Louis XIV le Grand, the grandson of Henri IV, surely was le bête noir, the black beast, of the Huguenots. He came to the throne in 1643, and although he initially guaranteed the provisions of the Edict of Nantes, he and his minions began to interpret them more and more narrowly.
One of the great decisive turning points in the history of the Western World took place in 1685. Louis XIV performed one of the most foolish, ill-advised, and devastating acts for the future of France. He revoked the Edict of Nantes, an edict promulgated in perpetuum by his grandfather, the one-time Huguenot.
The edict had been valuable to France, so why did Louis decide to revoke it? The country was relatively peaceful. The Huguenots were loyal to their king. The threats from France’s international enemies were considerably reduced, so Louis had time to consider more carefully two questions:
- The internal affairs of his country, which were in a deplorable condition brought on by Louis’ many wars and excessive spending, and
- The salvation of his soul.
By 1685 Louis began to feel his mortality acutely and feared having to face God with this many sins on his conscience. Before he reached the age of forty-five, Louis was afflicted with gout to the point that, at times, he had to be carried from room to room in a chair. He had lost almost all of his teeth, so he had difficulty chewing. And the great and glorious Sun King played host to a voracious tape worm, which forced him to eat constantly and to relieve himself often — up to eighteen times a day. He had gallstones, which were painful to pass. He suffered frequent colds, insomnia, mood swings, and boils.
Existing letters and documents from this period report that he considered that God was punishing him with physical afflictions, and at any time he, Louis, would have to give an account of his good deeds and sins before his Creator. The fires of Hell had a greater reality in the seventeenth century than they have today. Louis had entered into numerous adulterous affairs in his younger years and had sired many bastards. Furthermore, in the past he had threatened one pope with war and challenged another pope’s jurisdiction in France. How accountable would God hold him, even if Louis proudly carried the title, given by the pope, of “His Most Christian Majesty”?
In 1683 or 1684, Louis married for the second time: this marriage was both secret and morganatic, joining him in holy wedlock to Mme. de Maintenon, an extremely devout Roman Catholic widow. Because she was a commoner, she was never made queen, but, quite significantly, she had great influence over the King. In 1679, even before their marriage, she wrote concerning the King: “He is thinking seriously of the conversion of the heretics, and will soon set to work at it earnestly.” In 1681, she noted: “The King is beginning to think seriously about his salvation, and if God preserves him to us, there will soon be only one religion in the kingdom.” To her brother she wrote: “God has put me where I am.” Evidently, she saw that her sacred mission was to keep the King in a state of grace [not an easy task], to cleanse the Court of its scandalous behavior [nigh to impossible], and to save France for the True Religion [convert the Huguenots to Catholicism by either persuasion or extreme means].
Louis clearly understood that the Roman Catholic Church and the radical Catholic factions had firmly disapproved of the Edict of Nantes from the beginning and that his Roman Catholic advisors had repeatedly pressured him to revoke it or, at a minimum, to reinterpret it along lines so narrow that is original intentions were nullified. So Louis, in order to ensure his place in Heaven, determined to gain favor with God by eradicating the heretics (that is, the Huguenots) from France by whatever means were necessary. Would not this please both God and the pope, who, Louis believed, held the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven and to Hell?
L’Eglise du Désert
Louis declared in 1685 that the so-called Reformed Religion no longer existed in France. Except the Huguenots proved him wrong.
Despite the dire consequences, the Huguenots did gather for worship, and l’Eglise du Désert, the Church of the Desert or Wilderness, came into being. They gathered in caves, fields, farms, out-of-the-way valleys, and other secluded areas. The term, l’eglise du désert, deliberately recalled the plight of the Children of Israel and their wandering in the Wilderness of Sinai.