Persecution of 1685 — Meeting of ministers and elders — My opinion opposed to the majority — Meeting of Protestants at Royan — Mr. Certani dissuades from emigration — Interview with him — Gloomy forebodings — Departure of Protestants — Dragoons appear — I leave home — Visit sisters — Traverse the country — My betrothed.
The year 1685 opened with a bitter spirit of persecution far beyond all that had preceded it. There was no longer the slightest semblance of justice in the forms of proceeding, the dragoons ravaged and pillaged without mercy, resembling in their progress a lawless and victorious army taking possession of an enemy’s country. In the history of the past we look in vain for any record of cruelties such as were inflicted upon the unoffending and unresisting Huguenots. They were not accountable to any one for their acts; each dragoon was a sovereign judge and an executioner; he who had ingenuity enough to invent any new species of torture was sure of applause, and even reward for his discovery. My blood boiled under the sense of injury, and I desired earnestly that the Protestants should take up arms in a body, and offer resistance, instead of waiting quietly to be slain like beasts at the shambles.
Early in the year I received an invitation to attend a meeting of ministers and elders at Coses, to hold a consultation as to what ought to be done in the present cruel crisis. Twelve ministers and as many elders were present in answer to the summons. As I was only a candidate, and not a minister, I had no right to appear in such a meeting, and still less to give a vote, but my deportment in prison had gained me so much reputation, that young as I was, the ministers requested to have my opinion.
I pointed out to them what I considered the great error of which they had been guilty, namely, preaching the doctrine of non-resistance from their pulpits. I said it appeared to me that our quiet submission to all the grievous edicts and declarations of the king had encouraged him to go on. Our obedience to one edict only paved the way for another more intolerable to be issued, and I thought we might blame the timid policy of the day for much that we had endured. I dissented totally from the generally received doctrine that our lives and estates are the property of the king, and I thought such an admission reflected discredit upon our forefathers, who had obtained for us, sword in hand, the privileges which were now taken away from us. To make short of the matter, my opinion was that there was nothing left for us but to take up arms and leave the issue to the Lord of Hosts.
I was listened to thus far with impatience, and they then rebuked me sharply for the carnal spirit I had evinced in my remarks, which they said was the reverse of the patience and long-suffering taught in the Gospel, which at the utmost extremity permitted nothing but flight.
I replied that we were men as well as Christians, and that as men we had rights to maintain. If a compact entered into with our fathers, in virtue of which they laid down their arms, was broken, we were certainly called upon to enforce its fulfillment and if necessary, even at the point of the sword. I entreated them to reflect that it was impossible for this immense Protestant population all to leave the country. I was interrupted by them again, they had not patience to hear me, but I entreated them to let me say one word more; and I made a solemn appeal to them, to the intent that they should well consider, before deciding against resistance, how many thousands of souls would probably be lost. The poor creatures unable to bear the sufferings inflicted by their cruel persecutors, would be almost sure to yield and abjure their faith, but if we could put arms in their hands, they would willingly shed their blood, and sacrifice their lives, in defence of the truth.
The meeting was not disposed to heed my counsel; I was rather considered to be an impetuous, headstrong youth, and we separated, without deciding upon any line of action. When the dragoons made their appearance in our province, they were for a time kept away from the sea-coast. They had orders to overrun all the other districts first, and hence a rumor became current that sailors were to be spared.
The Intendant of Rochefort sent a letter to Royan, recommending the people to change without dragoons. A large meeting was held to deliberate upon the preparation of a suitable answer to this smooth letter. My voice was raised, as you may suppose, in favor of resistance. I said I was convinced that we could rally around us a party strong enough to possess ourselves of Rochefort and Brouage, in less than a week.
They would not listen to me; and I verily believe that nothing short of the feeling of regard for myself individually, and the respect for my family generally entertained through out the neighborhood, would have prevented some who heard me from giving information, and handing me over to justice.
They concocted a reply to the letter, without my aid; the tenor of it was, that they would obey the King in all things consistent with their duty to God, but nothing would induce them to change their religion.
They told a very different story when the dragoons really came amongst them, for the principal men proved to bear rant cowards, and trod one upon another, trying who could get into the church first to make recantation. There was much more courageous and unshaken faith amongst the poor country people.
Before the dragoons appeared, a good many sailors embarked with their families, and crowds of persons followed them to the sea-shore, with the desire of going also, if room could be found in the vessels. It was on this occasion that a Mr. Certani, the Catholic Curéat Royan, a sensible, respectable man, went after them to the shore, and dissuaded many from embarking, by making them a promise that Royan should not be visited by dragoons. He said the King loved his brave seamen too well to allow them to be disturbed. He gave additional weight to his advice, by telling them, that if what he had said to them did not prove true, they should be at liberty to burn him alive in his house. Some were persuaded by him to change their plans and return home; others, less credulous, embarked, happily for themselves, while they had the opportunity.
I was from home on that day, and when I returned, and heard of the proceedings, I went to M. le Cure, and told him I was come to bid him farewell, for I was certain we should soon have the dragoons in our parish, and I did not mean to trust myself to their tender mercies, if I could help it.
He urged me to do as many others had done, appear to change, which would answer every purpose.
I answered, that I could not lull my conscience sufficiently to act in that way.
He then told me in confidence, that he was himself overwhelmed with grief at the state of things. He feared the just judgments of God would overtake the Catholics for forcing the Protestants to approach the altar without faith, and to partake of that Holy Sacrament which should only be received by the sincere in heart.
“I fear,” said he, “War! Famine! And Pestilence!
“War!—What is more probable than that the princes with whom so many Huguenots have taken refuge, should be aroused to avenge them of their persecutors?
“Famine! For who will cultivate our fields? There will remain to us only old men, women, and children; all our young people are leaving us; and what an army may be raised for our adversaries, out of the brave young men whom we are driving away!
“Pestilence! Generally the last scourge, following upon the heels of famine. And who can say that we do not deserve such chastisement from the Almighty, for our profanation of his Holy Altar.”
The Curé spoke with great force on the subject, and he really appeared to have the gift of prophecy, for what he anticipated all came literally to pass; but he only lived to see the commencement.
The veteran army of France, formidable to the whole world, had been every where victorious until it made war upon the Saints; and then it experienced the most gloomy reverses. The soldiers appeared shorn of their strength, and God took from them their ancient valor. We have seen this army of torturers and persecutors, fly from the face of an enemy whom they formerly scorned, and seen them driven from the rintrenchments, and forced to precipitate themselves into the water, like the swine of the Gadarenes, in the fear of enemies who once dared not quit the shelter of their fenced cities to encounter them. The glory of Louis, called the Great, whose ambition aspired to universal monarchy, departed from him when he raised his hand against the people of God, and he lived to reap his reward in seeing himself despised in his old age, as he deserved to be. Famine and poverty covered the face of the land. The gold and the silver disappeared, and their places were supplied by a species of enchanted paper, which perished before it was consumed, and still remains in portfolios, as a memento of what has been lost. Pestilence also has marched over that doomed and wretched land.
France! miserable France! my dear native country, wilt thou never open thine eyes, and unstop thine ears, and understand the language in which God has spoken to thee? Shall man say, I am stronger than my Maker; I have entirely destroyed the Reformation; I have disarmed the God who protected the Protestants; and I have caused a god of wafer to be adored in his stead? No, no; God is not mocked, he will protect his faithful servants, and preserve his holy religion from destruction. Never canst thou, O France! enjoy thine ancient prosperity, whilst thou art the persecutor of God’s elect. So long as his faithful servants were cherished in thy bosom, and the promises made to them in the Edict of Nantes carefully observed, His blessing was upon thee, as it was upon Abinadab, while the ark rested in his house. Thou hast driven them forth with cruelties unheard of, and thy prosperity has departed with them. The floods have gone over thee. Oh that thou wouldst return to the Almighty and confess thy sins, and cease to forbid his true and pure worship; and his blessing would return to thee, and thy days would be bright, and prosperity would appear again within thy borders.
Sympathy for my dear native land has carried me away from the object of my visit to M. Le Curé.To resume; I begged he would not persist in drawing upon himself the indignation and revenge of an infuriated community, which would assuredly follow the arrival of the dragoons.
“You deceive yourself,” said I, “if you really believe that they will not be sent into our district. If they come, remember the penalty you will have to pay; you have given the people permission to burn you in your house, and I solemnly declare to you, that I this day heard a man, a stranger to me, swear by all that he held sacred, that if you had deceived the people, he would roast you alive, and carry the news to Holland.” He turned pale at this, and said, that he had spoken to the people so strongly, inconsequence of a letter he had received from the Intendant of Rochefort, which contained a positive promise, that the dragoons should not come. He took out the letter, and gave it to me for perusal.
After I had read it, I said to him: “How could you think of making yourself answerable for the intendant? Suppose he should not keep his word with you, think in what a dangerous position you will be placed. I beseech you, as you value your life, go to the people before it is too late, take back your promise to them, and let them see the letter, and then they can judge for themselves as to the credit they are willing to give to it.”
He thanked me for my advice, and what is more to the point, he followed it, and went down to the sea-shore to tell the people the actual state of the case, so that they might decide for themselves.
During the three following days great numbers embarked, and on the fourth the dragoons made their appearance. All who were left, and did not intend to recant, fled for concealment to the woods.
I left the home of my childhood, never to return to it, about midnight. I took with me about five hundred francs, which was all the ready money I had, two good horses, upon one of which I rode myself, and my valet was mounted upon the other, with a portmanteau containing a few necessaries. I was well armed, and I had resolved, if I should encounter dragoons, to sell my life as dearly as possible.
My house was amply furnished, and I had removed nothing from it. It was taken possession of by eighteen dragoons in two hours after I quitted it; they lived there until they had consumed or sold every thing they could lay their hands upon, even to the bolts and locks of the doors.
I passed through Coses about three o’clock in the morning, and found dragoons were still there. They had made all the people abjure, except about five or six persons, so they were all quartered upon those. When anyone announced his intention of changing his religion, he was at once relieved from the presence of the hated dragoons, who dispersed themselves amongst those who stillheld out.
I rode rapidly forward, choosing the by-ways, with which I was well acquainted in that part of the country. At break of day, I was near Jemosac, and was much startled by coming so suddenly upon a troop of soldiers, that I was seen by them before I had time to retire. They had been quartered et Jemosac, and had made the people who remained there perform the duty of the times, as they called recantation; and were bastening elsewhere to make more converts. I knew that if I were recognized, I should, in all probability, lose my life, but I concluded that my best chance was to ride fearlessly forward, and salute them as I passed. My horses were noble animals, worthy of carrying a general-officer and his aide-de-camp. I had scarlet housings with black fringe, and holsters for my pistols; and though I was dressed in black, I had taken the precaution of putting on a large periwig, and crape upon my hat, in order to evade the suspicion that might otherwise have attached to my dress. The officers, thanks be to God, took me for a country gentleman, and returned my salutation very civilly.
The first stoppage I made was at the house of my aunt Jaguald, my mother’s sister. Her son had changed his religion to escape dragooning, but the old lady was unshaken, and I believe she remained so to the day of her death. I gave her all the spiritual instruction and consolation that I could during the day and night I spent with her.
I went next to Jonzac, where I had two married sisters living, and, sad to relate, they had both recanted to escape the dragoons. I was extremely depressed, but continued my travels towards Meslars, to visit my dear sister Anne, and my heart was cheered to find this, my favorite sister, firm in her faith, even though her husband had abjured his religion. She gave him no peace until she persuaded him to take her out of France. After several days of sweet, delightful converse with her, I went to St. Mesme to see Mr. Forestier and my sister Mary, but I found they had fled.
Wherever I went, I tried to do some good, strengthening those who were firm, denouncing those who had fallen, and trying to persuade them to abjure their abjuration. It was distressing in the extreme to see the vast numbers who had made shipwreck of their faith.
Many individuals there were who had borne umoved the bitter tortures of persecution, and who had been stripped of their property without yielding to temptation, and yet at last gave way under the influence of specious arguments from false friends, who represented to them, that as it was a commandment of God to honor and obey the King, they failed in duty to Him when they refused obedience to the monstrous decrees of the King. They thus became idolatrous renegades, and gave adoration to that which they knew to be nothing more than a morsel of bread.
In travelling about the country I discovered an extent of defection that was most lamentable, and I was so afflicted and depressed by it that I became sick; I lost my strength and spirits, and suffered much from bilious vomitings.
I often encountered parties of soldiers, and I had become so low-spirited that I used to think I should not be sorry if they took away my life. Indeed, at that time, I would have parted with it willingly, if, in the combat, I could have destroyed any of the leaders of these troops who were doing the Devil’s work throughout the land.
You must know, that though I was a poor soldier on foot from my lameness, I was by no means a contemptible opponent when mounted. I was an excellent horseman, and so good a shot that I could hit a mark at twelve or fifteen paces with my horse at full gallop. One of my horses was an Arabian, remarkably fleet; if I gave him the bridle he would move with the swiftness of a race horse, stretching out his legs, and then doubling them under him, so as to bring his body very near the ground. The eyes of the rider were dazzled by the rapidity with which he passed over the ground, but there was no uneasiness from the motion. I knew that none of the dragoons could overtake me when mounted on him, and I determined, if they should pursue me, to fight like the Parthians, wait for any one of them who should distance the rest by the fleetness of his horse, shoot him, gallop off, and load my pistol to be ready for another. I scarcely feared whole a company when I was riding my Arabian, for they could not approach me in a body, and one by one, I was sure I could dispose of several of them. In addition to this, I was very well acquainted with that part of the country, which gave me a great advantage over them, and in extremity I could have availed myself of windings and thickets among the woods where they would not dare to follow. I made every preparation that I could for self defense, but reliance was not so much upon that as upon the protection of my Father in Heaven, whom I tried to serve to the best of my power, and who, in his infinite mercy, has upheld me through many ard great dangers as well then as at other periods of my life.
I was much aided by some of the enemies of the Gospel during my wanderings. My little stock of money was dwindling rapidly away, and I had no prospect of obtaining any more, so I had to think how I could make my present supply hold out the longest. I dismissed my valet as an unnecessary expense, and, at the same time, hit upon a plan for recruiting one of my horses, while I was travelling about on the other. Between Jonzac and Jemosac, there stood an old castle belonging to the Count of Jonzac, who lived much at court, and followed the fashion of the day among the courtiers, in being a great persecutor of the Protestants. I had taken rest occasionally at a small tavern on his estate, where I felt myself very safe, for I was personally unknown to the people, and as they were all Papists there was no fear of any dragoons making their appearance. Mine host was a humane, simple peasant, who always received me with kindness. I told him I had some business to transact which kept me from home, and obliged me to ride through the country a great deal, and I should esteem it a favor if he would take care of one of my horses while I was making use of the other. I said that I expected to pay for it as a matter of course. He sent for a groom from the castle who had charge of the horses belonging to the Count, who, finding he could make a little money, very readily consented to put my horse in the meadow, and attend to it. I used to return there every week or two, or three, as might be convenient to me, and change my horse, leaving the jaded animal to recruit in the meadow.
I pursued this plan regularly for at least three months, and I found the people uniformly kind and faithful to me during the whole time.
It was by no means uncommon for me to be six or seven days without being able to undress myself, or even so much: as draw off my boots, afraid to venture abroad in the day time; I generally rode from place to place in the night.
My troubles were increased by the great anxiety I felt lest any evil should befall that worthy and pious woman, whom God gave to me afterwards for my beloved partner and help-mate, and my greatest earthly comfort-your dear mother. She was concealed in the house of a Mr. Mechinet, where I feared she might not be safe from persecution, and therefore I was on the look-out for a better place of refuge, and I found it for her under the roof of a Mr. Brejon, an advocate, who had changed his religion. There was no fear of his being visited by dragoons, besides he lived at Pisauyau Castle, the seat of the Duke of Montausier, of whose estates he had the management. I felt that no asylum could be found that offered greater security.
 We have a more complete opportunity than our ancestors had of observing the consequences resulting from the cruel and impolitic conduct of Louis, and we conscientiously believe that the French nation is still suffering from it. In reading the history of France, and her revolutions, we often pause to think how different it might have been, if the descendants of the expatriated Huguenots had been scattered through the length and breadth of the land. They were generally of that middleclass which constitutes the strength of a nation. They were emphatically the courageous and sober-minded; the moral, industrious, and the thinking portion of the community, as well as the truly pious. The descendants of such men, inheriting even in a moderate degree the traits of their fathers, might have had an influence of which we can form no idea in moderating the cruelty, the caprice, and the frivolity which have of late years characterized the acts of the French people.
 The Protestants lost most of their strong places during the reign of Louis XIII., and the remainder in that of Louis XIV., so that they were entirely at the mercy of the King, and he promised to secure to them liberty of conscience, and he kept his word until his latter days, when he began to think more upon religious subjects, and under the influence of Madame de Maintenon, and his confessor, La Chaise, he determined to convert all the Protestants in his dominions to Catholicism. Colbert, the Minister of Finance, though a Catholic himself, estimated at its real value the superior industry of the Huguenots, and he opposed violent measures successfully, so long as he lived. After his death, in 1683, the monarch had no one to restrain him, and the bigoted counsels of the confessor, and the chancellor, Le Tellier, and his son, strengthened his own resolves. Almost all the noble men and courtiers recanted, and Louis thought he had only to say the word, and their example would be followed throughout his dominions. Missionaries were appointed, and furnished with large sums of money, to make converts; they gave in flattering reports of their success; but this method was thought too expensive, and a cheaper plan was to be tried. All Protestants were excluded from public office, children were allowed to recant at the age of seven years, and severe penalties were enacted against relapse. This caused emigration, and those in power opened their eyes wide enough to perceive that in the departure of seamen and artisans, they were losing many of their most valuable subjects, and to put a stop to it, they issued an edict prohibiting emigration on pain of death.
The Protestant churches were next ordered to be demolished, and no less than seven hundred were destroyed even before the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
The last measure adopted was that which has been known by the name of dragooning [We believe that the use of the word dragoon, as a verb, implying, to abandon to the rage of the soldiery, is actually derived from the cruelties practised during these persecutions.]; and if we had not the most undoubted testimony on the subject, it would be impossible to believe that such horrors could have been perpetrated under the mask of the Christian religion.
A day was appointed for the conversion of a certain district, and the dragoons made their appearance accordingly; they took possession of the Protestants’ houses, destroyed all that they could not consume or carry away, turned the parlors into stables for their horses, treated the owners of the houses with every species of cruelty, depriving them of food, beating them, burning some alive, half-roasting others, and then letting them go, tying in others securely to posts, and leaving their sucking infants to perish at their feet, hanging some upon hooks in the chimneys, and smoking them with wisps of wet straw til they were suffocated; some they dipped in wells; others they bound down, and poured wine into them through funnels, until reason was destroyed; and many other tortures were inflicted, some even more horrible than the above named.
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).