Stories from French History - Lena Dalkeith

A Story in Praise of and Pity for the Huguenots

Taken for the most part from the memoirs of Maximilian Bethune, Baron de Rosny, afterwards Duke of Sully and Chief Minister to Henry IV., King of Navarre.

"As this is part of the history of my own life together with that of Prince Henry of Navarre, my gracious master, it is needful that I should make known something of myself.

"Maximilian is my name, Bethune that of my family. I am of the younger branch of this famous family, and the fortunes of our house were somewhat sunken in the time of which I write, owing to the extravagance of my grandfather, who left my father nought but the estate of Rosny, his wife's dower.

"At the time of which I write, I was in my eleventh year. My parents were of the Reformed religion. In that religion I was bred, and neither threats nor promises nor chances of fortune, nor even the change of the King, my master, have ever been able to make me renounce it."

Here shall be told something of the religious wars which made France suffer so terribly and for so long a time, so you who read may understand better this story of the Baron de Rosny, as Maximilian Bethune was then called.

In the time of Rosny, and for long before it, the Roman Catholic Church was very different from what it had been in the beginning. It had become so corrupt, so many evils were done in its name, that at last some honest and brave men had refused to believe any longer what it taught. They left the Church and founded a Church and another belief for themselves; they worshipped God in freedom and in their own way.

Luther first in Germany began this revolt against the power and authority of the Pope of Rome. Calvin followed later in Geneva. By degrees the new faith and the new desire to worship God as they liked spread over all Europe.

As you may believe, the Roman Catholics did their best to crush it. In Spain the cruel Philip II. tortured and burned thousands of the Protestants, for so these Protesters against Rome were called. In every country they were persecuted and put to death.

Nevertheless, the new religion did not die; it grew, it prospered, even until the sixteenth century, when the Protestants were strong enough to send an army against the Catholics. Thus began the religious wars, as they were named, although men fought in them for many other reasons than religion.

Now again we turn to Rosny and his story:

"Henry, King of Navarre, of the Royal House of Bourbon, was seven years older than I. He, too, was born a Protestant of the Reformed Church. His grandmother was a sister of Francois I., King of France. She married the King of Navarre. They had a daughter Jeanne, who married Antoine de Bourbon. Henry of Navarre, my master, was their son.

"Now, Henry's mother, Jeanne, who upon her father's death became Queen of Navarre, was a staunch Protestant and ever supported our side. Indeed, when the Prince of Condé, our leader, was killed after the battle of Jarnac, and when the Protestants were nigh to despair, Jeanne brought her young son to them to be their leader, thus giving our soldiers new courage, for in war young Henry was brave and prudent beyond his years, yet audacious and rash enough withal when the occasion seemed to warrant it. In the year 1570 peace was made between Protestants and Catholics, and at this time my story begins."

Let it be understood first, however, the strange fortunes of the young Prince, Rosny's master. His father died at the siege of Navarre, leaving Henry King of Navarre. Upon the throne of France sat Charles the Ninth, a weak and wicked King, ruled by his mother, the treacherous, the terrible Catherine de Medici. It was said that Catherine disliked the young Henry because he came of the House of Bourbon. The astrologers, in whom she firmly believed, had warned her that while each of her three sons should become in turn King of France they would none of them leave any children to inherit their kingdom. Hence, the next of kin, the man who would rule France at last by lawful right of heritage, would be a Bourbon.

Be this as it may, Catherine, if she hated, hid her heart from all, and when the young Prince came to Court made much of him, as you shall shortly hear.

She also kept faithful to the treaty of peace made with the Protestants in 1570. Indeed, she took many of the noble Protestant lords into her favour, gaining their confidence by fair words and deeds until it came about that they trusted her altogether. Also she made advances to Jeanne, Queen of Navarre, whose trust she could not win altogether although she gained her end. She offered her daughter, the beautiful Princess Marguerite of Valois, in marriage to the young Prince Henry. "So shall we unite," said she, "the Protestant Prince to the Catholic Princess, thus strengthening and making friendly both religions."

Jeanne was at last persuaded to consent to the match, and, leaving her kingdom, set out with her son for Paris. And here again the young Rosny takes up the tale.

"My father, hearing of the journey of the Queen of Navarre, could scarcely believe it, so sure was he that the present peace between Protestant and Catholic would not last,—for he knew the temper of Catherine's mind, and her treachery. The Queen of Navarre summoned him to meet her at Vendome. He took me with him, and in the presence of all the Court presented me to Prince Henry, in my name giving him homage and assurance of lifelong service. While there also he warned the Queen of Navarre to beware of the fair promises of the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici, saying that he was sure that if the marriage of the young couple took place in Paris, the nuptial favours would be dyed in blood. And in this he was right, for all he said came to pass, yet none then would believe his word, thinking him weak and over-prudent.

"Then my father rode on his way home, and I went with Queen Jeanne and the young Prince to Paris. We were received very kindly by the Queen Mother and the King her son. They showed us all manner of gracious kindnesses, and continually in our hearing praised the Protestant lords who had come from all over the country to the wedding of their Prince.

"Admiral Coligny, the noblest of our cause, was treated by the King with more tenderness and affection than any of the others. Charles IX. even called him father, and took upon himself the sorry task of trying to reconcile the Guises to the Admiral. The Guises held him in deadly hatred, and declared their hate in a way not to be mistaken. For the Admiral was one day in his own lodgings stabbed by an assassin in their hire. On hearing of the 'accident,' King Charles was much perturbed. He gave the Guises cold looks and words when they came before him.

"The Queen Mother, who was surrounded by many noble and Protestant lords, saw that they whispered much one with the other, and looked on her with suspicious eyes. Her friendship with the Guises was well known, and these Protestants were beginning to believe that the attempt to murder the noble Coligny had been suggested by the Queen Mother to further her own evil purposes.

"They knew she feared Coligny was gaining too much in the affections of Charles IX., her son, whom heretofore she had ruled as she willed. Thus they guessed in some part that she planned some evil deed which should ruin the Reformed Church, but little did they guess how great was the evil or how terrible.

"After the wedding had been celebrated, with pomp and much splendour, Queen Jeanne of Navarre was taken ill. She died very shortly afterwards, to the great grief of the noble Prince, her son; but, to my mind, it was great good fortune for her so to die before the terrible disaster which was to come should have broken her heart, for Queen Jeanne loved her religion above everything else in the world.

"Soon after King Henry of Navarre and his bride, the fair Marguerite, were safely wed, strange whisperings began to be heard about the Court—whisperings of some dark secret of the Queen Mother. Because of this many Protestant gentlemen withdrew from the city to the suburbs. They feared evil in some form, but knew not how it would come. Treachery was in the air. My father was one of those who happily preserved their lives, and when invited to come nearer to the Court, he replied that he found the air of the suburbs agreed better with his health, and that the fields were still more advantageous to it.

"Many Protestants begged the Admiral Coligny to withdraw before worse things befell him. 'Gentlemen,' he said, when they came to him, 'if I leave Paris, I show either fear or distrust. My honour will be injured if I show fear; my King will be hurt if I show distrust. I should again have to begin another civil war, and I would rather die than witness again the miseries I have already seen.'

"The Prince of Navarre, my master, was also warned to leave the Court, yet nothing would he believe against the Queen Mother or any of her friends. And so the ill-omened month passed until it came to the dawn of that fatal day, the day of the Feast of St. Bartholomew, the 24th of August 1572.

"Upon that day Catherine, the Queen Mother, the Duke of Guise, who so hated Admiral Coligny, together with five other nobles, consulted together secretly.

"Of this secret plotting I then knew nothing. I was lodged with my tutor in a little house apart from the Court, and being only a small boy knew little of what was going on around me. But so you may understand what follows, I will tell you now (and this I learned long afterwards) that the Queen Mother had been plotting against the Protestants for some time past. She saw that they could not be conquered in battle; seeing this, she made peace with them so she might have time to plot their total ruin.

"So she might tempt them all to come together at the same place and the same time she planned the marriage of young Navarre and her daughter. Having succeeded in this she meant to have Admiral Coligny assassinated, and when his friends and soldiers defended him, as she was sure they would do, she had troops of hired soldiers all in readiness to fight them to the death.

"But these fine plans all miscarried, for an unknown assassin had wounded the Admiral before the appointed time. This had raised the suspicions of the Protestants, and they were now all leaving Paris as fast as they could. And what was still worse to Catherine's crafty mind, the King, her son, had taken a sudden fancy to the Admiral Coligny. There was even a fear in her heart lest Charles the Ninth should turn Protestant. In spite of his well-known obedience to her there were times and moods when he did as he liked, whatever she said.

'Something must be done to get rid of these pests,' she said to the Duke of Guise, 'and quickly too; we must work together.'

'I am willing to do all that you ask of me,' answered the ambitious Duke. 'I desire above all things the death of Admiral Coligny.'

'He shall die at any rate,' said Catherine coldly. 'I have a plan, but it wants the King's consent before we can use it. This gained, we shall be free of the Huguenots for ever.'

"Then she told them that she had an army of soldiers who were ready to kill every Protestant in Paris, at a word from her, and that command could be sent at the same time to every town in France, and the Huguenots would be slaughtered without mercy. She said that in order to prevent any mistakes, all good Catholics must be told to burn candles in their windows and to wear a white cross on their hats and a white band on their arms. Then they might walk abroad in safety; for whoso went without these signs would most assuredly be killed without mercy.

"Catherine then told her fellow-conspirators that she had already decided what signal should be made for the massacre to begin. A big bell in one of the churches near the palace would be rung at two o"clock in the morning.

"When the Catholic nobles had heard the Queen Mother to the end, they agreed without further demur to all her horrible plans. The Duke of Guise especially approved them heartily, thinking at last that his enemy the Admiral would be put out of his way.

"Catherine then went straightway to demand audience of the King, her son. As a rule Charles was willing to do everything his mother asked of him, but in this matter he was not so inclined to obey at first. The thought of murdering thousands of innocent people made him tremble. Unfortunately his mother knew just how to manage him.

'These Protestants already plot together to take away your precious life, my son,' she said when he still refused to give his consent; 'you must act in self-defence. If we do not rid ourselves quickly of these people there is no knowing what they will do. It is sometimes merciful to be cruel, and sometimes cruel to be merciful.'

'But such a slaughter!' cried Charles. 'What I Are you afraid?' answered Catherine, with a sneer.

"This touched Charles very nearly. He did not like to have Catherine think him afraid, and at last, after a long time, he weakly and against his better self gave in to the will of his mother.

'But hurry, hurry!' said he feverishly, 'and see that none are left to reproach me.'

"And so in secrecy the orders were given at once, and the Catholics warned what they must do, and bidden keep their homes for that night. Most of them were as ignorant of what was about to happen as I was.

"Three hours after midnight I was awakened from sleep by the sound of all the bells ringing and the confused cries of many people. My tutor and governor, St. Julien, together with my valet, went hastily out to ask the cause of the tumult. I never afterwards heard more of these men. I was alone in my chamber dressing myself when a few moments afterwards my landlord entered, pale and in much distress. He, too, was a Protestant, and having learned what was taking place, had consented to forswear his faith and to go to Mass at the Roman Catholic Church. And this he did in order to save his life, and preserve his house from robbery. He came to persuade me to do likewise, but I did not think it proper to follow his advice.

Bartholomew Day Massacre


"Instead, I made up my mind to try and reach the College of Burgundy, where I went every day to study. There I hoped to hide safely until the danger was over. But the College stood in another part of the city, a long way from my lodgings, and the adventure was dangerous. I disguised myself therefore in a scholar's gown, and, thrusting a large Catholic prayer-book under my arm, sallied forth from the house.

"My heart knocked loudly and my knees trembled beneath me as I walked quietly along the street, and soon I was seized with horror at sight of the murderers, who ran through all parts of the city, armed with divers weapons, and shouting, 'Kill! Kill! Massacre the Huguenots!'

"Presently I fell into the clutches of a company of guards. 'How know we that this pretty boy is no wretched Protestant?' cried one.

'Cut off his silly head and he will tell thee,' cried another, with a terrible laugh.

"I stood still answering nothing, but in deadly fear for my life.

'He wears no badge on his arm, nor any hat,' said a third.

'Show us the book under thine arm, young sir,' said one who seemed their leader, and they snatched the prayer-book from me.

'Ho-ho! What have we here?' cried they, crowding all around me. 'Prayers to the Virgin! Prayers to St. Peter! This boy is no Huguenot, but a good Catholic, after all. Pass on, lads! Better luck next time!'

"Twice after this I fell into the same danger, and twice I escaped again by the same good fortune, and at last I arrived at the College.

"Here greater perils awaited me. The porter refused to open the gate to me. 'Let me in! Let me in! For the love of God!' I cried in agony, for at every moment the cries of the murdering soldiery in the distance were coming nearer. The man would answer me never a word. Then I bethought me to ask for the Principal of the College, by whom I was greatly favoured. At the same time I gave the porter some small pieces of money. To my great joy, he unbarred the gate and I entered.

"The Principal, whose name was La Faye, had in his room two Roman Catholic priests who looked on me with terrible eyes.

'Not children, not even babes, can be spared to-night,' they said, and eyed me again fiercely. I turned in terror to La Faye, who quickly took me to a distant room and there locked the door upon me. For three days I was kept there a close prisoner.

"A servant brought me food, and from him I learned that my noble master, the King of Navarre, had escaped death only by giving his promise to attend Mass. My father wrote me it were better that I should do the same. Later, I found out that twenty thousand Huguenots in the kingdom were killed during those terrible days.

"This cruel blow nigh broke the courage of our party, as Catherine planned it should. Nevertheless, those who were living rallied after a time and fled to Rochelle, our greatest stronghold.

"The King of Navarre, however, was kept a close prisoner at Court for a long time. He escaped, after all, and did many great deeds to further the Protestant cause in France before he came at last to be its King. Catherine's plans to ruin the Huguenots failed, as all wicked and unjust deeds must fail sooner or later, and in the end the Protestants were allowed to worship God freely and in their own way, although before this came to pass there was much suffering and war and famine in France."