A million and a half of Frenchmen were in terror and despair; yet songs of victory resounded around Louis the Great.
Continuing The Edict of Nantes Revoked,
our selection from Histoire de France by Bon Louis Henri Martin published in 1836. The selection is presented in seven easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in The Edict of Nantes Revoked.
There has often been seen in history much greater bloodshed than that caused by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, scenes of destruction planned more directly and on a vaster scale by governments, and sometimes the same contrast between an advanced state of civilization and acts of barbarity; but no spectacle wounds moral sense and humanity to the same degree as this persecution carried on coldly and according to abstract ideas, without the excuse of struggle and danger, without the ardent fever of battle and revolution. The very virtues of the persecutors are here but an additional monstrosity: doubtless, there is also seen, at a later period, among the authors of another reign of terror, this same contrast that astounds and troubles the conscience of posterity; but they, at least, staked each day their own lives against the lives of their adversaries, and, with their lives, the very existence of the country involved in their cause!
A million and a half of Frenchmen were in terror and despair; yet songs of victory resounded around Louis the Great. The aged Le Tellier lifted to heaven the hand that had just signed the Revocation, and parodied, on the occasion of an edict that recalls the times of Decius and Diocletian, the canticle by which Simeon hailed the birth of the Redeemer. He died a fanatic, after having lived a cold and astute politician (October 31, 1685); he died, and the most eloquent voices of the Gallican Church broke forth in triumphal hymns, as over the tomb of a victorious hero! “Let us publish this miracle of our days,” exclaimed Bossuet, in that funeral oration of Le Tellier, wherein he nevertheless exhibited apprehensions of new combats and of a sombre future for the Church; “let us pour forth our hearts in praise of the piety of Louis; let us lift our acclamations to heaven, and let us say to this new Constantine, to this new Theodosius, to this new Marcianus, to this new Charlemagne: ‘You have strengthened the faith, you have exterminated the heretics; this is the meritorious work of your reign, its peculiar characteristic. Through you heresy is no more: God alone could have wrought this wonder.'” The gentle Fléchier himself echoed Bossuet, with the whole corps of the clergy with the great mass of the people. Paris and Versailles, that did not witness the horror of the details, that saw only the general prestige and the victory of unity, were deaf to the doleful reports that came from the provinces, and applauded the “new Constantine.”
“This is the grandest and finest thing that ever was conceived and accomplished,” wrote Madame de Sévigné. All the corporations, courts of justice, academies, universities, municipal bodies, vied with each other in every species of laudatory allusion; medals represented the King crowned by Religion “for having brought back to the Church two millions of Calvinists”; the number of victims was swollen in order to swell the glory of the persecutor. Statues were erected to the “destroyer of heresy.” This concert of felicitations was prolonged for years; the influence of example, the habit of admiring, wrung eulogies even from minds that, it would seem, ought to have remained strangers to this fascination; every writer thought he must pay his tribute; even La Bruyere, that sagacious observer and excellent writer, whose acute and profound studies of manners appeared in 1687; and La Fontaine himself, the poet of free-thought and of universal freedom of action.
The Government redoubled its rigor. The penalty of death was decreed against ministers reentering the kingdom without permission, and the galleys against whomsoever should give them asylum; penalty of death against whomsoever should take part in a meeting (July 1, 1686). And this penalty was not simply a dead letter! Whenever the soldiers succeeded in surprising Protestants assembled for prayer in any solitary place, they first announced their presence by a volley; those who escaped the bullet and the sword were sent to the gallows or the galleys. Measures almost as severe were employed to arrest emigration. Seamen were forbidden to aid the Reformers to escape under penalty of a fine for the first offence, and of corporal punishment for a second offence (November 5, 1685). They went further: ere long, whoever aided the flight of emigrants became liable to the galleys for life, like emigrants themselves (May 7, 1686). Armed barks cruised along all the coasts; all the passes of the frontier were guarded; the peasants everywhere had orders to rush upon the fugitives. Some of the emigrants perished in attempting to force an exit; a host of others was brought back manacled; they dared not place them all under the galley-master’s lash; they feared the effects of their despair and of their numbers, if they should mass them in the royal galleys; they crowded the prisons with those who were unwilling to purchase pardon by abjuration. The misfortunes of the first emigrants served to render their coreligionists, not more timid, but more adroit; a multitude of pilgrims, of mendicants dragging their children after them, of nomadic artisans of both sexes and of all trades, incessantly took their way toward all the frontiers; innumerable disguises thus protected the “flight of Israel out of Egypt.” Reformers selected the darkest winter nights to embark, in frail open boats, on the Atlantic or stormy Channel; the waves were seen to cast upon the shores of England families long tossed by tempests and dying with cold and hunger.
By degrees, the guards stationed along the shores and the frontiers were touched or seduced, and became saviors and guides to fugitives whom they were set to arrest. Then perpetual confinement in the galleys was no longer sufficient against the accomplices of the desertes; for the galleys an edict substituted death; death, which fell not upon those guilty of the pretended crime of desertion, was promised to their abettors (October 12, 1687). Some were given up to capital punishment; many, nevertheless, continued their perilous assistance to emigrants, and few betrayed them. Those Reformers whom the authority wished most to retain in the kingdom, the noblemen, the rich citizens, manufacturers, and merchants, were those who escaped easiest, being best able to pay for the interested compassion of the guards. It is said that the fugitives carried out of France sixty millions in five years. However this may be, the loss of men was much more to be regretted than the loss of money. The vital energy of France did not cease for many years to ooze away through this ever-open ulcer of emigration.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history