A Book of the Cevennes/Le Puy
The basin of Le Puy—Situation of the city—Mont Anis and l'Aiguilhe—How to reach Le Puy—The Velauni—Their capital— Transferred—The feverstone—Temple of Adido Monument of Scutarius—Baptistery—The Black Virgin—The cathedral—Murder of a chorister by Jews—Western entrance and façade—Cloister—Vaulting of nave—Tower— Lay canonry—Paintings Walls Old houses—S. Michel de 1'Aiguilhe—How did the builders work?—S. Laurent—Du Guesclin—The Bible of Theodulf—Wealth of the see—Bad bishops Bertrand de Chalençon—William de la Roue—Revolt of the people—Murder of the bailiff—The White Hoods Antoine de S. Nectaire—His sister—Massacre ordered— The bishop at Fay-le-Froid—Espaly—Vidal Guyard—Capture of castle—Defence of Le Puy—Church militant—The old gunner—Christopher d'Allegre—The Huguenots retire—The Revolution.
ASSUREDLY no city in Europe occupies a site so fantastic as does the capital of the Velay. The high wind-and-snow-swept tableland to south and west falls away and forms a pleasant basin covered with vineyards and sprinkled over with white villas or summer-houses of the citizens, as if there had been a giant's wedding and much rice had been thrown.
The Borne, that has hitherto struggled through ravines and tumbled in cascades, here ceases to be boisterous, and puts on an air of placidity as it glides past the cathedral city.
In this basin the climate is mild compared with that of the uplands, and the soil is fertile. The train from
West Front Of Cathedral, Le Puy
Arvant curves round the town before it settles into the station, much as a dog turns about before he lies down to snooze.
What at once arrests the eye on approaching Le Puy is that out of the very midst of the basin up start two rocks; the largest is Mont Anis, and about this, up its steep sides, the town scrambles. On a ledge above all the houses is the cathedral, and soaring above that again is the rock of Corneille, crowned by a colossal statue of the Virgin fifty-two feet high, and the largest in the world. It is run out of two hundred Russian cannons taken at Sebastopol, and stands on a pedestal of twenty feet. It is a disfigurement to the town, for it dwarfs the venerable cathedral. The site was formerly occupied by a ruined tower.
The other rock is the Aiguilhe, the Needle, on the summit of which stands the church of S. Michel, reached by 265 steps cut in the face of the rock.
The town is composed of houses grappling to every ledge; the streets are stone stairs, and the place is staged on steps. When to this is added that the cathedral is unique in its way, a marvel of Romanesque architecture, treated in original fashion, then it will be conceived that Le Puy is an attractive place to visit.
But when we come to consider how it may be reached we are beset with difficulties. The direct line from Paris is undoubtedly that leading to Vichy, but the trains from Vichy onward do not correspond, and are moreover omnibus trains that loiter for six hours and a half over seventy-four miles.
Nor can we reach Le Puy by the main line from Paris to Nîmes in a day, for at the junction, S. George's d'Aubrac, the trains do not communicate, and there is no tolerable inn at this junction where one can spend the night.
The third way is by Lyons and S. Etienne, and this is by far the best, for by it the whole journey can be effected in a day; but for that one must travel by express first-class as far as Lyons.
The people anciently occupying Le Velay were the Velauni, and they had their capital at Rheusio, so called from rhew, the Celtic for cold; and that was at S. Paulien. There also was the first seat of a bishop, but S. Evodius (351-374), whose name has been corrupted into Vosy, transferred his throne to Le Puy, then called Anisium. It is supposed that a dolmen stood on the platform now occupied by the cathedral, and that a large slab of trachyte laid down in the porch, its blue colour distinguishing it from the rest, was the capstone. This slab is called the Feverstone, and those with fire in their blood were wont to sleep a night upon it. The earliest mention of a cure performed by this means is in the time of S. Vosy. To the dolmen, if it ever existed, succeeded a Gallo-Roman temple dedicated to a local deity, Adido, conjointly with Augustus.
When Scutarius, the second bishop of Le Puy, was buried, a monument was erected over him. To save the trouble of shaping a stone for the purpose, the mason of that day took a slab on which was an inscription, "Adidoni et Augusto Sex. Tolonius musicus D. S. P.," turned this about and carved on the other side a monogram of Christ, and under that "Scutari Papa vive Deo." The form of the letters, the title of Pope applied to the bishop, not yet restricted to the pontiff at Rome, and the expression of hope so like those found in the Catacombs, speak for the antiquity of this inscription. But it was not allowed to remain where placed; when the present cathedral was built, this stone was employed as lintel to one of the north doorways.
The oldest building in Le Puy is the baptistery of S. John, near to the cathedral. It was much altered in the Middle Ages, but is still an interesting relic of the fourth century. From it was removed the white marble sarcophagus of the fifth century, now in the museum of the town, on which are figured the cure of the paralytic, the cursing of the barren fig tree, and other scriptural themes.
This baptistery was in use till 1791, as the exclusive place where children of Le Puy could be christened. In this Le Puy resembled Florence, Pisa, and other North Italian towns, where baptism was a sacrament reserved for administration at the Mother Church.
The fame acquired by Le Puy as the chief seat of the worship of the Virgin dates from an early but unknown period. Charlemagne in 803 founded ten poor canonries 'la pauperad in connection with the church; but the great prosperity of the church as an attractive point for pilgrims is due to a black image said to have been brought from the East by Louis IX. But as it happens, the Eastern Church does not tolerate carved images, and contents herself with paintings of sacred subjects. Le Puy was, however, an objective of pilgrimage long before that, for in 1062, Bernard, Count of Bigorre, went thither, and in a fit of devotion vowed himself and his county to Our Lady of Le Puy, and undertook to pay to this church annually a considerable sum of money.
High above the altar is now set up what looks like an Aunt Sally at a fair. It has a black head, from which the garments are spread out like the feathers of a shuttlecock. But this is not the original doll, for that was burned at the Revolution. One might have supposed, perhaps expected, that the clergy on returning to the church would have rejoiced to be rid of such an object of degrading superstition. But not so, they had another black virgin made by a joiner, and dressed it in frills and furbelows, and set it up to receive the adoration of the ignorant and the stupid. One thing they did change; the new doll was made a little less grotesque and uncouth than was the first, of which representations remain.
The original image was of cedar wood, swathed about with bands of papyrus glued to it and partly inscribed. Upon this the features of the face, of negro tint, the flesh of hands and feet and the draperies were painted in distemper, in an archaic style. One story relative to it was that it came from Mount Carmel, and had been carved by the prophet Jeremiah in prophetic ecstasy. What seems most probable is that it was an Egyptian idol representing Isis and the infant Horus. S. Louis may have found this on his crusade to Egypt, and have frankly believed that it was a representation of the Virgin and Child, and so have presented it to the church of Le Puy. It certainly had a suspiciously Egyptian appearance.
Devotion to the original image brought kings and nobles to it, and made them open their purses and pour forth gold, and sign charters delivering over to bishop and chapter vast estates and privileges. The church became extremely wealthy, and it was owing to its wealth that the glorious cathedral was built. The basilica is approached from the west by the Rue des Tables, so named on account of the stalls set out there at the time of the great pilgrimages. At the foot of the ascent is a fountain erected in commemoration of a choirboy, supposed to have been murdered by the Jews in 1320 and thrown into a well. He was given up as lost, when on Palm Sunday he reappeared, took his place in the procession, and told how he had been slaughtered, and how, by the intervention of Our Lady, he had been resuscitated. The mob believed the story, burst into the Jew's house, tore him to pieces, and cast his dismembered limbs to be devoured by dogs.
If they had but looked closer into the matter, they would have discovered that the urchin had been playing truant, and disguised his idleness by a lie.
From the Rue des Tables the remarkable west front of the minster may be seen in full. It is Romanesque in style, of the Auvergnat character, the facade is enriched with stones white and red and black, arranged in alternating bands, in lozenges and in lattice work. The zebra-like appearance is not pleasing. The eye desires repose, and is teased with the intricacy of the pattern.
This western façade is actually the frontispiece of a vast porch or narthex that stretches back through four of the bays of the nave, with flights of steps, eleven in each, and with landings between. Half-way up the porch are two chapels, one on each side, with large oak doors carved and painted. They represent groups of figures from the story of the Gospel. The background is sunk, but the surface left smooth, and is painted. The chapel on the right is dedicated to S. Stephen, that on the left to S. Giles. Neither is now used.
On two of the steps of the ascent is inscribed in Latin, "Ni caveas crimen, caveas contingere limen, Nam Regina poli vult sine sorde coli." "Unless free from guilt shun this threshold, for the Queen of Heaven will be worshipped only by a guiltless soul."
Formerly at the head of the fourth landing was a central doorway leading into the nave by another flight of steps continued inside the church; and it was said of Notre Dame du Puy, that you went in at the navel and came out at the ears, i.e. at the lateral doors in the transepts. But the central entrance has been walled up, and a floor been laid over these steps. Access is now obtained to the nave by a side flight that turns round the church and gives admission in the south transept. The corresponding lateral flight gives access to the magnificent cloister, partially closed by a gate of intricate and beautiful ironwork. The arcade in the cloister rests on twin columns with richly carved capitals, no two alike, and the wall space above the arcade is filled in with mosaic work of red, yellow, white, and black.
The interior of the church is not less remarkable than the exterior. Originally it consisted of a small square basilica, now forming the retro-choir; this was prolonged into nave with aisles, and transepts were added forming a Greek cross, with a dome at the intersection. Later on the church was carried further westward, and the singular western portion, a nave over a porch, was raised in the twelfth century.Each bay of the nave is surmounted by an octagonal cupola. Two sides contain windows looking north and south. Two sides have also windows sustained on an arch flung across the nave, and looking into it. The four other sides of the octagons are in the depth of the wall. The lateral south porch, opening on to the little Place du For, where is the episcopal palace, is a noble
Porch, Cathedral, Le Puy
The tower is a campanile detached from the church, unbuttressed, and though fine, is too small for the size of the minster. But this is due to the fact that every inch of space on the rock was precious, and had to be economised. Accordingly a tower of greater bulk at base would have encroached on the way of access to the basilica. There are two more doorways, one, further on, a bold and daring sweep that spans not the entrance only, but also the little street. A third is on the north side.
Until this year, 1906, the head of the French State, King, Emperor or President was ex officio lay canon of Le Puy, just as our King is a lay canon of S. David's. But with the separation of Church and State in France, this has ceased, and M. Loubet was the last of the lay canons of Le Puy.
At one time there existed a promising school of painting in Le Velay, but it was killed by the troubles of the Wars of Religion. The frescoes in the cathedral and in some of the churches exhibit great merit. Such as remain, unfortunately very few, may be best studied in the Museum, where are accurate copies.
The finest of all represents the liberal arts, and was discovered by Mérimée in the capitular hall of the cathedral, in 1856. It is of the fifteenth century, and is conjectured, but on insufficient grounds, to have been the work of Jean Perréal, painter to Kings Charles IX. and Francis I. In the Museum may be seen reproductions of some paintings from Langeac, in which the figures are in gold on a brown diapered background. One series represents the Annunciation, the Nativity, Christ among the Doctors, speaking from a pulpit, and the Good Shepherd. The Incarnation is figured allegorically by the Blessed Virgin alluring to her the Lamb of God.
The city of Le Puy was formerly surrounded by walls erected by the citizens against the Routiers, the Free Companies, and those troublesome near neighbours the Polignacs. But their house was divided against itself, for bishop and chapter were continually at strife with the citizens, and to protect themselves against the turbulence of these latter, the ecclesiastics drew an inner ring of walls about themselves on the height above the town.
In the tortuous streets may be seen many specimens of medieval domestic architecture, angle-turrets, doorways richly carved, and if one can look into the courtyards, some dainty subjects for the pencil may be obtained.
But after having seen the cathedral and the old town, the feet are attracted to S. Michel l'Aiguilhe.
"The rock of S. Michel," says M. Paulett Scrope, "seems to contain a dyke, which may probably have been erupted on this spot. It is, however, of course evident that the conglomerate of which it is composed must have been originally enveloped and supported by surrounding beds of softer materials, since worn away by aqueous erosion."
The plan of the church on the pinnacle of rock is peculiar, resembling the attitude of a sleeping dog. The chancel lies beside the main entrance, at a higher level, and the nave is curved and has an aisle also on
L'Aigulhe, Le Puy
a curve, divided from it by columns and arches, the former with carved capitals of the end of the twelfth century, but with one or two of an earlier date. The entrance is a superb specimen of Byzantine-Romanesque work. The carving in tufa is delicate, and every portion of surface not sculptured is inlaid with mosaic. The chancel is the oldest part of the church, and may possibly belong to the original structure consecrated in
980; but all the rest is two centuries later, and the tower is a copy in small of that of the cathedral.
How did the builders of those days construct churches and donjons on the tops of these obelisks? The Rabbis say that an angel can pirouette on the point of a needle, but the work done here is more wonderful than that of balancing for a few minutes on an acute point, for the masons had to fill in all the rifts of the rock so as to form a terrace on which to build. They must have been let down in cradles. As to the tower, it was probably built up from within, as is done nowadays with a factory chimney. On a lower level than the doorway are the ruins of the habitation of the chaplain who served the church. He could obtain plenty of fresh air there to fill his lungs, but could not get exercise to circulate his blood, save by running up and down the stair in the face of the rock.
On the way up to the chapel may be noticed recesses cut out of the cliff. These formerly contained statues of saintly helpers in all kinds of difficult and unpleasant situations. Among these was S. Wilgefortis, a young lady with beard and moustache, much invoked by women with vexatious husbands, who wanted to be rid of them. A fine statue of her is in Henry VI I.'s Chapel at Westminster. The Huguenots destroyed all these figures in the niches. They were restored and again broken up at the Revolution, but have not been reinstated.
In the same hamlet of 1'Aiguilhe is a circular Romanesque chapel, called the Temple of Diana, but which is actually a structure of the twelfth century. It is now undergoing repair.
The church of St. Laurent has been given a modern gable with pinnacles to the west front out of keeping with the character of the original architecture. The western doorway was once rich, and had on it two ranges of angels, twelve in each. The Huguenots broke the figures in their hatred of everything beautiful, and mutilated the delicate foliage as well.
The church has a broad nave with narrow side aisles. It contains a carved stone organ gallery once rich with statuary, but the niches are now empty. On the north side in the aisle is the tomb of Du Guesclin, who did more than any other, except the Maid of Orleans, to drive the English out of France. Even this monument did not escape the iconoclastic rage of the Calvinists; but it has been judiciously restored.
Guyenne, Poitou, Saintonge, Perigord, Brittany had been in turn the theatre of his victories; but the war continued in Languedoc. Bands of the Free Companies desolated the Gevaudan, Auvergne, and Le Velay. The nobles and towns unassisted could not expel them, and appealed to Charles V. to send them an experienced captain who would aid them against these brigands, and he despatched thither Du Guesclin. In August, 1380, the Constable entered Le Puy, and in a few days had assembled an army. He then departed for the Gevaudan to lay siege to Chateauneuf Randon, the head-quarters of the English routiers. The Constable besieged the place, attempted to take it by assault, but failed; and he vowed that he would not withdraw till it was captured. The garrison defended themselves valiantly, but at length agreed to capitulate. Du Guesclin was suffering at the time from a mortal sickness, and he lay on his deathbed when the terms of capitulation were agreed upon.
He died on the I3th of July according to history, on the I4th as stated on his monument; and upon the day fixed for the surrender the Governor laid the keys on the coffin of the deceased Constable. Charles V. ordered the body to be transported to S. Denys; but it was first taken to the Dominican church of Saint Laurent, there to be embalmed. The intestines of the great warrior that were removed alone occupy the tomb there erected.
The recumbent statue well answers to the description he gave of himself: "Les épaules larges, le col court, la tête monstreuse; je suis fort laid, jamais je ne serai bienvenu des dames, mais saurais me faire craindre des ennemis de mon roi."
The cathedral library of Le Puy contains a copy of the Bible written by Theodulf, Bishop of Orléans (788-821), a friend of Alcuin of York. This MS. was written by his own hand whilst in prison at Angers for having been involved in the conspiracy of Bernard, King of Italy, against Louis "le Debonaire," a son of Charlemagne. On Palm Sunday the King was at Angers and rode through the streets. As he passed under the prison, Theodulf thrust his head out of the window, and at the top of his voice chanted a poem he had composed in honour of Louis. The prince drew rein and listened. Flattery, however fulsome, goes a long way. He was pleased with it, though "laid on with a trowel," and ordered the release of the Bishop. It is said that, when in captivity, Theodulf had vowed to give to the church of Le Puy the Bible he had transcribed in his dungeon.
The MS. is written partly on white vellum and partly on vellum stained purple. On the white sheets the letters are in black, with the capitals in vermilion; but on the purple pages are in silver, and the capitals in goldleaf. The cover was repaired in the reign of Francis I., the velvet of the ninth century being overlaid with velvet of the sixteenth. At the Revolution this precious relic would have been flung into the flames that consumed the Black Virgin had it not been for the richness of the cover, with its ornaments of silver-gilt and the precious stones with which it was encrusted. The text is not divided into verses, and there is no punctuation, for the use of punctuation did not become general till the tenth century. The text is that of the Vulgate as corrected by Alcuin. Several of the passages in the Vulgate as now used differ from those in the version employed by Theodulf; and the Psalter is not that of the Vulgate. The preservation of the writing is due to pieces of fine tissue having been placed between the leaves, and of these fifty-three remain, and are interesting specimens of the textures of the time of Charles the Great. The Bible has poems composed by Theodulf prefixed to and following the sacred text.
Five of the early bishops of Le Puy are accounted saints, though almost nothing is known about them. They must have monopolised the stock of sanctity allotted to that Church, for of their successors none could lay claim to much holiness, and many were a disgrace to their order. But Le Puy was one of the richest sees in France, as the bishop was count as well as prelate. The volcanic soil was extraordinarily fertile, and the Black Virgin acted as a magnet, attracting to it an inexhaustible stream of gold; and this made the see to be coveted by ambitious and appropriated by unscrupulous prelates. Add to this that the bishop was under the jurisdiction of no archbishop, and was responsible to the Pope alone, who was too far off and too busy with affairs of greater importance to trouble himself about the misdeeds of the prelate princes of Le Puy.
It is open to debate which does most harm to the Church, the occasional torrential rush through the ranks of the episcopate of some wild blood, whose life is conspicuously at variance with his profession, or a continuous and unabating flood invading every see of smug, smooth, and colourless nonentities, who dilute the quality, abate the force, and lower the temperature of the Church to insipidity, lukewarmness, and inertia.
Some instances will suffice to show what manner of men they were who now and then were bishops of Le Puy.
Adhelmar (1087-98), who died at Antioch as a Crusader, was succeeded by Ponce de Tournon, who was an assassin. Bertrand de Chalengon's hands were also stained by blood; he exasperated his flock to madness by his exactions, heavily fining widows who remarried, and levying exorbitant fees on burials. When Innocent III. proclaimed a holy war against the Albigenses, and promised pardon for all sins to such as should outrage, rob, and murder these heretics, Bertrand headed an army of Crusaders, composed of the riff-raff of Velay, Auvergne, and the Gevaudan, and marched south. The citizens of one town at his approach, terrified at the prospect presented to them, fired their city and fled to the dens and caves of the earth. They were premature. Bertrand was more greedy of gold than of blood, and he made the towns as he passed buy exemption from destruction, and pocketed the money himself, to the rage and resentment of his followers. But they had full scope for their brutal instincts at Béziers on June 22nd, 1209, when, at the most moderate calculation, 20,000 persons, men, women, and children, indiscriminately Catholics and heretics, were butchered, and the papal legate looking on, is reported to have said, smiling, "Kill all; God will know His own!"
Bernard de Montaigu (1237-48), to enforce recognition of his seigneurial rights, subjected the city to an interdict, and excommunicated the flock he was set to feed.
William de la Roue (1263-82) had appointed De Rochebaron as his bailiff. This man fell in love with the beautiful wife of a butcher in the town, lured her within the precincts of the ecclesiastical fortifications, and outraged her. The guild of the butchers complained to the prelate, who scoffed at the deputation, and refused to reprimand his bailiff. The city was in commotion. When a party of the prelate's men-at-arms returned from an expedition, after harrying the peasantry in the country, and were laden with the spoils, the people rose. The tocsin sounded. The butchers came down with their cleavers. There was fighting in the streets. The troopers were despoiled of their plunder, and were obliged to take refuge within the walls of the bishop's fortress. William de la Roue was furious. He sent down the obnoxious bailiff with all the force he could muster to chastise the citizens. But they were surrounded by the enraged populace, and driven to take refuge in the Franciscan convent. The butchers with their choppers hewed down the door and slew the provost and six sergeants. De Rochebaron fled up the tower. The butchers pursued, caught him hiding among the bells, flung him down, and his mangled body was hewn to pieces.
Eventually the bishop reduced the city to subjection. He had its consuls hung in chains, and put to death all the butchers on whom he could lay his hands. The old town, built about a volcanic dyke, was ill provided with water. The wells tapped no springs, and were filled with surface-water only, and the soil was impregnated with sewage soaking down from every street and yard and lane through the joints in the rock. As a natural result typhoid fever—or the Pestilence, as the people called it—broke out, and became endemic. Frantic at this, the citizens looked about for a cause, and looked in the wrong direction. It did not occur to them that they poisoned their own wells. They assumed that the sickness was due to a league among the lepers, jealous of the health and happiness of sound men, and that they insidiously poured poison into the pits. In 1321, after a great outbreak of the plague, the citizens complained to the bishop, Durand de S. Pourcain. Perhaps he shared their conviction, perhaps he sought only to gratify the people. He swept together all the lepers in the county and burned them alive.
Le Puy saw the formation of a remarkable confederacy that promised at first to achieve the liberation of the country from the scourge of the routiers.
These bands of lawless men, under captains of their own selection, overran the country, levying blackmail, and pretending that they were in the service of the English King; or, if it suited them better, in that of the King of France. They passed from one allegiance to the other indifferently. Actually they served neither one side nor the other, but themselves. The merchants were robbed, the farmers despoiled, towns plundered. Existence became intolerable. Castles were erected on the top of rocks accessible only by a goat-path, or by steps cut in the stone, and there nests were built by the robbers for themselves. In these strongholds the captains and their companies lived riotously with bold women, sometimes nuns, whom they had carried off. The routiers held churches in special aversion, and plundered them without scruple. At their orgies they drank out of chalices, and vested their harlots in the silks and velvets of ecclesiastical wardrobes.
Such was the condition of affairs when, in 1182, a carpenter of Le Puy, named Pierre Durand, announced that a paper had fluttered down to him from heaven bearing on it a likeness of the Blessed Virgin, and that he had been commanded to found a society to combat and extinguish the routiers. At first the Bishop of Le Puy looked coldly on the carpenter. But the man obtained adherents. The need of combination to rid the country of a general nuisance was so largely felt, that Durand readily obtained a hearing and enrolled followers. According to the Laon Chronicle, the carpenter was a tool in the hands of one of the canons, who got a young man to dress up and pose as an apparition of the Virgin and so influence Durand. Be that as it may, the movement grew with rapidity. Durand gave to his adherents a white hood, with a medal to be worn on the breast, bearing a representation of N. D. du Puy, and the invocation, "Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant us Thy peace." Bishop Peter IV., now that the movement promised to be a success, thought well to assume a lead in it. He had a platform erected, on which he took his stand along with the carpenter; he flourished the heaven-sent daub, asserted its genuineness, and exhorted his hearers to assume the white hood. The growth of the confraternity was now rapid. Clergy, monks, merchants, farmers, artisans, nobles joined it. Great armies of these Brethren of Peace marched against the routiers, defeated them in pitched battles, stormed their castles and burnt them. After a victory, no quarter was accorded. For the nonce the freebooters were quelled, and quailed before the people risen in a body to lynch their tormenters. But the victories they had won, the applause they had drawn on themselves, made the White Hoods headstrong and presumptuous. They knew well enough that the routiers only existed because the princes and nobles were at strife with one another; and now they pressed on the feudal lords, to insist on the abolition of private war, and to threaten such as would not submit, with the same treatment as that dealt out to the routiers. At the same time they adopted communistic notions, and refused submission to all authorities save those of their own election. They swarmed over the country and devoured the produce of the land. They had lost all appetite for peaceful avocations; and they threatened to become as great a peril as had been the freebooters. The nobles leagued against them, the royal forces were set in motion; the White Hoods were defeated and butchered without compunction, and the society founded for a good purpose came to an end, and its disappearance gave free scope for the great Companies to reorganise and resume their depredations.
When the massacre of S. Bartholomew was determined on in 1572, sealed orders were sent to the Count-Bishop of Le Puy as to all other governors to order a butchery of the Huguenots. Antoine de S. Nectaire was bishop at the time. He was the brother of the famous Madelaine who had been married to Guy de Miremont. Left a widow when young, beautiful, and rich, she was surrounded by aspirants after her hand. Madelaine had embraced the reform of Calvin. She enrolled her sixty lovers in a corps to serve as bodyguard. A word, a look sufficed to send this enthusiastic corps to smash crucifixes, burn villages, and storm castles. She rode in armour at the head of her suitors,and of an army that had gathered about her eager for plunder. She advanced to the gates of Riom and Clermont at its head, taking fortresses and burning towns and villages on her way. The King's Lieutenant, the Sieur de Montal, was routed by her in several encounters, and he, exasperated at his humiliation, resolved on storming and destroying her castle of Miremont, to which she had withdrawn. So soon as he appeared before it, at the head of the royal troops, she issued from the gates, her visor raised and mounted on a noble steed, sword in hand, followed by her bodyguard, engaged the lieutenant in single combat and smote him from his steed. Finally, after an ineffectual siege that lasted forty days, Madelaine forced the royal host to retire. "Ventre saint gris!" exclaimed Henry of Navarre, "if I were not king, I would desire to be Madelaine de Saint Nectaire !" This by the way.
Her brother was Bishop of Le Puy, and by no means inclined to accept Calvinism. When the order came to him requiring a massacre of the Huguenots in Le Puy, he called the consuls together, and read to them the royal letter. "Messieurs," said he, "this concerns only rebels and disloyal Calvinists, and there are none such here. We read in the Gospel that the love of God and of our neighbours form the sum of the Law and the Prophets. Let us live together as a Christian people in all good charity."
This was excellent. If we knew no more of him than this, we would set him down as an enlightened prelate and a man of high principle. But unhappily it is not all.
Next year the Calvinists had entered the Province, and had captured several places; amongst others Fay-le-Froid. The Bishop at once, with promptitude, marched thither at the head of five hundred men. He rode a richly caparisoned mule, clad in black armour, with a gold cross on his breast, and his arms, five silver spindles on a field azure, emblazoned on his mantle. He was a magnificent man, ruddy-faced, with bright blue eyes and a flowing white beard. He was of Herculean strength, and as canon law forbade a Churchman shedding blood, he bore a heavy club with which to brain the enemies of the King and of the Church. In his train were two cannons. As he arrived unexpectedly before Fay-le-Froid, the town surrendered. He swept the inhabitants and the rebel garrison together, and hung as many as were involved in the insurrection. "What a lamentable scene it was," wrote a contemporary author; "poor women weeping, tearing their hair, pleading for the lives of their husbands, their brothers, and their friends; but Mgr. de Saint Nectaire would not so much as vouchsafe them a look."
Then, with the bodies dangling from the gibbets, he had an altar erected in the public square and a Mass sung, whilst his pikemen prodded the Calvinists at the proper moment to oblige them to cross themselves and to kneel.
The Bishop returned to Le Puy highly elated at his success, but his elation was damped on his arrival by hearing that in the meantime the Huguenots had captured his castle at Espaly, at the very door of Le Puy, and were menacing the capital. He made his way in with all speed, and despatched a courier to the Baron de S. Vidal to come to his aid.
Espaly was then a walled town at the foot of a trap dyke that shoots above the Borne, and on which stood a castle, the summer residence of the bishops.
The castle had been erected in the thirteenth century by William de la Roue, of whose misdeeds I have already told. It was completed by Jean de Bourbon (1443-85). The part taken by this prelate in the League of the Public Good brought on Espaly the horrors of a siege. But it suffered especially in the Wars of Religion. Within thirty years it was taken and retaken by Huguenots and Catholics eight times.
The story of the last siege is sufficiently curious to be told.
In 1574, Vidal Guyard, a hatmaker of Le Puy, placed himself at the head of a hundred and twenty Calvinists, and, favoured by the moon, on the night of January 9th approached Espaly, and by penetrating into the castle by a drain succeeded in surprising the garrison and making themselves masters of the place. The news reached Le Puy through fugitives from the town, and next day the young men of the city, acting against the advice of the Bishop, determined on retaking the fortress. A crowd of citizens armed, assumed a white cross on their breasts, and marched against the place. But heavy rain came on, they were drenched to the skin, and their powder and courage were damped, so they returned having effected nothing. The Cavinists now set to work to destroy the houses in the little town, sparing only such as were redeemed by their owners with a heavy money payment.
On January 2Oth the Baron de S. Vidal, whom the Bishop had summoned to his aid, assembled troops at Le Puy and marched to Espaly, forced his way into the town, but could effect nothing against the castle, that was accessible by one path only, cut in the face of the rock. One of the garrison with his arquebus wounded S. Vidal in the shoulder. After that they made a sortie and did much execution among the besiegers.
S. Vidal, despairing of reducing the place by force of arms, resolved on trying negotiation. But Guyard demanded such an exorbitant sum for its surrender that it was refused. S. Vidal now tried stratagem. He framed a letter, as from Guyard, addressed to the consuls of Le Puy, offering to deliver up the castle, his lieutenant Morfouse, and the garrison, if his own life were spared and he were liberally rewarded. This letter was smuggled into the fortress, read by Morfouse, and in a paroxysm of jealousy and alarm he and the rest fell on Guyard and killed him. Then they entered into communication with S. Vidal, and surrendered on February 3rd, the day on which the baron received the news of his nomination by the King to be governor of Le Velay. Le Puy itself had undergone a siege by the Huguenots twelve years before this.
In 1562 the terrible Baron des Adrets, who was in Dauphine stamping out every spark of Catholicism, deputed his lieutenant, Blacons, to secure Le Puy. Blacons was a man as ruthless as his commander, but without his military genius. It was settled that Blacons should assemble an army at Pont-en-Peyrat, a village on the borders of Forez and Velay. Thither accordingly gathered the Calvinists and a horde of adventurers thirsting for the pillage of the wealthy city and the shrine of the Madonna. The consuls of Le Puy sent the brother of their seneschal, Christopher d'Allegre, with 20,000 livres to treat with Blacons, and offer this sum if he would divert his column on some other town. Christopher d'Allegre, who was himself a Calvinist, and had been selected for the embassy on that ground, pocketed the money without intimating to Blacons the purpose for which it had been confided to him, and was instant in urging the Huguenot captain to capture and sack the city. The consuls, bishop, and chapter met in consultation and armed all the male inhabitants of the place, and hastily repaired the fortifications.
On August 4th arrived the citizens of S. Paulien, escaping with their goods and chatels from the Calvinists with terrible stories of outrage and murder committed by them. The alarm-bells pealed; a message was sent to the Viscount Polignac for aid, but he remained inert on the top of his rock, alleging that he had not a force sufficient at his disposal to be able materially to assist the citizens.
On the night of the same day the siege began. The Huguenots crossed the Borne, which was then dry, and planted their cannon. After a steady bombardment they rushed to the assault, and a desperate struggle ensued. Towards evening of August 5th the resistance of the citizens slackened, and the Calvinists pressed on, when a postern was thrown open and out poured a body of monks and friars variously armed. They fell upon the enemy in flank and put them to rout. The members of the monasteries and convents round Le Puy had fled to the city at the approach of Blacons, and had been clustered on the top of the rock Corneille watching events. Observing the progress of the Huguenots, and knowing that if the city fell every one of them would be hung or hurled down the rock, they had gone to the episcopal armoury and seized whatever weapons came to hand; and these men determined the fate of the engagement.
The disconcerted Huguenots retired for the night to Espaly. Next day they returned to the assault, and planted their cannon on a height whence they could play on the town. The suburb of Aiguilhe fell into their hands and was sacked. The hospital and the monasteries were burnt, the church of S. Laurence and the chapel of S. Michael were plundered and the carved work mutilated. If the latter escaped better than the former, it was due to the height at which it stood, and the danger attending any who climbed aloft to smash the sculptures with axes and hammers.
On the third day the Calvinists met with no better success. One man troubled them greatly, an aged hermit from the Mont Denise, who had been an artillery officer in his younger days. He was now very old and bent double; but the fire of battle kindled in his veins, and he undertook the disposition of the artillery and pointed the guns. "That holy man," says a contemporary historian, " did so well that he killed more men than did all the arquebusiers together."
The Huguenots lost heart and demanded a parley. They sent Christopher d'Allègre as their envoy into the city. This man must have been endowed with considerable effrontery to accept such an office, after having betrayed and robbed his fellow-citizens. He appeared before the consuls with a confident air, and demanded that the gates should be thrown open to Blacons. "How can you suppose," said he, "that we intend harm, we who are zealous propagators of the Reformed religion and the defenders of the oppressed? We are incapable of committing acts of violence. We will not exact of you any contribution, not even food for our men. All that we seek is to hew in pieces the gods of wood and stone and emblems that profane the temple of the living God."
But the consuls knew what such protestations were worth, by the experience of the refugees of S. Paulien, which had offered no resistance to the Huguenots. They dismissed the envoy, and he returned to stimulate the investing army to renewed exertions. At once, in a paroxysm of zeal, the host rushed again to the attack; but the citizens sallied forth, cut them down, and made many captures.
Next day the consuls and the bishop hoisted flags on every tower, and minstrels paraded the walls playing lively tunes on hautboys, fifes, and clarions.
Blacons supposed that they must have received reinforcements. He called his officers together and said, "See, gentlemen, how the citizens of Le Puy mock us! Let us chastise them severely for such imprudent and unseemly mirth." But he could no longer rouse his host to venture on another assault. His soldiery dispersed over the open country to sack and burn villages, desecrate churches, and hang such priests as they could take. They completely wrecked five or six monasteries, the castles of the bishop, and they set fire to the peasants' harvests, so that a sheet of flame ran over the country as far as the eye could see. In a few days the cannon were withdrawn, and not a Calvinist in arms remained before the walls of Le Puy.
So the city can boast proudly, "Civitus non vincitur, nec vincetur," or in the words of Odo de Gissey, "Ne fut oncq' surmontée, ni le sera."