HUGUENOT WOMEN - AN INSIGHT INTO THEIR LIVES
The Huguenot Church has been famous for its martyrs, but among them none were more self-sacrificing than the women. There is one place that is especially associated with the female martyrs of the French Reformed Church. It is the tower of Constance at Aigues-Mortes in southern France, not far from the Mediterranean. There, it is true, they did not all die, but for many it was a living death as they were imprisoned or life.
The tower consisted of two large circular apartments, one above the other. The lower one received light only from the other, through a round hole about six metres in diameter. The upper is pierced by a similar aperture in the centre of a vaulted ceiling, beneath the terrace that covers the tower. Through these apertures smoke could escape, and fresh air enter, as well as cold, rain and wind in the winter and mosquitos in the summer as Aigues-Mortes was built on marshland.
When the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 made it unlawful for the Reformed to worship in France, the galleys on the Mediterranean became the prison for the ministers and the men, and this tower for the women. Their only crime had been that they had attended a Reformed service in the woods or in caves or had sent their children there. And yet for this they were virtually entombed alive, because of their firm belief in their faith. While imprisoned there they were continually solicited to give up their faith. Priests and laymen, foreigners and Frenchmen urged them to kiss the crucifix so as to become free.
Twenty-five women were confined there, according to the list given by Marie Durand in 1754. One of them, Marie Berand, was blind, but in spite of her blindness she was seized, by order of the king, torn from her home and conveyed to the tower where she died, aged 80 years. All had a pitiful story to tell as to why they were there, including this one of Isabeau Menet. At the end of March 1735, in the plain of Bruzac, a Protestant service was being held for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Suddenly the congregation was broken into by soldiers and all who were not able to escape were arrested, among them a young couple, Francis Fiale and his wife Isabel. He was condemned to the galleys either at Marseilles or Toulon, where he died in 1743. His wife was cast into the tower of Constance, where she gave birth to a child, which was taken away from her to be reared a Catholic. Her letters tell the sad story of the sufferings of the long captivity, of the sorrow of separation from her child, and of the death of her husband. Though sad, they are full of hope and piety. Nowhere do they demonstrate any trace of anger against her persecutors.
But the most interesting and best-known of the captives was Marie Durand. She entered the prison a young girl of 19 years she left it an old woman, aged 57. Her story was that as the French officers had not been able to catch her brother, one of the most zealous of the French Reformed ministers, who secretly held reformed services, they took her aged father in his place, and imprisoned him. Still wishing to capture the young minister, the French commandant determined to punish his sister Marie, and so she was imprisoned for her brother’s activity and for being of the reformed faith. As she was superior in education to most of the women in the tower, she soon gained the confidence of the sad colony and became their interpreter and correspondent. She corresponded, especially in the later years, when the surveillance was less strict, with Paul Rabaut, the famous French preacher of the Desert, and others.
As the years passed the women must have almost lost hope but then a visit by the prince of Beauvau, who was so touched by their plight, took up their case and was mainly instrumental in gaining their freedom. He says they were conducted up an obscure and winding staircase to a large round room deprived of air or of the light of day. There he found fourteen women languishing in misery. As he looked at them, he was overwhelmed with a great sadness. They fell at his feet, overpowered with weeping so that they could not at first speak, and when speech came, they all together recounted their common sufferings. He was interested by the story of Gabrielle Guinges, who had given two sons to die in the French wars but was permitted to languish in prison. He was touched by the plight of Jeanne Auguiere and Isabeau Maumejan, who were eighty years of age, and of Isabeau Anne Gaussaint, who had been imprisoned 36 years earlier and was ninety years old.
Overcome by a noble instinct of compassion, he himself broke the chains of their sufferings and gave them their liberty. For this he was threatened with the loss of his office. He replied in fiery words, “The king is my master to deprive me of my place, but not to prohibit me from fulfilling my duties to my conscience and my honour”. The prisoners quitted their sad abode. But where could they go? Their property had been confiscated. Their friends were dead.
Marie Durand was able to return to her former home, now in ruins. The consistory of Amsterdam hearing of her sufferings and poverty gave her a life-pension of 200 livres. But the flower of their life was gone, given for their faith. Yet “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Not far from the tower there is now a modest Reformed chapel, where every Sunday those of the Reformed faith meet to worship. This church (or temple, as they call Protestant churches in France), was dedicated February 22, 1863.
My next book is about Huguenot women and how they overcame tremendous obstacles for various reasons. In the meantime, my book – The Story of the Huguenots: A Unique Legacy is on sale either online via Amazon or you can order via your local bookshop.