Wednesday, May 2, 2012

May 02, 2012

La Rochelle --- Haven of Huguenot Hopes

Throughout the 1500s and 1600s there were few cities in France where French Protestants might feel safe. Lodging in major town centers such as Paris and Lyon could be deadly, as the victims of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572 learned much too late. At times it seemed that there was nowhere to hide. Yet La Rochelle was a beacon in the storm, a light that led the way to safety and self-rule. Of the many French cities that housed Huguenots in those stormy centuries, La Rochelle is the city best-known for its Protestant rule.

How did it come to be this way? ‘New’ ideas populated the minds of La Rochelle’s residents early on. The Protestant Reformation took hold, and Calvinism quickly became a force to be reckoned with. Catholicism was stifled in sometimes violent ways as Protestants struggled to keep La Rochelle as their own stronghold. In the year 1568, four years before the horrors of the Saint Bartholomew’s, La Rochelle was designated a ‘Reformed Republic’ and took a stab at self-rule.

Under control of the Huguenots, La Rochelle flourished. It was one of the few places in France where the Catholic Mass could not be heard, where Huguenots had the ability to govern their own affairs. In this it was certainly unique. There was a beautiful temple (as the Huguenots called their places of worship) that sadly did not stand the test of time. It was, in some ways, a ‘Calvinist Rome,’ a base of operations. 

La Rochelle seen during the siege of 1627/28

Naturally it was seen as a danger to fledgling Protestantism’s strongest opponents. Multiple sieges weakened the city. The first took place in between 1572 and 1573 as a direct result of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It must have been a terrifying time . . . having heard that thousands of Protestants had been slaughtered throughout the nation, then finding a safe haven only to have it be besieged would have been horrifying beyond compare. It is nearly impossible in this generation to imagination the constant anxiety of living in a time when such massacres could occur at any moment.

In 1573 the Peace of La Rochelle was constructed. This document stated that there were only three places where Huguenots might freely practice their Protestant creed: La Rochelle, Montauban, and Nimes. Huguenots of La Rochelle continued to grow in strength and began to rebel against Louis XIII, whom they perceived as a threat to Protestant freedoms. A second rebellion came in 1625. The French Crown had grown tired of the Huguenots. 

There was also the matter of outsiders. England was firmly in the Huguenots’ corner. Their involvement in the Siege of Saint Martin de RĂ© in 1627 ended badly. Soon the second siege of La Rochelle began. For over a year, Cardinal Richelieu, who had become an extremely powerful figurehead in France, bombarded the Huguenot stronghold. They held strong. Yet after fourteen grueling months, the starving Protestants had no choice but to surrender.

La Rochelle's former "grand temple," one of the most beautiful
Protestant places of worship in France, was lost in the 1680s

The place that had once been synonymous with the Huguenot faith began to sing a different tune. Fresh persecutions over the next few decades drove Huguenot families from their beloved La Rochelle. In 1661, hundreds were exiled from the city. They were perceived to be too powerful and to hold too much land in a city that those loyal to the Crown wished to develop.

Anyone with Huguenot blood should consider La Rochelle their legacy. Many photos of this beautiful old harbor city show its impressive towers guarding the entrance. One can feel the strength and might of this harbor and imagine how it must have looked when Protestants commanded it, for it was one of the only cities in France in which they ever had the upper hand.

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

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