Politics in 16th century France

Politics in 16th century France

Pierre Acarie was a member of the Catholic League, as was his father-in-law, Nicolas Avrillot.
The Catholic League was founded in Peronne, in May 1576.

Henri III, King of France (1574 – 1589) and a devout Catholic, was assassinated, dying without issue.
Henri de Guise (“Scarface”), leader of the League, was assassinated in Blois in 1588.
Henri IV, a Protestant, was King of France from 1588 to 1610, hence the title “The War of the Three Henries.”

During the siege of Paris by Henri IV in 1590, Madame Acarie’s devotion to the starving inhabitants knew no bounds; this was, moreover the year that she experienced her first ecstasies.

Unfortunate political divisions lasted for three years, until Henri IV abjured the Protestant faith in 1893. The League was defeated and Pierre Acarie sent into exile.

1598. Pierre Acarie restored to favour. Publication of the Edict of Nantes (April 13, 1598), granting toleration to the Protestant religion; this was a source of much suffering for the Acaries. Their only remedy; prayer, and the task of bringing the Carmelite Order to France

Pierre and Barbe Acarie: a married couple during the last Wars of Religion

Madame Claude Perret


The Protestant Reformation and the civil wars, which involved three-quarters of Europe at the close of the Renaissance, were dramatic events of capital importance in the history of Christianity and of the history of France, our own country. The persons with whom we are concerned today were in the very midst of this drama; what were their moral dilemmas and how did they conduct themselves? This is the subject which I am about to deal with, fairly briefly, because it occupies a very short period in the life of Madame Acarie, barely fifteen years or so, from about 1584 to 1598: but these fifteen years made a deep and painful impression on Pierre and Barbe Acarie, the likeable couple who were so close and (in spite of the worldly activities associated with their youth) already so attracted to the things of Heaven.

Let me emphasise a very important point at the start; one must not think that the events of which I am about to speak, especially the role of the Catholic League in its relations with the Huguenot party, or the problematic accession of the future King Henri IV to the French throne, or, lastly, Pierre Acarie’s personal involvement and perhaps his mistakes, one must not think that all that led to misunderstandings on the marital level for the young couple. It would no doubt be farfetched to follow the latest fashion in psychology and see it as something which would separate a husband and wife who had until then been very much in love. Such is not the case. We shall see that Madame Acarie reacted in the same way as her husband; like him, she was a fervent Catholic; like him, she was scandalised by the bold assumptions of Protestant heresy and the threat it posed; she had a presentiment of the fatal attraction it would have for people of culture who were open to new ideas. We shall return to this subject especially as regards the private interpretation of the Scriptures.

Let me also, in all modesty, correct the biased judgements regarding the League and its members, when they are thought of in a simplistic way as a conglomeration of fools and fanatics. At the close of the century they were, granted; before that, they were not. That the movement suffered deviations, that it became radicalised, that it became political when it was originally authentically religious, cannot be denied, but it was not always so. The honest thing to do, I think, would be to reconsider events in the context of their proper place and time.

Part one

What was the position in the Kingdom of France at the time of Pierre Acarie and Barbe Avrillot’s marriage in 1582? Surprisingly, the country was for a spell experiencing a period of peace, which lasted for a period of two or three years, following seven Wars of Religion. But the eighth war would break out, shortly afterwards, in 1585; this eighth War of Religion, the last, would be the longest and most tragic, the war in which our main characters, their relatives, neighbours and friends would be caught up. From the time of their birth, the young married couple had known nothing else but a state of simmering conflict; but, since they had both been brought up outside Paris (young Barbe Avrillot being at the Abbey of Longchamp, in the heart of the country, and young Pierre Acarie in Orleans, which had not suffered the same amount of damage as the capital) one can say that until then they had been less concerned by current events. But the two families were socially connected with the Parlement and were very much aware of the inextricable situation in which the sovereign power was struggling. Henri III, the last of the Valois, ruled over a kingdom which was mainly Catholic. Profoundly Catholic himself, in spite of his extravagant life-style, he wavered between the manifest protection of some of his subjects and the repression of others, or an attitude of conciliation that could be called tolerance, although that idea was anathema to both sides.

From the Middle Ages onwards, there existed the conviction that religious conflicts could only be settled by force of arms; besides this, the rulers of Protestant countries were in no way tolerant. (“Cuius regio, ejus religio”).

A Holy League, or League of Union, had already been established in France, at Pèronne in 1576. The League was a reaction to the Edict of Beaulieu, which the Catholics considered far too favourable to heretics. This Edict of Beaulieu was issued by Henri III after the fifth of the civil wars had aroused the indignation of several Catholic noblemen, including Jacques Humières, who was the Governor of Picardy and the founder of the movement. For the moment, the much talked-about League was a defensive organisation, like many associations and confraternities that had gone before it, without any ulterior motives of a political nature; at first composed of the nobility, it was rapidly extended to include the bourgeoisie in the towns, the lower ranks of the clergy, and the common people, especially in Paris, the city having remained utterly opposed to the Reformation. That was how Monsieur Avrillot senior and several of his comrades came to be enrolled, in the particular hope of dissuading the King from taking decisions that were thought to be dangerous and contrary to his Coronation Oath.

There was another difficulty, a major one: Henri III and Louise of Lorraine were childless: with the occurrence of the death of the last brother in the line, in 1584, the question of the succession to the throne became acute. The nearest relative and eventual heir was now Henri de Bourbon, King of Navarre and head of the Protestant Party. War would be resumed.

At this point, Pierre Acarie in his turn became one of the pillars of the Holy Union. He had been greatly influenced by an English priest in exile. Pierre had given him, and his fellow countrymen, assistance. Pierre would very soon devote all his wealth to the service of the League, displaying staggering generosity and a certain lack of forethought. A few words about this: one often reads that Pierre Acarie was not very intelligent. This is incorrect. He was very light-hearted as a young man (and he was only twenty-five at the time of which we are speaking) he was perhaps rather unthinking and most certainly impulsive: he took little interest in the question of material possessions because he had always been very well off. His wife, no doubt, showed more common sense and maturity; but if someone despises money or strays into an ideological impasse it does not mean that that person is not intelligent. The Séguiers and the Marillacs, who were very devoted members of the League, were no fools. And what about the disreputable nickname, foisted on him by his adversaries, “The Lackey of the League”? Rather than that, he was its banker, and a conscientious one, and some people made a very handsome profit because of it. In any case, he would take complete responsibility for his imprudent actions, in a very dignified way.

None of the written texts or testimonies tell us that his young wife dissuaded him from embarking on this enterprise, utterly devoted as she was to the defence of the Roman Catholic Church, in spite of the defects and abuses to be found there, the same Church which at that time was making a hesitant start on its own spiritual Counter-Reformation; this was not for the time being, in France; the French Counter-Reformation would come later.

With regard to the eighth and last civil war, christened at the start, “The War of the three Henri’s” (Henri III, Henri le Balafré – “Scarface” – who was Duc de Guise, and Henri Bowbon, King of Navarre) we cannot go into details here about the military operations, which took place mainly in the provinces (Poitou, Languedoc, Dauphiné, Normandy) with varying results for each side (Auneau, Contras, Arques …) Monsieur Acarie was not a warrior but a lawyer. So let us go back to Paris, where matters are developing.

To begin with, the League was methodically, one might say rigidly, organised. It was directed by a Council of representatives of the sixteen districts of the capital, forming the celebrated Committee of Sixteen (the “Seize”). Pierre Acarie had a seat on the Council for his district of St. Merry (St. Paul’s Church had not yet been built.) The colonels of the districts were co-opted to the Council, a Council of Forty would be formed later, to obviate any possible domination by the Seize. At the heart of the Seize there was a Secret Council of Ten.

In the general upheaval, there were even more accusations that Henri III was too easy-going with regard to the Huguenots. The Sorbonne and then the Parlement made a solemn declaration that the King’s subjects were released from their obligation to obey their sovereign, the sovereign being Henri III. It was a personal affront. Proof of this is the dreadful harangue addressed to the King by President Achille Harlay (who was, nevertheless, somewhat hostile to the League) at the assembly of the States of Blois. This explains the riots which occurred in May 1588 in front of the Louvre, and the flight of the King (who settled in St. Cloud). It was a pre-Revolutionary scenario. Outside the country, Philip II of Spain was taking a close interest in the way things were developing in France; and that was only the beginning.

What was the real position of the Guise family? Henri le Balafré, the military leader oft he Catholic Party was brilliant, too brilliant, and popular – too popular. He was in fact very unsure of himself, and even forced to moderate the vociferous support of the common people of Paris whose excessive enthusiasm made him uneasy. Was it true that he made a treaty with Spain? The fact remains that he was executed in Blois in December 1588, on the orders of the King, who felt uneasy and jealous that someone was exercising power concurrently with himself. Henri III would be assassinated in his turn by a young mentally unbalanced cleric, Jacques Clément, who seems to have acted on his own initiative, in spite of being a nominal member of the Holy League. The League was loud in its approval.

Part two

There remained in the wings the last of the Three Henri’s, Henri le Béarnais, whom his brother-in-law and cousin had on his deathbed officially recognised as his successor. For the time being, he was King of France in name only; rejected by public opinion as a whole, he had to set about the conquest of his Kingdom. It was during these years, from 1588 to 1589, that the League went off track and fell victim to fanatical eccentrics such as Abbé Guincestre, the parish priest of St. Gervais. Paradoxically, it became a kind of rebellious commune, with vague republican tendencies and a definitely theocratic outlook. 1590, the year of the processions which degenerated into carnivals, is of interest to us on two counts; firstly the Siege of Paris by Henry IV’s troops from spring until the middle of August, a siege made famous by the exemplary dedication of Madame Acarie, and notorious for the terrible famine endured by the population. (Henry IV would raise the siege in the middle of the summer, without effect; Paris, under Mayenne’s government did not surrender). Secondly it was the year when Madame Acarie experienced her first ecstasies. It is well known what superabundant charity she practised during the siege, and what care she lavished on the casualties of war and on the sick; we know about the tireless hospitality she showed at her home in the Rue des Juifs – a hospitality which caused her mother-in-law great anxiety. Less well known is the utterly mysterious spiritual revolution which took place in her soul at that time. During all this her husband, as a member of the Council of Sixteen, was zealously organising food supplies for the population and continuing to devote his financial resources to this, which is probably why the wife remained somewhat in the background while her husband was more and more taken up with politics. This was a fatal error.

The Council of Sixteen soon engaged in talks with the Spanish Ambassador with the idea of preventing a return of Henri IV’s troops, and was prepared to accept Spanish domination: “Better a foreign prince than a Calvinist King.” A contingent of troops in the pay of Philip II was quartered in the capital. Here we have the start of the betrayal, unsuspected by the protagonists. These same protagonists, moreover, had started settling scores with each other. The more moderate of them were eliminated – I am thinking of President Brisson – those that were left were condemned to precautionary flight. At all events, the other members weakened. Most of the clergy reconsidered their position and tried to join the King’s side so as to persuade him to abandon Calvinism. The party called the “Politiques” , a sort of centre or centre-right party, with its mouthpiece, “Satyr Menippius”, became self-assured and influential. Were its members guilty of compromise?

As for Pierre Acarie, he remained inflexible. He would not agree to the Royal Edict transferring the Chamber of Accounts to Tours. In a most eloquent speech, he tried unsuccessfully to reconcile the Politiques and the Council of Sixteen. Violence started up again. In 1593, Henri IV at long last, abjured Protestantism and entered the capital the following year; he had in effect, bought the keys of the city from the Marechal de Brissac. This marked the political defeat of the League.

Above all, it halted the general decline in morale. Pierre was stripped of his post at the Court of Accounts, condemned to have all his possessions confiscated (although he had hardly anything left), sent into exile, and obliged to live outside Paris in the houses of well-wishers who were happy to offer him hospitality. Pierre Acarie would remain for four years at a distance from his family and friends, until the much- discussed Edict of Nantes in 1598, four years of separation during which the unfortunate Madame Acarie, who was in a state of extreme destitution, would suffer the consequences of three successive falls, which would leave her disabled for the rest of her life. These were the three falls along her Way of the Cross. (1596, 1597, and 1598). The Edict of Nantes restored the status quo to a certain extent, of course, and allowed families to be reunited, but nothing was the same as before.

Good King Henri, generous at last, allowed Pierre to return home. To all intents and purposes, life began again as usual, but the husband and wife could no longer have normal conjugal relations because of poor Madame Acarie’s breakdown in health. They were both still young (38 and 32 years old respectively) So much for their private life.

As regards religion, the Edict of Nantes was merely a compromise, as everyone knows, and it was very badly received by the former belligerents on both sides. It was in any case very badly received by Madame Acarie, who likewise had not changed her opinions. Let us quote the testimony of Abbé André Duval, who would later be Superior of Carmel and her first biographer:

“When King Henri the Great had entered Paris … since he tolerated the heretics for the sake of his Kingdom … she was filled with great sadness and began to pray for the needs of the Church”.

and Abbé Truchot would say the same thing in his turn, during the canonisation process:

“I witnessed the pain which she felt when she reflected that heresy was tolerated in France and that pensions were given to persons who professed and taught that pernicious doctrine. It was unbearable for her even to think of it.”

But deliberate and militant opposition, a confrontation on the human level, were not things which preoccupied her at the time; she was concerned with something higher, in the spiritual order and on another plane. For Barbe, through her reading of the works of St. Teresa of Avila, which she had begun in 1601, would take the conflict into another dimension and transcend it. It is a little known fact that one of the major preoccupations of the great St. Teresa of Avila had been precisely this question of Protestantism in France, the country adjoining Spain. It was one of the reasons for her reform of the Carmelite Order, with the intention of practising constant prayer in order to “quench the fire in France”, as she would say. “La Madre” who died in 1582, did not live to see the end of the troubles in France, but having made this intention clear in Chapter One of “The Way of Perfection” (her key work) she could only strengthen Madame Acarie’s conviction that from now on the only affective means of combat and the only worthwhile way of winning back what had been lost were of a different order. Prayer alone sufficed.

Now we have reached the beginning of the seventeenth century, the great Century of Spirituality in France. Barbe Avrillot, the wife of Pierre Acarie, will now devote herself to her life’s work: the introduction of the Carmelite Order to Paris and to Pontoise.