scaffold – The Galley Chain – Chateau de la Tournelle – The Galleys.

Or the tens of thousands of Frenchmen, of all ranks, and in every disguise who were now hurrying along the highways and byways of France, intent only on escaping from the sod that gave them birth, all were not equally fortunate in reaching the frontier. Many hundreds were arrested in their flight, and brought back to endure the rage of their persecutors. Their miserable fate it now becomes our duty to describe. Nor of these only shall we speak, but also of their many companions in suffering, who remained in their native land, when their brethren had fled before the awful tempest that was now thundering in the skies of France. It is a tale of woe, with scarcely one bright feature to relieve it.

Of those who remained, estimated by Sismondi at about a million, many conformed to the king's religion, impelled by the terrors of the edict, and such now passed under the name of "The New Catholics." But their downcast looks belied their professions; their sincerity was suspected, and they were constantly watched. So little faith had the Jesuits in the conversions of which they boasted so loudly in public! Inspectors were established in several parishes to examine if the new converts went regularly to mass, if they took the Sacrament at Easter, and if they paid a dutiful obedience to the commandments of the Church. This was a return, in the polished era of Louis XIV, to the regime of the tenth century. Even the monarch deemed this scrutiny somewhat too close, and issued private instructions to his agents to temper their zeal, and moderate the rigor of the Act. [1]

According to the edict, all Protestant children must attend a Roman Catholic school, and receive instruction in the catechism. A new ordinance enjoined that all children above six years of age, whose parents were suspected of being still Protestant at heart, should be taken from their homes, and confided to Roman Catholic relations, or placed in hospitals. The convents and asylums of all France were not enough to accommodate the crowd of abducted youth about to be swept into them, and the priests contented themselves with seizing only the children of the rich, who were able to pay for their maintenance.

The edicts of the king threatened books as well as persons with extermination. The Archbishop of Paris had compiled a list of works which the faithful could not read but at the risk of deadly injury. With this list in his hand the officer entered every suspected house, and whenever he found a forbidden book he instantly destroyed it. These visits were repeated so often that many books of rare value, known to have then existed, are now extinct, not one copy having escaped. The records of Synods, and the private papers and books of pastors, were the first to be destroyed. Wherever a Bible was found it ,was straightway given to the flames. [2] The edict required that the "New Catholics" should be instructed in the faith they professed to have adopted; but the priests were too few and the crowd of converts too many, so the cures lightened their labors by calling the Capuchins to share them with them. But these were rude and illiterate men. The merest youth could put them to silence. To gross ignorance they not infrequently added a debauched life, and in the case of Protestants of riper years, their approach awakened only disgust, and their teachings had no other effect on those to whom they were given, than to deepen their aversion to a Church which employed them as her ministers. When the first stunning shock of the edict had spent itself, there came a recoil. The more closely "the new converts" viewed the Church into which they had been driven, the stronger became their dislike of it. Shame and remorse for their apostasy began to burn within them. Their sacrilegious participation in the mass awoke their consciences thousands resolved, rather than lead a life of such base and criminal hypocrisy, to abandon, at whatever cost, the communion they professed to have espoused, and return to the open profession of the Protestant worship. They withdrew from the cities. They sought a dwelling in the wildernesses and forests, and practiced their worship in dark caves, in deep ravines, and sometimes on the tops of mountains. There they promised to one another to live and die in the Reformed faith.

When the king and his counselors saw the flag of defiance waving on the mountains of the Cevennes, and the Lower Languedoc, their rage rose to frenzy. New ordinances came to intensify the rigors of the persecution. Quick has grouped the horrors that now overwhelmed the poor Protestants of France, in a recital that is almost too harrowing for perusal.

"Afterwards," says Quick, "they fell upon the persons of the Protestants, and there was no wickedness, though ever so horrid, which they did not put in practice, that they might enforce them to change their religion. Amidst a thousand hideous cries and blasphemies, they hung up men and women by the hair or feet upon the roofs of the chambers, or nooks of chimneys, and smoked them with wisps of wet hay till they were no longer able to bear it; and when they had taken them down, if they would not sign an abjuration of their pretended heresies, they then trussed them up again immediately. Some they threw into great fires, kindled on purpose, and would not take them out till they were half roasted.

They tied ropes under their arms, and plunged them once and again into deep wells, from whence they would not draw them till they had promised to change their religion. They bound them as criminals are when they are put to the rack, and in that posture putting a funnel into their mouths, they poured wine down their throats till its fumes had deprived them of their reason, and they had in that condition made them consent to become Catholics. Some they stripped stark naked, and afar they had offered them a thousand indignities, they stuck them with pins from head to foot; they cut them with pen-knives, tore them by the noses with red-hot pincers, and dragged them about the rooms till they promised to become Roman Catholics, or till the doleful cries of these poor tormented creatures, calling upon God for mercy, constrained them to let them go. They beat them with staves, and dragged them all bruised to the Popish churches, where their enforced presence is reputed for an abjuration. They kept them waking seven or eight days together, relieving one another by turns, that they might not get a wink of sleep or rest. In case they began to nod, they threw buckets of water on their faces, or holding kettles over their heads, they beat on them with such a continual noise, that these poor wretches lost their senses. If they found any sick, who kept their beds, men or women, be it of fevers or other diseases, they were so cruel as to beat up an alarm with twelve drums about their-beds for a whole week together, without intermission, till they had promised to change." [3]

What follows is so disgusting that it could not be quoted here unless it were covered with the decent veil of a dead language.

The Lutherans of Alsace, protected by recent diplomatic conventions, were exempt from these miseries; but with this exception the persecution raged through the whole of France. In Paris and its immediate neighborhood, matters were not urged to the same dire extremity. Those who had instigated the king to revoke the Edict of Nantes, had assured him that the mere terror of the Act would suffice to accomplish all he wished, and they now strove to conceal from Louis the formidable proportions of the actual horrors. But in other parts of France no check was put upon the murderous passions, the brutal lusts, and the plundering greed of the soldiery, and there a baffled bigotry and tyranny glutted their vengeance to the utmost. Among the dreadful forms of punishment inflicted on the Protestants was the dungeon. Such as were caught in attempts to escape, or refused to abjure, were plunged into loathsome prisons. Here generally there reigned unbroken silence and darkness. The poor prisoner could not receive a visit from pastor or relation; he could not console himself by singing a psalm or by reading his Bible: shut up with lewd and blaspheming felons, he was constrained to hear their horrible talk, and endure their vile indignities. If his meekness and patience overcame their cruelty, or softened the gaoler, he was at once shifted to another prison, to prevent his being treated more tenderly by those whose compassion he had excited. The letters of M. le Febvre, arrested in 1686, and confined fifteen years in a solitary dungeon, have disclosed the terrible sufferings borne by those who were shut up in these places.

"For several weeks," says he, "no one has been allowed to enter my dungeon; and if one spot could be found where the air was more infected than another, I was placed there. Yet the love of truth prevails in my soul; for God who knows my heart, and the purity of my motives, supports me by his grace." He shows us his dungeon. "It is a vault of irregular form, and was formerly a stable, but being very damp, it was injurious to horses. The rack and manger are here still. There is no way of admitting light but by an opening with a double grating, in the upper part of the door. Opposite the opening there are iron bars, fastened at their upper ends into the wall. The place is very dark and damp. The air is noisome and has a bad smell. Everything rots and becomes moldy. The wells and cisterns are above me. I have never seen a fire here, except the flame of a candle. You will feel for me in this misery, but think of the eternal weight of glory that will follow."

Another prisoner, M. de Marolles, a distinguished scientist, tells us that the solitude and perpetual darkness of his prison engendered, at last, the most frightful and terrifying ideas in his mind. Believing himself on the brink of insanity, he had recourse to prayer, and was delivered. A perfect calm filled his mind, and those phantoms took flight that had so troubled his soul. "He makes the days of my affliction pass speedily away," said he in the last letter he was ever to write. "With the bread and water of affliction, He affords me continually most delicious repasts." [4]

In the letters of M. le Febvre, cited above, mention is made of a shepherd who was removed from Fort St. Nicholas to a dungeon in the Chateau d'Ife. [5] The descent into this dungeon was by a ladder, and it was lighted only by a lamp, for which the gaoler made the prisoners pay. The shepherd, when first consigned to it, had to lie on its miry bottom, almost without clothing. A monk, who went down into it to visit its wretched inmates, could not help declaring that its horrors made him shudder, that he had not nerve enough to go again. He could not refrain from team at the sight of the unhappy beings before him, one of whom had already, though still alive, become the prey of worms.

This was the terrible fate not of a few hundreds only. It is believed that at one stage of the persecution there were from 12,000 to 15,000 persons in the prisons and dungeons of France.

Another mode of punishment was transportation to Canada – the Canada of 200 years ago. This method was resorted to in order to relieve the prisons, which, full to overflow, could not receive the crowds that were being daily consigned to them. Collected from the various prisons of France, or gathered from the country around Nimes and Montpellier, these confessors of the Gospel were brought down in gangs to Marseilles, the women strapped down in carts, and the men mounted on horses, their feet tied below the animals belly. The embarkation and voyage entailed incredible and protracted suffering. The vessels that bore them across the Atlantic were small, filthy, and often unseaworthy. Nor did their miseries end with their voyage. On their arrival in the New World they were sold into a slavery so cruel, that in most cases they speedily perished. Those who were thus dragged from the pleasant fields of France, and put under the lash of barbarous task-masters in a foreign land, were not the refuse of French society; on the contrary, they were the flower of the nation. In these manacled gangs were men who had shone at the bar, men who had been eminent in the pulpit, writers who were the glory of their country, and men and women of noble or of gentle birth; yet now we see them borne across the deep, and flung into bondage, because a sensualist king – the slave of mistresses and priests – so willed it.

The policy of the persecutors was to "wear out" the Protestants, in preference to summarily exterminating them by fire and cord. It is true the murders in the fields were numerous; there were few spots in the Cevennes which martyr-blood did not moisten, but only occasionally in the cities was the scaffold set up. We select from the Lettres Pastorales of Jurieu [6] a few instances. One of the first to suffer in this way was Fulcran Rey, a young man of Nimes. He had just finished his course of theological study when the storm burst. Does he now decline the office of pastor?

No: accepting martyrdom beforehand, he writes a farewell letter to those at his father's house, and goes forth to break the silence which the banishment of the ministers had created in France by preaching the Gospel. In a little while he was arrested. On his trial he was promised the most flattering favors if he would abjure, but his constancy was invincible.

He was sentenced to be hanged, after having been tortured. On hearing his doom, he exclaimed, "I am treated more gently than my Savior was in being condemned to so mild a form of death. I had prepared my mind to being broken on the wheel, or being burnt to death." Then, raising his eyes to heaven, he gave thanks to God for this mitigation of his anticipated agonies. Being come to the scaffold, he wished to address the crowd, and confess before them the faith in which he died; but, says Jurieu, "they were afraid of a sermon delivered by such a preacher, and from such a pulpit, and had stationed around the gibbet a number of drummers, with orders to beat their drums all at once." He died at Beaucaire, July 7th, 1686, at the age of twenty-four.

But the martyr of greatest fame of that era is Claude Brousson. Brousson had been a distinguished member of the bar at Toulouse, where he pleaded the cause of the oppressed Churches. Silenced as an advocate, he opened his lips as a preacher of the Gospel. His consecration to his office took place in the wilds of the Cevennes, which were then continually resounding with the muskets of the murderous soldiery. The solitary hut, or the dark wood, or the deep ravine henceforth became his home, whence he issued at appointed times to preach to the flock of the desert. After awhile he was so hotly pursued that he judged it prudent to withdraw from France. But in his foreign asylum his heart yearned after his flock, and, finding no rest, he returned to those "few sheep in the wilderness." A sum of 500 louis was offered to any one who would bring him to the Intendant, dead or alive; nevertheless Brousson went on for five years in the calm exercise of his ministry. His sermons were published at Amsterdam in 1695, under the title of The Mystical Manna of the Desert. "One would have expected," says Felice, "that discourses composed by this proscribed man, under all oak of the forest, or on a rock by some mountain torrent, and delivered to congregations where the dead were frequently gathered as on a field of battle, would have been marked by eager and gloomy enthusiasm. Nothing of the kind is, however, to be found in this Mystical Manna. The preacher's language is more moderate and graceful than that of Saurin in his quiet church of the Hague; in the persecution he points only to the hand of God, and is vehement only when he censures his hearers." [7] At last, in 1698, he was arrested at Oleron and carried to Montpellier. Before his judges he freely admitted the graver charge of his indictment, which was that he had preached to the Protestant outlaws; but he repudiated energetically another accusation preferred against him, that he had conspired to bring Marshal Schomberg into France at the head of a foreign army. He was condemned to die. On the scaffold, which he mounted on the 4th of November, he would once more have raised his voice, but it was drowned by the roll of eighteen drums. Little did Louis XIV then dream that his great-grandson, and next successor save one on the

throne of France, should have his dying words drowned by drums stationed round his scaffold.

Of all the punishments to which the proscribed Protestants of France were doomed, the most dreadful was the galleys. The more famous galleys were those of Marseilles, and the journey thither entailed hardships so terrible that it was a common thing for about three-fourths of the condemned to die on the road. They marched along in gangs, carrying heavy irons, and sleeping at night in stables or vaults. "They chained us by the neck in couples," says one who underwent this dreadful ordeal, "with a thick chain, three feet long, in the middle of which was a round ring. After having thus chained us, they placed us all in file, couple behind couple, and they passed a long thick chain through these rings, so that we were thus all chained together. Our chain made a very long file, for we were about four hundred." [8] The fatigue of walking was excessive, each having to carry about fifty pounds weight of chains. One of their halting-places, the Chateau de la Tournelle, he thus speaks: "It is a large dungeon, or rather spacious cellar, furnished with huge beams of oak placed at the distance of about three feet apart. To these beams thick iron chains are attached, one and a half feet in length, and two feet apart, and at the end of these chains is an iron collar. When the wretched galley-slaves arrived in this dungeon, they are made to lie half down, so that their heads may rest upon the beam; then this collar is put round their necks, closed, and rivited on an anvil with heavy blows of a hammer. And these chains with collars are about two feet apart, and as the beams are generally about forty feet long, twenty men are chained to them in file. This cellar which is round, is so large that in this way they can chain up as many as five hundred. There is nothing so dreadful as to behold the attitudes and postures of these wretches there chained. For a man so chained cannot lie down at full length, the beam upon which his head is fixed being too high; neither can he sit, nor stand upright, the beam being too low. I cannot better describe the posture of such a man than by saying he is half lying, half sitting, – part of his body being upon the stones or flooring, the other part upon this beam. The three days and three nights which we were obliged to pass in this cruel situation so racked our bodies and all our limbs that we could not longer have survived it – especially our poor old men, who cried out every moment that they were dying, and that they had no more strength to endure this terrible torture." [9]

This dreadful journey was but the prelude to a more dreadful doom. Chained to a bench of his galley, the poor prisoner remained there night and day, with felons for his companions, and scarcely any clothing, scorched by the sun, frozen by the cold, or drenched by the sea, and compelled to row at the utmost of his strength – and if, being exhausted, he let the oar drop, he was sure to be visited with the bastinado. Such were the sufferings amid which hundreds of Protestants of France wore out long years. It was not till 1775, in the beginning of Louis XVI's reign that the galleys released their two last Protestant prisoners, Antoine Rialle and Paul Archard. [10]

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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