While history has not retained many names of the hundreds of Protestant women persecuted in France after Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Marie Durand is one exception. She was born on 15 July, 1711 in the little town of Le Bouschet-de-Pranles in the Ardèche region, near Viviers. Her family were Protestants, but they had been forced to convert to Catholicism, but after the death of Louis XIV, young Protestants, including Marie and her brother Pierre (1700-1732), refused to accept forced conversions.
They received a Protestant education. Pierre studied theology in Geneva, then came back to Languedoc and became a "desert pastor", a preacher who held secret assemblies in deserted spots in the Cévennes mountains, since Protestant assemblies were strictly forbidden. The authorities were unable to capture him, so they arrested his sister Marie instead on trumped-up charges, in order to put pressure on him. Marie was imprisoned in 1730 in the Tower of Constance in Aigues-Mortes. Her brother Pierre was later arrested and finally hanged in Montpellier in 1732, but Marie was not released.
The Tower of Constance, where she was imprisoned, was an impressive fortress built in 1248, almost five centuries earlier. It is a chilling place to visit, even today, with the round tower standing 30 metres high, with an upper turret adding another 11 metres. It was the first element of the fortifications built by Louis IX to protect the new town of Aigues-Mortes, surrounded by a moat and only accessible by drawbridge.
Apparently the tower was never really designed to be lived in - for example, there were no latrines — but from the 14th century until the French Revolution, it was used as a prison. There were no real rooms, but two main levels, lower and upper. Today you take an elevator to the top level, then walk down. The lower level has a dungeon or oubliette underneath (where prisoners could be let down through a hole in the ceiling and “forgotten” because there was no way out), and is surrounded at the top by an interior soldiers’ walkway. The upper room is topped by a terrace and the lighthouse turret, which still plays its role today, visible from afar.
The name Constance does not appear to refer to a woman in particular, but more to the role of the tower itself, an anchor in a landscape of moving sands and water.
At first the tower imprisoned both men and women (early prisoners included 45 members of the Knights Templar), but when Louis XIV finally revoked the Edict of Nantes in 1685, after years of harassing the Protestants, the tower became a symbol of the fate reserved for those who continued to attend secret meetings, first both men and women, then finally only women. Many Protestants fled the country (even though this, too, was illegal), while those who remained were forced to row in galley ships, hanged or burned at the stake. A memorial at the entrance to the Tower of Constance is a vivid reminder of this sad period.
Marie lived in the tower-prison for 38 years, from 1730 to 1768. On the upper level there were about 20 women prisoners living in very difficult conditions — cold, hungry and overcrowded. In the centre of the upper room was a "well" - in reality a hole cut in the floor with a view into the room underneath.
On the edge of the well can be seen, even today, the word “resister” engraved in the stone. A legend says that Marie engraved this word to encourage her fellow prisoners to “resist”. Whether this is true or not, we do know that Marie was one of the few detainees who had an education and could write. She thus did a lot to defend and assist her fellow prisoners, taking care of them when they were sick, sending messages for them to members of their families, writing letters to thank people who intervened on their behalf, etc. Marie also read to the prisoners from her Bible, and recalled as much as she could of her brother’s sermons for them.
The prisoners were often in poor health. At that time, Aigues-Mortes was surrounded by swamps, which meant plenty of mosquitoes in the summer and malaria. In the winter, the building was unheated, with cold air coming through the windows openings, while the damp walls resulted in rheumatism and lung infections.
Hygiene was non-existent. But little by little, mentalities changed, and finally in January 1767 the Prince of Beauvau, governor of Languedoc, visited the Tower and was revolted by what he found. He decided to free the women prisoners — there were 14 of them including one, Marie Robert, who had spent 41 years in the Tower. Marie Durand was freed on 14 April, 1768, and the two last prisoners on 26 December of the same year.
In poor health, Marie Durand returned to her home in the Ardèche region. She never completely recovered and died in July 1776, just eight years after her release. Her home was acquired in 1932 by a Protestant historical society and is today a museum, the Musée du Vivarais Protestant, listed as a Historical Monument in 1969.
Marie was only one of many innocent women who suffered at the time: most were anonymous which has made Marie almost a martyr in spite of herself. Our freedom of religion owes much to their sacrifices.