Trial before the Presidency — Digression — Defense — Angry discussion with the President — Query — Reply — Sentence.
The month of August had come round by the time that the process was ready to be brought before the Presidency in the Hall of Justice.
In this court, the prisoner has to depend upon himself, he is not allowed the help of an advocate to plead for him. The door is locked, and guarded byArchers. The President sits in the centre, the Judges or Counsellors on each side; the Register remains in the lower part of the Hall, and the prisoner is usually seated near him, on a three-legged wooden stool, as a mark of disgrace.
There is a saying in France,“he has sat upon the stool,” which is tantamount to the English phrase, “I have seen him hold up his hand at the bar.”
The testimony recorded in the confrontation is read to the accused, and he is asked if it be correct, and if the signature attached to it be his. The judges then examine him more fully, and if it be a case which admits of appeal to Parliament, the answers are recorded. As soon as the examination is over, the accused is taken back to prison, and the sentence of the court, in writing, is sent to him by a sheriff’s officer.
In preparing for my defence I thought much more of my poor neighbors than of myself, because I was really innocent of the charge in the indictment, they were not. Knowing that they would not be assisted by an advocate, I could not help feeling some apprehension for them, and I determined, if any opportunity offered itself, I would say something applicable to their case. I thought it possible that I might be able to soften the hearts or alarm the consciences of the judges; and I made it a subject of special prayer to God.
I will make a digression here, which you will presently perceive is not altogether irrelevant. My apartment in the tower of the Town Hall looked down into the court-yard of the residence of one of my judges. He was a very passionate man, much addicted to gambling and dissipation, but at the same time, he was said to be an able jurist. Two or three days before my trial, I was awakened out of sound sleep, about midnight, by this man swearing and cursing in a loud tone of voice. He had just returned home after losing a large sum of money at the gambling table; he was mad with vexation, and was venting his rage upon his innocent wife and children. I thought I heard blows, but of that I was not sure.
To proceed with the trial. When I entered the Hall of Justice, the Register civilly offered me the three-legged stool. I would not sit upon it, for I said I was not a criminal to deserve such disgrace. He attempted to force me upon it, which the Court perceiving ordered him to desist, and one of the judges smiling, said: “Mr. Fontaine is a young man, and he might lose a good match by being made to sit there.”
I made him a profound bow.
I was asked whether I had not prayed to God in the woods on Easter Sunday?
I said, “No, and I can produce any number of witnesses to prove an alibi, if you will allow me to call them. I spent that day at Coses.”
Very little was said about my crime in prison, because I acknowledged unhesitatingly that I had prayed there, but in a low tone of voice.
After some other questions, they asked me if I did not know that His Majesty had issued a declaration forbidding illegal assemblies.
I thought that God had now most assuredly opened the door for me to say something on behalf of my fellow-prisoners, and I replied:“Gentlemen, I am aware of it, and I have read the declaration over and over again, and I can find nothing in it which forbids people assembling to pray to God. I look upon it as the height of injustice to His Majesty to pretend that he calls such assemblies unlawful, and you, who are the interpreters of his declaration, ought to have more respect for him and for your own reputation as Christians, than to give it so bad an interpretation as to call assemblies illegal, to which no arms are carried but the Old and New Testament, and where no words are uttered but such as find an echo in those sacred volumes, and where prayers are offered up for the prosperity of the King and his kingdom, and for the conversion of those who persecute the Church of Christ.”
A curious interruption occurred here. My advocate, Mr. Maureau, had been listening at the door, and he was afraid I should injure my cause by speaking so boldly, so he put his mouth to a crevice and cried,“Hist! hist! hist!” and ran away. The door was ordered to be opened, but the offender was not to be seen, so they contented themselves with guarding it more carefully. This incident roused the attention of the judges, and they evidently hoped I should let fall some unguarded expression they might use to my disadvantage, so they encouraged me to proceed, which I did as follows: “Illegal assemblies, gentlemen, it appears to me, are assemblies where something is done contrary to law, such as tumultuously assembling in arms to conspire against the state; and I see none other to which it can be applied without losing sight of the correct meaning of words. If I were to extend its application, it is evident it should be to those meetings held in summer on Sunday evenings, where they play, dance on the green, quarrel with one another, and blaspheme their Maker on his appointed day of rest. Such assemblies might perhaps fall within the meaning of the declaration; however, I do not hear of any one being taken up for attending them, while the prisons are filled with those whose only crime has been praying to God. In the name of all that is sacred, gentlemen, how dare you give such an interpretation to His Majesty’s declaration without trembling to think of the wrath of the King of kings? You who assemble nightly at balls, where they dance, speak evil of their neighbors, squander their money, and perhaps lose in gambling that which is wanted at home for the support of wives and children, to whom they prove a burden and a curse, rather than the blessing they ought to be. You, I say, who are now sitting in judgment upon others, will one day stand before the just Judge of all the world, and in that awful day, think you that He will condemn those who have worshipped him in spirit and in truth, or those who have frequented your assemblies?”
“Aha!” cried the President, “your rebellious spirit breaks out at last. You not only sermonize and reproach us, but you say the King issues declarations, wherein he forbids assemblies where they pray to God, and permits those in which the Divine Majesty is blasphemed.” “Register, that is the sense of his reply, write it down.”
“It is not,” said I.
He then rose up in great anger, and said, “I am void of understanding if it mean anything else.”
Some of the judges were disposed to be more patient, and proposed that they should listen to what I had to say.
This was good policy on their part, for an appeal to Parliament was open to me, and if I would not sign my name to the answers recorded, they might get into trouble, because they would then be required to verify upon oath every word they had made the Register write as coming from me.
“Gentlemen,” said I, “the sense of what I did say I take to be this; that the King, by his declaration of such a date, never meant to prohibit assemblies where they pray to God, but much rather balls, and Sunday evening assemblies for dancing on the green, and more especially those wherein they conspire against the state.”
“No,” said the President, “that is not it.”
“Well, gentlemen,” said I, “to put an end to the dispute I am very willing to dictate, verbatim, to the Register all that I have said;” and I was about to begin.
“What!” cried the President, “you do not surely expect us to listen to that long sermon over again, no; that would be rather beyond endurance.”
At last, in order to save the trouble of the long reply, they consented to take the following as the tenor of it:
“According to my judgment, the declaration of His Majesty of such a date does not forbid assemblies where they only pray to God, and I think those who extend its application so far, depart from the intention of His Majesty.”
This was written down, and I signed my name to it.
The President, by way of showing my stubborness, as he called it, to the Court, then said to me: “Mr. Fontaine, we have no more questions to put to you as an accused person, but merely as a matter of curiosity, I wish to have your opinion; whether you think a private individual, we will say, a mechanic, for instance, can understand the Holy Scriptures as well as the learned doctors and councils?”
I answered, “I must make some discrimination before I reply to your question. Suppose the individual in question should be blessed with the aid of the Holy Spirit, and the doctors and councils should not—which I think very possible—then I am of opinion the former would understand the sacred volume the best, because the same Spirit which dictated the Scriptures is necessary for their correct understanding. Our blessed Lord and his poor fishermen found themselves opposed by the Scribes and Pharisees at Jerusalem. To come nearer to our own days, I certainly think that Luther and Calvin understood the Scriptures better than all the popes, cardinals, and councils put together.”
At these words they all arose, crying out, “Jesu Maria! What infatuation!
“Ere long, gentlemen,” said I, “we shall all be summoned to leave this vain world, and we shall then see whose has been the infatuation.”
I was then taken back to prison, and my poor neighbors succeeded me for trial in the Hall of Justice. I was well pleased that I had been able to put in a word for them. I had certainly shown the judges that, if they condemned me or these poor people, they might, in their turn, fear condemnation from Him whom they had forbidden us to worship.
The sermon, which it was reported I had preached to the Court, made a great noise in the place, and became a topic of conversation both among Protestants and Papists, each dressing it in his own fashion. The judges said I had put the rope around my own neck. I received visits of condolence from the principal Protestants in the town. Many letters were written to me on the subject from various places. They seemed to be unanimous in censuring me for my indiscretion, in speaking so freely before my judges. However, when I told the whole truth, and they understood how cautiously I had worded my replies, and more especially when I told them what had actually been recorded, they no longer blamed, but were disposed to overwhelm me with commendation.
The next day I received my sentence from the hands of the Serjeant, and I appealed to Parliament immediately.
My sentence was that I must pay a fine of a hundred livres to the King, for having prayed in prison, and be declared for ever incapable of exercising any function of the holy ministry.
My companions were condemned to make the “amende honorable,” to be banished from the province for six months, pay all expenses, estimated at one hundred crowns in specie and a fine of six thousand francs was laid upon us all collectively and individually. They had included me in the sentence of the people, though they had no proof against me, because they intended to make sure of the money, and they knew that I had some property, and my poor neighbors had little or none.
I tendered the hundred livres imposed upon me individually, and then demanded my enlargement, or, at any rate, the liberty of going in and out of the prison. This was refused me; and, therefore, I was under the necessity of calling upon my friends to present my appeal to Parliament.
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).