The Reformation in France did not take the same shape as in Switzerland.There, the nobility were staunch Catholics and eager to maintain their power over any possibility of Protestant nobility gaining strength. John Calvin had sent out hundreds of missionaries to France resulting in a Protestant population of near 2 million by 1550 although it has been said that not all were followers of Calvin. Francis I had tolerated the Huguenots for much of his reign (1515-1547) until he realized that there was little they could do for him personally or politically. When he died, Henry II commenced persecution of the Huguenots, among whom were brilliant military leaders such as Gaspar de Coligny and Anthony, King of Navarre, their arch enemies, the Guise family. The young king, Francis II came heavily under the influence of this family.
When Francis II died in 1560, Catherine Medici became regent for her son, Charles IX. She being a foreigner, initially encouraged the rise of the Huguenots to balance her position against the Guises, who had ambitions for the crown themselves. Eventually, civil war broke out between the Guises and the Huguenots. Catherine, fearing Coligny’s influence on her son, sided with Henry, Duke de Guise.
In 1562, Henry de Guise was passing through the area of Vassy on the way to his estates and decided to stop for mass. He encountered a group of Huguenots gathered for service in a barn. Some of his men tried to enter but were repulsed. When a stone hit him in the head, he decided to burn the church, killing and injuring near 163 people. This attack was seen as a breach of the Edict of St. Germain which Catherine had proposed earlier to maintain peace between the two sides. The Huguenots set about creating forts along the Loire River preparing for what would become “The French Wars of Religion”.
One of the most notorious atrocities during these wars was the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. It was actually only one of many “mob attacks” on the Protestants which spread across France in the days that followed. Catherine Medici and Henry de Guise are thought to have instigated it. The Protestant prince, Henry of Navarre was to marry Margarite de Valois in an attempt at reconciling the opposing sides. On August 18, many Protestant nobles, including Gaspar de Coligny arrived in Paris to celebrate the wedding. This seemed fortuitous to Catherine and de Guise. On August 24, Coligny was captured at his lodgings and thrown to the street where the ritualistic killing began with castration and disfigurement. He was dragged through the street before being burned by the crowd. An estimated 10,000 people died in the coming days.
The riots provoked further military action with sieges being laid on Sommierres, Sancerres and La Rochelle. In this seige of La Rochelle in 1572, the leader, Henry of Anjou was called away, to defend Poland against further Protestant attacks. The resulting Treaty of Boulogne resulted in La Rochelle , Montaubin and Nimes being allowed restricted freedom of worship. Anjou failed to do what Richelieu did and that was to create a successful barrier into the harbor.
In 1588, Henry III, fearing the power of the Guise family, had de Guise assassinated. He joined forces with Henry of Navarre who was Protestant. When he was killed, Navarre became king, France’s first Protestant king. Under Henry, the Huguenots would gain some security under the Edict of Nantes. Freedom of worship was granted to 100 communities across France, particularity in the south. They were also given political independence but they could only worship in private. That political independence was lost when Louis XIII came to the throne in 1610. Their religious freedom was completely lost in 1685 when Louis XIV, France’s absolute monarch, reigned.
Jean Beauchamp, my 7th great grandfather, was born in Nanthieul, Perigord, France in 1579 and died in La Rochelle in 1630 as did his wife, Louise de Lanterna. They would have lived through the Great Siege of La Rochelle, dying just a few years after it was over. They are buried in unmarked graves, no cause of death known at present. They may have even caught a glimpse of “the Red Eminence” as he paraded into the city when it was all over.
Jean and Louise’s only recorded child, Michel, married that same year, a curiosity to me. It is noted at Fichier Origine that his wife Marie Roullet’s parents were married in the Great Temple in La Rochelle. One assumes that Michel would have been Protestant as well. Marie and Michel had 6 children before they emigrated, 4 of whom came to Montreal, Quebec as pioneers. Before she came in 1559, Marie Dardeyne Beauchamp, had lost an infant, Marie (1658) and a son William, at 6 years (1652). She would have 8 more children in Canada.