This chapter in French Protestant history has haunted me since I learned of it. What troubles me most is the prolonged nature of the trial. When it comes to persecution, sharp but short can offer some consolation. But such is not the case with the women of the Tower of Constance.
So, who are they? First, some context. In April 1598, Henry IV of France issued the Edict of Nantes. In the broadest sense, the decree laid the groundwork for religious toleration between Catholic’s and Protestants. Also known as Huguenots, French Protestants were permitted, for the first time, to exercise freedom of conscience with a degree of protection. With the Edict in effect, they were free to worship everywhere privately (some places publicly). They could inherit property, pursue education, engage in trade activity, and enjoy other civil rights. To a country ravaged by war it was a time of much-needed respite.
That all changed in 1685 when Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau, which, in the harshest terms possible, reversed the Edict of Nantes. It was ruthless. It called for the immediate demolition of any standing churches. Reformed pastors had two weeks to convert or leave the country. Protestant schools were outlawed; children were forcibly baptized and educated in the Catholic Church. A ban was also placed on emigration. Added to the horror were the infamous “Dragonnades,” organized soldiers who made their lodgings in Huguenot homes and who committed unspeakable atrocities in order to force them into conversion. It was a harrowing time for French Protestants.
Despite the ban on emigration, many escaped to Switzerland, America, and other Protestant enclaves. But not everyone left. Some would remain and resist. This period of resistance, from 1685-1789, is called the “Desert.” It alludes to the 40 years of wilderness wandering of the children of Israel but also, in a literal sense, Protestants were forced to meet in the desert, in caves and other remote areas. Getting caught carried a high price. Men were condemned to the galleys; women were locked away in prison. The most notorious is the Tower of Constance where, from 1685-1767, 130 women were “virtually entombed” alive for refusing to recant their faith.
Originally constructed as a military lookout and lighthouse, the tower contains two large circular chambers, twenty-eight feet in diameter, one on top of the other. Light and air enter into the upper chamber through a six-foot diameter hole in the ceiling. The lower chamber receives its air and light only from the upper room through a similar hole in its ceiling. Only through these holes can smoke escape, and fresh air enter – and with that, cold snow and rain. So dark were the rooms that at time of their release, many were blind.
The women held captive within the sixteen feet thick walls were guilty of attending a Reformed service, opening their homes for a meeting or, as in the case of Marie Neviliard, having a Protestant minister officiate their wedding. Imprisoned were women like Isabeau Menet who, seized while celebrating the Lord’s Supper alongside her husband, gave birth in the Tower. Her child was promptly snatched away to be raised Catholic. There was Marie Berand, a blind missionary, violently removed from her home, and who died in the tower at 80. There was Marie Rey, separated from her children and condemned to the Tower for participating in a Reformed service.
The 1745 register of prisoner conduct bears witness to the resisting spirit of the women:
“Jacquette Vigne. Belief unchanged.
Anne Soleyrol. Belief unchanged.”
The most famous of the prisoners is Marie Durand who came from a family of devoted Protestants. Marie’s mother Glaudine, died after her arrest for attending a secret Protestant service. Marie’s brother Pierre, a “Desert Preacher” was apparently very good at – not just preaching but evading the authorities! Frustrated by their inability to capture the firebrand, an evil plan was concocted to entrap him. First they would arrest Etienne, Pierre’s elderly father. Then they would arrest Marie. In a last-ditch effort to protect his daughter, Etienne arranged for her to marry Matthew Seres. But not even the protective heart of a loving father could hold back the Providence of God. Shortly after Etienne was arrested, the newlyweds were captured. Matthew was condemned to the galleys with his father-in-law, where they both died. 15-year old Marie was cast into the Tower. Two years later, Pierre was caught and hanged.
When Marie entered the Tower, she brought the signature Durand family zeal of the Lord to the gloomy prisoners. One can only imagine what a ray of sunshine she was to the poor souls languishing in darkest despair. Most of the women had no formal education. Marie became their lifeline to the outside world helping them to read and write letters. She also wrote numerous appeals for the improvement of conditions in the prison – many of which were acted upon. She read the Psalms, sang hymns, prayed, nursed the sick, and brought comfort to the dying. A single word, etched with a knitting needle, in the cold hard stone betrays the lion-hearted faith of this gentle soul: “Recistez” Resist! The author of one tribute provides commentary worth repeating:
She spelled this word as she used to hear it pronounced in the sweet dialect of her province, putting a c for an s. She had not acquired her French at the court of a bourbon; but she had learnt religion at the school of Christ, and that religion had taught her that there is a higher law than that which monarchs sometimes try to impose upon their subjects, and that truly divine law then says, ‘Resist’.
Although religious liberty was restored in 1764, it wasn’t until 1767 that the women were released. Most were already dead. The Prince of Beauveau was sent on assignment by the King to liberate only three women. When he arrived at the Tower, he was so overcome with grief by the miserable sight that he set all the captives free. The Prince was informed by messenger that the King did not take kindly to his authority being usurped. To this, the Prince sharply retorted, “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 honor.”
The women of the Tower of Constance were set free at last. Still, what had they to return to? The flower of their youth was no more, their property destroyed, their families dead. If ever there were a trial to question the good of, would this not be it? Bereft of all the fleeting comforts and pleasures of this temporal life, the women of the Tower of Constance possessed something better: Christ. And for them was laid in store “the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him” (James 1:12).
“Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:13-14)
MARIE DURAND (1715-1776)
Scratched on the rim of the refuse hole of the Tower of Constance is the French word “Resistez!” Resist! Tradition ascribes this slogan to Marie Durand because she was the most famous inmate of the tower when the slogan appeared.
Merely because her brother was a Huguenot pastor who held Protestant services in his home, she was ripped from her family as a teen—torn from the arms of the husband she had just wed—and flung into prison.
Young as she was, she became the light of the place, and because of her education, was able to act as an agent for the women. And for 38 long years she led the other women in song and prayer. With them she endured the cold of winter and the heat of summer. Letter after letter she wrote, trying to better their condition, and prevailed on the authorities to allow them a book of psalms. The women were allowed to knit, and, curiously, Marie was allowed to write to her outlawed pastor, Paul Rabaut.
If ever there was a prisoner unjustly imprisoned, it would seem to be Marie Durand. But sad as her story was, there was a sadder. One of the inmates was an eight year old girl, imprisoned for forty years because her mother had taken her to a Protestant service.
How bad was their incarceration? Here is an account by the aide-de-camp of Prince de Beauveau. Over the protests of King Louis XV, the Prince indignantly released the captives shortly after taking charge of the Languedoc district in which they were imprisoned.
We found at the entrance to the tower an assiduous doorkeeper. He led us upward by dark and torturous stairways, and at length opened for us with great noise a frightful door, over which one almost read the inscription of Dante, “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.” I have no colors with which to paint the horror of a spectacle to which our eyes were so little used, a picture hideous and at the same time touching, a picture of which the interest was only increased by disgust. We saw a great circular apartment, destitute of air and of daylight, and in that great room forty women languishing in misery, infection, and tears. The governor could scarcely contain his emotion, and for the first time, without doubt, those unfortunate women perceived compassion on a human face. I see them still, at our sudden entrance, like an apparition, all falling at his feet, deluging them with their tears, striving to find words, but able only to express themselves in sobs; then, when emboldened by our sympathy, recounting their common griefs. Alas! Their only crime was that of having been instructed in the same religion as that of Henry IV. The youngest of those martyrs was more than fifty years old. She was only eight years old when she was arrested, because she had gone to a preaching service with her mother, and the punishment was lasting still.
“You are free!” were the words uttered by a loud voice, but a voice trembling with pity, and I was proud that it was the voice of the governor. But, as the most of them were entirely without resources, without experience, without family or friends, these poor captives, astonished by liberty, ran the risk of new misfortunes, and their deliverer at once made provision for their needs.
Marie may have scratched “resist” on the pit, but what she wrote on hearts will last an eternity. She was released as an old woman and cared for by kindly Walloons. Her family home became a Huguenot monument, a testimony of religious steadfastness in the face of unjust ecclesiastical and royal oppression.