LandMarks Magazine  

September 1996 Table of Contents


The French Reformation
By J.A. Wylie

The French Reformation

Francis I had begun a course of persecution which he found he was not capable of controlling or stopping. As he laid on his death bed, at age fifty-two the memory of many dreadful deeds tormented him. The priests were unable to calm his fears as he drew near the end of his probation. He knew the judgement awaited him.

The most troubling incident had taken place just two years before in Provence. Anciently this area had been a desert. Its poor soil, boulders, swamps, and extreme weather conditions caused it to be farmed very little. But the Vaudois of the high valleys of the Piedmontese Alps, saw possibilities in the area. They crossed the mountain, cleared the boulders, and they planted wheat and vineyards. Now this former desert was lush with orchards, gardens, and golden fields of grain.

As the Reformation was moving forward in Europe, these Vaudois sent representatives to inquire into the beliefs of the Reformation, and discovered that they were brothers in the faith. When the priests in this area heard about this they determined to stamp out the first signs of Lutheranism in their territories. Francis offered pardon if the accused would give up their religion. They declined and horror followed. In a night, twenty-two villages were burned or sacked, and all their inhabitants murdered with horrible cruelty. The area was destroyed and became uncultivated and uninhabited. These memories followed Francis I to his death bed.

Francis I was replaced on the throne by his son Henry II who was a feeble king. During his rule four factions arose who fought to control the king, and thus the kingdom. These factions all hated Protestantism and these years were marked with great calamity for France. Henry was married to Catherine de Medici, the niece of a former Pope. Her influence was to be greater for evil than that of her husband or her sons who followed on the throne. Her husband’s love of pleasure was well known and all the nation knew of his mistress, Diana of Poictiers, who controlled access to the king.

The King and the Tailor

Though he was a poor husband, Henry determined to celebrate Catherine’s coronation as queen with great display, and he felt that the burning of a few Huguenots would add to the splendor of the event. It was decided that to give additional pleasure to his court, a simple tailor would be examined by a Catholic scholar, who would show the confusion of the poor man before the court. But the tailor proved more than a match for the scholar and it was the court which was embarrassed. Henry’s mistress came to the defense of the churchman; the tailor rebuked her sin as well as her ignorance. For punishment he was to burn as a coronation torch and the king had chairs set on a porch overlooking the sight, where he and Diana of Poictiers could personally watch the event. As the tailor burned he never ceased to look the king in the eye as his limbs burned and fell, until death relieved his suffering. The king suffered from the memory for days and determined to never watch another heretic burn. Since Diana was given many of the estates of the condemned, her insatiable avarice prompted new executions almost daily.

Th two remaining factions consisted of Montmorency, the High Constable of France, and the Guises. The Lords of Guise, from the house of Lorraine, included Francis, a man of war, and Charles, his brother, who chose the priesthood, becoming the Cardinal of Lorraine. One historian calls Charles the "cowardliest of all men." Both brothers were known for their cruelty and ambition, and the arms of one executed the craft plotted by the other. "‘But for the Guises,’ says Mezeray, ‘the new religion would perhaps have become dominant in France.’" Wylie’s History of Protestantism, book 17, 517. The jealousies between the Constable and the Guises brought calamity on the nation and nearly ruined France. The blame for these calamities was thrown on the Protestants. The calamity that befell the nation only worked as a cover for evangelization.

Church Growth

It was during this time of persecution that the various churches of Protestantism, which consisted of groups of believers meeting secretly in homes, began their work of electing pastors from their number, as well as other officers. The first church to elect a pastor was in Paris. They chose the son of the king’s attorney, who hated Protestantism. This necessitated the son’s flight from his father’s home and the forfeiture of his wealth. "Death the growing rigour of the persecution, the shameful slanders which were propagated against the reformed, and the hideous deaths inflicted on persons of all ages and both sexes, the numbers of the Protestants and their courage daily increased. It was now seen that scarcely was there a class of French society which did not furnish converts to the Gospel. Mezeray says that there was no town, no province, no trade in the kingdom wherein the new opinions had not taken root." Ibid., 522

The king’s alarm was great, and the friends of Rome sought in every way to crush the growing church. The king’s court and the ecclesiastical judges reproached one another for not showing greater zeal in executing the edicts against heresy. Finally, the Cardinal of Lorraine stripped the Parliament and the civil judges of the right to hear cases of heresy, leaving them only to the task of carrying out the orders of the bishops. He attempted to set up an Inquisition similar to that of Spain, but the Parliament refused their consent. All around the king were voices urging him to uproot heresy before it succeeded in overthrowing his throne, uprooting his family, and bringing the nation to destruction. Henry II and Charles V of Spain joined in a secret treaty, binding both monarchs to combine their powers to eliminate heresy in their dominions.

Heresy in the Gena

Quarterly, groups of senators met to discuss evidences of corruption in the state. The king was urged to present himself unannounced at one of these assemblies and see for himself if heresy did not exist among his senators. This advice he followed in June of 1559. He ascended a throne and gave a speech on religion. He expounded on his efforts for peace in Christendom, and announced his intention to devote himself to healing the wounds of the Christian world. Then he called the senators to go on with their work as he observed.

Many senators did not fail, even under this intimidation, to speak out for liberty and to declare the injustice of the burnings. One man, Annas du Bourg, spoke pointedly of the need to punish wicked crimes which went unpunished, even as new punishments were invented daily for those who were guilty of no crime. But others recalled the ancient slaughter of the Waldenses and the Albigensian heretics, and called for these time honored methods to again be used. When their votes were taken and recorded the king took note of the register "and to show that under a despot no one could honestly differ from the royal opinion and be held guiltless, he ordered the Constable Montmorency to arrest Du Bourg. He was instantly seized and carried to the Bastile." Ibid., 524. Other senators were arrested the next day.

"The king’s resolution was to execute all the senators who had opposed him, and to exterminate Lutheranism everywhere throughout France. He would begin with Du Bourg, who, shut up in an iron cage in the Bastile, waited his doom. But before the day of Du Bourg’s execution arrived, Henry himself had gone to his account." Ibid. Fourteen days after his visit to the Parliament, while celebrating the engagement of his daughter to the mightiest prince of the time, Philip II of Spain, the king was in a jousting match with the Constable and was mortally wounded. He died a few days later at forty-one.

Henry’s eldest son next took the throne under the title of Francis II. He was sixteen and without principles or morals. He was married to Mary Stuart, the heir to the Scottish throne and a niece of the Guises. Catherine de Medici was not yet in her full power, and in effect the Guises ruled France since, through their niece, they had easy access to the ear of the young boy king. One of Francis’s first acts was to try and condemn Du Bourg. Though imprisoned and fed only bread and water he continually sang psalms, and in giving up his life for the truth greatly aided the cause of Protestantism.

Organization of the Church

These days of persecution for the church were also days of growth. Though they had few ordained ministers to serve them, they would meet together to read the Word and to pray. These places were carefully selected. It might be a barn, cave, forest or home. "Assemble where they might, they knew that there was One ever in the midst of them, and where he was, there was the church." Ibid., 525. The Swiss printing presses kept colporteurs supplied with Bibles and religious books in abundance. They chose to hide their mission, and following the example of the ancient Vaudois, they went as traveling merchants hiding their books within their baskets of wares. In this way they succeeded in placing Bibles in the homes of nobles and peasants. The number of believers multiplied. Even in Provence, just 15 years after the terrible slaughter, no less than sixty churches existed.

It was determined that a Synod should be held in Paris in May of 1559. There were great difficulties sending word of the planned meeting to the churches, and more difficulty finding a place of concealment, but eleven representatives met. They studied the New Testament model of church organization and sought to follow its example. They set out forty articles in a Confession of Faith, and an additional forty articles in a Code of Discipline which outlined their organizational framework. They determined how their leaders were to be chosen and outlined their responsibilities. "Their power was not legislative but administrative, and their rule was not lordly but ministerial; they were the fellow-servants of those among whom, their functions were discharged." Ibid., 531.

Among the lay-leaders of the French Protestants, three names stand out. The prince of Conde was a noble who joined the cause, but did not bring to it that entire devotion or holy life necessary to be of true service. As with all of the house of Bourbon, to which he belonged, it might be said that they did the cause more damage than good. His brother was married to a truly great woman, Jeanne d’Albret, the daughter of Margaret of Valois. As the Queen of Navarre she ruled her small kingdom, wisely keeping her husband from the task. She studied law and produced a set of laws far in advance of her times. She encouraged industry, and, in a short time, her kingdom attracted universal attention for its order and prosperity. She was a true Protestant fostering liberty of conscience. The third name of renown is that of Admiral Coligny, perhaps the greatest layman of the French Reformation.


The Guises had not been successful in setting up an Inquistion after the Spanish order, but they succeeded in establishing courts styled Chambres Ardentes whose task it was to send all heretics to the flames. With their three judges or inquisitors, and a body of spies or familiars, they were quite effective. With prizes of the victim’s goods offered to informant, it was an opportunity to avenge grudges, and many suffered who had little acquaintance with the gospel. The courts and scaffolds were constantly busy, with one day’s victims being dispatched to make room for the next. It was a reign of terror. The little children of the heretics were left to wander the streets, crying piteously for bread, but no one would help. To aide a victim or to complain of the injustice, was to be drawn into the same punishment. The Parliament made no attempt to intervene. The citizens of the land were made to believe that the persecuted were atheists and monsters and that they were cleansing France in their extermination. Their properties were confiscated, but the day of reckoning came in 1789 when the wealth taken by confiscation and injustice went in the same manner.

Conspiracy of Ambiose

The nation was nearing civil war. Only the most bigoted Roman Catholics and the rabble, who were the pliant tools of the oppressor, were safe from this reign of terror. Both Catholics and Protestants began to promote the idea of forcibly removing the brothers of Lorraine. Calvin counseled against it, forseeing "that the Reformation might lose, even if victorious, by becoming in France a military and political power." Ibid., 542. Admiral de Coligny stood aloof from the plan. The Prince of Conde was chosen to lead in the attempt. They planned first to try making just demands for freedom of worship, and the removal of the Guises, but anticipating the rejection of these requests they planned to remove the Guises by force and place the Prince of Conde on the throne. Their plans, which had been kept secret by thousands, were leaked by a timorous Protestant attorney in Paris on the eve of the event. The plot ended with the army and its brave leader killed. The Guises now took revenge. Scaffolds were set up around the castle, and the royal court, including Mary Stuart, dressed in party fashion, watched as the axes fell and blood ran rushing into the Loire. Twelve hundred persons died.

In the face of all this violence, the Reformation continued to grow until whole towns were Protestant. These now grew bold to worship openly. This stung the Guises to madness and they became more violent. They would surprise the worshipers and hang their leaders. The Guises next thought to hang the Prince of Conde, and cause all of France to adjure Protestantism in a single day, by demanding each individual subscribe to an adjuration oath or be immediately executed. The cardinal called this his "Huguenot rattrap." As they prepared to get the king’s signature on their orders and all appeared lost for Protestantism, the young king sickened and died at age seventeen after a reign of only a few months. In the scramble for power that followed all were too busy to bury the king, and after some days his funeral car was followed by one blind bishop and two domestics to his grave.

King Charles

Mary Stuart returned to Scotland, taking with her a deeply cherished hatred of the Reformation. Catherine de Medici’s day had at last arrived as her nine year old son Charles IX took the throne. By right the Prince of Conde should have held the Regency of France during Charles’ minority, but the queen mother boldly put him aside and took the role herself. The Prince was freed from prison.

There followed two important meetings where justice had a hearing. In a meeting of the States-General, all the lay speakers "united as one man in arraigning the Roman Church as pre-eminently the source of many evils which afflicted France." Ibid., 547. They called for reform in doctrine and in their luxuriant living of the priests and called on them to instruct their flocks and reclaim those who had gone astray with truth and reason, not with persecutions. The Catholic speaker who followed called on the young king to root out heresy by violence. Coligny rose and demanded an apology. When non would support him, the speaker was forced to apologize, and Catherine, sensing the mood of the nation, decided to remain on good terms with both parties. She meant to hold a balance between the two parties by making each weaken the other and thus strengthen herself.

The favors she granted the Protestants prompted the formation of the Triumvirate, a holy league for the defense of the Catholic religion and their estates. Its members were the Duke of Guise, Constable Montmorency and Marshal St. Andre. This league left its mark on history.

The second hearing for justice and truth was a meeting between the two opinions, with opportunity given the Protestants to have their case heard. The Colloquy was held in September 1561. First were heard voices for toleration of the Protestants, since they were also Christians, and calls for reforms based on the Bible. The Papal members angrily denounced these ideas. Here Beza, the learned associate of Calvin, was allowed entrance and opportunity to speak. The distinction in dress, manners, and speech between the two parties made a favorable impression and Protestantism was seen in a different light. Beza on bended knee presented a copy of the Confession of the French Protestant Church to the king. The Romish party tried by speeches, tricks, and loud clamors to subdue the Protestants and convince them to deny their faith, but "it was clear that no fair discussion, and no honest adjustment of the controversy on the basis of truth, had from the first been intended." Ibid., 553. Many began to question if Romanism was a corruption of the Gospel. The Reformation stood higher in the public estimation, as it was seen to be different from the picture that the priest had painted of it.

Protestantism continued to grow, and with this growth were seen changes in the lives of its adherents. Growth was aided by an edict known as the Edict of January, granted in 1562, which gave a very limited right to exercise religion freely outside the cities, in open places, unarmed. A numbering of the churches by Beza, at the request of Catherine, counted upwards of 2,150 congregations some as large as 4,000 to 8,000 members. As many as 40,000 were known to have gathered outside the capital to hear sermons. It is estimated that one fourth of the flower of the population in respect of rank, intelligence, and wealth joined the Reformed faith.

Massacre at Vassy and Civil War

The Pope, Philip II of Spain, and the Triumvirate of Paris studied how to roll back the tide of Protestantism, for it was feared that France was soon to be lost to Lutheranism. Rome dreaded the loss of glory, revenues, and political strength that would result. They first succeeded in convincing the King of Navarre, husband of Jeanne d’Albret to join them with false promises. Antoine de Bourbon was a handy prize. Pulpits thundering against the Edict of January, with priests filling the superstitious ears of their congregations with tales and supplying them with arms, turning their churches into arsenals. When the time was right, the Duke of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine, were called upon to cut the knot of the edict with the sword.

They chose to march on the little town of Vassy where about 1200 Hugenots met weekly in a barn. On the first of March the barn was surrounded and a brutal scene followed as the captive worshippers attempted in vain to escape. This was the first blow in the civil wars. Other massacres followed and there was no national action taken against them. "The Popish mob was supplied with arms and formed into regiments. The churches served as club-houses.’ Ibid., 561. On June 8th Parliament passed a law allowing any man to kill a Protestant where he found him, and on the 18th of August Parliament again spoke declaring all gentlemen of the ‘new religion’ traitors to God and king. There was now open war.

Huguenot Wars

The next eight years saw three civil wars. The Huguenot reluctantly took up arms, choosing the Prince of Conde and Admiral Coligny as their leaders. Repeatedly they had the advantage and might have gained control of the capital if they had acted decisively. More than once they were drawn into conferences of peace by Catherine de Medici, which always ended as her forces grew powerful enough to fight again. Even after winning victories, the Prince of Conde gave such concessions to Catherine that even his enemies were astounded.

Many lives were lost in these wars and all the members of the Triumvirate were finally struck down. There were times when the Huguenot might have achieved their freedom if they had had the courage to make their demands. Peace after peace was declared, but blood continued to flow and one war followed another. There was no justice in the land. Another outcome of the wars was that hatred between the two sides grew, making conversions to Protestantism almost cease. "Piety decayed on the battlefield, and the evangelism began to retrograde. ‘Before the war,’ says Felice, ‘proselytism was conducted on a large scale, and embraced whole cities and provinces; peace and freedom allowed of this; afterwards, proselytes were few in number, and obtained with difficulty. How many corpses were heaped up as barriers between the two communions; how many bitter enmities, and cruel remembrances, watched around the two camps to forbid approach.’" Ibid., 587.

While the wars continued Catherine and Charles IX began to council with Philip of Spain on a different kind of battle of destroy Protestantism. The plan involved several years of planning and dreadful deceits. The result of their efforts would bring them all infamy.

The End










September 1996 Table of Contents



Newsletter | Missionary Tabloids | Information Request

Home Church Resources | We Believe

Copyright © 1997-2008 Steps to Life | P.O. Box 782828, Wichita, KS 67278
Phone: (316) 788-5559 Fax: (316) 788-6900 | E-mail address:
Designed by