Paris, St Bartholomew’s Day 1572.
The great bell in the Palais de Justice began to toll eerily, its dirge-like meter seeping into every nook and crevice of the still darkened city. Charlotte Arbaleste lay quietly in bed listening. She was afraid. A few days ago she had heard from a maid that the city was full of Huguenots. Even Admiral de Coligny himself was in Paris for the celebrations.
Admiral de Coligny. Charlotte turned the name over and over in her mind. She knew him. Her husband, her dead husband, Jean de Pas had worked alongside him in the execution of the Huguenot led conspiracy of Amboise, which had turned into a failed attempt at gaining political control over France.
Yes, it had failed miserably and her husband had been one of the dead who had been butchered on the battlefield at La Charite.
Charlotte’s eyes squeezed shut against the memory but it rose up to haunt her in her mind’s eye. She had been married to Jean for two short years when he died. She had been nineteen and their daughter Susanne just five months old. Susanne had never met her father. Jean was considered a Huguenot hero, a man who had been willing to sacrifice his life to see the Reformation triumph in France.
The bell continued to toll and Charlotte continued to listen.
Paris was full of Huguenots at the invitation of the Queen Mother herself. Catherine de Medici had proposed a marriage between her daughter Margaret de Valois, the Catholic sister of King Charles IX and Henry de Bourbon, the Huguenot King of Navarre. Rumor had it that when the young Princess Margaret was asked if she agreed to take Henry as her husband she remained stubbornly silent at which point her brother the King was said to have reached over and forcibly bent her head downward to signify her consent. It had not been a happy wedding ceremony.
But what could be happening now?
There had been whisperings four days after the wedding of a failed assassination attempt on Admiral de Coligny’s life. Were the other Huguenots in the city safe? The bell continued to toll and Charlotte’s mind began to fade toward sleep.
She would find out soon enough.
In the morning as Charlotte sat at breakfast a maid burst into the room pale and shaking. The dead are everywhere, she told Charlotte, there is blood everywhere. Charlotte immediately dispatched a manservant to her mother’s home a few blocks away to find out what was going on. She then instructed the maid to take Susanne out of the room and get her ready to leave at once. After the maid had left Charlotte went to one of the windows and looked out. Far down the street, she could see the soldiers marching stone-faced, pausing at each door. Her heart began to hammer in her chest as she noticed the white crosses painted on their hats.
What is happening? Her mind screamed.
The manservant arrived, incoherent, jibbering. Admiral Coligny was dead, his head thrown in the street, his body dismembered. The Queen was going to send his head to the Pope.
Charlotte’s mind slowly snapped into gear as the awful reality of what was happening came into focus. They were massacring Huguenots. The wedding had been a trap. Every Huguenot noble, every Huguenot fighter worth his salt was in Paris. The manservant nodded. “200 Huguenot nobles have been killed and dismembered Madame” he whispered “the Catholics have piled all the body parts in front of the Louvre”
Charlotte ran upstairs, grabbed the maid and gave her instructions to take Susanne to the home of a Roman Catholic friend. They had to leave. They had to get out of Paris. Now. Or else they too would be hunted and massacred. Charlotte shuddered at the thought and held her baby tightly to her chest. She had already lost Jean. She couldn’t bear the thought of losing Susanne as well. Once Susanne and the maid had left, Charlotte made a few final arrangements before following them herself.
For three days they hid in the home of their generous Roman Catholic benefactor along with forty other Huguenot refugees. But suspicions were aroused and the house was raided. The maid managed to smuggle Susanne to Charlotte’s grandmother’s home while Charlotte herself hid in several different Roman Catholic homes over the next few days. Her mother, a staunch Roman Catholic begged Charlotte to attend just one Mass, for the sake of saving her life and the life of her child. Charlotte refused. She would not compromise her faith.
Finally, on the 11th day of the massacre, Charlotte managed to gain passage on a boat sailing out of Paris, but the boat was searched at Tournelles and Charlotte was asked to produce her passport. She didn’t have one. She was declared a Huguenot and sentenced to immediate drowning. In desperation she begged the guards to take her to the home of a gentleman in the city who was a close family friend, promising that he would vouch for her. The guards reluctantly agreed and her friend was more than happy to endorse her. She was then allowed to continue her journey and escape the massacre, safe at last.
In so many ways Charlotte’s story is an echo of another story which was framed by these words;
“If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up” (Daniel 3:17-18)
Charlotte Arbaleste refused to compromise her faith regardless of the cost. May we love Jesus enough to stand with her and like her.