Reasons for writing these memoirs — Noble origin of our family — John de la Fontaine born — Obtains a commission in the household of Francis I. — Embraces Protestantism — Persecution — January Edict — John de la Fontaine resigns his commission — Assassination — Flight of his sons to Rochelle — Marriage of James de la Fontaine — Attempt to poison him — Henry IV. At Rochelle.

Let our beginning be in the name of the Lord who made heaven and earth.

SEVENTY-EIGHTH PSALM

“Give ear, O my people, to my law: incline your ears to the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth in a parable: I will utter dark sayings of old: which we have heard and known, and our fathers have told us. We will not hide them from their children, shewing to the generation to come the praises of the LORD, and his strength, and his wonderful works that he hath done. For he established a testimony in Jacob, and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers, that they should make them known to their children: that the generation to come might know them, even the children which should be born; who should arise and declare them to their children: that they might set their hope in God, and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments.” Amen.

I, James Fontaine, have commenced writing this history, for the use of all my children, on the twenty-sixth day of March, 1722; being sixty-four years old.

My Dear Children—

Whenever I have related my own adventures to you, or given you details of the incidents that befell your ancestors, you have evinced so deep an interest in them, that I feel I ought not to neglect making a record of the past for your use; and I am determined to employ my leisure time in this way. I would fain hope that the pious examples of those from whom we are descended, may warm your hearts and influence your lives. I hope you will resolve to dedicate yourselves, wholly and unreservedly, to the service of that God whom they worshipped at the risk of their lives, and that you, and those who come after you, will be steadfast in the profession of that pure reformed religion, for which they endured, with unshaken constancy, the most severe trials. You cannot fail to notice, in the course of their lives, the watchful hand of God’s Providence, supporting and preserving them through hardship and suffering.

You need not look farther back than the period over which your own memories can stray, for numberless instances of the providential care of that same God, whose “hand is not shortened.”

I have gained the knowledge of those events which occurred before my day from my mother, my older brothers, and my aunt Bouquet, my father’s sister; and I have the most perfect conviction of the truth of all which I relate.

For my own part, I trust that, while recording the past mercies of God for the benefit of my descendants, I may derive personal advantage from the review. The frailties and sins of the different periods of my life, thus brought to mind, ought to cause me to humble myself before the throne of grace, and tremblingly implore pardon for the past, through the mediation of my blessed Saviour; and the assistance of the Holy Spirit to make me watchful and circumspect for the time to come. When I look back upon the numberless, uncommon, and unmerited mercies bestowed upon me during the whole course of my life, I hope that my gratitude will be increased towards my Almighty Benefactor, and my confidence in him so strengthened, that I may be enabled for the future to cast all my care upon him. Great as is my debt of gratitude for the things of this life, its manifold comforts and conveniences, how incalculably greater is it for the mercy to my immortal soul, in God having shed the blood of his only begotten Son to redeem it! Oh, my God! I entreat thee to continue thy fatherly protection to me during the few days I have yet to live, and, at last, to receive my soul into thine everlasting arms. Amen.

I shall begin the narrative as far back as I have been able to ascertain the facts with certainty. I must remind you at the outset, that our name was originally De la Fontaine, and not Fontaine only. You might find the original name on record in Rochelle, where my grandfather held some command in the Tower. I have seen his name, signed Jaques de la Fontaine, to the deed made out when he purchased the house adjoining the fish-market in Rochelle, which house was part of the marriage portion of my sister Gachot. My father always signed his name De la Fontaine, during the life of my grand father, but afterwards, from motives of humility, he cut off the De la, the indication of the ancient nobility of the family. My brothers wished to resume it when they married, but my father would not consent, thinking there was more of vanity than utility in it for one like himself, with a large family and very little property. You must know that in France, an individual of noble family cannot engage in trade or the mechanic arts, without forfeiting his claim to nobility.

I have insinuated that our family was of noble origin, and it is true; but I would not have you glory in that knowledge, but rather in the much greater and more glorious nobility which I am going to lay before you — the suffering and martyrdom for the cause of true religion of those from whom we are descended.

The father of my great-grandfather could not bear the idea of bringing up his sons, according to the usual habit of the nobility, without any employment, and therefore placed his son in the king’s service. It is with this son I commence these annals.

John de la Fontaine was born in the province of Maine, near the borders of Normandy, about the year 1500; and as soon as he was old enough to bear arms, his father procured him a commission in the household of Francis I., in what was then called “Les Ordonnances du Roi.” It was in the tenth or twelfth year of that monarch’s reign that he entered his service, and he conducted himself with such uniform honor and uprightness, that he retained his command, not only to the end of the reign of Francis I., but during the reigns of Henry II., Francis II., and until the second year of Charles IX., when he voluntarily resigned. He and his father had become converts to Protestantism on the first preaching of the Reformed religion in France, about 1535. He had married, and had at least four sons born to him, during his residence in the Court. He wished to retire to private life at an earlier period, but being in the king’s service was a sort of safeguard from persecution. He and his family not only ran less risk from his remaining near the king’s person, but it gave him the means of showing kindness to his Protestant brethren, and oftentimes shielding them from oppression. He was much beloved by his brother officers, and by the men under his command, which made the Roman Catholic party afraid of disturbing him; though, at the same time, his exemplary piety and benevolence marked him as one for whose blood they thirsted.

You may read in history how the kingdom of France was laid waste by abominable persecutions and civil wars, on account of religion.[1] In the interval, between the year 1534 and 1598, when HenryIV. Granted the celebrated Edict of Nantes, the professors of the pure faith were most particularly subjected to every kind of cruelty and injustice. These persecutions were carried on with some of the forms of law, but the gallows was erected and the fires were kindled, not to support the law, but in the vain hope of striking from the earth the very name of Protestant. The means which were adopted, however, had frequently an effect exactly the opposite of what was intended and expected, increasing rather than diminishing the followers of the true faith. The martyrs, by their constancy, proved, in many cases, the instruments which God made use of to open the eyes of the papists, and it was no uncommon occurrence to see those who had aided in the destruction of others rush to the same martyrdom themselves. The Protestants, in some of the provinces, were irritated beyond endurance, and took up arms, not against their monarch, but in self-defence against their persecutors. This led to an Edict of Pacification, granted on the 17th of January, 1561-2, commonly known in history as the January 7 Edict. Charles IX. was then in his minority. The Protestants, believing this to be in good faith, very generally laid down their arms.

John de la Fontaine resigned his commission at this time. He thought himself protected by the Edict in the exercise of his religion, and therefore felt himself no longer under the necessity of remaining in the king’s service, to make use of his military profession as a buckler in time of profound peace. He retired to his paternal estates in Maine, where he hoped to end his days peacefully in the bosom of his family, worshipping God according to the dictates of conscience, with those of his neighbors and friends who yet survived. He was greatly mistaken in his anticipations of tranquillity following the Edict: the change was for the worse; whereas, heretofore the proceedings had been openly carried on, and with the semblance of justice, founded upon the king’s proclamation against the (so-called) heretics; now, all was secrecy, prisons and judges were alike uncalled for, any wretched vagabond, imbued with the spirit of bigotry, could at once exercise the functions of judge and executioner. Armed miscreants broke into the houses of the Protestants at midnight, they robbed and murdered the inmates with attendant circumstances of cruelty, at which humanity shudders, and they were encouraged in their atrocities by priests, monks and bigots, who made them promises of the tenor of that given to the city watch by the Sanhedrim of Jerusalem, “If this comes to the governor’s ears, we will persuade him and secure you.”

No inquiry or examination followed these excesses, and the Protestants, in self-defence, were again obliged to have recourse to arms, to repel nocturnal insult and guard against treachery.

John de la Fontaine had long been watched by sworn enemies of God and his Gospel, who hated him on account of his piety and his zeal for the pure worship of God. He was a stanch supporter of the Protestant Church, and occupying an elevated position, it was judged expedient to get rid of such a man as soon as possible, in order the more easily to scatter or destroy the congregation to which he belonged.

In the year 1563, a number of ruffians were dispatched from the city of Le Maus to attack his house at night. He was taken by surprise, dragged out of doors, and his throat cut. His poor wife, who was within a few weeks of her confinement, rushed after him, in the hope of softening the hearts of these midnight assassins, and inducing them to spare the life of her husband; but, so far from it, they murdered her also, and a faithful valet shared the same fate. Oh, my children! let us never forget that the blood of martyrs flows in our veins! And may God of his infinite mercy grant that the remembrance of it may enliven our faith, so that we prove not unworthy scions from so noble a stock.

God has promised to bestow special blessings upon the seed of the righteous, and we can generally see his providential care guarding the children of those whose blood has been shed in his service. He mercifully preserved the lives of the three younger boys, and guided their steps to a place of safety. The oldest was about eighteen, and his fate I am uncertain, but have reason to believe that he was from home when his parents were murdered, and that he also was massacred. The second son, James, my grandfather, was about fourteen years old; Abraham was about twelve, and the youngest was nine years old, at the time of the murder. They were filled with horror and consternation, and fled from the bloody scene, without any guide save the providence of God, and no aim but to get as far as possible from barbarians who had in a moment deprived them of both father and mother. They found their way to Rochelle, which was then a safe place, and, indeed, for many years a stronghold of Protestantism in France, containing within its walls many devout and faithful servants of the living God. These poor boys were at one blow deprived of parents and property, and from ease and affluence plunged into poverty. They were actually begging their bread when they reached Rochelle, and had no recommendation but their affliction and their prepossessing exterior. I have been told they were fair and handsome, and had evident marks of belonging to a good family, and having been well brought up. Some of the inhabitants took compassion upon them, and gave them food and shelter in return for little services they were capable of performing. A shoe maker, who was a charitable man, fearing God, and in easy circumstances, received James into his house, treated him with much kindness and affection, and taught him his own trade, but without binding him to it as an apprentice. This was no time for pride of birth or titles of nobility to be thought of, but rather to be thankful to God for putting it in his power to earn his daily bread by honest labor. It was not long before he was in receipt of sufficient wages to enable him to support his younger brothers, but in a very moderate way, for they all three lived poorly enough until James reached manhood. He then engaged in commerce, and his after career was comparatively prosperous.

He married and had several children, but only three who lived to be marriageable, two daughters and one son. The latter was my father, and was born in the year 1603, long after the others. He married again, but happily had no addition to his family. It would have been much better for him to have remained a widower, for his last wife was a wicked woman who became tired of him, and tried to poison him, and though she did not succeed, for medical aid was promptly obtained, yet the offence became too notorious to be hushed up, and she was taken to prison, tried, and condemned to death.

It so happened that Henry IV was then at Rochelle, and application was made to him for a pardon. He replied, that before making an answer, he should like to see the husband she was so anxious to get rid of, to judge for himself whether there was any excuse for her. When my grandfather appeared before him, he called out, “Let her be hanged! Let her be hanged! Ventre Saint Gris![2] He is the handsomest man in my kingdom.”

I have seen a picture of him, which should now be in the possession of my sister Madame L’Hommeau’s descendants at Jouzac, in Saintonge. That picture represented him as very handsome, with a full face, pure white and red complexion, and a long flaxen beard reaching to his waist, with a few hairs white from age intermixed with it. He was also a good height, and well proportioned.

He died in the year 1633, at the age of eighty-three. He left property to his family amounting to about 9000 livres.

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[1] Open hostilities were occasioned by an event which occurred at the litle town of Vassy, in Champagne, in the year 1562. The Protestants were engaged in prayer outside the walls, in conformity with the king’s edict, when the Duke of Guise approached. Some of his suite insulted the worshippers, and from insults they proceeded to blows, and the Duke himself was accidentally wounded in the cheek. The sight of his blood enraged his followers, and a general massacre of the inhabitants of Vassy ensued. The report of this roused the suffering Huguenots throughout the kingdom, and a savage and bloody war followed, during which, Anthony of Bourbon, King of Navarre, fell, fighting in the Catholic ranks, leaving a son eight years old— the future Henry IV.— that great supporter of the Protestant cause. The constable Montmorency was taken prisoner, and the Duke of Guise slain: thus the Catholics were without a leader. The Prince of Condé being also a prisoner, and the Protestant Coligny the only chief remaining on either side, an accommodation appeared indispensable; and in March, 1563, an edict was granted, which allowed the Huguenots to worship within the towns they were possessed of, up to that day. This permission led some of the bishops and other clergy who had embraced Protestantism, to celebrate divine worship in the cathedrals, according to the rites of the Reformed Church. Such an extension of the meaning of the edict had never been contemplated, and it was soon modified by a declaration, that ancient cathedrals should in no case be used as Protestant churches.
Another edict was passed very shortly, which imposed greater restrictions, and the Huguenots, finding that they were likely to lose by edicts all that they had wrested from the king by the sword, prepared to take up arms again, and in 1567 another struggle commenced, which, with a very short interval of peace, lasted until 1570, when a treaty was concluded upon terms so favorable to the Huguenots, as to excite some suspicion in their minds that all was not right. They were to have liberty of conscience, and their worship was allowed in al the towns they had held during the war; and they were permitted to retain and garrison Rochelle, Montauban, Cognac, and La Charité, as guarantees for the observance of the treaty.
All had now the appearance of peace; but it was the delusive calm which preceded a storm: vengeance was preparing, and the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s day followed with all its horrors, which are too well known to need repetition. The number of Huguenots slaughtered, has been estimated at 50,000. Those who survived were for a moment paralyzed by the blow, and the Catholics themselves seemed stupefied with shame and remorse. Charles was as one struck by avenging retribution; he became restless, sullen, and dejected, and labored under a slow fever to the day of his death. He tried to excuse his perfidy on the plea of its having been necessary for self-preservation: and he sent instructions to his ambassador in England, to give such an explanation to Queen Elizabeth. Hume, speaking of this interview, says, “Nothing could be more awful and affecting than his audience. A melancholy sorrow sat on every face: silence, as in the dead of night, reigned through all the chambers of the royal apartments – the courtiers and ladies clad in deep mourning were ranged on each side, and allowed him to pass without affording him one salute or favorable look, till he was admitted to the Queen herself.”
The lives of the young Prince of Condé and Henry of Navarre had been spared, on condition of becoming Catholics, a condition to which they merely pretended to accede, as both attempted to escape from Paris immediately afterwards. Condé alone was successful, and placed himself at the head of the Huguenots; and this sect, which Charles had hoped to exterminate at one blow, soon mustered an army of 18,000 men, and they had kept possession of Rochelle and Montauban, besides many castles, fortresses, and smaller towns. Thus Charles, and Catherine his mother, gained nothing by their infamous treachery, but a character for perfidy and cruelty which has been unequalled in the annals of history.
After the death of Charles IX., the condition of the Huguenots was ever changing; they were frequently in the field, and when successful, obtained favorable edicts, which were broken as soon as they laid down their arms, and then they would resume them, and fight until their success gained fresh concessions.
In 1576, the Catholic league was formed, having for its main object the exclusion from the throne of France of Henry of Navarre, who was next heir to Henry III., the reigning monarch. War was carried on between the League and the Huguenots, until 1594, five years after the death of Henry III., when Henry IV. from motives of policy, united himself to the Catholic church, and was thereupon generally recognized as the legitimate monarch. He still felt favorably disposed towards his old friends, and in 1598 granted the celebrated edict of Nantes, which allowed them to worship in freedom in all towns where their creed was the prevailing one. They were to pay the regular tithe to the established church , but were permitted to raise money for their own clergy, and to hold meetings of their representatives for church government. In all lawsuits Protestants were to have the privilege of one half the judges being of their own faith, and several towns were left in their possession for a limited time as a surety. The parliament objected to registering this edict, but the king was resolute, and finally overcame their obstinacy.
[2] The accustomed oath of Henry IV.



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