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Title: History of the Reformation - the Eloquence and Tortures of Francis I.
Author: John Calvin
Language: English

16 00005-0015 The Eloquence and Tortures of Francis I

(21st January, 1535.)

ALL was not over: they had had the comedy (as it appeared to some); they were now to have the oratorical address, and then the tragedy. In order to stifle the Reformation, something more was wanted than relics, chant-lug, and images: blood must be shed. But first of all there should be a speech from the throne. We do not doubt the sincerity of the king in his oratorical movements. The personal offense that had been done to him, and the obstacles raised by the placards to his political plans, most assuredly engrossed him more than the cause of Catholicism; but all this was mixed up in his mind, and he was eloquent. The ambassadors, the court, the parliament, the Bishop of Paris attended by the most distinguished of his clergy, the rector of the university with his principal doctors, the provost of the merchants, the sheriffs, and a great number of the leading officers and merchants of the city had received orders to assemble after dinner in the bishop’s great hall. They expected a speech from the king, an event of no frequent occurrence in those times, which made them all the more impatient. Ere long Francis I. entered: his countenance was serious, sad, and even gloomy. His children, the other princes of the blood, the cardinals and great officers of state surrounded the throne, whence the king could be seen and, heard by the whole assembly. He took his seat and said: ‘Messieurs, be not surprised if you do not see in my face that look which is usual to me, and that joy which animates me whenever I meet you. Do not marvel if. the tricks of eloquence are foreign to my speech. I do not come to talk to you of myself; we have to treat this day of an offense done to the King of kings.

It is proper that I should assume another style and language, another look and countenance, for I do not speak to you as a king and a master speaks to his subjects and his servants, but as being a subject and servant myself, and addressing those who are fellow-servants with me of our common King, of the Master of masters, who is God Almighty. What honor, what reverence, what obedience do we not owe to that great King!… What obligations does not this kingdom, more than any other, owe to Him, seeing that for thirteen or fourteen hundred years He has maintained it in peace and tranquillity with its friends, and in victory against its enemies!

And if, sometimes, for sins committed against His divine goodness, He has wished to visit us with punishment in temporal things, He has done it with so little severity, that He has never exceeded the chastisement which a kind and gracious father may use towards the faults of a humble and obedient son. But as for spiritual things, which touch the Holy Catholic faith, God has never forsaken France so far as to let her stray ever so little from it; and He has shown her this favor, that, by common accord, she has enjoyed the privilege of being the only power that has never nurtured monsters, and which, above all others, bears the name and title of Most Christian... So much the more ought we to feel grief and regret in our hearts, that there should be at this time in France reel so wicked and wretched as to desire to soil that noble name, — men who have disseminated damnable opinions,’ who have not only assaulted the things which our great King desires to be honored, and acted so evilly that they do not leave to others the power of doing worse, but have all at once attacked Him in the holy sacrament of the altar. People of low condition, and less learning, wicked blasphemers, have used, with regard to that sacrament, terms rejected and abhorred by every other nation. So that our realm, and even this good city of Paris, which from the time when letters were transported hither from Athens, has always shone in sound and holy learning, might remain scandalized, and its light be obscured… Wherefore we have commanded that severe punishment be inflicted on the delinquents, in order that they may be an example to others, and prevent them from falling into the like damnable opinions. And we entreat the misguided ones to return into the path of the Holy Catholic faith, in which I, who am their king, with the spiritual prelates and temporal princes, persevere… Oh! the crime, the blasphemy, the day of sorrow and disgrace! Why did it ever dawn upon us?’ ‘There were few of all the company,’ says the chronicle, ‘from whose eyes the king did not draw tears.’ After a few minutes, silence, interrupted by the exclamations and sighs of the assembly, the king resumed: ‘It is at least a consolation that you share my sorrow. What a disgrace it will be if we do not extirpate these wicked creatures!… For this reason I have summoned you to beg you to put out of your hearts all opinions that may mislead you; to instruct your children and your servants in the christian doctrine of the Catholic faith; and if you know any person infected by this perverse sect, be he your parent, brother, cousin, or connection, give information against him. By concealing his misdeeds, you will be partakers of that pestilent faction.’ The assembly gave numerous signs of assent; the king saw the devotion, zeal, and affection visible in their faces. ‘I give thanks to God,’ he resumed, ‘that the greatest, the most learned, and undoubtedly the majority of my subjects, and especially in this good city of Paris, are full of zeal for the Catholic religion.’ Then, says the chronicle, you might have seen the faces of the spectators change in appearance, and give signs of joy; acclamations prevented the sighs, and sighs choked the acclamations. ‘I warn you,’ continued the king, ‘that I will have the said errors expelled and driven from my kingdom, and will excuse no one.’

Then he exclaimed, says our historian, with extreme anger: ‘As true, Messieurs, as I am your king, if I knew one of my own limbs spotted or infected with this detestable rottenness, I would give it you to cut off… And further, if I saw one of my children defiled by it, I would not spare him… I would deliver him up myself, and would sacrifice him to God.’ At these words the king stopped: he was agitated and wept. The spectators, affected by the sight of this new Abraham, burst into tears.

After the interruption necessarily occasioned by this moving scene, Du Bellay, bishop of Paris, and John Tronson, Lord of Couldray on the Seine and prevost of the merchants, approached, and kneeling before the king, thanked him for his zeal — the first in the name of the clergy, the other on behalf of the citizens — and swore to make war against heresy. Thereupon all the spectators exclaimed, with voices broken by sobbing: ‘We will live and die for the Catholic religion.’ The author of the Chronicle of Francis I., who was probably present in the assembly, dwells upon the emotion caused by the monarch’s address: ‘We may clearly show by this,’ he says, ‘that the speech of an eloquent and powerful man may lead men’s hearts at his will; for there was not a man in: all the company, whether native or foreigner, who did not more than once change countenance, according to the different affections the words expressed.’ Other emotions, those of anguish and terror, were next to be aroused.

After displaying his eloquence, the king was about to display his cruelty. ‘Francis, always in extremes,’ says a very catholic historian, ‘did not disdain to pollute his eyes with a spectacle full of barbarity and horror.’

On the road between St. Genevieve and the Louvre, two scaffolds had been prepared, one at the Marksman’s Cross in the Rue St. Honore, and the other at the Halles. Some of the most excellent men that France possessed were about to be burnt after suffering atrocious tortures. Altars, galleries, and inscriptions had been placed on the bridges and in the streets.

On the bridge of Notre Dame, around a fountain, surmounted by a large crucifix, these lines were inscribed:

Ipsi peribunt, tu autem permanebis. ( <19A201> Psalm 102.)

Inimicos ejus induam confusione. ( <19D201> Psalm 132.)

Videbunt in quem transfixerunt. ( John 19.) A little farther on stood an altar with an invocation to the Virgin and all the saints to give help, strength, and grace against the attacks of the enemies of the host. In other places were four stanzas in French, each of which ended with this line: France florit sur toutes nations. The king with his family, the nobles, and the rest of the procession, having resumed his march, made his first halt at the Marksman’s Cross. Morin, the cruel lieutenant-criminal, then brought forward three evangelical christians destined to be burnt ‘to appease the wrath of God.’ They were the excellent Valeton, receiver of Nantes; Master Nicholas, clerk to the registrar of the Chatelet, and another. The people were so excited by the procession, and by the cries raised in every quarter, and even by the throne, against the reformers, that, when the martyrs appeared, they rushed furiously upon them to snatch them from the hangman’s hands, and tear them to pieces. The guard drove them back, and the disciples of the Gospel were preserved for a more frightful death.

The first who came forward was that brave man and respectable Christian, Nicholas Valeton, who had always ‘kept good company.’ The king had been struck with the circumstance of the hiding of his books, and ordered them to be burnt with him. Valeton stood in front of the pile, With a sort of refined cruelty, the wood with which he was to be burnt had been taken from his own house; but this kind of irony did not affect him. Another object attracted his attention: it was a kind of gallows, formed of two poles, one fixed firmly in the ground, the other fastened to it cross-wise, one end of which was raised at will by means of a cord fastened to the other. The receiver looked calmly at this instrument of punishment, to which they were about to fasten him to make him soar into the air. Merely to burn these humble christians would have been too simple: the employment of the strappado was to provide the people with a more varied and more diverting spectacle. The priests knowing that Valeton was a man of credit, and that he was moreover rather a novice in heresy, desired to gain him: they approached him and said: ‘We have the universal Church with us, out of it there is no salvation; return to it, your faith is destroying you.’ This faithful christian replied: ‘I only believe in what the prophets and the apostles formerly preached, and what all the company of saints believed.’ The attacks were renewed in vain. ‘My faith has a confidence in God,’ he said, ‘which will resist all the powers of hell.’ The good people who were scattered among the crowd admired his firmness, and the thought that he left a bereaved wife behind him touched many a heart.
The punishment began. The hangman bound his hands which he fastened to the end of the strappado; the sufferer was then raised in the air, his arms alone sustaining the whole weight of his body. The pile over which he was suspended was then set alight, and they proceeded to their cruel sport. The executioners let the unhappy Valeton fall plump into the midst of the flames; then, reserving their movements, they raised the martyr into the air only to let him fall again into the fire. ‘Make the wretches feel that they are dying,’ a cruel pagan emperor had said; a king of France carried out his order, and enjoyed it with all his court, somewhat as savages do when they burn their prisoners. After several turns at this atrocious sport had amused the king, the priests, the nobles, and the people, the flames caught hold of the martyr from his feet to the cord that bound his hands, the knot was burnt, and this upright witness to Christ fell into the fire where his body was reduced to ashes. This inhuman punishment was next applied by order of the most christian king to the two other martyrs. When the torture had lasted long enough, the executioner cut the rope, if the fire had not consumed it, in order that the victim might fall at last into the flames. Francis I. and his courtiers were not yet satisfied. ‘To the Halles! to the Halles!’ was the cry, and a mass of curious people rushed thither, knowing that the executioners had prepared a second entertainment of a similar kind. The king and his train had scarcely arrived, when they began to set the frightful strappado in motion. A man known and highly esteemed throughout the quarter, a rich fruit-merchant of the Halles, had been fastened to it, and after him two other evangelical Christians were served in the same way. Francis and his court witnessed the convulsions of the sufferers and could smell the stencil of their burning flesh. There were, no doubt, among the spectators many individuals feeling for the sufferings of others, but, surprising to say, there was not a sign of compassion: the best of them suppressed the most legitimate emotions. It was everybody’s duty to think that, as a jesuit says, ‘the king wished to draw down the blessing of heaven, by giving this signal example of piety and zeal. Francis returned satisfied to the Louvre: the courtiers around him declared that the triumph of holy Church was for ever secured in the kingdom of France. But the people went still farther; they displayed a cruel joy; the deaths of the heretics had furnished them with an unknown enjoyment… It was long before the thirst for blood then awakened in them was assuaged. They had just played the first act of a drama which was to be followed by others bloodier still, the most notorious of which were the massacres of St. Bartholomew, and, with a change of victims, the massacres of September 1792. Certain enraptured, clerks thought that Francis I. surpassed Charles V., and exclaimed: Caesar edit edicta, Rex edit supplicia. Francis I. and his officers felt, however, some little vexation: certain victims were wanting. They sought everywhere for nobles, professors, priests, and industrials suspected of protestantism, whom they could not find. A few clays after these executions, on the 25th January, the sound of the trumpet was heard in all the cross-ways, and the common crier ‘cited seventy-three Lutherans to appear in person. In default thereof, they were declared to be banished from the kingdom of France, their goods confiscated, and themselves condemned to be burnt.’ These were the fugitives whom we have already pointed out. None of them appeared to the summons; but one of them wrote to the king: They call me Lutheran — a name I have no right to bear.

Luther for me did not come down from heaven ; For me no Luther hung upon the cross For all my sins ; nor was I in his name Baptized, but in the name of Him alone To whom th’ eternal Father grants whate’er we ask — The only name in heaven by which the world, This wicked world, salvation can attain.

But the king was far from pardoning. Four days after this publication (29th January) he issued an edict, ‘for the extirpation of the Lutheran sect which has swarmed and is still swarming in the realm, with orders to denounce its followers.’ At the same time he addressed a circular letter to all the parliaments, enjoining them to give ‘aid and prisons’ in order that the heresy should be promptly extirpated. Lastly, the ‘father of letters’ issued all ordinance declaring the abolition of printing all over France Under pain of the gallows. This savage edict was not carried out: it is, however, an index of the spirit by which the enemies of the Reformation were animated.

Francis I., after having thus made some excursions into the sphere of Charles V. — the proclamations, returned into his own — the punishments. Du Bellay interceded for the German protestants, and the king sent them back to their own country; but, feeling his hands free as regarded his own subjects, he sent fresh victims to the stake. On the 15th February, Calvin’s friend, the rich and pious trader, La Forge, about sixty years of age, was dragged in a tumbril to the cemetery of St. John. ‘He is a rich man,’ said some compassionate spectators; ‘a good man that has given away much in alms.’ It did not matter: they burnt him alive. Three days later a goldsmith and a painter were mercifully (for Francis wished to see the arts flourish) stripped and flogged, deprived of-their goods, and banished. Many Lutheran women were banished also. On the 26th February, a young Italian, named Loys de Medicis, perished in the flames at the end of St. Michael’s bridge; and his wife ‘died in her bed of grief at such infamy.’ Shortly afterwards it was the turn of a scholar, a native of Grenoble, who had posted up some of the placards in the night. On the 13th March, it was that of the chorister of the royal chapel, who in his rash zeal had fastened the protest to his Majesty’s door; he was burnt near the Louvre. On the 5th May, a procureur and a tailor were dragged on a hurdle to the porch of Notre Dame, whence they were taken in a tumbril to the pig-market ‘and there hanged in chains,’ which were not consumed so soon as ropes. The same day, a shoemaker of Tournay, banished from that city because he belonged to the sect of Luther, died in a similar way, ‘without repenting.’

About the same time two journeymen, natives of Tours, and ribbon weavers, arrived in Paris ‘from Almayne,’ bringing with them a Lutheran book. ‘Landlord,’ said one of them imprudently, ‘take care of this book while we go into town, and do not show it to anybody.’ The innkeeper whose curiosity was thus aroused, turned the book round and round, tried to read it, and at last, unable to hold out any longer, went and showed it to a priest. The latter having opened it, exclaimed: ‘It is a damnable book!’

The landlord informed against the travelers; Morin had the two friends arrested… their tongues were cut out, and they were burnt ‘alive and contumacious.’ Paris did not enjoy alone these cruel spectacles: piles were kindled in many cities of France. A poor girl, Mary Becaudelle, surnamed the Gaborite, had just returned to Essarts in Vendee, her native place, after being in service at Rochelle with a master who had taught her the Gospel.

A gray-friar happened to be preaching in her little town and she went to hear him. After the sermon, she said to him: ‘Father, you do not preach the Word of God,’ and pointed it out to him. Ashamed at being taken to task by a woman, the friar, who was alone, resolved to get himself reprimanded a second time, but before witnesses. The plot was arranged.

The friar having insulted the doctrine of grace, the terrified Gaborite exclaimed: ‘If you insult the Gospel, the wrath of God will be against you.’ She was condemned to the stake shortly after, and ‘endured her punishment with such patience as to cause great admiration.’ About the same time two or three men were keeping watch, during the night, in the chapel of the Holy Candle, at Arras in Artois. There was a candle there to which the devout used to sing hymns, because the priests told them that it had been sent from heaven and was never consumed. ‘That is what we will see,’ said these evangelicals: Nicholas, surnamed the Penman, ‘ a man of good sense and well taught in holy learning,’ Jean de Pois, and Stephen Bourlet, ‘who had both received much instruction from Nicholas.’ One day they took their station round the candle, determined not to fall asleep. The substitution generally effected by the adepts at night, while the doors were closed, not having been made, on account of these inquisitive men, the perpetual candle came to all end and went out, like any other candle. Then Nicholas and his friends calling in ‘the poor idolaters,’ showed them that there was nothing left of their heavendescended relic but the end of a burnt-out wick. ‘As the reward of their discovery these three christians received the crown of martyrdom together.’ The persecution spared no one. It was often sufficient for an enemy to accuse a person of having a liking for the Gospel, when immediately the police ]aid their hands on him. This was not the king’s intention: he had ordered that the judges should inquire whether ‘enmity, pique, or revenge gave rise to false accusations;’ but the magistrates were not so scrupulous.

The terror was universal. ‘One sees nothing in Paris,’ said a catholic eyewitness, ‘but gibbets set up in various places, which surely terrify the people of the said Paris, and those of other places who also see gallowses and executions.’ Mezeray, while describing these events, says: ‘But for ten that were put to death, a hundred others sprang up from their ashes.’ The enemies of the Reformation, feeling that the moment was decisive, redoubled their efforts to destroy it. The French, save a certain numerous class submissive to the clergy, were disposed to receive it. They went to church, indeed, but the majority of the population would willingly have embraced a religion in which the priest did not interpose between man and God. ‘Alas!’ said the more fervent, ‘if the king does not interfere to save the Church, all the warmth of the French for the catholic religion will soon be turned into ice.’ The king had a special motive in supporting popery A striking transformation was going on in France as well as in other parts of Europe; limited monarchy was changing into absolute monarchy. Francis I. thought that men who set God above the king, and died rather than invert the order of these two powers, were very dangerous to despotism, and he swore that, though he courted this religion without his kingdom, he would crush it within. Alas! the task was but too easy. Many were only superficially gained. Nobles without high-mindedness or independence; men of letters who jeered at obscurantism, but who had not tasted the Gospel; ignorant and timid crowds turned their backs upon the Word of God when the flames of the burning piles rose into the air.

Terror spread through the ranks of the friends of the Reformation. Sturm, who was deeply engaged with literature and philosophy, broken-hearted at the sight of all these woes, abandoned his labors. Many of the martyrs were his friends, and had eaten at his table. Dejected, disturbed in the midst of the lessons he gave at the Royal College (which the celebrated Ramus attended), having constantly before his eyes the murderous flames which had reduced to ashes those whom he loved, it seemed to him that barbarism was about to extinguish the torch of learning, and once more overrun society, hardly awakened from its long sleep. He condemned the placards; in his opinion, the Reformation should make its way by a learned exposition of its doctrines, and not by attacking popular superstitions; but at the sight of the punishments, he thought only of the victims. He turned towards Germany where he had so many friends, where there was possibly less decision than in France, but a deeper and more inward faith; he thought of Melanchthon, sat down at his desk, and as if he were in the presence of that tender-hearted man, poured all his sorrows into his bosom. ‘If the letters which I have sometimes written you on the affairs of this country have been agreeable to you,’ he said, ‘if you then desired that all should go well for good men, — oh! what uneasiness, what anxiety, must not your heart feel in this hour of furious tempests and extreme danger! We were in the best, the finest position, thanks to wise men; and now behold us, through the advice of unskillful men, fallen into the greatest calamity and supreme misery. I wrote you last year that everything was going on well, and what hopes we entertained from the king’s equity. We congratulated one another; but alas! extravagant men have deprived us of those propitious times. One night in the month of October, in a few moments, all over France, and in every corner, they posted with their own hands a placard concerning the ecclesiastical orders, the mass, and the eucharist — one would think they were rehearsing a tragedy — they carried their audacity so far as to fasten one even on the door of the king’s apartments, wishing by this means, as it would seem, to cause certain and atrocious dangers. Since that rash act, everything has been changed; the people are troubled, the thoughts of many are filled with alarm, the magistrates are irritated, the king is excited, and frightful trials are going on. It must be acknowledged that these imprudent men, if they were not the cause, were at least the occasion of this. Only, if it were possible for the judges to preserve a just mean! Some, having been seized, have already undergone their punishment; others, promptly providing for their safety, have fled; innocent people have suffered the chastisement of the guilty. Informers show themselves publicly; any one may be both accuser and witness. These are not idle rumors that I write to you, Melanchthon; be assured that I do not tell you all, and that in what I write I do not employ the strong terms that the terrible state of our affairs would require. Already eighteen disciples of the Gospel have been burnt, and the same danger threatens a still greater number. Every clay the danger spreads wider and wider. There is not a good man who does not fear the calumnies of informers, and is not consumed with grief at the sight of these horrible doings. Our adversaries reign, and with all the more authority, that they appear to be fighting in a just cause, and to quell sedition. Ill the midst of these great and numerous evils there is only one hope left — that the people are beginning to be disgusted with such cruel persecutions, and that the king blushes at last at having thirsted for the blood of these unfortunate men. The persecutors are instigated by violent hatred and not by justice. If the king could but know what kind of spirit animates these bloodthirsty men, he would no doubt take better advice. And yet we do not despair. God reigns, he will scatter all these tempests, he will show us the port where we can take refuge, he will give good men an asylum where they will dare speak their thoughts freely .’ This letter to Melanchthon is important in the history of the Reformation.

Liberty of speech and Of religious action is what protestantism claimed in France; and in claiming these liberties for itself, it secured them for all. We may imagine what an impression this letter produced at Wittemberg.

Melanchthon, who received it, and even Luther himself, blamed a certain excess of vivacity in the French reformers; but, like Sturm, they recognized in them disciples of the Divine Word. A few days after, Luther writing to his friend Link, complained of the evil times in which they lived, and especially of the kings ‘With the exception of our prince (the Elector of Saxony),’ he said, ‘there is not one whom I do not suspect. You may understand by this language how little love and zeal for the Word of God there is in this world. For the present, sing, I pray you, his psalm: Expectans expectavi Dominum, I waited patiently for the Lord. It is through glory and disgrace, through stumblings and strayings, through the righteous and the wicked, through devils and angels, that we come to Him who alone is good, alone is without evil. Therefore, dear brother, I conjure you lend no ear to any discourse, and have no other conversation than what you have with Him. There are many excellent people among men, but alas! they have less patience than stern justice. God help us!… He permits the devil to be strong, and how weak he makes us! God puts us to the proof. To trust in a man, were he even a prince, is not conformable with piety; but to fear a man is shameful and even impious in a christian. May Christ, our life, our salvation, and our glory, be with you and all yours!’ Luther did not name Francis I. in this letter, but it is well known that of all princes the king of France was the one in whom he had the least hope. He was not mistaken.

From this time Francis I. no longer showed the same favor to learning, and especially to evangelical learning. The excommunication launched against Henry VIII., the schism which followed, the hope of seeing Paul III. embroiled with Charles V., and other motives besides, made him incline once more towards Rome. But the placards were the principal cause of this change. His wrath was unappeasable; he was determined to abolish these new doctrines which were paraded even on the gate of his palace.

His indignation broke out in the midst of his courtiers and cardinals, bishops, and councilors of parliament. Nay, more, he laid it even before the protestant princes of Germany. Writing to them on the 15th February, he said: ‘The enemy of truth has stirred up certain people who are not fools but madmen, and who have incurred the guilt of sedition and other antichristian actions. I am determined to crush these new doctrines; and to check this disease, which leads to frightful revolts, from spreading further.

No one has been spared whatever his country or his rank.’ Such were the king’s intentions. Protestantism, and with it liberty, perished in France, but God was mighty to raise them up again.