From the windows of his ancient castle, Gaspard de Coligny could look out over miles of mountain and stream and forest, all of which belonged to him.
Coligny seemed to have everything that the heart of man could wish. He was rich and eminent. His family had been great in France for more than four hundred years. Indeed, he traced back his ancestry to the first soldier who followed Clovis into the water of baptism. For Clovis, king of the wild Franks, in the fifth century, made a vow in the midst of a battle that if he won the victory he would become a Christian; and he did win the victory, and was baptized, and three thousand of his warriors with him. The first man to step down into the water after the king, was the forefather of Coligny.
His mother, being left a widow, had given great care to the education of her four sons. They were taught the knightly games of tilt and tourney, in which they played at war, and learned how to give blows and take them. They were trained in the courteous manners of the time. They could sing the ballads which celebrated the courage of the heroes of Charlemagne, and could read them in the pages of the books. Also they could read the New Testament, which had just been translated into French. One of the boys was made a cardinal, at the age of sixteen; one died; the other two, Gaspard and Andelot, were brought to the court of King Francis the First.
Here was a gay life of balls and tournaments, with an occasional experience of real fighting, in the wars which were always going on. Here Coligny met young Francis of Lorraine, known later as the Duke of Guise, and the two became fast friends, jousting in the same tournaments, dancing at the same parties, wearing the same colors, white and green, and each planning to become the greatest captain of his age. Already the two friends showed the qualities which afterwards made them enemies. Guise desired to have his pleasure; Coligny to do his duty. Guise was an aristocrat, caring only for persons of high birth and wealth; Coligny cared for the common people.
So years passed, and Francis died and Henry the Second came to the throne, with Catherine de' Medici his wife. Henry and Cather, Guise and Coligny, were all young together. It was Guise who held the town of Metz against the tremendous forces of Charles the Fifth. It was Coligny who brought order and discipline into the army of France.
The soldiers who fought for France came from various countries for the sake of the French pay. They were wild and lawless, and their only interest was to get whatever spoil they could. When war was in progress they fought the enemy, but in the intervals of peace they fought among themselves. They were as uncontrolled as savage animals. These soldiers Coligny brought under stern rule. He hated disorder. He hated still more the oppression of the weak at the hands of the strong. Every robber, he promptly hanged. Men who committed lesser offenses were beaten with the hafts of pikes. Even swearing was punished with the pilory. Thus the general saved the people from the soldiers, and introduced into the army a drill, a discipline, a life under severe rule, such as is common enough now, but which had not then been known since the time of the old Caesars.
At the age of thirty-three, Coligny was made Admiral of France. But the fortunes of war now turned against him. At the siege of St. Quentin, he was taken prisoner by the Spaniards. During the quiet months of his imprisonment, while he waited for the ransom by which he was released, he had opportunity to think, not only about war, but about religion. He became a Huguenot.
The Huguenots were the Protestants of France. The name indicates their position as a people already prosecuted. One of the gates of the city of Tours was named for old King Hugo, about whom there were many pleasant ghost-stories. The king was said to be in the habit of coming out of his grave by night, and wandering about the streets. The Protestants of the city, being in fear of their neighbors, used to meet at King Hugo's gate, under the cover of darkness. They were called Huguenots in derision, because like the ghostly king they appeared only at night.
Protestantism had come with France gradually, assisted by many influences: by the lives of the clergy, which suggested the common phrase, "as idle as a priest"; by the desire of the monks for money; by the enlightenment of the new learning; by the sermons of Luther, and by the satires of Rabelais; by the teaching of Calvin. Little by little, the new opinions made their way. First in this town, then in that, those who thus agreed in the necessity of changing religion for the better came together and founded Protestant societies.
These people had no leader. No Luther, no Cranmer, no Calvin had appeared in France. But they had their heroes. One of their first martyrs was a poor wool-carder of Meaux, named Leclerc. A papal bull had been posted on the cathedral door, promising the usual indulgences to those who should repeat certain prayers. Leclerc tore it down.
He was three times publicly whipped for this offense and his forehead was branded with the fleur-de-lis. In spite of these punishments, hearing that a procession was starting to go to a saint's shrine outside the city, he hurried out before the people and destroyed the shrine. When the procession arrived, they found the image of the saint in pieces. For this, they cut off Leclerc's right hand, tore his face and breast with pincers, and finally put upon his head a red-hot band of iron. He made no groan nor cry, but continued, so long as he had breath, to recite the text, "Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands." And there were many like him; but most of them were plain people. The nobles, the bishops, the scholars held, for the most part, to the old ways.
When Henry the Second became king he entered upon a vigorous course of persecution, treating the Huguenots as if they were poisonous weeds in a garden. But this seemed only to increase their number. Every martyr converted a hundred indifferent or hostile persons into disciples. Torture had no terror for them. Men, women, and children marched to their punishment as if they were on their way to a merry festival, singing as they went. As they died, they turned their faces toward Geneva, blessing God for John Calvin.
For the Huguenots were Calvinists. They liked the methods of Calvin better than the methods of Cranmer.
There are two ways of dealing with a tree which has ceased to bear good fruit. One way is to take a pruning-knife, and lop off some of the dead branches, and a grafting-knife, and set new branches in their place. That is what Cranmer did. He kept the old service, only making it more simple and translating it into English. He kept the old Church, only subtracing the pope, who, after all, had been added to the apostolic order in the Middle Ages.
The other way is to take an ax. The tree bears no good fruit: cut it down, and plant another. That is what Calvin did. He put away the book which contained the old prayers, and told the ministers to make new prayers for themselves, out of their own hearts. He put away the bishops, and told the ministers that they were each as good as any bishop. Thus he established new societies of Christians; in France, called Huguenots; in Scotland, called Presbyterians.
In his prison, Coligny became a Huguenot. He brought to the service of these people the might of his own personality, and the strength of his high position. When the war was over, and the Admiral's ransom was paid, and he was free, he found himself at the head of the Protestant party in France; the papal party was led by his old companion, the Duke of Guise.
Between these parties was the Queen-mother, Catherine de' Medici. She was the ruler of France. After the death of her husband, Henry the Second, her sons came to the throne: first Francis the Second, at the age of sixteen; and after his death, Charles the Ninth, at the age of ten. The real power was in her hands.
At a meeting of the Assembly of Notables to consider the condition of the kingdom, Coligny presented a petition, "the supplication of those who, in divers provinces, invoke the name of God, according to the rule of piety." It was a request that the Huguenots might be permitted to practise their religion without hindrance.
"But," cried Guise, "the petition is unsigned."
"I will get fifty thousand signatures in Normandy alone," said Coligny.
"And I," said Guise, "will give five hundred thousand who will oppose it with their blood."
It was finally agreed to call a national parliament to discuss the matter, and after some years, and many obstructions put by the Guises in the way, such an assemblage was gathered together. An edict was passed giving the Protestants the right to meet, under the protection of the law. And there were those who hoped, that in France as in England, the men of the old learning and the men of the new, might somehow get along in peace.
But one day, six weeks after the issuing of the edict, the Duke of Guise, with an escort of gentlemen and soldiers, was riding on his way to Paris. And they came on a Sunday morning to the little town of Vassy. And the Huguenots of Vassy, in the freedom which the law had given them, were holding a religious service in a large barn.
"What is this?" said the Duke of Guise.
"It is a Huguenot meeting," said somebody who stood by.
"I will Huguenot them," cried the Duke. And thereupon he marched his soldiers against the barn; they broke the doors, and fired upon the people, men, women, and children, all unarmed and defenseless, till more than sixty of them were killed, and two hundred were wounded.
This was the beginning of a series of wars of religion which lasted for ten years. Then men of the old religion were strong in the cities; the strength of the men of the new religion was in the villages. Neighbors fought against neighbors. Soon, two armies were in the field, and there were bloody battles, sometimes with success on one side, sometimes with success on the other. Guise was the leader of the Catholics, Coligny of the Protestants. The forces seemed to be evenly matched. The whole land was in distress.
Then, one day, a young Huguenot soldier and spy, pretending to be a Cathoic, got admission to the household of the Duke of Guise and shot him, and then said that he had been sent to do that deed by Admiral Coligny. The Admiral denied it. He confessed that he was glad that the Duke was dead, for he believed him to be an enemy of God, but he declared that he had no part in killing him. They who have examined the matter most carefully find him innocent. But the tragedy added bitterness to a situation which was already bitter enough.
So campaign followed campaign across the fair land of France, each leaving a wall of burned houses and desecrated churches and dead bodies. Coligny's brother Andelot, after valiant service in the Huguenot armies, died of fever. Coligny's splendid castle was sacked, and his books, his pictures, all his treasures were destroyed. His fortune was gone. He had given to the cause of religion all that he had. When the news came of the plunder of his castle he wrote to his boys, "We must not count upon what is called property, but rather place our hope elsewhere than on earth." Suddenly, with an army which increased like a rolling snowball, he marched on Paris. And Catherine, in great fear, made terms of peace. She granted what Coligny had been fighting for, liberty in religion.
So there was peace in France, but only on the surface. The land was filled with rumors of disorder. At any moment, the old enemies might fall to fighting. It seemed to Coligny that there was only one way to unite the people of France, and to secure the lasting safety of the Huguenots. That was to go to war with Spain. Spain was the ancient foe of France, and was occupied just then in putting down a Protestant revolution in the Netherlands. Coligny proposed that the armies of France should direct their energies towards the Netherlands. Thus should Spain be humbled; the Netherlands would be added to the domains of France; and the cause of Protestantism would be greatly strengthened in Europe. This he said, day by day, to the young king. And in this he was day by day opposed by Catherine de' Medici, the king's mother. She was against the war; and especially she was against sending French forces to help the Dutch Protestants resist the Spanish Catholics.
In the midst of these discussions, all the nobility of France came crowding into Paris to attend a wedding. Margaret of Valois was to be married to Henry of Navarre. Henry was a Protestant, Margaret was a Catholic, and the union of the two seemed to represent the peace of the divided nation. The heart of Coligny was filled with hope. As he walked in the church of Notre Dame, after the wedding was over, he waved his hand toward the flags which hung upon the walls, memorials of Huguenot defeats, and said to a companion, "Soon shall these be pulled down, and better flags put in their places." It was plain, however, to observant persons, that Coligny was in danger. He was warned again and again to leave Paris. There were cautious friends who begged him to escape while he could from a city wherein Catherine was the ruler, and the young Duke of Guise had succeeded to his father's place. But Coligny trusted the king.
At last, one day, when the wedding festivities, the banquets, and the masquerades were over, Coligny met the king on his way to play a game of tennis, and went with him and looked on. As he started to go home, a man handed him a petition and he walked slowly along the street, reading as he went. Suddenly came the report of a gun, and Coligny felt himself struck by bullets in his right hand and his left arm. It was evident that an assassin had tried to kill him. The house was searched, from whose window the gun was fired, but nobody was found. Coligny was carried to his lodgings, and a physician was summoned. The king came to visit the wounded man, and so did Catherine. The people suspected the Duke of Guise. There were threatening cries against him in the streets.
The visit of sympathy was followed by a hasty meeting of the Council. What should be done? The Huguenots were demanding that the murderer be found and punished, and were declaring openly that the real murderer was Guise himself. The civil war seemed likely to begin again. Again there would be armies in the bloody fields, and Frenchmen would be killing Frenchmen. Again the Protestants would be led against the Catholics. It seemed to Catherine that for the sake of the nation and for the sake of the Catholic religion, there was only one thing to be done. That was to put to death not Coligny only, but all the Huguenot leaders then in Paris. Such an operation of surgery, she thought, might save France. "The dead do not make war."
So a massacre was planned. The young king, who was more than half disposed to take the counsels of Coligny, and had listened to him with regard and affection, was reluctantly persuaded. The Catholics were to wear a white handkerchief around the left arm. The Duke of Guise was to have the responsibility of murdering the Admiral. The houses of the Huguenots were marked. Even then the victims did not suspect the intentions of their enemies. So midnight passed, and the hands of the clock pointed to three or four of the morning of August 24, the feast of St. Bartholomew. Then the king, urged by his mother, gave the order to ring the bell of the church of St. Germain.
Immediately, the attack began. The house of Coligny was assaulted, and an entrance made. The wounded man was lifted up by his servants, while the noise of the enemy increased. A Huguenot minister prayed beside him. Coligny commended his soul in faith to God. Then they broke in, and killed him, and threw his body out of the window into the courtyard, where the Duke of Guise was waiting.
Then, for three days, blood ran in the gutters of Paris. Under the protection of the court, and with the aid of soldiers, the Catholics hunted the Protestants in the streets. Almost all of the Huguenot leaders were killed; and of the people, nobody knows how many: two thousand, six thousand, eight thousand, in Paris; and in the country, ten to twenty thousand.
When the news reached Rome, the city was illuminated during the nights of the greater part of a week, the guns of the Castle of St. Angelo were fired, the pope, with all the ambassadors and cardinals in their robes, marched in procession to the church, where a mass of thanksgiving was celebrated. The choir sang the twenty-first psalm: "The king shall rejoice in thy strength, O Lord; exceeding glad shall he be of thy salvation. Thou hast given him his heart's desire, and hast not denied him the request of his lips. All thine enemies shall feel thine hand: thy right hand shall find out them that hate thee." Every word seemed appropriate. A papal medal was struck to commemorate the massacre.
This rejoicing of Christian men over the bodies of their enemies seems almost as horrible as the massacre itself. Other Christians, Catholic as well as Protestant, denounced it. One of the last thundering sermons of John Knox was preached against it. To the pope, however, the news came like the tidings of victory in battle. He overlooked the black treachery of it in honest gratitude that the enemies of the Church were fallen.
Thus Coligny died a martyr, and the cause to which he gave his noble life died with him. For a time, the Huguenots were tolerated in their weakness. Finally, by the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, they were driven out of France.
The Reformation failed in France for many reasons, but chiefly because the people did not want it. When the Reformation was over in Europe, and all the battles had been fought and all the armies were disbanded, and the smoke had blown away enough to make it possible to see the resulting situation, it was found that the line between the countries in which the new religion failed and in which it succeeded ran along national and racial boundaries. On one side were the people who spoke German, and languages like German, such as Dutch and English. On the other side were the people who spoke languages which were derived from Latin, such as French, Spanish, and Italian. The inference is that the Reformation naturally attracted those who cared greatly for freedom, and repelled those who cared greatly for order. It was in accordance with the idea of the liberty of the individual; it was not in accordance with the idea of the authority of the institution. Anyhow, the northern nations received it, and the southern nations refused it.
As for Coligny, his cause failed; but courage and devotion never fail. The men who do battle for the sake of truth and right may be defeated, but their memory becomes a priceless possession. The example of a man who gives up ease, and wealth, and the pleasures of comfortable success, and life itself for a good cause, is an inspiring influence to all time. Coligny's name is a great victory. Men have ever since been braver and better because of him.