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In the Den of Lions: Beza at Poissy

“Good man for tonight; but tomorrow—what?”

Madame de Crussol expressed her doubts in a loud voice heard by everyone there.  Her doubts were justified and her assessment of the character of Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, was astute indeed.

The year was 1561; the place was the apartments of the King of Navarre in Paris; the occasion was discussion to prepare the way for the Colloquy of Poissy, which had the ambitious goal of making peace between the Huguenots of France and the Roman Catholic Party.

In attendance was Theodore Beza, who came to champion the Huguenot cause, having traveled from Geneva.  Before he had even arrived in Paris, delegates from Charles, King of France, came with a most effusive welcome and the Chancellor of France, Michel de L’Hopital, himself gave Beza a flattering reception.  Also welcoming Beza to Paris in various receptions were the famous Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, who would die on St. Bartholomew’s Day eleven years later, the King of Navarre, and his brother the Prince of Condé.  Even the highest dignitaries of Rome could envy the reception given to Beza.

The Cardinals of Bourbon, brother of the King of Navarre, and Chatillon, brother of Coligny, welcomed Beza to Paris and had differing and wavering degrees of sympathy to the Huguenot cause.

When he entered the chambers of the King of Navarre that evening, Beza was surprised to find the Queen Mother herself, Catharine de’ Medici with Prince Condè and the Duke d’Étampes.  Joining the Cardinal Bourbon was that nemesis of the Reformation Cardinal Lorraine, friend of the Guises and darling of the Pope.

Catharine had recently expressed in a letter to the Pope her great desire to see peace achieved in France.  She said she was willing to give up the worship of images, the denial of the cup to the laity, the use of Latin in public worship, private masses, and other abuses.  The good influence of the chancellor L’Hopital is apparent, as well as that of other men and women in high places who championed the Huguenot cause.

Lorraine was effusive in his greeting of Beza.  John Calvin would playfully warn Beza of being too taken with Lorraine’s flattery, saying that he had been so flattered by a papal legate thirteen years before.  If Beza assumed lordly airs, Calvin teased; he [Calvin] could also, because the flattery of a papal legate was superior to that of a lowly cardinal.

The times were serious, in spite of Calvin’s levity.  That same year, the infamous “Triumvirate” had been formed by Anne de Montmorency the uncle of Coligny, François de Guise, and St. André to exterminate Protestantism in the world.  Under Philip, King of Spain, who would invade France with an army and in league with the Duke of Guise, the King of Navarre would be crushed and expelled with his wife and children.  All who had ever professed the Huguenot faith would be slain without pity.  The entire race of the Bourbons would be exterminated. 

The Catholic princes of Germany would prevent aid from coming to France from that direction.  In the worst case, the Catholic cantons of Switzerland would behave in a like manner with the assistance of the Pope.  The coup de grâce would be given by the Duke of Savoy, Philip and the Italian Dukes:  not an inhabitant of Geneva would escape.  Every age or sex would be slain by the sword or drowned in the lake to show ages to come how angry God is with those who dared to give the sacred wine to common people.  Then, rich from the spoils of Protestant France and Switzerland, the victorious armies would destroy Lutheranism and exterminate its devotees in Germany.[1]

Conspiracy does not rule history, however, even though men are inveterate conspirators. The Triumvirate was to find itself as badly nourished by its bloody fancies as that ancient king who ate grass—and for the same reason.  The Most High does rule in the kingdoms of men.  That same year [1561] Elizabeth would be on the throne of England, Mary Stuart would return to Scotland to find John Knox had also returned to plow in the land of Scotland, within ten years the Netherlands would be in full revolt against Philip, and within thirty years the Great Armada would be shattered on the rocks of Great Britain.  Before four decades had passed, Philip would be dying, his joints putrefying from open sores caused by gout, and his conscience even more an open sore of remorse for having failed his God, his pope, and his nation.  A conscience troubled by imagined sins can be even more tormenting that one troubled by real ones.  If the light be darkness, the darkness is great indeed.

To quote Baird:

“I teach the children of my diocese,” said the cardinal [of Lorraine], “when they are asked the questions, ‘What is the bread in the Supper?’ to answer that it is the body of Christ.  Do you find fault with this?”

“Why should I not approve the words of Christ?” replied Beza.  “But the question is, ‘In what way is the bread called the body of Christ?’” 

Hereupon he proceeded to set forth his own and the Reformed view—namely, that the signs used retain their original nature, by the bread continuing to be bread and wine to be wine; that the thing signified in the Sacrament is the very body of Christ affixed to the cross and His very blood poured out on the cross; that the bread and water used are not common bread and water, from which, however, they differ only in that they become visible signs of the body and blood of Christ; that therefore the body and blood of Christ, so as they are truly given and communicated, are truly present in the use of the Supper, not, as they are esteemed to be, under, or in, or with the bread, or anywhere else than in heaven whither Christ has ascended, that there He may reside, so far as appertains to His human nature, until He shall return to judge the quick and the dead; finally, that, in the Communion, the visible signs are given to us to be taken by the hand, to be eaten, to be drunk in a natural manner, but, so far as the thing signified is concerned, that is, the body and blood of Christ, they are offered indeed to all, but they cannot be partaken of save spiritually and by faith, not by the hand, not by the mouth.[2]

The Cardinal expressed his agreement.  He rejoiced to hear that Beza thought such things, for he had had a different opinion of Beza’s views.  He was unwilling that there be a schism in the churches over Transubstantiation, for Christ must be sought in heaven.   “I am unpracticed in discussions of this kind, but you have heard what I would say,” he admitted.  The Pope would have agreed as to the lack of practice, for Lorraine had just given away the store.

“And you in like manner have heard from me what should satisfy you.  I sum all up thus:  The bread is the body of Christ sacramentally, that is, although that body is today in heaven and nowhere else, yet the signs are with us upon the earth.  Yet just so truly is that body given to us, and just so truly is it partaken of by us through faith, and that to life eternal because of God’s promise, as the sign is naturally extended to our hands” Beza replied.

Lorraine was gracious, “Monsieur de Bèze, I have greatly rejoiced to see and hear you.  I adjure you, in God’s name, to let me understand your reasons and that you also understand mine.  And you will not find me so black as some people make me to be,” Beza replied in kind to the Cardinal and the group broke up.

Madame de Crussol was right of course. Before the morning, the Cardinal was boasting that he had completely overcome Beza and had brought him around to his opinion.

Catharine, however, was overjoyed and held great hopes for union and conciliation.  The preliminary discussions had gone well and good things could be expected from the Colloquy of Poissy. It was not to be.

The Colloquy of Poissy, which was held in September 1561, is one of the great events in the history of the reformation in France.  The Reformed in France had increased in numbers by leaps and bounds and dominated much of France, especially in the south. There were more than 400 faithful Reformed ministers in France, mostly trained in Geneva, and fearless in their proclamation of the truth.

Several of these learned and devout men were in attendance at the Colloquy along with picked men from abroad: Augustin Marlorat of Rouen who a year later would be judicially murdered by the provincially Parliament; Nicholas des Gallars from London and pastor of French refugees there; François de Saint Paul, not only a famed theologian but credited by founding several churches.

Also in attendance was John Merlin, learned professor of Hebrew at Geneva who later became chaplain for Admiral Coligny.  On that horrible day in 1572 when Coligny was assassinated in Paris, Merlin incredibly escaped the assassins and hid in a garret.  Every day a hen came and laid an egg.  This kept him from starvation until he could escape.  Adding the distinguished Theodore Beza to these godly men created a formidable body of scholars indeed.

We quote Baird again:

The tables of the nuns ran along the sides of the room, the table of the abbess along the side farthest from the spectator as he entered.  In front of this table sat a number of great lords in a row, and before them in turn the princes of the blood royal.  In advance of these were six detached seats, places of highest honor.  Here sat young King Charles IX [age 11], with his younger brother (the future Henry III) and Antoine, King of Navarre, on his right, while the seats to the left were occupied by his mother, Catharine de’ Medici, his sister, Margaret of Valois, future bride of Henry IV, and Jeanne d’ Albret, Queen of Navarre.  Chairs had been arranged for the six French cardinals that were in attendance at court, in two rows facing one another and somewhat nearer the door.  On the spectator’s right were Cardinals Armagnac, Bourbon, and Guise; on his left Cardinals Tournon, Chastillon, and Lorraine, with the High Chancellor of France, Michel de L’Hopital, sitting between the last two.  In three rows on benches advancing towards the spectator’s left hand were gathered bishops and doctors, while other dignitaries of the same grade occupied a similar position on his right.  More toward the centre of the room were a table and seats for the secretaries of state.[3]

No seats were provided for the Protestants.  They must stand as though accused.  Calvin had known that this would be often the condition of the faithful in those bitter days.  Every attempt would be made to humiliate the faithful, but Calvin had said that they would endure such things patiently and be subject to authority.  Ten years before he had written: “Then let them sit, provided we are heard, declaring the Truth while standing.”   All that they wanted was a chance to be heard, to refute the lie that Rome represented the old faith.  All the fathers were on the side of the faithful; the monstrosities of transubstantiation, papal authority, indulgences, and salvation by works were not the teachings of the apostles or the ancient church.   If they must stand to be heard, so be it.

After the formalities which included a short welcome, written by Catharine, from King Charles, Chancellor L’Hopital made a temperate speech giving the reason for the gathering with his hope that the nation could united and that no one should be condemned unheard.  He was hardly finished when the elderly Tournon rose to address the king as representative of the clergy.  There should be a postponement so he and the assembled clergy could study the speech of the Chancellor which had raised a number of important questions which the assembled clergy needed to study, as well as clergy not present, in order to reply to them.  L’Hopital refused this delaying tactic and the Reformers were invited to speak.  Beza and the other delegates were brought into the hall.  They were separated from the assembled dignitaries by a rail, a further indignity.

“Here come the Genevese curs!” one of the cardinals said loudly enough to be heard by Beza.

Without being ruffled Beza replied immediately, “Faithful dogs are much needed in the Lord’s sheepfold to bark at the wolves.”

After addressing the boy-king, Beza knelt on the floor and prayed the prayer of Calvin’s liturgy.  “His colleagues on his right hand and on his left also knelt.  The example was contagious.  The queen-mother fell on her knees.  The cardinals and possibly the bishops arose and stood with uncovered heads while Beza reverently uttered the Huguenot confession of sins and supplications for pardon—the very words that had been used and were still to be used by many a martyrs suffering the penalty of death for attending conventicles where this prayer was customarily repeated.”[4]  He closed his prayer with the Lord’s Prayer and began his address to the king and those assembled.

It was the first time that any King of France had heard the cause of the Reformation, and it was a powerful plea indeed.  Beza insisted that the differences between the Reformed and Rome were important but that they also held a great many things in common.  Beza spoke of the nature of good works and their relationship to Scripture, the Sacraments, the government of the church, the doctrine of the fathers and the ancient church.

At one point, after he had rejected both the Lutheran and Roman views of the Lord’s Supper he said, “We say that His body is as far removed from the bread and the wine as the highest heaven is removed from the earth.”  At these words [to again quote Baird], “Cardinals, bishops, doctors of the Sorbonne, began to express their dissent in loud and violent tones.  Amid the din that instantly arose, Beza’s voice was quite drowned for the time, and the only intelligible words that could be made out were exclamations of ‘He has blasphemed!  He has blasphemed God!’ coming from one and another of the ecclesiastics.”

Cardinal Tournon wanted Beza silenced, or at least that the ecclesiastics might be excused from hearing words too harsh for their sensitive ears.  Catharine commanded silence and Beza finished his speech.

As soon as Beza was finished, Tournon, “trembling with wrath,” protested to the king that they had come only at the command of the king.  They did not wish to hear such awful things, things that were unworthy of the ears of His Majesty.  He wanted the king not to form any opinion until after a day had been set for the prelates to show him the difference between truth and error.  He invoked the Virgin Mary and the saints, male and female, in heaven that the king might persevere in the faith of his fathers.

Catharine cut the Cardinal short, saying that they were there to hear both sides and try to bring peace to the kingdom.  The truth was to be established by the Scriptures. “Reply, therefore, to the speech of Monsieur de Bèze to which you have just listened.”

The Cardinal declined.  The speech was a long one, but if he were given a copy he would prepare an answer.  The copy of the speech was sent to him, but the answer never came.

Instead, one week later, from a pulpit demonstrating his authority, the Cardinal Lorraine condescendingly spoke of the temporal authority of the king and the spiritual authority of the church.  “Only on two points of the Reformed confession did the cardinal even pretend to enter into argument.  He maintained that the Church is no mere aggregation of the elect, but includes the tares along with the wheat.  He argued that the presence of the Lord in the Eucharist is not spiritual alone, but real and corporeal.  As for the rest, he treated the Protestants as wayward but misguided children for whom he had no reproaches to utter, but only pity…If they would not return [to the Church], and indeed remained at variance with their fellow-Reformers, the Lutherans of Germany, he suggested that the French Protestants ought to withdraw to some remote region where they would cease to disturb flocks over which they had no legitimate authority, to a solitude where at least they might remain until their new-fangled opinions should grow as old and venerable as the creed of the established Church.”[5]

After Lorraine had finished the prelates jumped to their feet, pressing around Charles IX, begging him to remain constant to the teachings of the Church and that Beza and the Reformed must accept what Lorraine had just said before they could receive any more instruction. Beza wanted to answer Lorraine immediately, but Catharine refused, saying that he would have a later opportunity.

This was the effective end of the Colloquy.  A third meeting lacked the King and most of the bishops and cardinals.  The Protestants welcomed the attendance of Peter Martyr.  Roman theologians came with heavy tomes of the fathers to refute the Reformation teachings.  It was disorderly.  An intemperate speech was made by a Dominican friar.  Lorraine insisted that the Reformed sign the Augsburg Confession that the Protestants of Germany received.

Beza did make some very happy rejoinders even in the confusion.  He asked if the Cardinal Lorraine would sign the Augsburg Confession, which of course he could not do.  When asked by what authority the Reformed preached and taught, he wondered what a bishop would reply if asked, “Were you elected to the episcopate by the elders of your church?  Did the people seek for you? Were inquiries instituted regarding your conduct, your life, and your belief?’ or, “Who ordained you, and how much money did you pay to be ordained?”

And so, after more wrangling, and some small conferences attempting to present some measure of agreement to the Queen, the Colloquy came to an end.  The Edict of January 1562, brought some recognition to the Huguenots, but it only lasted a few weeks.

There was another conference at the castle of St. Germain from January 28 to February 11, 1562, at which the worship of images was discussed. Beza’s brilliance was splendid, but differences between the Reformed and the Catholics were only matched by the differences between the Catholics themselves.

Only twenty days after the conference at St. Germain ended, the peace of France was shattered by the Massacre of Vassy.  Here a congregation of Huguenots were worshipping in a rude barn which they had transformed into a sanctuary on the quiet of the Sabbath.  The Duke of Guise and his followers fell upon them with swords.  These are the facts: 

When the dreadful work was over, it was found that from sixty to eighty persons had been killed, and 250 wounded, many of the mortally.  The streets wer filled with the most piteous spectacles.  Women were seen disheveled hair, and faces besmeared with blood from their streaming wounds, dragging themselves along, and filling the air with their cries and lamentations.  The soldiers signalized their triumph by pulling down the pulpit, burning the bibles and Psalters, plundering the poor’s-box, spoiling the killed of their raiment, and wrecking the place.  The large pulpit Bible was taken to the duke. He examined the title page, and his learning enabled him to make out that it had been printed the year before He carried it to his brother the cardinal, who all the time of the massacre had been loitering by the wall of the church-yard, and presented the Bible to him as a sample of the pestiferous tenets of the Hugeunots.  “Why, brother,” said the cardinal, after scanning its title-page a moment, “there is no harm in this book, for it is the Bible—the Holy Scripture.”  “The duke being offended at that answer,” says Crespin, “grew into a greater rage than before, saying, ‘Blood of God!  --what!—how now! –the Holy Scripture!  It is a thousand and five hundred years ago since Jesus suffered his death and passion, and it is but a year ago since these books were imprinted; how, then, say you that this is the Gospel?’”[6]

The Catholic mobs in Paris chanted.  “Long live Guise.  The blood of Vassy be upon us and on our children.”

France, which stood so close to real reformation, was forever changed.  The Guises, in violent disregard of the Edict of January, 1562, had sabotaged the peace.  Beza would now advise the French to go armed to church.  Antoine, King of Navarre, who had left the Reformation to ally with the Guises, complained.  Beza said, “Arms in the hands of the wise are bearers of peace.  The occurrence at Vassy shows how necessary they are to the Church, unless safety be otherwise provided, and this provision, Sire, I most humble beg you, in the name of the Church which until now has cherished such hope in you, to make.”[7]

France has never recovered.   The seeds of Bartholomew’s Day were sown at Vassy and watered by the vacillation of the Queen and the nobles of France, cultivated by the bigotry of the clergy.  The harvest would be bloody indeed.

[1] If this scenario cannot be absolutely documented by a “smoking gun” of documentary evidence, it is well attested by the behavior of the papist party, the testimony of many, and the existence of numerous schemes on a smaller scale but of equal sanguinity.  Heresy was a capital crime in France, the laws only mitigated by the humanity of the judges.  The Duke of Guise boasted that his sword would never rest in the execution of the infamous Edict of July 1561, which proscribed the public and social worship of God in the reformed manner.  The books of Henry Martyn Baird, reprinted by Kessinger are invaluable for the history of this period.  See:

[2] Baird, Henry Martyn.  Theodore Beza the Counselor of the French Reformation 1519-1605. The Knickerbocker Press, New York:, 1899.  Kessinger Publishing’s Rare Reprints.  p. 146

[3] Ibid., pp 157-8

[4]  Ibid., p 162-3

[5] Baird, Henry M.  History of the Rise of the Huguenots of France. V. I.  New York: Scribner’s Sons. 1900.  Kessinger’s Publishing’s Rare Reprints.  Pp. 528-9

[6] Wylie, J. A.  The History of Protestantism.Vol. 3.  Rapidan, VA.: Hartland Publications. 2002, p. 1305   Note:  Jean Crespin’s History of the Martyrs is available in French at - 47k -.  A good service would be done if this were translated into English.

[7] ibid, p. 207