Louis XIV - John S. C. Abbott

The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes


It is the undisputed testimony of all the contemporaries of Madame de Maintenon that she possessed a character of rare excellence. Her personal attractions, sound judgment, instinctive delicacy of perception, and conversational brilliance, gave her a certain supremacy wherever she appeared. The fidelity with which she fulfilled her duties, her high religious principles, and the bold, yet tender remonstrances with which she endeavored to reclaim the king from his unworthy life, excited first his astonishment, and then his profound admiration.

Every day the king, at three o'clock, proceeded to the apartments of Madame de Maintenon, and, taking a seat in an arm-chair, sat in a reclining posture, sometimes silently watching the progress of her tapestry-work, and again engaged in quiet conversation. Occasionally some of Racine's tragedies were read. The king took a listless pleasure in drawing out Madame de Maintenon to remark upon the merits or defects of the production.

"In truth, a weariness of existence was rapidly growing upon Louis XIV. He had outlived his loves, his griefs, and almost his ambition. All he wanted was repose. And this he found in the society of an accomplished, judicious, and unassuming woman, who, although he occasionally transacted business in her presence with Louvois, never presumed to proffer an opinion save when he appealed to her judgment, and even then tendered it with reluctance and reserve."

Upon the death of the queen the dauphiness was raised to the first rank at court. Still she was gloomy and reserved. No allurements could draw her from her retirement. Madame de Maintenon was a very decided Roman Catholic, and was very much influenced by the king's confessor, Pére la Chaise, who seems to have been a man of integrity and of conscientiousness, though fanatically devoted to what he deemed to be the interests of the Church. In former reigns the Protestants had endured from the Catholics the most dreadful persecutions. After scenes of woe, the recital of which causes the blood to curdle in one's veins, Henry IV., the grandfather of Louis XIV., feeling the need of the support of the Protestants to protect the kingdom from the perils by which it was surrounded, and having himself been educated a Protestant, granted the Protestants the world-renowned Edict of Nantes.

By this edict, which took its name from the place in which it was published, and which was issued in April, 1598, certain privileges were granted to the Protestants, which, in that dark age, were regarded as extraordinarily liberal.

Protestants were allowed liberty of conscience; that is, they were not to be punished for their religious faith. In certain designated places they were permitted to hold public worship. The highest lords of the Protestant faith could celebrate divine service in their castles. Nobles of the second rank could have private worship, provided but thirty persons attended. Protestants were declared to be eligible to offices of state, their children were to be admitted to the public schools, their sick to the hospitals, and their poor to the public charities. In certain places they could publish books; they were allowed four academies for scientific and theological instruction, and were permitted to convoke synods for Church discipline.

The Catholic clergy were very indignant in view of these concessions. Pope Clement VIII. declared that the ordinance which permitted liberty of conscience to every one was the most execrable which was ever made.

There were then seven hundred and sixty churches in France of the Protestant communion. No such church was allowed in Paris. Protestants from the city, rich and poor, were compelled to repair, for public worship, to the little village of Ablon, fifteen miles from the city. The Edict of Nantes probably cost Henry IV. his life. The assassin Ravaillac, who plunged his dagger twice into the bosom of the king, said, in his examination,

"I killed the king because, in making war upon the pope, he made war upon God, since the pope is God."

The Protestants were thrown into the utmost consternation by the death of Henry IV. They apprehended the immediate repeal of the edict, and a renewal of the massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day. But the regent, Mary de Medici, and the court immediately issued a decree confirming the ordinance. Louis XIII. was then a child but eight and a half years of age. As he came into power, he was urged by the Jesuits to exterminate the Protestants. But they were too powerful to be wantonly assailed. They held two hundred fortified places. Many of the highest lords were among their leaders. Their soldiers were renowned for valor, and their churches numbered four hundred thousand men capable of bearing arms. It was not deemed safe to rouse such a people to the energies of despair. Still, during the reign of Louis XIII., there were many bloody conflicts between the royal troops and the Protestants.

In this religious war, the Protestants, or Huguenots, as they were then called, defended themselves so valiantly, that the king felt constrained, in October, 1622, to relinquish his attempt to subjugate the Protestants by force of arms, and to confirm the Edict of Nantes. The sword was scarcely sheathed ere it was drawn again. All over France the Catholics and Protestants faced each other upon fields of blood. The battle raged for seven years with every conceivable concomitant of cruelty and horror. The eyes of all Europe were directed to the siege of La Rochelle, in 1627, where the Huguenots made their most decisive stand. All that human nature could suffer was endured. When two thirds of the population of the city had perished, and the streets and dwellings were encumbered with the unburied dead, and the remaining soldiers, reduced to skeletons, could no longer lift their weapons, the city surrendered on the 28th of October, 1628.

By this war and the fall of La Rochelle, the Protestants were hopelessly weakened. Though they were deprived of many of their privileges, and were greatly diminished in numbers and influence, still the general provisions of the Edict of Nantes were not repealed.

In the year 1662, Louis XIV., then upon the throne, in recognition of some support which he had received from the Protestants, issued a decree in which he said,

"Inasmuch as our subjects of the pretended Reformed religion have given us proofs of their affection and fidelity, be it known that, for these reasons, they shall be supported and guarded, as in fact we do support and guard them, in the full enjoyment of the Edict of Nantes."

The king had even appointed, the year before, two commissaries, the one a Catholic, the other a Protestant, to visit every province, and see that the requisitions of the Edict of Nantes were faithfully observed. This seemed very fair. But, in appointing these commissioners, a Catholic was always appointed who was a high dignitary of the state, a man of wealth and rank, distinguished for his devotion to the interests of the Catholic Church. On the other hand, the Protestant was always some poor country gentleman, timid and irresolute, and often one who had been secretly sold to the court to betray his duties.

The Protestants had hoped much from the influence of Madame de Maintenon over the king, as she was the granddaughter of Agrippa d'Aubigné, one of the most illustrious defenders of the Calvinistic faith, and as she herself had been a Protestant until she had attained the age of sixteen years.

But the king was fanatically Catholic, hoping, in some measure, to atone for his sins by his supreme devotion to the interests of the Church. Madame de Maintenon found it necessary, in promotion of her ambitious plans, to do all in her power to conceal her Protestant origin. She was fully aware of the king's great dislike to the Protestants, and of the necessity of cordially co-operating with him in these views. Still she could not refrain from manifesting some compassion at times for the sufferings of the friends of her earlier years.

Louis XIV., while assuring the Protestant powers of Europe that he would continue to respect the Edict of Nantes, commenced issuing a series of ordinances in direct opposition to that contract. First he excluded Protestants from all public offices whatever. A Protestant could not be employed as a physician, lawyer, apothecary, bookseller, printer, or even as a nurse. This decree was issued in 1680. In some portions of the kingdom the Protestants composed nearly the entire population. Here it was impossible to enforce the atrocious decree. In other places it led to riots and bloodshed.

This ordinance was followed by one forbidding marriages between Catholics and Protestants. Catholic servants were forbidden to serve in Protestant families, and Protestant servants could not be employed by Catholics.

Rapidly blow followed blow. On the 17th of June, 1680, the king issued the following ordinance: "We wish that our subjects of the pretended Reformed religion, both male and female, having attained the age of seven years, may, and it is hereby made lawful for them to embrace the Catholic Apostolic and Roman religion, and that to this effect they be allowed to abjure the pretended Reformed religion, without their fathers and mothers and other kinsmen being allowed to offer them the least hinderance, under any pretext whatever."

The effect of this law was terrible. Any malignant person, even a servant, could go into a court of justice and testify that a certain child had made the sign of the cross, or kissed an image of the Virgin, or had expressed a desire to enter the Catholic Church, and that child was immediately taken from its parents, shut up in a convent, and the parents were compelled to pay the expenses of its education. Even Madame de Maintenon availed herself of this law in wresting from her relative, the Marquis de Vilette, his children.

A decree was then issued that all Protestants who should become Catholics might defer the payment of their debts for three years, and for two years be exempt from taxation, and from the burden of having soldiers quartered upon them. To save the treasury from loss, a double burden of taxation and a double quartering of soldiers was imposed upon those Protestants who refused to abjure their faith.

If any Protestant was sick, officers were appointed whose duty it was to visit the sick-bed, and strive to convert the sufferer to the Catholic faith. Any physician who should neglect to give notice of such sickness was punished by a severe fine. The pastors were forbidden to make any allusions whatever in their sermons to these decrees of the court. Following this decree came the announcement that if any convert from Catholicism should be received into a Protestant Church, his property should be confiscated, he should be banished, and the privilege of public worship should no longer be enjoyed by that Church. Under this law several church edifices were utterly demolished.

One of the severest measures adopted against the Protestants was quartering brutal and ferocious soldiers in their families. In March, 1681, Louvois wrote to the governor of Poitou that he intended to send a regiment of cavalry into that province.

"His majesty," he said, "has learned with much satisfaction the great number of persons who are becoming converts in your province. He desires that you continue to give great care to this matter. He thinks it best that the chief part of the cavalry and officers should be lodged in the houses of the Protestants. If, after a just distribution, the Calvinists would have to provide for ten soldiers, you can make them take twenty."

The governor, Marillac, lodged from four to ten dragoons in the house of every Protestant. The soldiers were directed not to kill the people with whom they lodged, but to do every thing in their power to constrain them to abjure Protestantism. Thus originated that system of dragonnades  which has left an indelible stain upon the character of Louis XIV., and the recital of which has inspired every reader with horror.

"The cavalry attached crosses to the muzzles of their muskets to force the Protestants to kiss them. When any one resisted, they thrust these crosses against the face and breasts of the unfortunate people. They spared children no more than persons advanced in years. Without compassion for their age, they fell upon them with blows, and beat them with the flat side of their swords and the butt of their muskets. They did this so cruelly that some were crippled for life."

It does not reflect credit upon Madame de Maintenon that she was eager to enrich her friends from the spoils of these persecuted Christians. Her brother was to receive a present of one hundred and eight thousand francs ($21,600). This sum was then three or four times as much as the same amount of money now.

A law was now passed prohibiting the Protestants from leaving the kingdom, and condemning to perpetual imprisonment in the galleys all who should attempt to escape. France was ransacked to find every book written in support of Protestantism, that it might be burned. A representation having been made to the king of the sufferings of more than two millions of Protestant Frenchmen, he sternly replied,

"To bring back all my subjects to Catholic unity, I would readily, with one hand, cut off the other."

In some places the Protestants were goaded to an appeal to arms. With the most merciless butchery they were cut down, their houses razed, while some were put to death by lingering torture. In September, 1685, Louvois wrote,

"Sixty thousand conversions have taken place in the district of Bordeaux, and twenty thousand in that of Montauban. The rapidity with which they go on is such that, before the end of the month, there will not remain ten thousand Protestants in all the district of Bordeaux, where there were one hundred and fifty thousand the 15th of last month."

The Duke of Noailles wrote to Louvois, "The number of Protestants in the district of Nismes is about one hundred and forty thousand. I believe that at the end of the month there will be none left."

On the 18th of October, 1685, the king, acceding to the wishes of his confessor and other high dignitaries of the Church, signed the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

In the preamble to this fatal act, it was stated,

"We see now, with the just acknowledgment we owe to God, that our measures have secured the end which we ourselves proposed, since the better and greater part of our subjects of the pretended Reformed religion have embraced the Catholic faith, and the maintenance of the Edict of Nantes remains therefore superfluous."

In this act of revocation it was declared that the exercise of the Protestant worship should nowhere be tolerated in the realm of France. All Protestant pastors were ordered to leave the kingdom within fifteen days, under pain of being sent to the galleys. Those Protestant ministers who would abjure their faith and return to Catholicism were promised a salary one third more than they had previously enjoyed. Parents were forbidden to instruct their children in the Protestant religion. Every child in the kingdom was to be baptized and educated by a Catholic priest. All Protestants who had left France were ordered to return within four months, under penalty of the confiscation of their possessions. Any Protestant layman, man or woman, who should attempt to emigrate, incurred the penalty of imprisonment for life.

This infamous ordinance caused an amount of misery which can never be gauged, and inflicted upon the prosperity of France the most terrible blow it had ever received. Hundreds of thousands persevered in their faith, notwithstanding all the menaces of poverty, of the dungeon, and of utter temporal ruin. Only one year after the revocation, Marshal Vauban wrote,

"France has lost one hundred thousand inhabitants, sixty millions of coined money, nine thousand sailors, twelve thousand disciplined soldiers, six hundred officers, and her most nourishing manufactures."

From this hour the fortunes of Louis XIV. began manifestly to decline. The Protestant population of France at that time was between two and three millions. The edict of revocation was enforced with the utmost severity. Many noble-hearted Catholics sympathized with the Protestants in their dreadful sufferings, and aided them to escape. The tide of emigration flowed steadily from all the provinces. The arrival of the pastors and their flocks upon foreign soil created an indescribable sensation. From all the courts in Protestant Christendom a cry of indignation rose against such cruelty. Though royal guards were posted at the gates of the towns, on the bridges, at the fords of the rivers, and upon all the by-ways which led to the frontiers, and though many thousands were arrested, still many thousands escaped. Some heroic bands fought their way to the frontiers with drawn swords. Some obtained passports from kind-hearted Catholic governors. Some bribed their guards. Some traveled by night, from cavern to cavern, in the garb of merchants, pilgrims, venders of rosaries and chaplets, servants, mendicants.

Thousands perished of cold, hunger, and exhaustion. Thousands were shot by the soldiers. Thousands were seized and condemned to the dungeon or the galleys. The galleys of Marseilles were crowded with these victims of fanatical despotism. Among them were many of the most illustrious men in France, magistrates, nobles, scholars of the highest name and note.

The agitation and emigration were so immense that Louis XIV. became alarmed. Protestant England, Switzerland, Holland, Prussia, Denmark, Sweden, hospitably received the sufferers and contributed generously to the supply of their wants. "Charity," it is said, "draws from an exhaustless fountain. The more it gives the more it has to give."

It is now not possible to estimate the precise number who emigrated. Voltaire says that nearly fifty thousand families left the kingdom, and that they were followed by a great many others. One of the Protestant pastors, Antoine Court, placed the number as high as eight hundred thousand. A Catholic writer, inimical to the Protestants, after carefully consulting the records, states the emigration at two hundred and thirty thousand souls. Of these, 1580 were pastors, 2300 elders, and 15,000 nobles. It is also equally difficult to estimate the numbers who perished in the attempt to escape. M. de Sismondi thinks that as many died as emigrated. He places the number at between three and four hundred thousand.

As we have mentioned, the Protestants were compelled to place their children in Catholic schools, to be taught the Catechism by the priests. A new ordinance was soon issued, which required that the children, between five and sixteen, of all suspected  of Protestantism, should be taken from their parents and placed in Catholic families. A general search was made throughout the kingdom for all books which could be deemed favorable to the Protestant faith. These were destroyed to the last copy. Thus perished many very valuable works. "The Bible itself, the Bible above all, was confiscated and burned with persevering animosity."

But there is no power of persecution which can utterly crush out two or three millions of people. There were occasional reactions. Louis XIV. himself became, at times, appalled by the atrocities his dragoons were perpetrating, and he commanded more moderation. In some of the provinces where the Protestants had been greatly in the majority, the king found it very difficult to enforce his despotic and sanguinary code. The persecuted people who could not fly from the kingdom, some having given a compulsory and nominal assent to Catholicism, held secret assemblies in forests, on mountain summits, and in wild ravines. Some of the pastors ventured to return to France, and to assist in these scenes of perilous worship.

"On hearing this, the king, his ministers, and the Jesuits were transported with uncontrollable rage. Sentence of death was pronounced in the month of July, 1686, against the pastors who had returned to France. Those who lent them an asylum, or any assistance whatever, were condemned to the galleys for life. A reward of five thousand five hundred livres was promised to any one who seized or secured the seizure of a minister. The sentence of death was pronounced against all who should be taken in any of these religious assemblies."

Soldiers were sent in all directions to hunt the Protestants. "It was," writes Voltaire, "a chase in a grand cover." If the voice of prayer or of a psalm were heard in any wild retreat, the soldiers opened fire upon the assembly of men, women, and children, and hewed them down without mercy with their blood-stained swords. In several of these encounters, three or four hundred men, women, and young children were left dead and unburied upon the spot.

If any sick persons, apparently near death, refused to receive the sacraments of the Catholic Church from the hands of a Catholic priest, should they recover, they were punished with confiscation of property and consignment to the galleys for life. If they did not recover, their bodies were refused respectful burial, and were dragged on a hurdle and thrown into a ditch, to be devoured by carrion crows.

Many honorable Catholics cried out with horror against these enormities. All humane hearts revolted against such cruelty. The voice of indignant remonstrance rose from every Protestant nation. The French court became embarrassed. Two millions of people could not be put to death. The prisons were filled to suffocation. The galleys were crowded, and could receive no more. Many were transported to America.

The Jansenists remonstrated. The good Catholic bishops of Grenoble and St. Poins boldly addressed the curates of their dioceses, directing them not to force communion upon the Protestants, and forbidding all violence. Many pious curates refused to act the part of accusers, or to torment the dying with their importunities. But the Jesuits and the great mass of the clergy urged on the persecution.

Madame de Maintenon became greatly troubled by these atrocities, against which she did not dare to remonstrate. Louis XIV. was somewhat alarmed by the outcry which these measures aroused from Protestant Europe, but his pride revolted against making the admission, before his subjects and foreign courts, that he could have been guilty of a mistake. He could not endure the thought of humbling himself by a retraction, thus confessing that he had failed in an enterprise upon which he had entered with such determination. Thus influenced, the king, on the 13th of April, 1662, issued a decree solemnly confirming the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. "Not one law of torture and blood was abolished."

The king, meanwhile, urged by his growing passion for Madame de Maintenon, determined to remove from court Madame de Montespan, whom he had come to thoroughly dislike. But he had not the courage to announce his determination in person. He therefore commissioned Madame de Maintenon to make the painful communication. She, shrinking from so unwelcome a task, persuaded the Marquis de Vivonne, brother of the marchioness, to break the tidings to his sister. He invited her to take a ride with him in his carriage, gradually introduced the subject, and at last plainly informed her that she must either, of her own accord, immediately and forever retire from Versailles, or submit to the indignity of being arrested by the police and removed by them.

Madame de Montespan was in a fearful rage. Though fully aware of her waning power over the king, the menace of arrest and banishment was an indignity the thought of which had never entered her mind. But the calm firmness of her brother soon convinced her of the impotence of all exhibitions of indignation. The splendor-loving marchioness was, as we have mentioned already, wealthy. She was, however, informed that the king had decided to settle upon her an annual pension of six hundred thousand livres. When we consider the comparative value of money then and now, it is estimated that this amount was equivalent to about four hundred and eighty thousand dollars at the present day.

"Madame de Montespan," writes Miss Pardoe, "buried her face in her hands, and remained for a considerable time lost in thought. When, at length, she looked up, her lips were pale and her voice trembled. She had not shed a tear, but her breast heaved, and she had evidently come to a decision. Folding her shawl about her, she requested the marquis immediately to drive her to Versailles, it being necessary, as she asserted, that she should collect her money, her jewels, and her papers, after which she declared that she was ready, for the sake of her family, to follow his advice."

[Illustration] from Louis XIV by John S. C. Abbott


They returned to the palace. Madame de Maintenon hastened to her apartments. The Marquis de Vivonne informed her of the success of his mission, and she communicated the intelligence to the king.

The marchioness had been in her apartments but about twenty minutes, when, to her surprise, the door opened, and the king entered unannounced. The marchioness, with her own graphic pen, has given an account of the singular and characteristic interview which ensued.

The king came forward smiling very complacently at the thought that with so little embarrassment he was to get rid of a companion whose presence had become an annoyance to him—that he could discard her as easily as he could lay aside a pair of soiled gloves. He congratulated the marchioness upon the great good sense she had shown in thus readily sundering ties which, after existing for eighteen years, had become embarrassing. He spoke of their children as his property, and assured her that he should do all in his power to promote their welfare; that he had already, by act of Parliament, conferred upon them statute legitimacy, and had thus effaced the dishonor of their birth. He apologized for not having her name mentioned in Parliament as their mother, this being impracticable, since she was the wife of another man.

With smiling complacency, as if he were communicating very gratifying intelligence, he informed this crushed and discarded mother that, since her children were now princes, they would, of course, reside at court, and that she, their dishonored mother, might occasionally be permitted to visit them—that he would issue an order to that effect. And, finally, he coolly advised her to write to her husband, whom she had abandoned eighteen years ago, soliciting a renewal of their relationship, with the assurance that it was her intention to return to the paths of virtue.

Almost gasping with indignation, the haughty marchioness succeeded in restraining herself until the king had finished his harangue. She then burst forth in a reply which astonished and even alarmed the king.

"I am amazed," said she, "at the indifference with which a monarch, who boasts of his magnanimity, can throw from him a woman who has sacrificed every thing to his pleasure. For two years your majesty, in devotion to others, has been estranged from me, and yet never have I publicly offered one word of expostulation. Why is it, then, that I am now, after silently submitting for two years to this estrangement, to be ignominiously banished from the court? Still, my position here has become so hateful, through the perfidy and treachery of those by whom I am compelled to associate, that I will willingly consent never again to approach the person of the king upon condition that the odious woman who has supplanted me shall also be exiled."

The proud monarch was enraged. Pale with anger, he replied, "The kings of Europe have never yet ventured to dictate laws in my palace, nor shall you, madame, subject me to yours. The lady whom I have too long suffered you to offend is as nobly born as yourself. If you were instrumental in opening the gates of the palace to her, you thus introduced there gentleness, talent, and virtue. This lady, whom you have upon every occasion slandered, has lost no opportunity to excuse and justify you. She will remain near the court which her fathers defended, and which her wise councils now strengthen. In seeking to remove you from the court, where your presence and pretensions have long since been misplaced, I wished to spare you the evidence of an event  calculated to irritate your already exasperated nature. But stay you here, madame," he added, sarcastically, "stay you here, since you love great catastrophes and are amused by them. Day after to-morrow you will be more than ever a supernumerary  in the palace."

This heartless announcement, that Madame de Maintenon was to take the place of Madame de Montespan in the affections of the king, and probably as his wedded wife, pierced, as with a dagger's point, the heart of the discarded favorite. She fell senseless to the floor. The king, without the slightest exhibition of sympathy, looked on impatiently, while her women, who were immediately summoned, endeavored to restore consciousness. As the unhappy marchioness revived, the first words which fell upon her ears were from the king, as he said,

"All this wearies me beyond endurance. She must leave the palace this very day."

In a frenzy of rage and despair, the marchioness seized a dessert-knife which chanced to lay upon the table, and, springing from the arms of her attendants, rushed upon her youngest child, the little Count de Toulouse, whom the king held by the hand, and from whom she was to be cruelly severed, and endeavored to plunge the knife into his bosom, exclaiming,

"Yes, I will leave this palace, but first—"

At that moment, before the sentence was finished, the door opened, and Madame de Maintenon, who had probably anticipated some tragic scene, sprang upon the wretched woman, seizing the knife with one hand, and with the other thrusting the child away. The maniacal marchioness was seized by her attendants. The king tottered to the chimney-piece, buried his face in his hands, and, from a complicity of emotions not easily disentangled, wept convulsively.

Madame de Maintenon's hand was cut by the knife. As she was binding up the bleeding wound with her handkerchief, the half-delirious marchioness said to her, referring to the fact that the king had at first been unwilling to receive her as the guardian of the children,

"Ah! madame, had I believed what the king told me fourteen years ago, my life would not have been in your power to-day."

Madame de Maintenon, her eyes suffused with tears, looked sadly upon her, then taking her hand, pressed it feelingly, and, without uttering a word, left the apartment. The king followed her. The heart-broken marchioness, in most imploring tones, entreated the king not thus to leave her. He paid no heed to her supplications. The agitation of this scene threw Madame de Montespan into such a burning fever that for several days she could not be removed from her bed of pain and woe.