Story of Liberty - Charles Coffin

How the Pope Put Down the Heretics

Duke Henry of Guise is Prime Minister of France, and his brother, the cardinal, is his chief adviser. They are proud and arrogant, and hate the Huguenots. They believe in the Pope, and are ready to do his bidding. The Huguenots and heretics in France are to be put down.

One Sunday the duke, with his followers, is in the country. He hears the sweet tones of a bell in the village of Vassy.

"What is that bell tolling for?" the asks.

"It is the bell of the Huguenots."

"Are there many heretics here?"

"Yes, and they are rapidly increasing."

The duke, when disturbed in spirit, has a habit of biting his beard; and now he champs it between his teeth as a horse his bit.

"Forward!" It is a word of command to his followers, who draw their swords and ride into town, trampling upon the people. A man hurls a stone, which strikes the duke in the face. The butchery begins, and when it is over there are forty-two corpses and two hundred wounded men, women, and children, weltering in their blood! What have the people of Vassy done? What crime have they committed? Only this —peaceably met to worship God in their own way.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The duke returns to Paris, but the fame of his exploit has preceded him; and the archbishop, carrying the host—the bishops, the priests—all come out in grand procession, meeting him at the city gates, and escorting him through The streets as one who has done a glorious deed. What rights have the Huguenots? None. France is in uproar, for one-fourth of the people are Huguenots. Their leader is the Prince of Conde. His soul is on fire. He thirsts for revenge. He has a talk with his friend, Theodore de Reza, an old minister.

"I can raise fifty thousand men to avenge this insult," he says.

"That may be; but the true Church of God should endure blows, and not give them."

"But only think of the slaughter!"

"God will avenge. Remember that his anvil has used up many hammers. Wait!" So the old minister seeks to restrain the vengeance of the prince.

The Cardinal of Lorraine issues a command for the extermination of the Huguenots. In a little town the Catholics and Huguenots have lived side by side in peace; but, at the command of the cardinal, the Catholics surround the Huguenot church one Sunday, seize all within, take them to a high rock, and pitch them from its top into the river. The Huguenots in Nimes, maddened by the outrages, retaliate by killing one hundred and ninety-two of their neighbors. It is the beginning once more of civil war. Great battles are fought, towns destroyed, and the country is in terrible turmoil. No one's life is safe. Henry of Navarre is in Paris, attending to his studies. His mother is a Huguenot; but she is in her own dominion, in the Pyrenees. His father—Anthony Bourbon—is a Catholic, and is killed in battle. The Huguenots look to Henry's mother as their protector. Everybody sees that possibly her son Henry may by-and-by be King of France. Will he be Huguenot or Catholic? Catherine de' Medici means that he shall be a Catholic; while his mother hopes that he will be a Huguenot. She comes to Paris. Catherine receives her with great demonstrations of affection; but in a very short time Jeanne d'Albret discovers that, wherever she goes, officers and nobles in Catherine's interest follow her. If she rides in the park of Fontainebleau, or strolls along the walks, there are men always following her—site is a prisoner. She resolves to make her escape. One day there is a grand chase, and her nobles go out with her. They chase a deer through the woods. Suddenly Jeanne and Henry turn their horses, and a few noblemen who are in her secret turn with her. They ride away, mount fresh horses, ride all day and all night, and so escape from Paris.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The war goes on. France is a battle-field, and so is Europe. There is fighting in Holland, in Germany, and in Italy. Henry is in the great battle of Jarnac, fighting for the Huguenots. He sees his leader, the Prince of Conde, fall, and the Huguenot army defeated. He is only fourteen years of age; but the Huguenot nobles choose him for their leader, and he takes this oath: "I swear to defend religion, and to persevere in the common cause, till death or victory has secured for all the liberty we desire."

Amidst the Alps there is a beautiful valley, where for many years have lived the Vaudois. It is a small territory—only sixteen square miles. The Vaudois are brave mountaineers. They have always loved freedom. They are peaceable, gentle. They have always thought for themselves, and never have acknowledged the authority of the Pope. They have been many times persecuted; now they shall be exterminated. No longer shall they be permitted to read the Bible, to sing their songs in peace, or pray to God, and not to the priest.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The Pope, Philip, and Catherine de' Medici join to destroy the heretics. An army enters the valley. Jesuit priests accompany it, urging the soldiers to exterminate the Vaudois—men, women, and children; all are to be put to death. The people flee; the soldiers pursue them. The old are slaughtered first. Men who cannot move are stabbed in their beds; women afflicted with palsy, and unable to lift a finger, are killed in cold blood. The soldiers seize whatever pleases them in the houses, and then apply the torch. Men and women and children who lag behind in the flight are cut down without mercy. In vain their cries. The Jesuits have aroused a spirit of hate in the soldiers, and their cries are unheeded. Weary with wielding the sword, the soldiers take their unresisting prisoners to the tops of high cliffs, and pitch them upon the rocks below. To vary the work of destruction, they dig graves, and bury the women alive. When weary with that, they fill the months of the captives with gunpowder, and blow their heads from their bodies. They crop off their ears and nose, cut off hands and feet, and leave the poor creatures to die by slow degrees.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Day after day the massacre goes on. Day after day a great pillar of smoke ascends from the burning of the homes of the Vaudois. The ground is drenched with blood. Corpses lie in the fields, by the roadside, at the foot of rocky cliffs, devoured by wolves, eaten by the eagles.

Some of the Vaudois have escaped to the higher Alps, and the soldiers follow; but suddenly they are confronted by the brave mountaineers, who fire upon them from the heights above, who hurl rocks upon them, grinding them to the earth. Other soldiers rush up, but are driven back, with great slaughter. Once more they advance. The Vaudois, concealed behind the rocks, take deadly aim; every bullet tells. A pitiless storm of leaden rain beats in their faces. Twelve hundred fall. The Vaudois, instead of surrendering, leap, like the chamois, from rock to rock, secrete themselves in eaves, and, when the soldiers least expect it, assail them once more. Winter comes, and they are not subdued. Count Trinity, who commands the army, withdraws his troops. In the spring he will finish his work.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


In caves or in rude huts, living on the chamois which the hunters kill, eating the bark of trees, the Vaudois, with their wives and children, pass the terrible winter.

In the spring Count Trinity returns, with ten thousand men, to complete the extermination. The Vaudois have selected a spot in the Valley of Pra del Tor, where they have erected a barricade. There they will lay down their lives, if need be, for liberty. In the fastness are their wives and children; for them, for the right to think and act for themselves, they will make a last stand. The drums beat, the trumpets sound. With banners and crosses, the army of Count Trinity moves up the secluded valley. The Italian troops are in advance; behind them are the Spaniards. They are clad in armor—brave men; no troops may stand against them in the open field. But now they are amidst the mountains, hunting a starving people, destitute of everything, ready to die rather than yield; for to yield is to die at the stake. There are ten thousand against a few hundred. Quickly will the veterans of Spain and Italy sweep the all but famished rabble away. Up over the rocks march the infantry of Savoy.

Crack! A soldier rolls down the mountain-side, shot by an unseen foe. Above them hangs a handful of smoke; but no foe is in sight.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Crack! crack! Other soldiers go down, and others still. The battalions fire, but their bullets flatten against the rocks. Faster fall the soldiers. Only now and then can they see a Vaudois. It is but a glimpse; for they are behind the crags loading, and firing with deliberate aim. Wherever the soldiers attempt to advance, they are met by a storm of bullets. The ground is strewed with dying and dead. The soldiers hear a chorus of voices ringing out above them. It is the Vaudois chanting a psalm. God is their helper, and to him give they thanks.

For four days the Pope's troops keep up the assault. While the men defend the barricade, their wives supply them with food. Count Trinity is enraged. He will charge with his whole army, and trample the Vandois beneath his feet. Thus far the Italians have been in the fore-front of the attack; but now he orders up the Spaniards. The Jesuit priests bestow their blessings, and stand with uplifted crosses, to urge the soldiers on.

A mass of men ascend the rocky path. Those in front go down; but the men behind sweep over the fallen, up to the barricade. Though they have reached it, they cannot mount it. Muskets flame in their faces. The barricade suddenly swarms with men, who beat them back, tumbling them one upon another—the dead upon the living, and the living upon the dead. In consternation they flee down the mountain-side, leaving all behind them. Soldiers and officers alike are panic-stricken. The Vaudois, leaping from the barricade, chase them down the valley, flinging them from the precipices into the depths below. The entire army is put to flight; and the Vaudois gather up the rich booty left behind. But who can bring back the slaughtered dead—the children hacked asunder, those buried alive, those blown up with powder? No one. Priestly intolerance has ground them into the dust; and it is yet a long, long while before men can be allowed to think for themselves. Will liberty never dawn?