The Reformation in France: the early days.

The story of Protestantism in France is greatly overshadowed by the religious wars that raged on and off between 1562 and 1598. The St Bartholomews Day Massacre of the Huguenots  ( the French Calvinists) in 1572 is often held up as the main event but thousands died for their faith long before, and after, that occurred. France is, however, entitled to be among the leaders of the Reformation despite the wars and contests between the Guise family and Catherine de Medici. Some five years or more before Martin Luther posted his Theses in Wittenburg in 1517, another reformed monk, Jacques Lefevre, (aka Faber Stapulensis) was preaching reform in Paris.

Lefevre was born about 1440 in Etaples, Picardy, and was a Carmelite monk with a reputation for having an enquiring mind. As a scholar he travelled abroad and studied history, mathematics, philosophy and theology. He was also proficient in the ancient languages of Greek and Hebrew as well as Latin. For his attainments and leaning towards the Humanists of the day he was widely  admired. Even though in late age, he was appointed Professor of Theology at the Sorbonne, Paris. He had a presentiment that change was necessary and being open minded he read the Bible in search of material for a treatise on the lives of the saints. In so doing  he was struck by the concept of salvation by faith alone. In 1512 he published a commentary on the Epistles of St Paul in which he declares

"It is God  who gives us, by faith, that righteousness which grace alone justifies to eternal life".

With an inevitability all its own he became  a suspected heretic, but continued to develop his ideas with his attentive pupils, including a young William Farel, and Peter Robert Olivetan,  a cousin of Calvin and the translator of the first French Bible from the Lefevre original.

Farel soon also shrugged off his obedience to Rome and began preaching alongside Lefevre. Their joint efforts began to have a noticeable impact on the people of Paris. This came to the attention of William Briconnet, Count of Montbrun and Bishop of Meaux, who had returned from a visit to Rome somewhat disillusioned at what he had seen there. The turning point for him was the Bible that Lefevre gave him. As the most powerful and influential of the French Reformers at that time  Briconnet was able to influence change in his diocese directly by issuing a mandate in October 1520 proclaiming about dissolute priests and interdicting  the Franciscan friars from the pulpits. He took himself about among the people and, almost unprecedented at the time, he preached from the pulpit, He soon established a seminary for tuition of ministers of the New Testament at Meaux.  Briconnet had many influential friends, including the king, Francis I and his sister, Margaret (Margot) de Valois. It was Briconnet`s gift of a Bible to Margaret that brought her into the Protestant fold. But the narrow minded papist head of the Sorbonne, Noel Beda, forced Farel and Lefevre to leave Paris for Meaux.

The capture of Francis I by the Emperor at Pavia, in Italy left France under the regency of his mother Louisa of Savoy, aided by the Chancellor - Antoine Duprat ( a newly rewarded and highly avaricious cardinal) and Breda of the Sorbonne. The Valois family had a long history of persecution of the Waldenses and to Louisa fell the task of rescuing France from Protestantism. In 1523 she was given the counsel of `use the stake`. But Parliament in the meantime summoned Briconnet before it on 12 April 1523 and threatened burning. Briconnet declined that fate, was fined and ordered to make three edicts at Meaux - restore public prayer to the Virgin and saints, forbid buying and reading  books of Luther,  and silence on the protestant preachers. Farel took himself to Switzerland to continue his preaching; Lefevre went first to Strasbourg then Nerac near Angouleme, the home of Margaret de Valois. A new hope for the Reformation, John Calvin,  arrived at La Marche College, Paris  about August 1523.

In France, darkness and intolerance descended and the martyrs began to be burnt at the Place de Greve in Paris ( later to be the scene for Madame la Guillotine in the French Revolution). The first was a young man named Pavane from Boulogne who at first recanted on Christmas Eve 1524, but then resiled and was burnt. Hundreds were to follow him. These included the lowly and the high born. Of the latter  Louis de Berquin, of the noble Artois family was one. He was a man of letters  who enjoyed books and learning who had a dispute about the Gospels and turned to the Bible for reference. To his surprise he found the doctrine of Luther revealed, not those of Rome, and was soon converted. He urged the reformed creed on his tenants and through his contacts became a prominent evangelist. But the Sorbonne papists took their revenge in 1523 and he was arrested and tried for heresy. The king intervened and he was released, But he was again seized, released and told by the king to be  more prudent. The third time he was seized there seemed to be no escape, the king then being a prisoner of the Emperor, Charles V,  in Madrid. However, an order from Francis dated 1 April 1526 yet again secured release. Finally, as it turned out, he was imprisoned in March 1529 to await trial. Whilst there he realised that he had many incriminating papers at home and despatched a messenger with a letter ordering the destruction of the papers. Unfortunately the messenger collapsed, allegedly swooning through conscience at a roadside statue of the Virgin. When his clothes were loosened the letter was found and read and disclosed to the priests. Despite an appeal to the king then at Bois, the papists hurried through the heresy charges, condemned him and executed him at the stake on  22 April 1529. In death Berquin may well have had the last word; presented as a spectacle of the power of Rome,  he dressed in  a cloak of velvet, doublet of satin and damask, and golden hose as if attending the king. When he went to speak his final words, the papists, soldiers, and drum rolls drowned him out. The people did not forget his treatment.

Meanwhile Francis I sought German Protestant support against the Emperor and pursued a chimerical union of Romanism and Protestantism as part of his design. The scheme was supported in broad principal by the pacifist Bucer and Melanchthon who were opposed to religious war. But the plan came to nothing save to raise hackles all round. It contributed to the rash action by the French Protestants to seek advice from Farel and others in Switzerland that resulted in the vituperative placards against the mass that were distributed throughout France on the night of 24 October 1534 [ Note: Some historians say this took place on 18 October]. One was even posted on the door to the King`s private apartments  in the Castle of Amboise which generated a furious response of  "Let all be seized , and let Lutheranism  be totally exterminated."  The bloodbath and martyrdoms in France began, hastened along by Beda at the Sorbonne and the priests who spread gross lies and calumnies to maintain a white hot indignation among the people. There then took place the grotesque ceremonial burnings on 21 January 1535 that set the tone for the decades that followed.

Another significant event was the arrival of Catherine de Medici, bride of Henry, the king`s second son. In a very short space of time Catherine, a niece of  Pope Clement VII and under his protection, was the de facto ruler of France. First the Dauphin died and Henry her husband became heir. Then Francis I died and Henry II was king, only to die; then within a year so did  his son Francis II  (husband of Mary Queen of Scots), leaving the weak minded  younger brother  Charles IX, as king.  Catherine faced these family disasters with equanimity and soldiered on, determined that her family would survive. Although painted by history as the Nemesis of Protestantism in France, Catherine was remarkably tolerant given her family background, and worked hard to bring both sides together. She summoned the Colloquy of Poissy in 1561;and was behind the Treaty of St Germain, 8 August 1570, that mirrored the earlier  Peace of Amboise in 1563, allowing freedom of conscience and religion within specified locations.  There is some evidence that she did not order the murder of all the Huguenots on St Bartholomews Day, 24 August, 1572, but only agreed to remove the known leaders whom she believed were plotting against the king. An excess of zeal, to say the least, by papist supporters took her word literally and executed all and any they found including some 1000 innocent, non Huguenot, residents of Paris.

 [ Recommended further reading: Catherine de Medici by Leonie Frieda, Wiederfeld & Nicolson,2003; Phoenix paperback 2005 ].


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