The Camisard Uprising by David Crackanthorpe

The Camisard UprisingThe strength of French Protestantism is not often appreciated by visitors to France, though the French themselves are well aware of it. Since the end of the Second World War at least three prime ministers have been Protestant; in the law, in politics, in banking, Protestants have played an important part ever since the Revolution. The two most influential mayors in modern times of France’s second city, Marseille — Siméon Flaissières and Gaston Defferre — were Protestants from the region of Nîmes and esteemed by the Marseillais as the most honest men among them. But France, although constitutionally lay, is thought of as a Catholic country with cities dominated by marvellous gothic cathedrals visible from afar, spiritual home to a population whose traditions and self-image are intrinsically Catholic. The Latin origins of their language incline the French to identify with a Roman and Catholic Mediterranean world contrasted with which Calvinism with its discreet reserve, austere morals and undecorated churches or temples seems somewhat grey.


The ten percent Protestant share of the population of 1598, when Henri IV imposed toleration by the Edict of Nantes, fell to two percent by the end of the 17th century after persecutions under his grandson Louis XIV, in whose long reign the centralising tendency of French order was established for good and all. There was room for no religion other than the king’s, while the Jesuits supplied the confessors guarding and guiding his conscience toward the revocation of the Edict in 1685. The persecutions that followed were extremely brutal and thorough, and organised by the most effective civil service in the world. Bands of marauding dragoons, the "booted missionaries," were billeted in Protestant households with licence to use every violence possible, including rape, to bring their hosts to heel. In cities and towns the results were immediate — in the historic Protestant or "Huguenot" centre of Nîmes the population was converted by fear overnight to a superficial obedience hiding secret attachment to their Calvinist faith. Conformity ruled, but not in the stubborn Huguenot heart.


The Camisard Uprising by David CrackanthorpeNowhere was the heart so stubborn as in the mountains of the Cévennes where resistanceto arbitrary power and defenceof liberties are ingrained in the character of the people. On the king’s order every temple in France(the sole exception is Collet-de-Dèze in the Lozére) was razed to the ground and Protestant services forbidden, but in the Cévenol forests clandestine gatherings of true believers continued their rites, with sermons, singing, and communion, followed by horrifying executions of those caught and arrested. Children above the age of seven were taken from Protestant parents, raised as Catholics in convents and seminaries, and never returned. Men not executed on the wheel or stake were condemned, usually for life, to slavery on the royal galleys, chained in the Vieux Port of Marseille, while numbers of women were imprisoned, some for more than thirty years, in the Tour de Constance at Aigues-Mortes. Catholic priests were employed as spies and neither life nor property was anywhere safe; the system of question by torture was barbarous and unreliable, and as the pace of executions accelerated, terror and hatred beneath the seemingly defeated Calvinist exterior swelled to explosion. When this came in 1702 the army and civil service, sure of their power, were taken by surprise.


The greatest of the surprises was that these rebels, mostly farm workers and artisans, were capable of ambushing and even defeating the troops of the crown, experienced in war and led by Marshals of France. In the roadless labyrinth of steep- sided valleys and forests a professional army was no match, in this first European guerrilla war, for passionate bands of persecuted men following inspired natural leaders whose aims were purely religious and non-political. The most brilliant of these leaders was the twenty-one year old Jean Cavalier, baker’s assistant from Anduze, who showed such natural military skill and daring that one Marshal compared him to the young Julius Caesar. Cavalier led a troop of fifteen hundred men with cavalry, captured armament, and gunpowder and shot manufactured in caves by means of his own invention, across mountain and plain and won several famous battles against much heavier forces.


He was, however, realistic enough to know that his troop and others could not in the end win as the numbers of professionals fighting them doubled and redoubled, and while the villages and farms of the Cévennes, on the king’s order, were destroyed by fire during 1704 and the population supplying the rebels was driven off the land.


Cavalier negotiated an amnesty and escaped with some of his followers into Switzerland, ending his career in the English army as major- general and governor of Jersey. But many other Camisards (so called from their white shirts worn for recognition in battle) fought on and were gradually eliminated by betrayals, in skirmishes, in massacres and on the wheel or stake.


By 1706 the Camisard War was over; no liberty of worship had been won, the Edict of Nantes was not restored, and until the Revolution French men and women could only remain Protestant, as many did, in secret. But the survival of Protestantism until 1789, and its flowering afterwards, are generally credited to the fanatical courage, the flair and the impassioned religious devotion of a few thousand oppressed members of the lower ranks of rural society in the Cévennes who succeeded in dragging the greatest of kings to the negotiating table.


The Camisard Uprising by David Crackanthorpe is available directly from at £14.99 (17€) paperback 256 pages published in May 2016