Provost and archers make another tour — Twenty country people brought to prison — Well supplied by Protestant brethren — Prayer — Indictment — Confrontation — Recollement — Examination of witnesses — Apply to be set at liberty — Accusation of the King’s advocate — Dungeon — Removed to Town Hall — Bribery proposed to me.
When I had been in prison about ten days, the Provost and his Archers set out upon another circuit to look for those who had been at our meetings, and as I had foreseen, the country people would no longer flee. They had received timely warning, and the timid retreated to the woods, but the Provost was met by more than one hundred and fifty persons, who 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 presented themselves was much greater than those against whom he held warrants, so he was obliged to make an examination, and he drew off to one side all those whose names did not appear upon his list. After this rejection, the number left was still too large to take to prisons al ready well filled with papists who had been committed for real crimes, so the Provost declared he would take only twenty. A holy strife then arose amongst these followers of the Lord as to who should be of the number.
The Archers were themselves struck 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 to them, by all that was sacred, that if once they were taken to prison they would only exchange it 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., &c. It was all of no use, their words seemed to act 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 who were most anxious to go, and he selected those to take with him who appeared the least eager. They were bound together two and two, as dogs are coupled for hunting, and tied to the tails of the horses. These poor countrymen betrayed not the least fear, they bade adieu to their wives and children with dry eyes. The wives also did their part to sustain their husbands, and they saw them led away without a murmur; they had put their hands to the plough, and did not look back; they placed full trust in Him, who has promised to be a husband to the widow and a father to the fatherless.
It was known in Saintes, where the Provost and Archers had gone, so the good Protestants were ready to minister to the temporal necessities of the prisoners who might be brought, and it was certainly not more than half an hour after their arrival at the prison, when ten beds with bedding complete were sent to them ,and an abundant supper likewise. It deserves to be recorded that, to the honor of the Protestants of Saintes, they continued to furnish the same liberal supply during the whole time that the poor people were imprisoned. Manna was not more abundant in the wilderness than food in the prison.
The beds were ranged along one side of the large common room, apart from the papists. In the evening, when I went to prayer as usual, they all knelt around me, and God, who has promised a favorable answer to the prayer of faith, answered ours by pouring into our hearts a holy joy and peace which cannot be described. Those only can understand it who have tasted for themselves.
I soon found the advantage of the plan of praying aloud which I had adopted; for when attempts would be made to undermine the simple faith of these poor people, and they would be puzzled with doctrinal arguments they were unable to answer, they would speak amongst themselves of their difficulties, and as I walked up and down the large room, I listened to what they were saying, and when the hour for prayer arrived, I availed myself of what I had overheard, and I used to frame a petition in such a way as to furnish them with an answer. I would pray that if the enemies of the Lord should ask me such and such questions, and make use of such and such arguments, I might receive the promised aid of the Holy Spirit, and be ready to answer in such and such a manner for the faith that was in me. I thus contrived to baffle all the arts of the Bishop’s Chaplain, and to prepare the people for his daily visits to them.
The Bishop himself and many other papists came to see them, and were unceasing in their efforts to make some of them fall, but thanks be to God, it was all in vain. This went on for about three weeks, and the they began to think they had discovered the secret of our strength, so they determined to remove me, and they hoped that when the poor countrymen were left to themselves, they might work upon their fears as successfully as they had done upon the mason. I had foreseen this step, and taken precautions accordingly. I showed them that prayer had proved the invincible armor of our faith, and I therefore recommended them, if I should be taken from them, to continue praying aloud, one for the rest; and if he also should be removed, to let another take his place, and continue it so long as even two should be left together. For their farther encouragement, I told them that I did not think it at all improbable that by following this plan, we might all be placed in the same room again.
The King’s Solicitor had made out an indictment for the offences of which I had been guilty in the prison; it contained three distinct charges:
1st. I had taught in the prison, and thus I had prevented my companions changing their religion.
2d. I had given offence to the Roman Catholics who were in prison.
3d. I had interrupted the priest in his celebration of divine worship.
I have neglected to name that there was a small chapel attached to the prison, where the priest said mass every morning, and I had purposely 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 neighbor 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 dare 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 removing me, I was brought in to court for examination, and they began first with the offence for which I had been originally committed to prison.
On these occasions, in France, the accused is permitted to put as many questions as he pleases to the witnesses, in the presence of the Seneschal or President and the Register; and he has the right to have such answers as he considers favorable to himself committed to writing. This is called the “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 sufficiently important. This is called “recollement.”
Upon this confrontation and recollement all the instructions for the prosecution turn. They are read by twelve or fifteen judges, who are called Counsellors, and are lawyers, as a matter of course. At the time of judging, the witnesses are not brought to the bar for examination, as is the practice in England, but the confrontation and recollement are produced as evidence. You are to understand that each witness has been separately examined, without knowing what any other has said; therefore it is an excellent plan for eliciting the truth. It is all important, you will perceive, for the accused to be on the alert, so that if there is any false statement made by a witness it may be discovered.
The only witness who could be produced against me, to give evidence as to the crime for which I had been brought from home, was Agoust. He had made oath that he saw me on Easter Day among the poor people, returning from a religious meeting in the woods. I have already mentioned that he was a pettifogging attorney, and, consequently, he might be expected to be very well qualified for the task he had undertaken, of supporting a falsehood without contradicting himself.
In the end, we generally find truth triumphant, 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:
Firstly. That the time he saw me was in the dusk of the evening.
Secondly. That he was standing at his window when he saw me.
Thirdly. That I was in Mr. Mouillère’s meadow.
Fourthly. That the distance was about a musket-shot from where he was standing.
Fifthly. That it was not in my way home from the woods.
You will readily believe, that I only obtained these answers at long intervals, putting many irrelevant questions to him in the meantime, 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 so much of his valuable time in asking foolish questions.
As Agoust had been brought up a Protestant, and had turned Papist to retain his office as attorney, I endeavored to rouse his conscience to some feeling of remorse. I put together the answers I have given above, and said to bim:
“Miserable wretch that you are; was it not enough that you should deny your baptism, and renounce your religion yourself, but you must also employ false testimony, to put temptation in the way of those whom God has sustained by his grace? Now, look at your own statement, and give God the glory.”
“You say you were at your window in the dusk of the evening, and that 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 down that,” said I to the register.
The President, seeing his prey about to escape from the snare, got into a violent passion, and accused me of abusing the witness. “You have,” said he, “perplexed and confused him. I will not allow such proceedings.”
“What,” said I, “are you sorry that I have forced the truth from his lips? I looked up to you as my judge, but I now see reason to fear you as my persecutor.”
I spoke to the register several times, requesting him to write down the last most decisive answer, but he looked to the President for permission, and he shook his head. I would not yield, and insisted upon it, that he should write down that the witness no longer said he had seen me, but only tha the thought he had seen me.
The President wished to dictate it in modified terms, but I said to him, “I declare to you, that if this last answer be not written down, verbatim, as the witness spoke it, nothing shall induce me to sign my confrontation.” So I gained my point, and it was written down. I scarcely believe I should have succeeded, but from the fear he entertained of my entering a protest against his proceedings, which would have been to his great dishonor.
I had parried the first blow successfully, and you shall now hear how I replied to the dreadful accusation of having prayed to my God in prison.
The two witnesses, already mentioned, who were afterwards broken on the wheel, were the first to be examined, in order to obtain their evidence before it might be out of reach from their execution. One of them was of a Protestant family, and he could remember nothing more than that he had heard me say,“Our Father, who art in heaven.” The second was unable to remember even as much as that. The third witness called up was the jailer, and he had made the accusation that I had prevented the recantation of the prisoners. I said to him:“Did you ever hear me speak to the people on the subject of religion?”
“No,” said he.
“Did I even call them to prayers?”
I put no further questions to him.
The fourth witness was his wife, and she was expected to prove that I had interrupted the priest in his celebration of mass. She was possessed of some talent, and shew as a great bigot, therefore more dexterity was required in dealing with her.
You must bear in mind that the chapel was separated from the main building of the prison by a small court, and also that it was on the ground-floor. The common room of the prison was in the second story, and I prayed in that corner of it which was the most remote from the chapel. I had my back towards it, and I always spoke 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 himself well knew that it was an impossibility; and had there been no other evidence of the falsity of the accusation, the non-appearance of the priest, who was said to have been interrupted, was sufficient. Had the complaint been true, he would certainly have been summoned as a witness.
When the wife of the jailer came forward, I complained to her of the injustice of preceding witnesses, and said that I was sure such a devout woman as she was could not have been shocked to see poor people, for whom punishment was in store, humbling themselves before God, and that, as all my expressions were drawn from the Holy Scriptures, they could not bave given offence to a good Christian.
She replied, that my words had not given her offence. That was written down.
“However,” said I, “you had a much better opportunity of hearing me than any of the other witnesses. Do not you remember one morning, when I was praying, that you passed from one room to the other, and came quite close to my feet?”
“Yes; I remember it very well.”
I had that written, almost in spite of the President, who considered the question so utterly useless. 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 kneeling down, they run like wild-fire.”
“Did you ever hear me forbid any of the people to change their religion?”
“No,” said she.
I then inquired whether she was able to remember a sermon she heard from one of the preachers of her own religion. She appeared piqued that I could entertain a doubt upon the subject, and answered, most unhesitatingly, that she could remember it. I did not require that to be written.
I then apologized for giving her the trouble, but humbly begged of her to oblige me by repeating to the President any passages she could remember of my prayers, because I felt assured he would find nothing to reprehend; he would rather esteem me for them, than wish to bring punishment upon me.
She was abashed at having to acknowledge any deficiency in the memory, of which she had just now boasted, and she was therefore compelled to tell the truth, and to say that 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, more properly, the refutation of the accusation. I then requested the President to set me at liberty, for I pointed out to him that every one of the witnesses had given contradictory evidence, and upon such, he could not think of sending me to the worse prison, with which I had been threatened.
The King’s Advocate replied in an indignant tone, that I had been guilty of holding illegal assemblies within the prison.
I answered pleasantly enough to that accusation: “You are wrong to impute that crime to me. The Grand Provost and his Archers are to blame for it, and if you will order the prison doors to be opened, I will take upon myself to disperse the assembly, without loss of time.”
“It is no jesting matter,” said he, “you have prevented the conversion of these poor people.”
I then spoke with more seriousness, and said to him: “You must perceive, by the confrontation, that you are mistaken in what you say; but, for the sake of argument, I will suppose it to be otherwise; but even then, the constancy of the prisoners could not be attributed to me. I look upon the conversion of the soul as exclusively the work of the Holy Spirit, and therefore, perseverance in our religion proceeds not from the influence of man, but from Him only 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. 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 gulf of your affliction? Would you be inclined to embrace such a religion?”
The King’s Advocate appeared disposed to relent upon my making this appeal; but the President remained inflexible, and gave an order to have me taken to the dungeon of the tower of Pons.
I spoke once more to him with much warmth and indignation “I feel persuaded you are convinced of my innocence, and therefore I think you are unmindful of your duty, when you are more inveterate against me than the King’s Advocate, who, in virtue of his office, is my prosecutor. If you think you can prevent my calling upon my Creator by putting me in a dungeon, you are very much mistaken. The greater my affliction, the more importunate will be my prayers; and when I call upon God, I will not forget to pray for you, that you may repent, and that he will give you a better mind.”
He replied, “I want neither your prayers nor your lectures.”
He then called upon the sergeant to do his duty, and I was removed from the court.
I was placed, at eight o’clock in the morning, in a dark, miserable, filthy dungeon, in the Tower of Pons. It was already tenanted by one of the culprits, who was awaiting his trial for murder. We had not much conversation with each other. He asked me if I knew what was the general opinion entertained of him. I told him that he was believed to be guilty of the crime of which he was accused. He then asked me if I could tell him any thing of the mode of examining by torture. I said that if they were really guilty of the crime, it was more than probable that some one of them would confess it, under torture, and his confession would be sufficient to condemn the rest.
“What,” said he, “if I go through the torture without confessing, and another accuses me falsely, shall I be broken on the wheel all the same?”
I said that all the particulars might be given with such circumstantial detail, that he would find it impossible to deny any longer.
He cried out in great distress, “Ah Jesu Maria!” His tone of voice removed from my mind any doubt I might have entertained of his guilt. I felt compassion for the poor, wretched man, and tried to turn his mind to the contemplation of a future state. I told him that if he would only repent truly of his sins, he might be forgiven. God’s mercy, I said, was still open, if he would only apply for it through the Saviour who died for him.
He was curious to know what crime could have brought me to be his companion in such a place; and when I told him, he said, “Alas! sir, why will you not change your religion? This is a sad place for one like you.”
Poor fellow! I doubt not he would have acted up to the advice he gave me; and the probability is, that if he had been brought up a Protestant, he might now have saved his life by recantation.
On the following day he was put to the torture, ordinary and extraordinary; he uttered not a syllable; but one of his companions made a full confession, and all three were broken a on the wheel.
Owing to the unceasing importunity of Mademoiselle de la Burgerie, afterwards wife of Colonel de Boisron, I was taken out of the stinking dungeon at nine o’clock the same night. She was well acquainted with the President, and she represented to him in the strongest language, the infamy of his proceedings, and gave him no peace until he signed an order for my removal, and gave it to her.
My next prison was just the opposite; instead of being under ground, it was very high, in a small tower at the top of the Town Hall of Pons, open to the town-clock, circular in its form, ten or twelve feet in diameter, and with two rather large grated windows. I procured a small bedstead, a table, and three chairs, and made myself as comfortable as I could. I was altogether dependent upon the caprice of the President, who would sometimes forbid all access to my apartment, and at other times, he would grant admission to any, and every body, who would pay the door-keeper a trifle for the trouble of taking them up stairs. During the three months I was in confinement there, I was visited by many worthy, excellent persons, through whose instrumentality I was enabled to send prayers, copied by unknown hands, which I prepared to suit the wants of my fellow-sufferers in the prison at Saintes I had the unspeakable satisfaction of learning that they persevered in their daily devotions, and that they remained a united band of Christians, not one of whom could be persuaded by threat or bribe to recant.
It is worth mentioning, that during my solitary imprisonment I was never once disturbed by a visit from any bishop, jesuit, priest, or monk, though a day never passed without some of them visiting my companions. No one proposed to me to change my religion, and I felt the truth of the saying, that if you resist the devil he will flee from you.
The President gave out that I was kept in confinement until there was time to prepare the process; but it was hinted to me again and again, that I might let myself out with a silver key. I had only entered the prison for the benefit of my poor neighbors, therefore I was determined not to come out of it by means entirely out of their reach. I had also an other reason, which alone would have been sufficient to make me decline this plan, namely, that it would hold out an inducement to the avaricious President to treat other Protestants with severity, in the hope of extorting money. My advocate, Mr. Maureau, one day took out his purse, and showing me the gold and silver, he said, “Here is the key of your prison.” “I am fully aware of it,” said I, “but I never will make use of it.”
He and some other kind friends would gladly have arranged the matter themselves, and not suffered me to pay a single farthing; but I received some intimation of what they were about to do, and I told Mr. Maureau that I would scorn such a proceeding, and that if he dared to take the step without my consent, I would proclaim publicly 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).