Calvinism in France and the Netherlands

THE TWO most important Continental countries into which Calvin­ism spread were France and the Netherlands. In France it gained considerable support, but became involved in the struggle among the nobility to gain control of the throne. The result was the Massacre of St Bartholomew, and a long civil war in which Philip II of Spain supported the Roman Catholics. Eventually Calvinism was tolerated, but did not win over the French people.

The people of the Netherlands accepted Calvinism at the time when they were contending for their independence against Spain; and William of Orange became the leader and symbol of their struggle. He was assassinated, but the Dutch people were to win political and religious freedom by the end of the century.

Here is a report to the Venetian Ambassador in France, written in France 1561. By this time the Huguenots (French Calvinists) had become widespread and very strong: ‘Unless it otherwise pleases the Almighty, religious affairs will soon be in an evil case in France, be­cause there is not one single province uncontaminated. Indeed, in some provinces, such as Normandy, almost the whole of Brittany, Touraine, Poitou, Gascony, and a great part of Languedoc, of Dauphiny and of Provence, comprising three fourths of the king­dom, congregations and meetings, which they call assemblies, are held; and in these assemblies they read and preach, according to the rites and usages of Geneva, without any respect either for the ministers of the king or the commandments of the king himself. This contagion has penetrated so deeply that it affects every class of persons, and, what appears more strange, even the ecclesiastical body itself. I do not mean only priests, friars and nuns, but even bishops and many of the principal prelates, who hitherto had not shown any such disposition; and it is only on account of the rigorous execution of the law that other persons besides the populace have not disclosed themselves, because they have restrained themselves for the time being, from fear of the loss of their property and lives (77).

The same writer comments drily on the influence of Calvin himself in France: ‘Your Serenity will hardly believe the influence which the principal minister of Geneva, by name Calvin, a Frenchman and a native of Picardy, possesses in this kingdom; he is a man of extra ordinary authority, who by his mode of life, his doctrines, and his writings, rises superior to all the rest; and it is almost impossible to believe the enormous sums of money which are secretly sent to him from France to maintain his power (78).

Finally, the Ambassador looked anxiously into the future of religion in France: ‘It is sufficient to add that if God does not interfere, there is great and imminent danger that one of two things will happen in this kingdom: either that the truce, which is desired and sought publicly, will end by the heretics having churches wherein they can preach, read and perform their rites according to their doctrine, without hindrance and in like manner as they obtained their churches by command of the late king, given at Fontainebleau at the end of August, in compliance with a petition presented to him by the Admiral; or else that we shall see an obedience to the Pope and to the Catholic rites enforced, and shall have resort to violence and imbrue our hands in noble blood. For these reasons I foresee a manifest and certain division in the kingdom and civil war as a consequence; and this will be the cause of ruin both of the kingdom and of religion, because upon a change in religion a change in the state necessarily follows (79).

An account was given by a Swiss traveller of the strictness of Huguenot discipline: ‘Control of the Protestant faith is very severe. Anyone who attends mass, even once, is made to confess before the whole congregation, as if he had always been a papist, and he must ask to be reconciled. Those who have been denied communion, on account of some grave sin, are also compelled to appear before the whole assembly, if they wish to have grace, and if they do not do this, the communion is refused to them. Holy communion takes place only four times a year, at Christmas, at Easter, at Pentecost, and in September, and this makes it easy to exclude those who have been excommunicated (80).

The same traveller describes the Communion services at Montpellier, a Huguenot stronghold: ‘So that everyone may communicate the same morning the service begins two or three hours before daybreak. Immediately after the sermon the communion begins, during which some chapters of the New Testament are read from the pulpit. When the men, and afterwards the women, have communicated, a grace is said, the congregation sings, and then about seven o’clock everyone leaves the church. Immediately a second congregation enters, the singing begins again, then the sermon, and then communion, as before. This goes on sometimes until eleven o’clock or midday. Sometimes at Montpelier four to six thousand people communicate in a single day, and the crush is such that in winter the church is as warm as if it were heated (81).

A friend of Admiral Coligny, the leader of the French Huguenots, wrote in his biography of Coligny : ‘When the time of the Lord’s Supper was at hand, he was wont to call his domestics, and members of his household about him and make known unto them that he had to render an account unto God, not only of his own mode of life but of theirs. If any discord had fallen among them, they were reconciled. If any man seemed insufficiently prepared for the understanding and veneration of that great mystery, he caused him to be more diligently instructed in religion. If any seemed more stubborn, he told them openly that he would rather be alone in his house than keep a following of the wicked … (83).

A friend of Calvin observed in a letter to him written in 1562, the year the Wars of Religion broke out in France: ‘Nothing disturbs us more than the baseness of the Church, not to give it a harder name. I have been as far as Angers, in peril of my life, but I was able to do little or nothing. Their violence in the destruction of altars is incredible, and we have been quite unable to prevent it here. In short, all things are suddenly changed, so that I am amazed at the spectacle; for the enemy in a hundred years, even if victorious, could not re‑store, in this one city alone, what has been destroyed in the space of two hours (84).

A French writer remarked sadly during the Wars of Religion:

‘It would be impossible to tell you what barbarous cruelties are committed by both sides. Where the Huguenot is master, he ruins the images and demolishes the sepulchres and tombs. On the other hand, the Catholic kills, murders, and drowns all those whom he knows to be of that sect, until the rivers overflow with them (84).

In 1569 an Englishman thought that the hatred of each side for the other during the wars was growing worse: ‘And that withal the dreadfullest cruelties at once of the world, plague, hunger, and the sword, which God of his goodness cease in them and preserve from us; and to this is joined an incredible obstinacy of either side, even hardening their hearts with malice and fury to the utter extermination one of another (85).

In the end, some 15,000 Huguenots, including Coligny, were slaughtered in France in 1572. The thirteen year old Duke of Sully, later to be Henry IV’s great minister, was one of the few Huguenots to escape in Paris: ‘I put on my student’s gown and, taking a large breviary under my arm, went downstairs, As I walked out into the street I was horrified; there were madmen running to and fro, smashing down doors and shouting, “Kill, kill, massacre the Huguenots”. Blood spattered before my eyes and doubled my fear. I ran into a clump of soldiers, who stopped me. They plied me with questions and began to jostle me about when luckily they saw my breviary. That served as my safe conduct. Twice again the same thing happened and twice again I escaped (86).

About the day the news of the Massacre of St Bartholomew reached Rome, a Cardinal reported: ‘On the same morning . . . his Holiness with the whole College of Cardinals went to the church of St Mark to have the Te Deum sung and to thank God for granting so great a favour to the Christian people. His Holiness does not cease to pray God, and to make others pray, to inspire the Most Christian King to follow further the path which he has opened and to cleanse and purge completely the Kingdom of France from the plague of the Huguenots. Also, this morning, His Holiness went in procession to the church of St Louis, where a solemn Mass was held with the same intention, and next week he will proclaim a solemn jubilee (87) .

A defence was given to the French Ambassador in Venice by the Queen Mother, Catherine de’ Medici, who had made her son, Charles IX, have the Huguenot leaders killed: ‘I am certain it will be said that my son the King has only acted within his rights as a sovereign prince, and that the Admiral, strong and powerful as he was in this realm, could not otherwise be punished for his rebellion and disobedience but in the manner after which he and his party have been treated. The King is greatly troubled that in the heat of the moment certain others of the religion were slain by the Catholics, who called to mind infinite evils, robberies and other wicked acts committed upon them during the troubles; but now at last all is peaceful, so that there is recognised only one King, and one justice rendered to all alike according to duty and equity, since the King is resolved, in view of the evils caused by the diversity of religions, to suffer none but his own (88).

In 1589, however, the Huguenot leader Henry of Navarre became King of France as Henry IV, and the next year virtually ended the Wars of Religion by starving Paris into submission. An entry in a contemporary diary shortly before the end of the siege states: ‘Monday, August 6 . . . Over the portals of the butcher shops, where there are only pieces of old cow, mule, and cat, instead of the usual beef and mutton, I found the following written in capital letters. “These are the rewards of those who pour out their lifeblood for Philip” [Philip II of Spain] (89).

A discussion took place between the Roman Catholic clergy and Henry of Navarre, who accepted Roman Catholicism on becoming King of France: ‘When they came to the prayer for the dead, he said, “Let’s skip the Requiem, I’m not dead yet and don’t want to be”. As for Purgatory, he said he believed in it, not as an article of faith, but as a doctrine of the Church, which he believed as a good son of the Church. He said this to please them, as it was their bread and butter. On the adoration of the sacrament, “You haven’t satisfied me on this point . . . but look here: today I put my soul in your hands. I beg you take good care of it. Where I go in today I will not come out till death, I swear and protest to you”. As he said this, there were tears in his eyes . . . (90).

This report was given by a Parisian of the time: ‘A bishop said to a friend of mine, on the same subject, “I am a Catholic by life and profession and a faithful servant of the King. I will live and die as such. But I think it would have been better if he had stayed on his own religion . . . in matters of conscience there is a God on high Who judges, Who should be the consideration of the consciences of men, rather than kingdoms and crowns . . . I expect only bad luck from it”. (91).

By the Edict of Nantes (1598), Henry IV gave the Huguenots religious freedom. But it was taken away again by Louis XIV in 1665: ‘Article 3 We ordain that the Catholic, Apostolic and Roman faith be restored and re-established in all those districts and places of this our Realm … in which its exercise has been interrupted, there to be freely and peaceably exercised.

Article 6 And to leave no occasion for trouble or difference among our subjects: We permit those of the so-called Reformed Religion to live and abide in all the towns and districts of this our Realm free from inquisition, molestation or compulsion to do anything in the way of Religion, against their conscience … provided that they observe the provisions of this Edict.

Article 9 We also permit those of the aforesaid Religion to practise it in all the towns and districts of our dominion, in which it had been established and publicly observed by them on several distinct occasions during the year 1596 and the year 1597 up to the end of August, all decrees and judgements to the contrary not­withstanding (92).

Here is an extract from the speech made by Henry to the Parle­ment of Paris in 1599, which persuaded them to verify the Edict of Nantes: ‘What I have to say is that I want you to verify the Edict which I have granted to those of the Religion. I have done it to bring about peace. I have made it abroad; I want it at home. You should obey me, even if there were no other consideration but my station and the obligation of subjects, but you, of my Parlement, have a special obligation. I restored their houses to some who had been exiled, their faith to others who had lost it. If obedience was due to my predecessors, it is due still more to me, as I have reestablished the state, God having chosen me to come into this heritage. The members of my Parlement would not be in office without me … I know the road to sedition which led to the Barricades and the assassination of the late King. I’ll take care it doesn’t happen again …(93).

An Englishman spoke of the violent outbreak of image-breaking in Antwerp in 1566, following the spread of Calvinism there, and elsewhere in the Netherlands: ‘I, with above ten thousand more, went into the churches to see what stir there was there; and coming into our Lady Church, it looked like a hell: where above 1000 torches burning, and such a noise! as if Heaven and Earth had gone down together, with falling of Images and beating down of costly works; in such sort that the spoil was so great that a man could not well pass through the church. So that, in fine, I cannot write you in ten sheets of paper the strange sight I saw there—organs and all, destroyed! and from thence I went (as the rest of the people did), to all the houses of Religion, where was the like stir—breaking and spoiling of all there was. Yet, they that this did, never looked towards any spoil, but broke all in pieces, and let it lie underfoot (94).

A strong letter written by Philip to his Regent in the Netherlands in 1565 expresses his determination to crush Calvinism there: ‘As to the Inquisition,’ he wrote, ‘my will is that it be enforced by the Inquisitors, as of old and as is required by all law, human and divine. This lies very near my heart and I require you to carry out my orders. Let all prisoners be put to death, and suffer them no longer to escape through the neglect, weakness and bad faith of the judges. He added: ‘If any are too timid to execute the edicts, I will replace them by men who have more heart and zeal (95).

Philip declared he would destroy all heresy in the Netherlands; William of Orange, the most powerful nobleman in the country, was deeply upset: ‘I confess I was deeply moved with pity for all the worthy people who were thus devoted to slaughter, and for the country to which I owed so much, wherein they designed to introduce an Inquisition worse and more cruel than that of Spain. I saw, as it were, nets spread to entrap the lords of the land as well as the people, so that those whom the Spaniards and their creatures could not supplant in any other way, might by this device fall into their hands. It was enough for a man to look askance at an image to be condemned to the stake. Seeing all this, I confess that from that hour I resolved with my whole soul to do my best to drive the Spanish vermin from the land; and of this resolve I have never repented, but believe that I, my comrades and all who have stood with us, have done a worthy deed, fit to be held in perpetual honour (96).

In 1580 Philip angrily declared William an outlaw: ‘Now we hereby declare this head and chief author of all the troubles to be a traitor and miscreant, an enemy of ourselves and our country. We interdict all our subjects from holding converse with him, from sup­plying him with lodging, food, water, or fire under pain of our royal indignation. And in execution of this Declaration we em­power all and every to seize the person and the goods of this William of Nassau, as enemy of the human race; and hereby, on the word of a King and as minister of God, we promise to anyone who has the heart to free us of this pest, and who will deliver him dead or alive, or take his life, the sum of 25,000 crowns in gold or in estates for himself and his heirs; we will pardon him any crime if he has been guilty, and give him a patent of nobility, if he be not noble, and we will do the same for all accomplices and agents. And we shall hold all who shall disobey this order as rebels, and will visit them with pains and penalties. And, lastly, we give command to all our governors to have this Declaration published in all parts of our said Provinces (97).

William, however, defied Philip in an Apology, an open letter defiance addressed to all the people of the Netherlands: ‘I take it as a signal honour that I am the mark of the cruel and barbarous proscription hurled at me by the Spaniard for undertaking your cause and that of freedom and independence; and for this I am called traitor, heretic, foreigner, rebel, enemy of the human race, and I am to be killed like a wild beast, with a price offered to my assassins. I am no foreigner here, no rebel, no traitor (98).

He went on, ‘I was bred up a Catholic and a worldling, but the horrible persecution that I witnessed by fire, sword and water, and the plot to introduce a worse than Spanish Inquisition which I learned from the King of France, made me resolve in my soul to rest not till I have chased from the land these locusts of Spain … And of the resistance to the tyranny of Spain I take responsibility, for I view with indignation the bloodthirsty cruelties, worse than those of any tyrant of antiquity, which they have inflicted upon the poor people of this land (99).

After several attempts on his life, William was brutally murdered in 1584. But a state document said of him: ‘As long as he lived he was the guiding star of a whole brave nation, and when he died the little children cried in the streets (100).

Passions ran high on every side. The stability and security of the medieval world was fast vanishing, and Europe stood on the brink of a new age. Much violence and bloodshed was to follow as old, cherished institutions were threatened. What was the church of Rome to do?