There were, as early as 1424, little companies of Protestants here and there in France, who met in secret to read the Word of God. Later, these societies stood in the most intimate relations with the church of Geneva.
The old French nobility were mainly on the Protestant side, and the king sought to humble them by attacking their religion. In their fortified castles the nobles for a time defied the royal power; but with the assistance of the Church of Rome, the king grew stronger, and the power of the nobility was proportionately decreased. The great majority of the people took the side of the king; and where Huguenots of humble station could not be protected by the nobles, they became the object of unrelenting persecution.
Catharine de Medici held supreme power over the throne of France after Francis I’s death. She is reputed to have been one of the most wicked women that ever lived.
Grandest of all the house of Bourbon was Jeanne d’Albret, queen of Navarre, the heroine of Rochelle, the mother of Henry IV. She, when her son was still minor, assumed command of the Huguenot forces and led them to victory. When Catharine de Medici told her it was her duty to be reconciled with the Church of Rome to gain the kingdom of France for her son, she exclaimed: “Madame, if at this moment I held my son and all the kingdoms of the world together, I would hurl them to the bottom of the sea, rather than imperil the salvation of my soul.”
Catharine de Medici gave her daughter, Marguerite de Valois to Henry, King of Navarre in marriage. It is known as the “Bloody Wedding,” the massacre of St. Bartholomew immediately followed it, and was declared by Queen Elizabeth of England as “the most atrocious act committed by men since the crucifixion of Christ.” The king was persuaded that he was the victim of a great Huguenot conspiracy. Orders were given by Catharine de Medici to soldiers and the papal party. At midnight, on August 24th, 1572, the great bell of St. Germain d’Auxerrois rang the alarm; the king’s soldiers began the massacre by murdering the Huguenot leaders in their homes; the gathering crowd assisting in slaying the helpless Protestants. Other cities followed Paris’ example, and some say 100,000 of the best men and women in France were ruthlessly sacrificed.
At Lisieux, Rochelle and Sancerre the royal mandate was not followed, the cities closing their gates. It became evident that the massacre was unsuccessful in destroying the Huguenots.
The Edict of Nantes, which was issued in 1598, secured the toleration of the Huguenots for nearly a century, but it was bare toleration.
Louis XIV appears to have imagined that the Huguenots would yield at once to his royal will. When they refused to sacrifice their faith and conscience, his persecuting rage knew no bounds. In the region of the Cevennes, the persecuted people rose in self-defense, and for ten years kept up an equal contest in which they performed prodigies of valor. The sufferings of the Cevennois were terrific. Four hundred towns and villages were burnt to the ground, and the country for 20 leagues, was left a desert.
Though the Protestants were forbidden to leave France, multitudes succeeded in making their escape. Wherever they went they bore with them artistic culture and the love of liberty.
It was only at the time of the Revolution that Protestantism emerged entirely from the shadow of the cross. In other countries the exiled Huguenots achieved the honor that was denied them in their fatherland. They laid the foundations of the greatness of Prussia and rendered prosperous the manufactures of England. In America, they proved excellent pioneers, and their descendants have been among her foremost citizens, to include John Jay, First Chief Justice, U.S. Supreme Court. With Mrs. Sigourney, who has been termed their American laureate, we may pray:
On all who bear
their name or lineage,
may their mantle rest –
That firmness of the truth,
that calm content
With simple pleasures,
that unswerving trust
In toil, adversity,
and death, which cast
Such healthful leaven
’mid the elements
That peopled the new world.
Source: Library of Congress, Rare Book Collection.