The Persecution of Catholics in France

by the Protestant Calvinists

By William Thomas Walsh


In the fall of 1561 the Calvinists of France, well supplied with money, took arms under Conde’ and Coligny and began marching through the country to mobilization points, often under the leadership of preachers armed to the teeth.

While these men thundered against the Scarlet Women of Babylon and preached slaughter with a fervor more becoming to Mohammedans than to men who called themselves Christians... they had begun to sack bishops’ houses and churches, to destroy altars and images of Christ and of the saints, and to deprive Catholics of their arms.

The storm of hate, which had so long been gathering, burst in all its fury. Almost simultaneously, as if by a concerted signal, well-organized bands of Calvinists fell upon the Catholic churches, convents, schools and libraries. At Montpellier they sacked all the sixty churches and convents, and put one hundred-fifty priests and monks to the sword. At Nimes they made a great pile of statues and relics in front of the Cathedral, danced around it while the flames arose, yelled that they would have no more Mass or idolaters, and then wrecked and plundered the churches. At Montauban they dragged the Poor Clare from their convent, exposed them half-naked to the jibes of the paid mob, shouted insults at them and told them to get married. At Castres, in December, a Reformed Consistory or Sanhedrin, ordered the city officials to take every one found on the streets to Huguenot sermons. Priests were dragged from the altars, the Poor Clare were scourged at the whip’s end, peasants were driven with blows to hear the preachers inveigh with their peculiar nasal intonation against the Mass, Confession, the Pope. The fields and vineyards around Catholic villages where the people refused to listen to the preaching were burned or cut down.

Within a year the Calvinists, according to one of their own estimates, "murdered 4,000 priests, monks and nuns, expelled or maltreated 12,000 nuns, sacked 20,000 churches, and destroyed 2,000 monasteries " (Novuvelle Collection de memoires relatif a l'histoire de France, Ch.  XI, p. 512)with their priceless libraries and works of art. The rare manuscript collection of the ancient monastery of Cluny was irreparably lost, with many others. Sacred vessels from the churches were melted into money to pay German mercenaries, who were urged to be ruthless.

Coligny took an active part in many of the atrocities. He displayed such cold and vindictive cruelty, especially to priests and nuns, that Catholics came to call him Holofernes.(21) In some places the entrails of the victims were plucked forth, stuffed with straw, and given to the horse of the Huguenot troopers to eat. Hundreds of cities and villages were burned. Lyons and its prosperous commerce were ruined.

This ancient fury, deliberately cultivated, spared not even the dead. Not only was the tomb of William the Conqueror destroyed, but the venerated bodies of holy men and women who had spent their lives in the service of God and of the poor were dragged from their resting-places, trampled, burned, thrown into rivers. A mob cast down the statue of Saint Joan from the bridge at Orleans. Other fanatics threw the remains of Saint Irenaeus and Saint Martin of Tours into the Loire. In Poiters they destroyed the relics of Saint Hilary and precious books written by his hand. Breaking into the tomb of Saint Francis of Paula at Plessis-les-Tours, they found the body whole and incorrupt after more than half a century; instead of being awed by the phenomenon, they dragged it at the end of a rope thought the streets, and burned it. A few of the saint’s bones were found afterward by Catholics and preserved in various church of the Order of Minims.

Not only those who had laid down their lives for Christ, but Christ Himself, seemed a special object of hatred to these men who called themselves Christians and taught the damnation of infants and the predestination of many souls to Hell. As in all anti-Christian revolutions, statues of the Savior were spat upon, knocked down and demolished. The Body of Christ was often injured and reviled in the Blessed Sacrament. At Nimes, in Paris and others places, the tabernacles were broken open, and the Host thrown out and trampled upon, both by men and by horses.

Although these atrocities were perpetrated by a small minority in an overwhelmingly Catholic country, all the forces of the national and local governments seemed paralyzed and impotent for the moment. The Calvinists had majority in the States-General and friends in the Parliament of Paris. There seemed to be men everywhere in important positions to protect them and to sidetrack any attempt to punish them.

Catherine, inspired by l’Hopital, issued and edict in January, 1562, giving the Calvinists the right to worship as they pleased outside the cities, provided the churches were restored and both sides abstained from violence. This was intended to mollify the Calvinists. It had no such effect. Taking if for the surrender it was, the Calvinists rejoiced over the first breach of the union of Church and State in France. They promptly destroyed the Cathedral in Beza’s city, and drove away all the clergy. In part of Gascony no priest could be found within forty miles. More nuns were dragged form convents, more tabernacles opened and profaned. In February, just after the opening session of the Council of Trent (with French delegates present, thanks to the determination of their leader, the Cardinal of Lorraine) seventy Calvinist preachers met in solemn synod at Nimes and deliberately planned to destroy all the Catholic churches in the city and the diocese. They promptly proceeded to put the plan into execution, burned the Cathedral, and drove away all the priests. The reign of terror was not the impassioned unthinking work of an ignorant mob, but a carefully engineered program of spoliation, destruction and assassination.

Many Catholics who had at first supported the Coligny faction for some political reason, such as feud with Guises, now withdrew. The Constable Anne de Montmorency left the Politiques for the Catholic party. Anthony of Navarre returned to the Faith, joined Duke Francis de Guise, and proposed establishing the Inquisition to heal the wounds of France. But it was too late for such a peaceful measure.

Guise now started for Paris, at the invitation of Anthony of Navarre, taking along, with an armed escort, his children, and in a litter his sick wife, lonely daughter of Renee of France and Duke Hercule d’Este of Ferrara, of whom Ronsard had sung, Venus la sainte en sess graces habite....

At Vassy the cavalcade came upon a party of six or seven hundred Calvinist, most of them armed, holding a meeting in a barn. An altercation arose between some of Guise’s men and the Calvinists. As the Duke rushed in to quell the disturbance, a Calvinist wounded him. Some of his men, infuriated, fell upon the heretics, killed twelve on the spots, and wounded forty others so badly that they afterward died.

Beza and the other vociferous propagandist of Calvinism seized upon this unfortunate but perhaps inevitable incident—inevitable considering the provocation given by the Calvinist Reign or Terror—to cry up the "Massacre of Vassy," until it was magnified into a cold-blooded slaughter of hundreds of noble and defenseless Calvinists. What is more remarkable is that so many modern historians have dated the Huguenot wars from this incident, instead of from the Tumult of Amboise. Beza preached a crusade against the Catholics. Conde’ made another attempt to seize the young King, but failed. Guise meanwhile marched into Paris, and was received with delirious joy by the citizens. The merchants offered him 2,000,000 lives to defend the Faith and restore peace in the city. The Duke refused, saying he had come to place himself at the disposal of his King. Of all the principals in the first of the eight bloody Huguenot wars, this man clearly stands out, calm, courageous, loyal, patriotic and devout—a heroic character, one of the finest surely in French history.