Provost and archers make another tour — Firmness of the poor country people — Twenty brought to prison — Supplied with necessaries by Protestants of Saintes — Attempt to shake their faith — Precaution in anticipation of separation — Indictment against me — Confrontation — Recollement — Examination of witnesses — Agoust — Two criminals — Gaoler — Gaoler’s wife — Apply to the seneschal for enlargement — Accusation of King’s advocate — Placed in a dungeon — Removed to the Town Hall — Proposal to regain freedom by bribery
When I had been in prison about ten days, the Provost and his Archersset out upon another circuit, and my idea was correct that the country people would no longer flee. They had warning time enough for the timid to retreat to the woods, but more than one hundred and fifty persons met the Provost, and accosted him with the utmost intrepidity, saying: “we have all attended these holy meetings and prayed to God in the woods, and we are ready to justify our conduct.” The number who came forward being much greater than those against whom he had warrants, an examination commenced, and those whose names were not on the list were put on one side; after this was done, the remainder was still too large, (the prisons being already filled with Papists who were commited for real crimes,) and the Provost said he would only take twenty. A holy strife then arose amongst these followers of the Lord as to who should be of the number. The Archers were thunderstruck at the scene they beheld. “What are you about?” said they. “Do you set no value upon life? What fury urges you to the gallows? Think for a moment of your wives and children! what will become of them?” They tried every expedient to intimidate them, and swore by all that was sacred that they would only leave the prison for the rack, the gibbet, or at any rate the galleys. They adduced numerous instances of such and such persons, who, for similar offences, had been hanged, broken on the wheel, &c. These words acted upon them like wind upon fire, the more furious and violent were the Archers, the more was the zeal of the people kindled.
At length, by a refinement of cruelty, the Provost determined to leave behind those most anxious to go, and to select those to take with him who appeared least eager.
They were bound together two and two as dogs are coupled for hunting, and fastened to the horse’s tails. These poor countrymen betrayed no apprehension, they bade adieu to their wives and children with dry eyes, and the wives themselves, having put their hands to the plough, saw their husbands depart without a murmur, trusting in Him who has promised to be a husband to the widow, and a father to the fatherless.
It was certainly not more than half an hour after their arrival at the prison, when ten beds with all complete and an abundant supper were sent to them; and it deserves to be recorded, that during the whole time of their imprisonment the good Protestants of Saintes took care to supply them with every necessary, and the manna was not more abundant in the wilderness than food in the prison.
Their beds were placed on one side of the large room, apart from the Papists. In the evening I went to prayer as usual, they all knelt around me, and God who has promised his assistance to all who ask in faith, did indeed answer our prayers, for we experienced a holy joy and peace, which cannot be understood by any who have not tasted for themselves. From time to time attempts were made to undermine the faith of these poor people, and induce them to recant, and doctrinal arguments were brought forward which they were unable to answer. I dared not instruct them openly, or even converse with them upon religious subjects, but they would speak among themselves of these difficulties, and as I was walking up and down the large room, I listened to what they were saying, and when the hour of prayer returned, I availed myself of what I had overheard. and I would put up a petition, that if the enemies of the Lord should ask me such and such questions, or make use of such and such arguments, I might receive the Holy Spirit, and be enabled to answer for the faith that was in me in such and such a manner; and thus I contrived to prepare them for the Bishop’s chaplain who visited them daily. During three weeks the Bishop and many other Papists were unceasing in their endeavours to cause some of these poor people to fall, but thanks be to God, it was all in vain. At length they found out the secret of our strength, and that prayer was the invincible armour of our faith; and so they determined to remove me thinking that when the poor country men were left to themselves, they might work upon their fears as successfully as they had done upon the reason. I had foreseen this step, and taken precautions accordingly, recommending them to continue praying aloud, one for the rest; and if he also were taken away, another to take the place, so long as even two should be left. For their further encouragement, I told them, that by this expedient it was not improbable that we might be placed together again.
The King’s Solicitor had prepared an indictment, consisting of three charges.
1st. I had taught in the prison, and prevented my companions changing their religion.
2nd. I had given offence to the Catholics who were in prison.
3d. I had interrupted the Priest in his celebration of Divine worship.
I have forgotten to mention that there was a small chapel attached to the prison, where the Priest said Mass every morning, and I had selected the same time for our devotions, because the Papists were then generally absent.
Two of the witnesses against me, whose ears had been offended by the Holy name of God being pronounced within their hearing, were men who had waylaid a neighbour on the highway, murdered him and mangled his body, for which crime they were afterwards broken on the wheel. Oh ! how infamous for a Huguenot to attempt to pray to God in the presence of such worthy Catholics, and wound their delicate consciences with his fanatical discourse. Great God, what times!
Before I was removed, they brought me into Court for examination, and they began first with the offence for which I was originally committed to prison. On these occasions, the accused is permitted to ask the witnesses as many questions as he pleases, in the presence of the Seneschal or President, and the Register; and he has the right to have such answers as he considers favourable to him committed to writing. This is called ‘confrontation.’ The President on behalf of the King cross-examines both the accused and the witnesses, and has all the answers recorded that he considers of sufficient importance. This is called ‘recollement.’ And upon this ‘confrontation’ and ‘recollement’ all the instructions for the prosecution turn. They are read by judges to the number of twelve or fifteen, who are lawyers of course, and are called counsellors.
At the time of judging, the witnesses are not brought to the bar as in England, but the ‘confrontation’ and ‘recollement’ only are produced; and as each witness has been separately examined, without knowing what any other has said, it is a good way of eliciting the truth. It is all important, you must perceive, for the accused to be on the alert to discover, if possible, any falsehood in the witnesses.
The only witness against me was Agoust, who had made oath to seeing me on Easter Day, among the poor people returning from the meeting in the woods. He was, as I have already said, a pettifogging attorney, and consequently, well qualified to support falsehood without contradicting himself. Truth in the end generally triumphs over falsehood, and so it was on this occasion, for I extracted from him at different times, and amidst a host of useless questions, the following replies:
1st. That the time he saw me was in the dusk of the evening.
2nd. That he was standing at his window.
3rd. That I was in Mr. Mouillere’s meadow.
4th. That the distance was about a musket shot from where he was standing.
5th. That it was not in my way home from the woods.
You will readily conclude that I only obtained these answers at long intervals, putting many irrevelant questions to him in the mean time, in order to make him lose sight of the inconsistency of his present replies with those already recorded.
The President was out of all patience with me, for consuming his time in asking so many foolish questions. As Agoust had been a Protestant, and had turned Papist to retain his office as attorney, I endeavoured to trouble his conscience, and putting together the above named answer, I said to him; “Miserable wretch that you are, was it not enough that you should deny your baptism and your religion but you must also employ false testimony to tempt those whom God supports by his grace. Now; look at your statements and give the glory to God. You were at your window in the dusk of the evening, and you recognized me at the distance of a musket shot. What sort of eyes do you pretend to have ?” He was much confused at this, and said, “At any rate I thought it was you.”
“Write that,” said I to the Register.
The President, seeing his prey about to escape him, got into a violent passion, and reproached me with abusing the witness.
“You have perplexed and confused him,” said he.
“What” said I “are you sorry that I have forced truth from his lips? I looked up to you as my judge, but I now see reason to fear you as my persecutor.’’
I requested the Register several times to write down the last most decisive answer, but he looked for permission to the President, who shook his head. I then insisted that he should write down that the witness no longer said he had seen me, but only that he thought he had seen me.
The President wished to dictate it in modified terms, but I declared that if it were not written down verbatim, nothing should induce me to sign my confrontation, and finally he yielded; I believe, from the fear he entertained of my protesting against his proceedings, which would have been to his great dishonour.
The first blow avoided; you shall now see how I got clear of the dreadful accusation of having prayed to my God in prison. The two witnesses afterwards broken on the wheel were first examined. One of them had been brought up a Protestant, and all he could remember hearing me say was “Our father who art in heaven.” The second could not remember even as much as that. The gaoler was the third witness, and his accusation being that I had prevented the recantation of the people. I enquired of him whether he had ever heard me speak to them about religion.
“No,” said he.
“Did I even call them to prayers?” “No.”
I asked no more from him.
The fourth witness was the gaoler’s wife, and she was expected to prove that I had interrupted the priest in celebrating Mass. She had some talent and was a great bigot, therefore some little dexterity was required in dealing with her.
You must bear in mind that the chapel was separated from the main body of the prison by a little court,. and also that it was on the ground floor, and the common room of the prison was in the second story, and I prayed in the corner of that room most remote from the chapel, and with my back towards it, and in a subdued tone of voice, only just loud enough to be audible to those around me. It would indeed have required lungs much stronger than mine to have made myself heard in the chapel; the President well knew that it was an impossibility; and if there were no other evidence of the falsity of the accusation, the non-appearance of the Priest, (said to have been disturbed) as a witness, would have been sufficient.
When the gaoler’s wife came forward, I complained to her of the injustice of the preceding witnesses, and said, that I was sure a devout woman, such as she was, could not have been shocked to see poor people, for whom punishment was in store, humbling themselves before their God, and that as all my expressions were taken from the Holy Scriptures, they could not have given offence to a good Christian like her. She replied, that my words had not given her offence.
That was written.
“However,” said I, “ you had a much better opportunity of hearing me than any of the other witnesses; do not you remember passing close by my feet one morning when I was praying, as you went from one room to the other?”
She said she remembered it well.
I had that written, almost in spite of the President, who considered it so useless a question. After a few unimportant queries, I asked her if she ever heard me call any one to prayer.
“No,” said she, “but as soon as they see you kneel down, they run like wild fire.”
I then asked, if she ever heard me forbid these people to change their religion.
These answers were written.
I then enquired whether she was able to remember a sermon she heard from one of the preachers of her own religion. She was piqued that I should have a doubt on the subject, and answered most unhesitatingly, that she could remember it.
I did not require that to be written, but with humble apology, I begged she would do me the favor to repeat to the President any passages she could remember of my prayers, because I was persuaded that he would esteem me for them, rather than wish me evil.
She was abashed at acknowledging any deficiency in the memory of which she had just now boasted, and said she could not oblige me because I always spoke in so low a tone that she could not hear what I said.
That was written, and I was satisfied.
We both signed the confrontation or rather refutation of the accusation. The witnesses having all contradicted themselves, I told the President that instead of sending me to a worse prison, I had a right to expect that he would enlarge me.
The king’s advocate answered, accusing me in an indignant tone of having caused illegal assemblies in the prison.
I answered pleasantly enough that he was wrong in imputing the crime to me, the Grand Provost and his Archers had to answer for that, and I could assure him that if he would open the prison, I would disperse the assembly.
“It is no jesting matter,” said he, “you have prevented the conversion of these poor people.”
I then spoke with more seriousness, and said “you must perceive by the confrontation that you are mistaken; but for the sake of argument, suppose it to be otherwise; I look upon the conversion of the soul as exclusively the work of the Holy Spirit of God, and that perseverance in our religion cannot be attributed to any mere man, but rather to Him who tries the heart and the reins, and strengthens whom he pleases.” “I am ashamed,” said I,” to plead before Christians as Christians formerly pleaded before Pagans; and now just imagine yourself in the situation of one of us. What would you think of a religion which should impute it to you as a crime, that you had prayed to God out of the deep gulph of your affliction? Would you be disposed to embrace such a religion?”
He was moved at this appeal, but the President remained inflexible, and said, I must go to the dungeon of the tower of Pons.
I then spoke with warmth and indignation, and told him, that being convinced of my innocence, as I felt persuaded he was, he forgot his duty, and was more inveterate against me than the King’s advocate, who in virtue of his office was my persecutor, and I added, that if he thought putting me in a dungeon would prevent my calling upon my Creator, he was much mistaken, for the greater the affliction the more urgent would be my supplications, and that I would not forget in my prayers to beg that God would be pleased to give him repentance and a better mind. He very quietly said, he wanted none of my prayers or lectures, and called to the Sergeant to do his duty.
I was taken to the tower of Pons, and put into a miserable, dark, filthy dungeon at 8 o’clock in the morning. I found it already tenanted by one of the culprits who was awaiting his trial for murder. We had not much conversation. He asked me what was the general opinion of him, and he also wished to know if I could tell him any thing of the mode of examining by torture. I told him that he was believed to be guilty, and the probability was, that if he were so, some one of his companions would confess, and they would all suffer.
“What.” said he, “if I go through the torture without confessing, and the others accuse me falsely, shall I be broken on the wheel all the same?”
The breaking wheel
I said that all particulars might be so circumstantially given, that he would find it impossible to deny any longer.
“Ah Jesu Maria!” he cried out, in such a tone as left me no doubt of his being really guilty. I endeavoured to waken him to repentance, and assured him that God’s mercy was still open to him.
He had a curiosity to know what my crime might have been, and upon learning it he said, “Alas, sir, why do not you change your religion? This is a sad place for one like you.”
Poor wretch! I could readily believe that he would have acted up to the advice he gave me; and the probability is, that had he been brought up a Protestant, recantation would now have saved his life. He was next day put to the torture, ordinary and extraordinary: he bore all in silence, nothing could be drawn from him; one of his accomplices confessed, and all three were broken on the wheel.
“In France the condemned were placed on a cartwheel with their limbs stretched out along the spokes over two sturdy wooden beams. The wheel was made to revolve slowly, and a large hammer or an iron bar was then applied to the limb over the gap between the beams, breaking the bones. This process was repeated several times per limb. Sometimes it was ‘mercifully’ ordered that the executioner should strike the criminal on chest and stomach, blows known as coups de grâce (French: “blows of mercy”), which caused lethal injuries, leading to the end of the torture by death. Without those, the broken man could last hours and even days, before shock and dehydration caused death. In France, a special grace, the retentum, could be granted, by which the condemned was strangled after the second or third blow, or in special cases, even before the breaking began. Afterwards, the condemned’s shattered limbs were woven (‘braiden’) through the spokes of the wheel, which was then hoisted onto a tall pole so that birds could eat the sometimes still-living individual.”
Owing to the incessant importunity of Mademoiselle De la Burgerie, afterwards wife of Col.de Boisron, I was taken out of this stinking place at nine o’clock the same night. She was well acquainted with the Seneschal, and represented to him in the strongest language the infamy of his proceedings, and she would not rest until he gave her an order for my removal.
My next prison was a very elevated one, it was in a small tower at the top of the town hall of Pons, open to the town clock, circular in its form, and ten or twelve feet in diameter. I procured a small bedstead, three chairs, and a table, and I lived there three months in tolerable comfort. I was to be sure, rather dependent on the caprice of the Seneschal; sometimes he would not allow any person to enter my apartment for eight or ten days; and again, at other times, he would grant admission to any and every body who would pay the porter a few pence. I was visited by many worthy and excellent persons, through whose instrumentality I was enabled to send prayers, copied by unknown hands, suited to the condition of my dear fellow sufferers in the prison; and I had the satisfaction of learning that they persevered in their daily devotions, and not one of them was persuaded to recant.
It is worth mentioning that my solitude was never disturbed by Bishop, Jesuit, Priest, or Monk, though they never allowed a day to pass without visiting my companions. No one ever proposed to me to change my religion; so true is it that if you resist the devil he will flee from you.
It was hinted to me again and again, that I might let myself out with a silver key, but as I had only entered the prison for the benefit of my poor neighbours, I was determined not to quit it by means entirely out of their reach. I had also another reason, which alone would have been sufficient to make me decline this plan; namely, that it would hold out an inducement to the avaricious Seneschal to treat other Protestants with severity in order to extort money from them. My advocate, Mr. Maureau, and some other friends were anxious to take the matter upon themselves, and so arrange it as not to cost me a farthing, but I scorned the proposal, and assured them that if they dared to take such a step without my consent, I would proclaim publickly that the President had taken money to enlarge me.
James Fontaine (1658) was the great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather of Jared Smith (Editor of the AHB). He wrote an autobiography, the material of which was compiled and published by some of his descendants. The first publication is called, ”A Tale Of The Huguenots Or Memoirs Of A French Refugee Family (De La Fontaine)” (1838). The second publication is called, “Memoirs Of A Huguenot Family” (1872).