The Awakening of Europe  by M. B. Synge

The Story of the Huguenots

"Thou Rochelle, our own Rochelle, proud city of the waters."


N O sooner was Colbert dead than Louis struck a tremendous blow at the large Huguenot community in his kingdom. The massacre of St Bartholomew, over 111 years before, had thinned their ranks; but a famous Act, known to history as the Edict of Nantes, had secured to them their rights as citizens of France. By this they could enjoy perfect freedom, they could hold offices side by side with Roman Catholics, they could build their own churches, teach in their own schools. So they had increased in numbers and in strength.

But in the year 1626, when Louis XIII. was reigning, their liberty was again threatened; they rose in revolt, and were besieged in their old stronghold—La Rochelle. The city was built in a crescent shape, round a fine land-locked bay, with a splendid harbour. It was sheltered from Atlantic storms by an island at the mouth of the harbour. So strong was the situation of La Rochelle, that the king, Louis XIII., and his great Minister Richelieu, had to bring the whole strength of the army to bear upon it. But stout Huguenot hearts beat within.

"We will not submit while there is one man left to shut the gates against the enemy," they said within the city walls.

Richelieu was determined to take the place. He built immense stone dykes out into the sea, across the harbour bar, from shore to shore. Where the water was too deep in the middle he filled huge ships with stones and sank them across the harbour mouth. It was a gigantic task, but it proved successful at last. Starvation began to tell on the heroic Huguenots, who could get no relief from without. Men, women, and children dropped dead in the streets, and after a resistance of fourteen months the city fell. And Richelieu, beside his king, rode into the death-stricken town of La Rochelle at the head of the royal army.

The Huguenots had again increased until they formed the most flourishing members of French trade. But Louis XIV. thought more about his own fame and power than of his country, and he now sought to convert or persecute them more fiercely than before. They were treated more and more harshly, until at length every career seemed closed to them. From time to time the king's messengers broke into their churches, placed their Bibles and hymn-books in a great pile, and set fire to them. Those that rebelled were hanged.

Then the king played his last card. In 1685 he revoked the famous Edict of Nantes, and thus struck the death-knell of the French Huguenots. With levers and pickaxes the Huguenot churches were knocked down. Children were torn from their mothers' arms to be brought up in the Roman Catholic faith, women were dragged from their sick-beds, hundreds were condemned to die, others were imprisoned for life.

"If God preserve the king, there will not be one Huguenot left twenty years hence," said one of Louis' friends.

Crushed, tormented, persecuted, there was nothing left them but flight, and even this was refused to most of them. They must become Roman Catholics or die. The frontiers of France were strongly guarded, the coasts were watched. In their desperate state the unhappy Huguenots crossed the frontier, through forests, over trackless wastes, or by high mountain paths, where no guard was stationed.

Numbers escaped into Switzerland, Germany, and Holland. They mostly travelled under cover of darkness in small parties. They disguised themselves in all sorts of ways. Some went as pedlars, others as soldiers, huntsmen, beggars, or servants. One well-known officer and his wife escaped to Holland dressed as orange-sellers, leading a donkey with panniers. Two little children were carried off in baskets slung across the back of a mule as luggage. One lady of high birth escaped as a peasant, with her infant son slung in a shawl at her back, passed through the guards, and made her way to London. Young girls browned their faces and pushed wheelbarrows to escape detection. Many hid in empty casks, and were thus carried on board ships bound for England. Their sufferings were terrible. Numbers were caught and brought back. Men and boys were put to serve as galley-slaves in the vessels of war which sailed up and down the Mediterranean Sea, five being chained to each oar.

Just a few were saved. The first admiral in France was a Huguenot. The king sent for him and begged him to become a Roman Catholic; but the old hero pointed to his grey hairs.

"For sixty years, sire, have I rendered to Cæsar the things which are Cæsar's: suffer me still to render unto God the things that are God's."

He was eighty years old, he had served his country well, and Louis spared him. But the great stream of Huguenot emigrants had left their country. It was the deathblow to several great branches of industry encouraged by Colbert. The silk manufacturers went over to London in a body. Amsterdam was filled with industrious French workers; Germany, Switzerland, all gained by the exodus. French ships were left unmanned, and the Huguenot seamen carried the news of their country's madness to the ends of the earth. Numbers sailed over the sea to America. A large party went to the Cape of Good Hope and joined the Dutch colony already thriving there under Van Riebeek. Thus a blow was struck at the prosperity of France. Not only her industries, but the flower of her race was gone, exiled, banished to foreign lands.

The greatness of France had already begun to pass away.