Jean Migault, a law abiding schoolmaster at Mougon in Poitou, was returning home with his family after worshipping at the Protestant church on 22nd August 1681, when suddenly they were confronted by King Louis X1V’s troops, the dreaded dragoons: “We demand that you give up your faith and return to the Catholic church. If not, we will billet the king’s troops in your home”, declared the captain. But Jean Migault refused. Two soldiers arrived at their home the next day and demanded an enormous dinner, then two more arrived, then six more arrived, then another four. Fourteen soldiers were now billeted in their home and their behaviour every day was abominable. So one night, Jean Migault and his family fled from their home, but not before the soldiers had held Mrs Migault before a huge fire threatening to burn her.
They escaped to the woods and joined twenty more Protestant families. They learnt later that the soldiers demolished their house and sold their possessions. Jean Migault had twelve children ranging from seventeen to a baby in arms, and after much wandering around the countryside, his wife died. So Jean Migault decided to escape from France. However, the law against emigrants was severe. The Migaults were in the same position as Jews in Hitler’s Germany, persecuted at home, yet refused permission to leave. Jean Migault’s four eldest sons succeeded in crossing the frontier and two of the boys reached Germany, and two reached Holland. By this time, another daughter had died, but Jean Migault still had the rest of his family with him. He also decided to try and escape from France. One dark night, in 1688, he set off for the beach at La Rochelle. The weather was atrocious as the little family trudged through wet fields and quagmires, and clambering over bushes and vines. They finally reached the shore but the boats were crammed full of refugees, so they had to wait another three months before trying again. This time they were successful, and nineteen days later they reached Protestant Holland and freedom.
This account is typical of hundreds, no thousands, of French Protestants who suffered so much for their Calvinist faith. This lecture is an attempt to tell you something of the story of these brave fugitives, who first gave the word ‘refugee’, which comes from the French ‘réfugié’, to the English language. These refugees were the French-speaking Protestants, or more precisely ’Calvinists’, who were forced for over two hundred years to flee from France because of their religious convictions.
Some years ago, when I was on holiday in south east France, I visited a town called Aigues Mortes. As I walked along the town walls, I came across a very large circular tower. The guide advised us to go inside. It was called ‘Tour de Constance’, and there our guide told us this was the tower where French Huguenots women were imprisoned for many long years. One woman, a certain Marie Durand, had languished in that prison for 38 years, and we were shown a word scratched on the wall of the prison with her fingernails. The word was ‘Resister’ or Resist. I began to wonder who exactly were these people and what lay behind that word ‘resister’, which I understood later became the very watchword of the Huguenots.
Most Christians who call themselves ‘Evangelicals’ know only a little of those days about the Reformation. They may have heard about Martin Luther or John Calvin or John Knox. But how many of them have heard of these remarkable people called the Huguenots who were oppressed, burnt, tortured, killed, and driven out of France for over 200 years? Who were these people and why did they meet to worship in remote valleys, caves, and cellars on pain of death and a brutal death at that? Well, I hope that we shall know a little more of them before the end of the lecture.
The Huguenots were French Protestants who were members of the Reformed Church established in France by John Calvin who was himself a Frenchman born at Noyon. The Church was formed around 1555 but, due to incredible religious persecution during the next two centuries, thousands of French Protestants had to flee France to other countries.
Our story really begins in Germany in the early years of the 16th century. The wind of change had now begun to blow through Europe after that momentous occasion when Martin Luther challenged the might of the Roman Catholic Church by nailing his 95 theses or challenges on the door of Wittenburg Cathedral in 1517. Luther had hoped to see the corrupt church of Rome reform itself from within, but this didn’t happen and so began the great Protestant Reformation.
The printing press, then recently invented, was able to rapidly print Luther’s works, which soon began to spread far and wide, and of course especially to neighbouring France. These books were sold by travelling peddlers, merchants and colporteurs. (a French word). These books carried the precious news of the pure Gospel message which had been lost so long in the established church. Copies were bought rapidly and read avidly, and countless French people came to an assurance of salvation. As more and more French people came to faith, so the Roman Church began to rouse itself and become uneasy with what was happening in France. Now although this period was characterised by a fairly cautious reformation, in 1523 the Catholic Church burnt the first Huguenots martyr in Paris. He was Jean Valliere, and he was to be the first of countless Huguenots that would suffer death for their faith. During this time Henry 11, king of France, set up the ‘burning chamber’, a court which put many believers to death. Men, women and even children were marched off to be burnt alive. These valiant people seemed to go joyfully to death, counting it a privilege to die for Christ. The crowds of French people watching these burnings were amazed at their zeal and bravery. So joy and courage marked these early people. The persecutions continued more fiercely in various parts of France. Before some Protestants were burnt their tongues were cut out. This astonished the onlookers even more. As early as 1538, in Paris, hardly a week passed by without Protestants being seized, their homes searched, sacked and confiscated. There were mass arrests, and prisoners were kept without food, water, or sanitation – at times not even sufficient air to breathe. Even in those early days, arrangements were being made for Protestants to emigrate to England and other European countries. Yet John Calvin urged the reformers to behave quietly and peacefully, according to Paul’s charge in Romans 13. But those nearer the events in Paris cried out desperately that every divine human right had been violated by the Catholics.
However, more and more French people began to believe and by 1559, the first national synod of the French Reformed Church met in Paris. They accepted the confession of faith of La Rochelle, one of the great doctrinal statements of the 16th century.
In Germany and Switzerland, the Reformers had the support of those nations, but in France, this was not so. State and church, king and clergy joined forces against the Huguenots. During the 16th century there arose many great men of God – men such as Lefevre, and Olivetan – who translated the Bible into the French language. There were also Beza, Wolmar, Marot, Farel, and the giant amongst them all, John Calvin from Northern France. John Calvin settled in Geneva where his preaching and teaching became proverbial. His influence became world-wide. Many reformers from many countries gathered around him in Geneva. Kings, nobles and theologians were influenced by his writings. Mention must also be made of Clemens Marot, 1497-1594. He was born at Cahor but, because of his Protestant faith, also had to flee to Italy. During that time he brought out the first version of the Metrical Psalms in French. This publication was an immediate success. The French believers loved them. They sang them in their secret meetings, they sang them at home, they sang them even when they were being tortured, they sang them when they were manacled to oars in the galleys. The Psalter was so popular that it went through 62 editions in 3 years. It sold like wildfire and many were saved through it.
In 1555, the first Huguenot church was founded, in a home in Paris, based on the teachings of John Calvin. The people meeting there were accused of heresy against the Catholic government of France and the established religion of the state. The flash-point finally came in 1562, when soldiers of the Duke of Guise broke into a barn in Vassey where a Huguenot service was in progress. Some 1,200 people were slaughtered that day. It was the beginning of eight terrible years known as ‘the beginning of the Wars of Religion’. To deviate for a moment, you may be wondering about this name ‘Huguenots’. Its derivation is rather obscure. Some believe it comes from the German word ‘Eidgenossen’, meaning ‘confederate’, or it may be the name of a legendary king of Lyon who gave his name, Hugon, to a tower or gate near which the Protestants of the town used to meet to hold their meetings. So you can take your choice.
From the mid-16th century onwards, amazingly one in every six French persons had now become a Protestant. This is almost beyond belief. How did it spread so quickly? Well books and Bibles were within reach of so many people. Cities like Toulouse, Lyon and La Rochelle soon had large Protestant populations. These Protestants began building places of worship, which they called ‘Temples’, and soon there were around 2,150 of them in France.
One of the great men of France at this time was Admiral Gaspard of Colingy. As well as being a brilliant soldier he was a natural statesman. He and another Huguenot, Prince Conde, became strong leaders during the conflict between the Catholics and Protestants. Coligny was favoured by King Charles IX but hated by his mother Catherine de Medici who plotted his destruction. The plot was carried out on the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Eve, 24th August 1572. Coligny was the first to fall and then followed a furious massacre of the Protestants in Paris. 3,000 Protestants were murdered and their bodies thrown into the River Seine. It is reckoned that over 10,000 Protestants were killed in the provinces at that time. The Pope, Gregory XIII, ordered a special Te Deum and struck a commemorative medal, but the whole of Protestant Europe was shocked by the news. Every year in Geneva a fast is observed to remember the event. The Times Magazine reported that on the 400th anniversary of the St. Bartholomew massacre, special masses were said all over France to ask forgiveness for this crime against fellow Christians.
When Henry Navarre became king of France, he had a problem. He at that time was a Protestant, and the Protestants were naturally in the minority, so he had to win his kingdom. The Pope, the French Roman Catholics, and Catholic Spain were all against him, so he compromised and embraced Catholicism, saying those famous words, “Paris is worth a mass”. However, he did help the Huguenots and, in 1598, he passed the Edict of Nantes, which gave all Huguenots religious freedom and civil equality and also ministers and pastors were to have financial support from the state. This gave the Huguenots full toleration after a century of persecution, but this would be short lived. Ten years after the Edict of Nantes, Henry was brutally assassinated by a fanatical monk, so now the Huguenots had lost their protector, and the next king, Louis XIII, would be no friend of the Huguenots.
Under the Edict of Nantes, the Huguenots had a measure of peace and tranquillity. They had 200 towns where they could live and worship without molestation, but the rest of France was Catholic. It was not long before repression of the Huguenots flared up again and Louis XIII, with his minister Cardinal Richelieu, decided to take up arms against the main Huguenot city of La Rochelle, an important sea port on the Atlantic coast. In 1628, La Rochelle was besieged and England, although they had promised, failed to come to the aid of the city. La Rochelle was now shut off to the world and slowly, like the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw, the people starved to death. The price of horse meat and dog meat rocketed; and during the last days of the siege, people were eating scraps of leather boiled in vinegar and water. Through death the population of 27,000 people was reduced to 5,000. The defeat of La Rochelle brought an effective end to the power of the Huguenots.
Louis XIII now condemned many Huguenots to the notorious galleys. Once a man was sent to row in the galleys, he would be chained to his oar until he died unless he managed to escape. The ill treatment of Huguenots condemned to the galleys began when they were arrested in the towns where they lived. The victims were collected at certain points. They were sent sometimes through the entire lengths of France, by way of a show and a lesson to other Huguenots. The treatment of these chained gangs varied in degrees. Sometimes it was more cruel than at other times. It all depended on those in charge of the prisoners.
One of the prisoners who survived the galleys was a man named Martteille. Oliver Goldsmith translated Jean Martteille’s account, and called the book The Memoirs of a Protestant Condemned to the Galleys for his religion. He described his journey from Le Havre to Marseilles like this: “We consisted of a file of prisoners chained to one another. Each pair of us fastened by the neck with a thick chain 3 feet long in the middle of which was a round ring and through this they would run a central chain so that we were doubly chained. There were around 400 of us in our chain, but by the time we reached Marseilles many had died by the wayside. Not all the victims were Huguenots; there were murderers, thieves and criminals of various sorts. The weight of each prisoner’s chain was 150 pounds. Every night, we were driven into a cellar or a town dungeon and our collars of iron riveted to a beam. When we reached Paris, we were taken to a huge courtyard and our chains were taken off and we were told to strip completely naked and leave our clothes on the floor, and stand at the opposite wall for over half an hour. Our clothes were then searched for money, valuables and knives. Our bodies were numb with the north wind blowing. By the morning, 18 men had died from cold. When we resumed our march next day we were exhausted and worn out by the heavy chain and on reaching a village, we held our little wooden cups to the inhabitants. The women, however, as soon as they saw our red jackets, which every Huguenot had to wear, screamed out “Away, away, you are going where you will have water enough.”
A sympathetic Catholic chaplain, Bion, wrote how he was horrified by the treatment meted out to these poor Huguenots. Men were beaten without mercy by Turks. If they failed to bow to the cup at mass, the Huguenots were stretched across the canon and beaten with a whip full of knots. He was beaten until the skin came off the back and shoulders, afterwards vinegar and salt were poured into the wounds and then the victim was thrown down a hole, called the prow room. Most preferred to die on deck than languish in that dark hole. Bion was converted by what he saw in those galleys. He said, “I had occasion to visit them every day and at the sight of their patience in the last of their miseries, my heart would reproach me for my hardness and my stubbornness at remaining in a religion in which for a long time I had noticed many errors and a cruelty which is the opposite to the church of Jesus Christ. Their wounds were like so many mouths, which announced to me the reformed Calvinistic religion and their blood was for me the seed of my regeneration.”
Louis XIII, like Herod, “stretched forth his hand to vex the church”. He died in 1643 and the next king to ascend the throne was the young Louis XIV. He was 22 years of age when he was crowned king and he reigned for 72 years. During his reign, this proud king regarded himself as the sun king, Le Roi Soleil. He declared these ominous words “One faith, one law, one king. So why should my subjects differ from me? The state is I”, said the sun king. At first, he endeavoured to win back the Huguenots by publishing books to this effect. He also used money to bribe Protestants, but this had little result and eventually he said “These Huguenots are nobody to me”, and now was to begin persecution without mercy.
From 1678 onwards, although officially the French were to be tolerant to the Huguenots, unofficially they were not. We see a parallel of this under communism in Russia and China, where the constitution officially provides for religious freedom, but in reality this was not so. In France, during the 17th century, magistrates courts had two judges, one Roman Catholic, one Protestant, in order to ensure fairness, but Louis XIV eventually abolished this. He then ordered the closure of Huguenot chapels or their demolition. Huguenot hospitals and theological colleges were closed. Worse was now to come. The persecution to which Huguenot women and children were exposed caused a sudden need of enlargement of all prisons and convents. Many of the old castles were now fitted up as gaols and even their ancient dungeons were used to incarcerate these poor women. As I said at the start of the talk, one of these prisons was the Tour de Constance in Aigues Mortes. Sixteen women who were confined to its dungeon in 1686 died within five months. Most of these women were the wives of hard-working merchants of the town of Nimes. When prisoners died in a dungeon, their places were taken up immediately by more victims. That prison was never empty until the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1791.
Louis XIV regarded himself as an absolute monarch and, during his reign, he moved the French court from the volatile city of Paris to Versailles, a palace of immense size and beauty. At Versailles, he could entertain his courtiers and keep close control over them. In this lecture we are not concerned about Louis’s political policies, or his internal affairs, but on the way he treated the French Huguenots. His religious policy was stamped with absolute rule and, during his reign, he soon showed his hatred of the Huguenots. The fiery bishop of Bordeaux and other bishops continually pressed the king to rid the kingdom of this Huguenot sore in France. At first he passed small annoying laws against them. Firstly, the Huguenots were informed that their synod could no longer meet. A Huguenot woman could no longer become a linen draper. No more than twelve Huguenots could attend a wedding or a baptism at one time. Huguenot butchers were not allowed to sell meat on Catholic fast days. They were not allowed to bury their dead in consecrated church grounds. Needless to say, a mass exodus began, and Huguenots settled in England, Holland and the USA.
To harass the Huguenots more, he had organised a vile form of persecution. In various towns dragoons were to be billeted in Huguenot homes. These soldiers were so rough and uncouth that they cared nothing for what they did. The idea was to get the Huguenots to go to the local priest and become Catholics. The king’s mistress, Madame de Maintenon, said “The king has determined to work for the complete conversion of the Huguenot heretics and is ready to do anything which could be judged beneficial to religion.” By now the Huguenots had no rights, and no protection from the church or the law. Six dragoons were placed in Huguenot homes and encouraged to abuse the family in whichever way they wanted. It is recorded that they would fill boots with boiling oil, forcing the males to put their feet into the boots; men in the household were hung from the beams upside down; they were also forced to drink water, bottle after bottle after bottle. And their children were taken away and placed in convents. Their old people were put in dungeons where they prayed for death to come soon. Louis then counted up these so-called conversions and came to the conclusion that there were no longer any Huguenots in his realm, so he said that the Edict of Nantes giving religious toleration to the Huguenots was now no longer required and could be done away with and so on 18th October 1685, he signed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
The demolition of Protestant temples was now carried out in earnest, all Huguenot religious meetings were forbidden, all Huguenot pastors had to leave France within 15 days, Calvinistic schools and colleges were closed, and all children had to be baptised as Catholics. This was the final blow to all French Huguenots, causing further mass exoduses from France. They fled to Ireland, Holland, Germany, England, Belgium, Austria and North and South America. During this period, the cream of the French nation left France for ever, and France was so much the poorer. They lost silversmiths, clockmakers, weavers, gunsmiths, sculptors, lawyers, linen and lace workers, pastors, teachers, philosophers, and theologians of the highest order. One historian estimated that in England and Ireland alone, 80,000 Huguenots were received. Huguenot refugees were given a very warm welcome when they came to our shores and much sympathy was shown to them. During the reign of the Protestant monarch King William and his wife Mary, financial support was encouraged by the king in order to help the thousands of Huguenots to settle in the country. By 1700 there were already 12 large Huguenot churches in London alone. The life style of these new emigrants who were godly and industrious stood in stark contrast to the ungodly Londoners around them. Hogarth, the artist, depicted this in one of his engravings. He showed French Huguenots smart in clothing and behaviour leaving their church on Sunday morning, but in the street outside he showed the squalor, poverty and sexual immorality of the Londoners. During this time, many of the rich nobility would visit the East End in order to polish their language, skills and manners. The French king, realising that so many were fleeing France, closed all the borders and soldiers patrolled all ships in the harbours. Every ship was to be searched before sailing and the holes fumigated with deadly gas to smoke out any hidden refugees. As I said earlier, it is estimated that up to 800,000 Huguenots fled France at this time, using any means at their disposal to escape over the borders. Obeying the Master’s words “If they persecute you in one city, flee into another”, the Protestants were fleeing. The large expanse of the coast line on the western side of France furnished them with thousands of miles of shore line that were impossible to keep watch over, so it became very difficult to prevent the exodus by sea. In 1687, the governor of St. Onge reported the departure of 600 Huguenots from their shores. Shortly after, he observed that all the inhabitants of Mornac had embarked. While he was having them followed, a further 500 Huguenots escaped by sea from Royan. At a loss, he cried to the king, “How can I stop these people fleeing?” France lost thousands of hard-working, godly men and women. They were Bible-loving people, they were a praying people, a humble hard-working people, a worshipping people, and honest people.
Under this revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and the persecution of the Huguenots, the Catholic Jesuits were ecstatic, shouting “Heresy no more. God alone worked this marvel”. In the cities and towns the mobs were delighted with the destroying of Huguenot churches and pillaging of Huguenot homes. The lieutenant of Languedoc said, “I have this morning condemned 76 of these wretches, and hanging them will be quite a refreshment to me”. The day of tribulation had swooped like a tornado on the French Protestants. Throughout the country, the last church buildings were torn down. The bishop of Valence boasted of having had 80 Huguenot churches closed in his diocese even before Louis had signed the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The church in Cannes in Normandy was demolished to the noise of drums and trumpets. They played the game of boules with the skulls of Protestants from the cemetery. In Le Havre, people danced and shouted as Huguenot churches were pulled down. The despair of the Huguenots was indescribable. At Marennes, on the western side of France, on the last Sunday, 10,000 of the faithful pressed against the door of their church closed by order of the king. They had brought 34 children to be baptised, in this the only temple still standing in the region. Several of these poor little ones died of cold on the return trip in the arms of their weeping mothers.
Sadly, many of those who sought to flee were recaptured and fettered with thieves and murderers, joining the chained gangs of galley slaves on their way to Marseilles. They were made a spectacle by the people on this tragic journey. In some towns Huguenots were even made to wear distinctive clothing so that they could be mocked by the people.
All this brings tears to one’s eyes, and one asks ‘why this persecution?’ But have we not seen repetition of such things? The treatment of Christians in the Roman coliseum, the Nazi holocaust, the killing fields of Cambodia, and the genocide of Rwanda, all reveal to us that the human heart is capable of anything.
At each new royal proclamation the numbers of Huguenots fleeing France escalated. The country was literally emptying. Paris lost 1,200 of its 2,000 families. Bordeaux saw 40,000 of its Protestants leave. 184,000 fled from Normandy. 100,000 left St. Onge. The province of La Rochelle was virtually wiped out by the departure of one third of the population. One Frenchman dared to write, “This dreadful plot of the king has depopulated a quarter of France.” While France was becoming impoverished, all other countries of Europe were seeing their populations grow and their riches and power increasing. England had already received 100,000 refugees. A third of them settled in London during the reign of Charles II. He ordered collections to be taken for the French Protestant arrivals. It produced £200,000 which was a vast sum for those days. However, in France cries of alarm soon troubled the peace of the court at Versailles. Vauban, marshal of France, a hero and a successful military engineer, who had built massive fortresses in the realm, said these words, “France has lost millions, its principal manufacturers, its best sailors, soldiers and officers. In the kingdom everyone is suffering and enterprise is impossible. Surely, we must re-establish the Edict of Nantes purely and fully”. But Louis XIV would have none of it.
Although many Huguenots were grief stricken when they had to leave their beloved France, they found strength to bless God for bringing them safely to England. One well-to-do woman from Bordeaux, when she arrived in Portsmouth harbour, kissed the ground in ecstasy. “I have attained the goal of my efforts and I bless you Lord until the time when I will lay down my head for having led me into this free country of England.” By the end of the 17th century, there were 57 French Huguenot churches in England. The largest congregation met in the crypt at Canterbury. A godly archbishop had offered it to the good foreigners. This large space contained a school and a church and it was hung with tapestries of Biblical scenes, and furnished with pulpit, table and benches. In the year of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, 2,500 Huguenots partook of the Lord’s supper.
England was generally very sympathetic towards the plight of the Huguenot refugees. When Louis XIV began his policy of billeting dragonnades to the homes of the Huguenots, sympathy increased when more refugees began to arrive in England. Between 1681 and 1703, much needed emergency relief was given to the refugees. During this period £90,000 was provided. King William and Queen Mary showed great goodwill towards the French Huguenots and provided £39,000 from their own civil list. The government embodied their generosity by providing grants throughout the 18th century. This lasted until 1804 when the last pensioner, Sarah Pignon, died. By then more than one and a quarter million pounds had been handed over to French refugees and their descendants, in a charitable action of quite unprecedented generosity and longevity. It is estimated that around 1700, 15,000 Huguenots were living in the city of London, which would be 5% of London’s population. 8,000 lived in Westminster, and there were also settlements at Chelsea, Greenwich, Wandsworth and Wapping. Many also settled in the west country and the towns of Ipswich, Colchester, Southampton and Norwich.
After hearing all this, you would have thought that the church of Christ would have vanished from France, but no! God began to work again and the church rose again like a phoenix from the ashes. We have reached the end of the 17th century, and the Huguenot church, although now driven underground, was very much alive. They met again as of old in secret, in secluded valleys, in remote woodlands, caves and cellars. The area that we are particularly interested in is the mountainous area of the Cevennes, and the south east of France. The church now became known as ‘the Church in the Desert’.
This area now became the stronghold of the Protestant faith, and this wild mountainous area of France was a perfect place for Christians to meet in secret. The Catholic Church began again to use her metal fist of persecution. The first preacher to be caught was François Tessier. He was a judge from a village in the mountain region of the Cevennes. His crime was holding a prayer meeting. For this he was executed. The first pastor to be caught was Fulcan Rey; he was also executed. Other pastors now began to return secretly to feed this church in the desert. The renowned preacher, Claude Brusson re-entered France. He pleaded that the king might reconsider his position to the Huguenots, but he was arrested and his body broken on the wheel at Montpelier, as 10,000 people watched the brave pastor sing the 34th Psalm as he died.
Although at the close of the 16th century, and the beginning of the 17th, the popular worship of the Huguenots was continually being harassed by the dragoons, yet these strong, heroic, hardy, fiercely independent people would not give up easily.
As soon as the authorities heard of the renewed activities, they would go in search of the gatherings, arrest the ring-leaders, and either send them to the galleys or hang them. Many defenceless people in the villages of the Cevennes were killed by the dragonnades but, as these latest massacres seemed to have failed, many of the king’s ministers suggested to the king that all Huguenots should be deported out of France. However, there were difficulties. The province of Languedoc alone had an estimated 250,000 Huguenots. They also realised that the Huguenots were always the most hard-working citizens and brought vast wealth to the state by taxes.
One minister wrote to the king saying, “Maybe his majesty should expel those Huguenot who are not engaged in commerce and also those barbarous peasants of the mountains. Should the king consent to this course, it will be necessary to send four additional battalions of four soldiers to execute his orders”. A deportation attempt was made, but the plan failed.
The entire province was intensively occupied with troops, but these heroic people would not be converted to Rome either by the dragoons, the priests, or even the threat of the galleys, the gibbet or the rack. So they continued to meet wherever possible to worship the God they loved. In the dead of night they would sally forth to their meetings in the remote valleys and hills singing Marot’s Psalms as they journeyed. Some claimed to hear angelic voices joining with them in the heavens above.
Under these distressing circumstances of poverty, suffering and terror, a kind of religious hysteria began to develop amongst these people. At first it was chiefly in the most severely persecuted areas of Dauphiny, and the Cevennes. Many Huguenots claimed many supernatural powers. Some would seem to go into an ecstatic trance and begin to speak and prophesy. Such people began to be called ‘prophets of the desert’. The first to appear was a young shepherdess called Isabel Vincent in Dauphiny. She could neither read nor write. Her usual speech was the rustic patois of the area but, when she became inspired, speaking perfect correct French. She would chant the commandments and the Psalms. She was eventually arrested and sent to the Tour de Constance at Aigues Mortes, declaring as she went “You may take my life, but God will raise up others to speak better things than I did”. Her prediction was certainly fulfilled, for this strange phenomenon spread at an extraordinary rate. The adherents were all of the poorer classes who read nothing but the Bible and knew vast areas of it off by heart. The movement spread from Dauphiny to Viverais and into the mountains of the Cenennes. The Catholic marshal Villas said, “I have seen things that I could never have believed, if they had not passed under mine own eyes. In one town (I believe it was Nimes) I saw women and girls appearing to be possessed by the devil. They quaked and prophesied publicly in the streets.”
The Huguenot population now became intensely excited by this new form of religious fervour and whenever an assembly was announced, even before daybreak, from villages around, the men, women, boys and girls came in crowds, leaping and running to the place appointed. Inevitably, persecution followed and redoubled. Soldiers ran night and day seeking to discover the meeting places in the desert. However, it was not long before these heroic people could suffer no more and so insurrection was inevitable, and thus began the Camisarde wars. The uprising began between 1702-1705, and even the best of Louis XIV’s generals were not able to put it down. The Huguenot soldiers were called Camisardes because they wore camisoles, a kind of shirt or smock. I would say that the flash-point of the wars was in a small village called Pont de Monteverte.
Many soldiers were stationed in this highly Protestant area. The town, however, was overseen by a cruel merciless arch priest named Chayla. He had converted the cellars of his house, which was on the town bridge, into dungeons, where he took delight in torturing Huguenots before killing them. He would put red-hot coals into the victim’s hands and force them to clench the coals. He would wrap their fingers in bandages soaked in oil and then set their hands on fire. No wonder the people hated this cruel priest. Some Huguenots in the village decided to flee France for Switzerland but, as they travelled out of the valley, they were caught by the dragoons. The women begged for mercy but the priest would not hear of it and sent the women to the convents and the men to the galleys, or hung them.
On the following Sunday, 23rd July 1702, one of the preaching prophets, named Pierre Sequier, assembled a posse of men and swore to free the Huguenot prisoners from the priest’s house. As they approached the village, they sang Marot’s version of the 74th Psalm, “O God, why hast Thou cast us off for ever? Why doth Thine anger smoke against the sheep of thy pasture. Remember the congregation which Thou hast purchased of old.” The priest called for the soldiers, but it was too late. The village was alive with the Camisardes shouting “Free the prisoners, free the Huguenots”.
The priest cried back, “Back you Huguenot dogs”. The infuriated Huguenots attacked the house and entered the dungeon. Horrified at the misery they saw they ran up the stairs and called for the priest. “Burn the priest of Baal” cried the men, and they set the house alight. The priest, to save his life, jumped from a window but broke his leg. He called for mercy. “No” replied Seguier, “only such mercy as you have shown others”, and he struck the first blow. Others followed, declaring “This is for my father who you broke on the rack,” “This is for my brother who you sent to the galleys.” “This is for my mother who died of grief.” He received 52 blows in all, killing this infamous priest. So began the uprising of the Camisardes who had suffered so long. They called themselves Les Enfants Dieu (The Children of God).
Soon the ranks of the Camisardes swelled and these companies armed themselves. Mention should be made at this point of a charismatic leader whose name was Jean Cavalier. Jean Cavalier was a colourful character and a charismatic leader. He began life as a shepherd but became a swash buckling young man of 20 when he joined the Chamisardes. He led bands of sharp shooters in the mountains of the Cevennes. Time and time again he defeated detachments of dragoons, many times their numbers. Cavalier would often expose Protestants informers and have them killed. The king’s army in reprisal burnt over 130 villages to try and destroy the Camisarde strongholds. Any one caught by the army was shot on the spot. However the Camisardes grew stronger and eventually the king’s general tried to begin talks with the Camisardes offering them free pardon if they laid down their arms. Cavalier was offered a military command in the king’s army if he did so. Cavalier was tempted but when the other Camisardes leaders found out, they denounced him, accusing him of treachery and declaring that the Camisardes would only lay down their arms when the hills were free of the king’s dragoons and freedom of worship was established. Cavalier escaped and went over to the king. The king pardoned him and admired his military skills. This traitor to the Huguenot cause lived to become, of all things, a general in the British army. Another important leader was Roland. Roland was eventually betrayed, and tortured to death and his body paraded in the streets of Usse. The soldiers shouted “This is the body of Roland, the famous Camisarde chief”. His friends were also caught, first tortured on the wheel and then burnt. With Roland’s death the Camisarde cause virtually came to an end in 1710.
But all was not lost by any means. In 1715, Louis XIV, the enemy of the children of God, died. As he lay dying, his conscience became uneasy about his policy against the reformers. He called in his cardinals, and said his conscience was clear because it was they who had advised him on his religious policy, and so it was the cardinals who had to answer before God. Prof. Wells (Aix-en-Provence) stated that during the reign of the three Louis, if they had kept to ‘The Edict of Nantes’ which gave religious freedom to the Huguenots, France would have had 30 million Protestants in the land.
Yet, even as the king lay dying, God called the intelligent, gifted, young Huguenot, Antoine Courte. He had suffered persecution as a child in school. But Courte had a vision to revive the dejected, scattered Huguenot assemblies and to bring the church, ’the church in the desert’ into existence once more. In 1715, he called elders to a synod to reorganise once more the scattered congregations. Strict rules were to be kept:
1. Pastors were selected.
2. Women were forbidden to preach.
3. Sermons to be one hour only.
4. Regular collections made for the prisoners and their families.
5. The sacred Scriptures to be held as the only rule of faith.
6. The practice of so-called revelations by prophets and prophetesses which had crept into
the church to be rejected.
So the ‘Church of the Desert’ came to life again. This synod took place just a few days before the death of the king.
One wonders, if history could be rewritten, what a different France would have emerged if the Edict of Nantes had not been revoked and the Huguenots retained complete religious freedom. I vouch France could have become the most evangelical nation in Europe. The Protestants, however, did not gain their religious freedom until 1787 and the right to hold public office until the time of Napoleon.
By today, of course, there are no Huguenots anywhere, strictly speaking. They remain only in the names inherited by their descendants, but surely, we should never forget these brave, heroic people who would allow nothing to stand between a man and his personal beliefs. Sadly the mist of history has dimmed the existence of Huguenots and we have almost forgotten them, for the English-speaking people have suffered most from historical amnesia. Yet as Christians, reformed and Calvinist, the history of the Huguenots is surely one of our proudest heritages. These valiant French men and women are worthy more than anyone to be called Les Enfants de Dieu, and never to be forgotten.