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  • HISTORY OF THE REFORMATION -
    THE CANON’S DEATH MADE A WEAPON AGAINST THE REFORM.


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    (MAY TO JULY 1533.)

    WERNLI’ S death was to be fruitful in serious consequences. The priests were about to show what the violent death of an ecclesiastic might mean, and the terrible consequences it carries with it. To sacrifice the liberties of Geneva and the evangelical reformation on his tomb, was, in their opinion, the only offering that could appease heaven.

    Next morning at sunrise, a few citizens left their houses and proceeded towards the field of battle. They perceived a man, dressed like a warrior, lying on the steps of a house; a great sword lay a few paces off. They approached, stooped down and touched him… he was stark dead… it was the canon, Messire Pierre Wernli. His body had lain all night in the street, unobserved by every one. As Councilor Chautemps, a peaceable man, had remained indoors, the body had not been perceived. The cuirass bore the marks of the blows received by the champion of the priests. His garments were bloody and his features still wore a fierce look. Those who gazed upon him were moved. A canon, a chief of the church, he who the day before had officiated with so much state at St. Pierre’s, surrounded by all the pomps of the service, had been struck down by the huguenots… and there he lay dead. Some ran off to spread the news: ‘Messire Pierre lies bathed in blood near the Molard.’ Canons and priests, monks and mamelukes, and even the huguenots, ran out and surrounded the dead body. ‘All the city was troubled when they found the corpse.’ The devout knelt down, and striking their breasts, exclaimed with tears: ‘O blessed martyr, sacrificed to God!’ According to some good catholics, he took his place in the ranks of the confessors who, like Thomas a Becket, had been put to death for honoring the holy Roman Church. This species of canonization disgusted the huguenots: ‘What!’ they said, ‘a priest fights with the halberd and sheds the blood of citizens — he turns soldier, and you make him a saint! Rather recognize in his death the just judgment of God.’ At that moment there came up a woman of mean appearance, who fell shrieking on the body. She pressed it in her arms, with many sighs and groans. She was the canon’s housekeeper, they said; but the manuscript which records this incident gives her a more significant name. This death was a great event, and the members of the council felt the liveliest apprehensions. Wernli was not only a canon, but a Friburger, and belonged to a powerful family. What would not be the wrath of his fellowcitizens! ‘Had we known of this murder last evening,’ said the mamelukes, ‘the sword would have taken vengeance on Messire Pierre’s assassins, and the night would have been a night of terror and death.’ Their rage would have been so great that they would have entered every house and made a general massacre. But the abler men of the party made less noise, and thought of the advantage they might derive from the catastrophe. The most extreme measures now became legitimate, and the canon’s death was to result in the triumph of the pope. Even now, a few catholics assembling round the corpse, traded upon the scene, and uncovering Wernli’s wounds, pointed them out to the people, and thus sought to arouse their anger.

    Others succeeded in preventing the gates from being opened, lest the huguenots who had crossed swords with the canon should escape. When the reformed heard that the city was closed, although it was broad daylight, they asked if it was intended to murder them, and some immediately armed themselves and went to Baudichon de la Maisonneuve’s house. About nine o’clock the body was lifted up and carried into Chautemp’s house, where it was placed decently on a bed. The cuirass was taken off, the stains of blood washed away; it was arrayed in the priest’s canonical robes, and the devout folks knelt around it. Every moment other catholics, men and women, took the places of those who left. The same day, at five in the afternoon, an immense procession descended from St. Pierre’s to do honor to this ‘blessed martyr.’ The priests placed the canon on a showy bier, and when they came out of the house, ‘the people uttered a loud cry.’ Some of the reformed joined in the funeral train; all enmity (they thought) should perish in the presence of the dead. The body was taken into the cathedral, and buried at the foot of the great crucifix. The council, wishing to hold the balance even, imprisoned a few men who passed for the most violent of both parties. Five days later, a herald from Friburg and many of Wernli’s relatives appeared in deep mourning, and demanded that the body should be given up to them; they also called for signal reparation. At five o’clock the same day, the body was exhumed in the presence of an immense crowd, and, wonder unheard-of! the canon stood upright, and the blood flowed from his wound as fresh as if he had been alive. ‘Of a truth,’ said those in the cathedral, ‘this is a miracle, a testimony borne to the holy Roman faith, for the maintenance of which his body was mangled. His blood cries for revenge.’ But the reformed said that popery is full of such cheats (piperies ) and idle dreams, opposed to common-sense, by means of which impostors deceive the simple. They believed that when the Son of God became man, many signs of divine power had accompanied that great miracle; and that if the sun acts upon the earth, and transforms a poor grain of wheat into a magnificent ear of corn, it is very reasonable to admit that he who created the sun exercises his sovereign action here whenever he wills it, and effects transformations still more marvelous; but they would not suffer the tricks of men to be placed in the same rank with the interventions of the supreme power of the Creator. The miracle having been confirmed by eight hundred witnesses, says Sister Jeanne, the body was laid in a coffin and carried to the lake, all the priests singing, while the women and some of the devout made the air re-echo with their cries and groans. The coffin was placed in a boat and taken to Friburg. The priests thought the moment had now come for getting rid of the evangelicals for ever. At first, the reform had been a mere thread of water, but the thread had suddenly increased, and become like an Alpine torrent, which, if it were not checked, would overthrow the altars and sweep away crosses, images and holy water, priests and prelates. Had not an illustrious canon been attacked and carried away by this devastating flood? ‘Now,’ said the priests, ‘must be accomplished what our Lord told the apostles:

    He that hath no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one. If we do not crush these accursed Lutherans now, they will never cease to trouble the churches, to plunder, beat, and kill… Let us sell everything, even our wallets, to procure spears and swords.’ They set the example; they never went out except well supplied with arms under their frocks. The sisters of St. Claire and all the devout women of Geneva exclaimed with delight on seeing the clergy so resolved: ‘Ah, if the clerks were not so stout-hearted, these ravening wolves would exterminate us.’ But the more reasonable of the men saw that the clubs of the priests would not suffice alone. ‘The hour is come,’ said they at Geneva and Friburg, at Chambery, and wherever Rome had faithful followers; ‘the bishop must return to Geneva, and resume his former authority.’ A deputation started from Friburg for Arbois to entreat Pierre de la Baume to return to his episcopal city.

    Since the death of Besancon Hugues, the bishop had taken no steps to recover his power. Wounded by what had occurred in his principality, he kept his vexation to himself, made up his mind to remain quiet, and sought consolation at Arbois in good living. ‘I have received your capons,’ he wrote, ‘send me some fish. I have been enjoying myself, and am much better supplied with provisions here than at Geneva.’ He was at heart neither wicked nor cruel; he had taste, education, and talent, and his conversation abounded in wit. But he had two passions — the table and money, besides a weak and selfish temper which made him incline one time to the duke, another to Geneva, and appear servile or tyrannical according as he hoped to obtain anything by baseness or by despotism.

    The Genevans, and particularly the huguenots, knew him well. ‘He wants to ride one and lead the other,’ said Robert Vandel, ‘and does nothing except for his own advantage.’

    When the Friburgers arrived at Arbois, they drew him from his stupid tranquillity, disturbed his feasting, and firmly represented to him that they wanted to know whether he desired to maintain catholicism in Geneva, or to let it perish. They even attacked him with personal arguments, which they knew must have great force for him. ‘Return to your city, my lord,’ they said, ‘to recover your lost authority, and protect your threatened rents.’ But La Baume was too timid, and would willingly have lived anywhere except in his own diocese and principality. He defended his absenteeism in a singular manner. ‘Many of these heretics have uttered great threats against me,’ he said; ‘they will kill me like poor Wernli.’ A mightier voice than that of Friburg now made itself heard.

    The condition of Geneva was known in all catholic countries. Men were uneasy everywhere; even Pope Clement VII. felt anxious. He did not admire those ecclesiastics who, following the example of Leo X., neglected business for pleasure. In some places the catholics imagined that if the Reform were crushed in Geneva, the recoil would act on the Reformation in general; that the other protestant nations would feel its effects, and that such a defeat would be the beginning of the end. Representations to this effect reached the pope from every side, and he, being a skillful politician and having the saving of the Roman court at heart, wrote to the bishop: ‘I command you to proceed to Geneva immediately you receive this bull, under pain of excommunication. It is not singular that you pass your life in a foreign province as if you were not the pastor of that city? You, by your absence, are the cause of all the misfortunes with which it is afflicted… .Go, speak, act… defend the flock which Jesus Christ and the holy see have entrusted to you, and rescue your sheep from the ravening wolf that is preparing to devour them.’ The poor bishop, when he read the bull, was seized with the most violent emotion. He saw himself between two dangers almost equally great: the pope who threatened him with excommunication, and the huguenots who threatened him with death. What was to be done? He was urged on both sides. At last he formed an heroic decision and determined to obey the pope. He will leave Arbois and the pleasant life he had led there, with all its earthly advantages, and go to that terrible city which appears to him inhabited by wild beasts thirsting for his blood. ‘Only you must obtain a safe-conduct for me from Messieurs of Geneva,’ he said to the Friburg ambassadors, who were greatly surprised at having to ask a safe-conduct for a prince who desired to visit his principality, for a bishop who desired to enter his diocese. However, they promised everything.

    Wernli’s death had not only enraged the enemies of the Reformation, but had weakened its friends and occasioned a reaction in Geneva favorable to catholicism. The syndics and council now leant decidedly that way, and the return of the bishop seemed to them the only means of restoring order. ‘The bishop does not need a safe-conduct,’ they said; ‘only let him come.

    If anybody threatens him, we will punish him so severely, that Monseigneur shall have cause to be satisfied.’ — ‘Let him come back, let him come back,’ was the general cry except among the pious evangelicals and the proud huguenots. The emancipation had hardly begun, when a strong counter-revolution threatened to stifle it. On the 26th May the council elected Domaine Franc, Stephen d’Adda, and Bon Officher to go and humbly urge their bishop and prince to return. Thus Geneva herself was preparing to bury its Reformation and its liberty.

    Other Genevans had arrived at Arbois before the deputies from the council. The principal mameluke chiefs, whether banished or emigrated, who found the bread of exile bitter, had started for Arbois as soon as they had heard of the canon’s death. Full of that exasperation and agitated by those dreams which self-exiled and banished men ordinarily have, they endeavored to make the bishop share their hopes and hatred. ‘Nothing is juster and easier,’ they said, ‘than to put the leading huguenots into prison, on suspicion of being concerned in the attack upon Wernli. They will be executed, or if the people oppose, they can be transported suddenly to some castle in Savoy, as Levrier was formerly, and then we can do our pleasure on them. After that nothing will be able to disturb the holy union of Geneva with Savoy and the pope.’ But Pierre de la Baume had already recovered a little from the heroic resolution he had formed after reading the papal brief. The violent language of the mamelukes aroused all his terrors. ‘The Genevans,’ he said, ‘are proud, independent, and fond of tumult; at the least word that displeases them, they fly to arms. No… afraid as I am, I dare not go to Geneva.’ ‘Do not fear, we will accompany you,’ answered the mamelukes. ‘The Friburgers on their part will provide you with a guard; the Genevan catholics, who are ten to one, will do the same; the duke is resolved to support you… It is impossible that we should not crush the rebels.’ The calculation was correct and the argument unanswerable. Pierre de la Baume, finding himself summoned by the pope and surrounded with spears and spearmen, horses and chariots, again resumed an heroic courage, and almost made up his mind to appear in the city of the huguenots.

    Just at this moment the Genevan deputies arrived, and the bishop-prince showed at first a very courteous humor, and replied with an amiable air that he would return to Geneva in a month. Always uneasy, he still tried to procrastinate. So many things may happen in a month — perhaps, finally, he may never return to his episcopal city. ‘I regard you as my well-beloved subjects,’ he said, ‘and desire to appear as your true and good prince.’ Stephen d’ Adda, a decided member of the opposition, placed but little trust in these fine words. In reality they were playing a little comedy at the priory of Arbois; the bishop was afraid to go, and one or two of the deputies preferred that he should not come. Will he go or not? No one could tell. There were certain moments when La Baume felt inclined to cross the Jura, and then all of a sudden he felt as if nailed to his priory of Arbois. Never was it more difficult to arrive at a decision — it was like a nightmare. His friends began to deliberate; they quite agreed with him that if he desired simply to re-establish his residence in the episcopal city, it would be better for him not to go there at all. He would always have to begin again with the independence of the huguenots and the heresy of the reformed, with alarms and riots. The evil would even be worse than before, for the cause of liberty and reform had made great progress since the bishop had left Geneva. He is compelled, therefore, to gain two victories if he returns: first, he must trample under foot the franchises of the people and get rid of the huguenots; and, second, he must silence the evangelical teaching and expel the reformers and their adherents.

    The prince-bishop and his imprudent advisers were convinced that a coup d’etat, and (if we may use the term) a coup d’ eglise, were the only remedies for the critical and almost desperate position of affairs. Geneva was to go back to the superstitions and servility of the middle ages, It was necessary to extinguish the double torch of political independence and christian truth which a divine hand had kindled, and so put Christendom beyond the reach of these treacherous lights. But the timid La Baume shrank with alarm from such a herculean task; he knew his own weakness, and felt the enterprise would be too arduous for him.

    Meantime the Friburg ambassadors in Geneva were preparing the way for him. They demanded aloud, what he proposed to do in secret. Being admitted to the Council on the 23rd May, they said: ‘We accuse all who were in the Molard at the time of Wernli’s death, including the syndic of the guard and the commander of the cavalry.’ They spoke haughtily, and required immediate satisfaction. A whole section of the population — the most innocent in this affair, even the party which had been attacked — was to be criminally prosecuted! It was a monstrous demand. However, the Friburgers spoke loud, and many of the huguenots were dejected. The Council, being divided and intimidated, made answer at last that they would authorize the lieutenant and procurator fiscal ‘to arrest all whom Messieurs of Friburg accused.’ Thus the plot was in a fair way: liberty and Reform had, however, a moment’s respite. Two ambassadors from Berne, Councilor Sebastian de Diesbach and Banneret John de Weingarten, arrived at Geneva, and had conferences with the men of both parties. Their ideas gradually became clearer, and truth sprang out of the conflict of opinions. They saw that this position of affairs, which seemed an inextricable chaos, had one possible solution, namely, liberty. ‘We have seen and heard everything,’ said Diesbach; ‘the only means of enjoying peace is to permit every one to follow the movements of his conscience, so that no one be constrained. Let the mass and feast-days and images remain for those who like them; but let the preaching of the Gospel be granted to those who desire it, and let one of the seven parish churches be assigned them for that purpose. Let no one be ridiculed for going to mass. Let every one abide in his own free-will and choice, … Moreover, as the Old and New Testaments are the foundation of our faith, and as those who follow the Gospel can not exist without reading them, let the booksellers be permitted to sell publicly the Holy Scriptures and other books of piety.’ Thus ‘liberty for all’ was the great salutary principle then proclaimed in Geneva. This theory, which gives honor to God and independence to man, was not generally admitted until two or three hundred years later. But we take note of the epoch when the right was first proclaimed. It is sometimes asserted that the idea of liberty for all only appeared in the 18th century, and that it was put forward for the first time by the free-thinkers of England, France, and Holland. It is not so: religious as well as political liberty asserted their just and holy claims at Geneva more than three centuries ago. Switzerland and the Reform are the first in the field. These principles were so simple and so true that the Council was convinced; in the face, however, of formidable adversaries, they feared their own weakness. The syndics replied to the Messieurs of Berne: ‘Stay with us to help us!’ The 27th of May, 1533, deserves a mark of honor in the annals of religious liberty.

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