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Gaspard De Coligni
There was a time, when the doctrines of the Reformation seemed destined to achieve far ampler conquests over the dominion of Papal Rome than they have ultimately realized. France, in particular, at the commencement of the second half of the sixteenth century, appeared to be almost won over to Protestantism. The Huguenots (as the followers of the Reformed Faith in that country were termed) formed the most influential, if not the largest part of the population of many of the principal provinces, and of nearly all the provincial capitals; they were numerous in Paris; nor was there a single district or town in France in which they had not obtained converts and power, before the war of 1562.
During the long hours of solitude and compulsory inaction which he passed in his Spanish prison, he meditated deeply and earnestly on religious subjects; and after his return to France, the conversation of his brother Dandelot, who had already joined the Huguenots, confirmed the bias to the Protestant doctrines, which his own studies and deliberations had created. Coligni now resigned all his appointments and preferments, except the nominal rank of admiral, and retired to his estates, where he passed his time in fervent devotion, and in the enjoyment of the calm happiness of domestic life. But the cry of suffering which rose from his fellow-Protestants, against whom the pernicious influence of the Princes of Lorraine in the French court kindled the fires of persecution throughout France, soon drew him from his blameless and cherished repose. He at first sought to provide for them a refuge from oppression, by founding colonies of French Protestants in America; but his projects proved unsuccessful; and as the tyranny of the violent party among the French Catholics grew more and more alarming, Coligni deemed that both honor and conscience required him to stand openly forward in behalf of his co-religionists.
No class of men ever were more long-suffering, or showed more unwillingness to rise in arms against their domestic tyrants, than the much-calumniated Huguenots of France. When we read the hideous edicts that were promulgated against them, and which were not mere empty threats, but were carried into execution throughout the land with unrelenting and strenuous ferocity, we feel that if ever the right of self-defence can make an appeal to arms justifiable, it was so in their instance. Extermination or apostasy formed the only choice that their rulers offered them. Mackintosh, in his "History of the English Revolution of 1688," has truly termed the question of when subjects are justified in making war on their sovereign, "a tremendous problem." But the same admirable writer has bequeathed to us a full and luminous code of the rules and principles of immutable morality, by which this awful issue must be tried, and no one who is familiar with these principles can hesitate in pronouncing that the war on the part of the French Huguenots was lawful and laudable before God and man.
Coligni is peculiarly free from the heavy imputation, which insurrectionary leaders incur, however great their provocation, who introduce the appeal of battle in civil controversy, and, to use the emphatic language of Milton, "let loose the sword of intestine war, soaking the land in her own gore," before every other possible mode of obtaining protection from further enormous wrong has been attempted, and attempted in vain. He was wholly unconnected with the enterprise (known in French history as the conspiracy of Amboise) by which some of the Protestant chiefs designed to withdraw the young king, Francis II., forcibly from the influence of the Guises, and which may be considered the first overt act of insurrection. Not that Conde is to be condemned for that effort, but the Admiral's exceeding loyalty is proved by his having kept aloof from it. Coligni continued to seek security for his co-religionists by peaceable means, for two years after that unsuccessful enterprise, from the savage reprisals of the Court upon its authors. He seemed at one time to be successful in his blameless exertions; and in the Assembly of Notables, held in January, 1562, an edict was issued, called the "Edict of Pacification," giving a partial toleration of the Protestant creed, and suspending all penal proceedings on the ground of religion.
This was all that Coligni strove for. He said at the time to some of his adherents: "If we have our religion, what do we want more?" But those who had made this concession were treacherous as they were cruel, and the fair promise which France seemed to have acquired of tranquillity was destined to be soon destroyed.
Two powerful parties were arrayed against the Huguenots, one of which consisted of their avowed and implacable enemies. This was headed by the Guises, with whom the Constable Montmorenci, and the Marechal St. Andre had been induced to enter into league. Less fanatically violent, but far more formidable, through its false show of moderation and favor, was the party of the Queen-mother, Catherine de Medici. Catherine dreaded the power of the house of Guise; and was often glad to avail herself of the Protestant interest as a counterpoise against them. But though the jealousy which animated herself and her sons against the Princes of Lorraine was great, their hatred of the Huguenots was greater; and their occasional simulation of friendship enabled them to wreak it more malignantly and more completely.
They had sided with Coligni and Conde and the other Protestant chiefs in enacting the Edict of Pacification, and had thereby given a check to the power of the Duke of Guise and his confederates. But when their temporary purpose was served, the wise provisions of that edict were set at naught; the Protestants were again exposed to outrage and slaughter at the hands of their foes, nor could any redress be obtained from the royal tribunals. At length occurred the massacre of Vassi, where the armed followers of the Duke of Guise attacked a defenceless body of Protestants, while engaged in the services of their church, and slaughtered several hundreds of them under the eye of Guise, if not by his orders. Reeking from this carnage, the bands of the Lorraines entered Paris, where they were enthusiastically received by the fanatic populace, which was devoted to the Catholic cause.
Conde now left the capital, and summoned the Protestant nobility and gentry to rally round him in defence of their lives and their creed. Coligni long delayed joining him, and evinced a hesitation and a reluctance to embark in civil war, which emphatically attest the goodness while they in no degree detract from the greatness of his character. His wife, who naturally thought that anxiety on her account aided in restraining him, exhorted him in words of more than Roman magnanimity to arm in defence of the thousand destined victims, who looked up to him for guidance and protection. Coligni urged on her and on the friends who thronged round him, the fearful risks of the enterprise, and his earnest desire to wait in patience for better times, and rest upon the public faith rather than justify persecution by having recourse to violence. Unconvinced and undaunted, the heroine renewed her entreaties to the lingering hero. She told him that such prudence was not wisdom toward God. D'Aubigne professes to report this remarkable conversation from the lips of those who were present; and he states that she proceeded to urge on him these words:-
"God has bestowed on you the genius of a great captain-will you refuse the use of it to his children? You have confessed to the justice of their cause-is not the knightly sword you bear pledged to the defence of the oppressed? Sir, my heart bleeds for our slaughtered brethren-and their blood cries out to God and Heaven against you as the murderer of those whom you might have saved."
"Since," replied the Admiral, "the reasons which I have this evening alleged against an ineffectual resistance have made so little impression upon your mind, lay your hand upon your heart and answer me this question, Could you, without murmuring against Providence and the husband to whom Heaven has united you, receive the news of a general defeat? Are you prepared to endure the opprobrium of your enemies-the reproaches of your friends-the treachery of partisans-the curses of the people-confiscation, flight, exile-the insolence of the English, the quarrels of the Germans-shame, nakedness, hunger-and, what is worse, to suffer all this in your children? Are you prepared to see your husband branded as a rebel and dragged to a scaffold; while your children, disgraced and ruined, are begging their bread at the hands of their enemies? I give you eight days to reflect upon it, and when you shall be well prepared for such reverses, I will be ready to set forward, and perish with you and our mutual friends."
"The eight days are already expired!" she cried. "Go, sir, where your duty calls you. Heaven will not give the victory to our enemies. In the name of God, I call upon you to resist no longer, but to save our brethren, or die in the attempt."
On the next morning Coligni was on horseback, with all his retainers round him; and with a heavy heart but a clear conscience, he rode on his way to join Conde at Meaux, which was now, in the early spring of 1562, the head-quarters of the insurgent Huguenots.
The high rank of the Prince of Conde, as well as his brilliant abilities and chivalrous courage, caused him to be acknowledged as chief of the Protestant party; but Coligni was looked on by friends and foes as the main pillar of their cause; and it was he that gave organization to the volunteers who flocked around himself and the prince, first at Meaux, and afterward in greater numbers at Orleans, when toward the end of March they succeeded in occupying that important city, and making it a centre of operations for the Huguenot confederacy. Like Cromwell in after times, Coligni relied on the religious enthusiasm as well as the natural bravery of his troops. He exercised them by preaching and prayer as well as by drilling and manoeuvring. He inspired them with his own spirit of austere devotion to their cause; and the Huguenot army was in its first campaigns as conspicuous for good order and morality as for valor; though by degrees it became tainted with a tendency to marauding and to brutal violence.
The Roman Catholic party now sought support from Philip II. of Spain, from the Duke of Savoy, the emperor and other foreign princes of their creed, and the Huguenots, to the deep regret of Coligni, were compelled to strengthen themselves by similar negotiations. The English queen, Elizabeth, promised succors in men and money, on condition of Havre (which city, like most of the other strong places in Normandy, was devoted to the Protestant cause) being placed in her power as a security for repayment. The German Lutheran princes permitted a large auxiliary force of lansquenets and heavy-armed cavalry to be raised among their subjects in behalf of the French Protestants; and Dandelot was despatched into Germany to place himself at their head, and lead them across the Rhine; a difficult operation, which he accomplished with great skill, and joined his brothers and Conde at Pluviers, near Orleans, late in the year, and at a crisis when the fortunes of the Protestant party appeared reduced to a very low ebb, as in the interval which had elapsed since the commencement of the war, though there had been no engagement between the main armies, the Royalists had gained numerous advantages, and had captured many towns, both in the South and in Normandy, which had originally declared for the insurgents.
Coligni and Conde with their own troops and their German allies now (December, 1562) marched upon Paris; but finding it hopeless to attempt the storm or siege of the capital, they led their army toward Normandy, desiring to form a junction with the English troops at Havre. The Royal forces, commanded nominally by the Constable Montmorenci and the Marechal de St. Andre, but in which the Duke of Guise was also present, marched for some days on their flank, till the two armies came into collision on December 19th at Dreux, where the first battle of the civil wars was fought. In this action, after many vicissitudes of fortune, the Duke of Guise secured the victory for the Roman Catholics, and Conde was taken prisoner. Coligni led the remains of the Protestant army back to Orleans; whither the Duke of Guise, at the head of a largely recruited army, flushed by their recent victory, soon advanced, with the intention of crushing insurrection and Protestantism, by the capture of their stronghold.
Coligni's situation now seemed desperate. His German mercenaries in arrear of pay, threatened to desert him; the funds which he had been able to collect for the conduct of the war were exhausted; and he was utterly unable to encounter the numerous and well-appointed forces of Guise. In this emergency he formed the bold plan of leaving his brother, Dandelot, with the bulk of the infantry to defend Orleans, while he himself led the cavalry and a few companies of foot again to Normandy, and again attempted to avail himself of the English supplies of money and troops. In spite of the mutinous murmurings of the German reisters, in spite of the attempts which the Roman Catholic commanders made to intercept him, Coligni executed his daring scheme. Havre was reached. The English subsidies were secured, and the rich and powerful city of Caen voluntarily placed itself in Coligni's power. Meanwhile Orleans had been well defended by Dandelot; and the great chief of the Roman Catholics, the Duke of Guise, had died by the hand of an assassin. Some attempts were made to implicate Coligni in the guilt of this murder, but the Admiral indignantly denied the charge; nor is there any ground for believing him to have had the least cognizance of Poltrot's crime.
The death of Guise made a temporary pacification easy; and the edict of Amboise, on March 19, 1563, by which a narrow and restricted permission for the exercise of the Protestant religion was allowed, closed the first war.
This peace on the part of the Royalists was only a hollow and a treacherous truce. Fresh communications with Philip II. were opened; and an interview took place in 1564 at Bayonne, between Catherine, her son Charles IX., and the Duke of Alva. There is every reason to believe that at that meeting the destruction of the Protestants by craft or by force was concerted. The treaty of Amboise was now openly and repeatedly violated by the fanatic party of the French Roman Catholics; and the Huguenots were again driven to take up arms in self-defence. Conde and Coligni advanced upon Paris, and fought on November 10, 1567, the sanguinary battle of St. Denys against the Royalist forces. The Huguenots were beaten, but Coligni rallied them, and marching toward the Meuse, effected a junction with fresh bands of German auxiliaries. The war now raged with redoubled horror in every district of France. Alarmed at the strength of the Huguenot army, Catherine tried and successfully exerted her powers of persuasion and deceit over Conde, and a second faithless peace, called the treaty of Longjumeau, was concluded; but when the Huguenot forces were disbanded, and their German auxiliaries dismissed, the Royalists renewed the war.
In 1569, the indiscreet spirit of Conde brought the Protestants into action at Jarnac, under heavy disadvantages, against the flower of the Catholic army. Conde was killed in the battle, and a large part of his forces routed with heavy slaughter; but Coligni was again the Ajax of the cause, covered the retreat, and reorganized the fugitives for fresh exertions. But the waves of calamity were not yet spent. The hostile armies met again at Moncontour, and the Protestants sustained the most complete and murderous overthrow that had been dealt to them throughout the war. Coligni's brother, the gallant Dandelot, was mortally wounded in this disastrous field; many of his stanchest friends had fallen; many abandoned him; and he found himself a fugitive, with only a few bands of mutineers around him, the wreck of the gallant army that he had lately led.
But it was in this depth of gloom that the true heroic lustre of his soul was seen. Fearless himself of what man could do unto him, he calmed the panic of his followers, and inspired them with his own energy. He who has innate strength to stand amid the storm, will soon find others flock around and fortify him while they seek support for themselves. When it was known that Coligni's banner still was flying, the Protestants of France and Eastern Germany, who at first had been stunned by the report of Moncontour, thronged to him as to a strong tower in the midst of trouble. While the Royalists were exulting at the fancied annihilation of their foe, they suddenly learned that Coligni was approaching the capital, at the head of the largest army that the Huguenots had yet sent into the field. Again the device of a treacherous pacification was attempted, and again it prevailed. Coligni was warned of the personal danger that he incurred by trusting the faith of a Medici and a Guise; but he replied that he would rather lay down his life, than see France continue the victim of the woes of civil war.
The treaty of St. Germains was signed on August 8, 1570, and on August 24, 1572, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew attested with what worse than Punic faith the crowned conspirators of the French Court had planned it. In the interval, the most detestable and elaborate hypocrisy was employed to lull the suspicions of the Huguenot chiefs, and to bring them defenceless into the power of their enemies. At last, in the summer of 1572, they were collected in Paris, under the pretence of being the honored guests of the French king, at the nuptials of his sister with Henry of Navarre. An attempt was made on the life of Coligni by an assassin, in which the Admiral was severely wounded. The king and his courtiers affected the utmost indignation at this crime, and the warmest sympathy with the suffering veteran. But in the early dawn of the day appointed for the most unchristian carnage that ever defiled the earth, a party of murderers, headed by the young Duke of Guise himself, broke open the doors of the house where Coligni lay, and Besme, one of the duke's domestics, entered with a drawn sword, into the room where the Admiral was sitting in an arm-chair.
"Young man," said he, undisturbed, "you ought to respect my gray hairs; but do as you please, you can only shorten my life a few days."
Besme thrust him through in many places, and then threw his body, still breathing, out of the window into the court, where it fell at the feet of the Duke of Guise. The minions of the Louvre flocked around in hideous glee, to insult the lifeless form of him, before whom they had so long quailed and trembled. They gibbeted their own infamy in vainly seeking to dishonor the illustrious dead. His memory is at once the glory and the shame of France: and the very land of the St. Bartholomew is, to some extent, hallowed by having been the birthplace of Coligni, and the scene of his heroic career.
I do not pause to describe the tardy homage which his countrymen afterward paid to the name and relics of the fallen great. These obsequies and panegyrics may be looked on as some small expiation for the national guilt of France, but Coligni needed them not.
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