Sunday, July 1, 2012

July 01, 2012

The Siege of La Rochelle in Depth: 1627 / 1628

‘Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear;
though war break out against me, even then I will be confident.

Did the Huguenots of La Rochelle stand upon the ramparts and think of such Scripture as they pondered the coming engagement? Perhaps the thought of the past Wars of Religion hung heavy on their minds in this eventful year of 1627, and certainly the St. Bartholomew’s massacre, just a little over fifty years ago, still resounded in aged survivors’ memories and in the stories they had told their descendants. 

They vowed to fight. To protect their rights. If the Catholic League, the French Crown, and all their enemies pushed them, they would push back harder. Gone were the days of naïve martyrdoms --- or so they believed. They knew how to make a stand. Both soldiers and civilians felt hope as they gazed upon the banners. Tossed adrift, abandoned even by their own monarch, they would have once had no recourse. Yet seeing their very own flags upon the ramparts gave them a chill of hope. There were no illusions they might gain any great victory over the Catholics. Yet they would hold, or die trying. That in itself would be a mark of pride.

La Rochelle had long been a Huguenot haven. Where else could French Protestants go when their own countrymen desired only to shed their blood? The seaside city of La Rochelle was marked by venerable old walls, impressive towers, and the blessing of a sea escape if such might become necessary. In August 1627, ‘all the King’s men’ were amassing an unprecedented assault against the stronghold. They boasted of seven thousand men, over five hundred horses, and over twenty siege cannons. Many must have wavered back and forth between intense pride for the Huguenot army and anxiety when they remembered how men, women, and children were often slaughtered when an opposing army found itself triumphant. Many young soldiers were probably completely convinced that the Huguenots would prevail. Hymns and psalms were most assuredly sung.

It was not until the 10th of September that cannon-fire bellowed through the air. As time wore on, the French Royalist army ensured that the Huguenots were completely cut off from the outside world. Many must have watched the enemies’ trench-digging with wide-eyed foreknowledge. The Catholics hastily threw up eleven forts amid their entrenchments. This was in April 1628. Thirty thousand French soldiers waited to attack. Engineers constructed a seawall so the beleaguered Protestants might be forced to remain within the city borders. Now they were trapped. Visions of hunger and devastation danced through their minds.

But then there came an unexpected event that infected the Huguenot defenders with the spirit of hope. British ships --- full of Protestant allies --- appeared in the harbor. They were bringing supplies. Relief must have run rampant until the defenders noted that the French army would in no way, shape, or form permit such supplies to be delivered. The next great spark of hope came in the news that Huguenots in the south were staging an uprising and fomenting a plan to save those trapped within La Rochelle.

Every week it seemed there were new and exciting bits of news to share, albeit with great emotion. One was particularly repugnant. Many of the French ships now carrying enemy soldiers had come from none other than Calvinist Holland. Royalists “borrowed” them from Amsterdam and then sailed to La Rochelle. Many Huguenots must have believed that the Dutch were traitors to the faith. Yet, were they still surprised by betrayal? One might wonder “why Holland?” That country had agreed to help the French fight the Habsburgs. France and Spain both claimed the Catholic faith, but they were always fighting each other. Somehow they managed to find the time to harass the Huguenots. 

Soon after, the Habsburgs joined the French Crown for a powerful Spanish-French alliance against the Huguenots. Here were the inhabitants of La Rochelle, blockaded inside one of their last strongholds, tossed asunder by the world, and the two most outspoken champions of Catholicism had banded together against them. That did not bode well. Thankfully, as time wore on, they saw that the Spanish ships were not in a position to provide devastating cannon-fire. Everyone likely breathed a sigh of relief. Such was short-lived. 

By October the situation was dire. Those who had not been killed by disease or hunger ran the risk of succumbing to cannon-fire, musket-shot, or the sword, and there was nothing left to do but pray. The English ships floating in the harbor had been a source of great disappointment, for though they desired to bring the Huguenots supplies, they were continually forbidden to enter the harbor. In September the Earl of Lindsey’s vessels arrived. There are sixty ships in all, but they did very little good. Soldiers and civilians listened in numb silence as the English warships pounded the Royalist forces with withering cannon-fire, aiming for the hastily-constructed French seawall. All these efforts were in vain. The Huguenots finally saw they would not be victorious. Their inhabitants were starving, and they could hold out no longer. News was bandied about that there was nothing for them to do but surrender.

On the 28th of October in the year 1628, the siege of La Rochelle was broken. It had been a grueling fourteen months. No one knew what would happen next, but they had a fairly good idea. After all, the strains of the St. Bartholomew’s still ran through their minds in a haunting, bloody melody. Thankfully their lives were to be spared. The French Protestants stumbled out the front gate, weak and emaciated, each person with his or her own personal hardship and in various states of disarray, probably wrapped in tattered garments. They must have been all too aware of their enemies’ scathing eyes. And perhaps, as they marched, the Huguenot Battle Hymn rang defiantly through the ranks once more.

(c) 2012 Joyously Saved

1 comment:


    Having stood in the harbour at La Rochelle looking over the same ramparts out to sea I can only imagine the anxiety these faithful people went through. Its quite moving to be there where so many died for their Faith. I would recommend you visit this beautiful city and especially the museum of Protestant history situated very close to the harbour (link included above).


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