Outside the Piedmont, the Waldenses joined the local Protestant churches in Bohemia, France, and Germany. After they came out of seclusion and reports were made of sedition on their part, French King Francis I on 1 January 1545 issued the “Arrêt de Mérindol”, and assembled an army against the Waldensians of Provence. The leaders in the 1545 massacres were Jean Maynier d’Oppède, First President of the parliament of Provence, and the military commander Antoine Escalin des Aimars, who was returning from the Italian Warswith 2,000 veterans, the Bandes de Piémont. Deaths in the Massacre of Mérindol ranged from hundreds to thousands, depending on the estimates, and several villages were devastated.
The treaty of 5 June 1561 granted amnesty to the Protestants of the Valleys, including liberty of conscience and freedom to worship. Prisoners were released and fugitives permitted to return home, but despite this treaty, the Vaudois, with the other French Protestants, still suffered during the French Wars of Religion in 1562–1598.
As early as 1631, Protestant scholars began to regard the Waldensians as early forerunners of the Reformation, in a manner similar to the way the followers of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, also persecuted by authorities, were viewed.
Although the Waldensian church was granted some rights and freedoms under French King Henry IV, with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, persecution rose again in the 17th century, with an extermination of the Waldensians attempted by the Duke of Savoy in 1655. This led to the exodus and dispersion of the Waldensians to other parts of Europe and even to the Western hemisphere.
In January 1655, the Duke of Savoy commanded the Waldensians to attend Mass or remove to the upper valleys of their homeland, giving them twenty days in which to sell their lands. Being in the midst of winter, the order was intended to persuade the Vaudois to choose the former; however, the bulk of the populace instead chose the latter, abandoning their homes and lands in the lower valleys and removing to the upper valleys. It was written that these targets of persecution, including old men, women, little children and the sick “waded through the icy waters, climbed the frozen peaks, and at length reached the homes of their impoverished brethren of the upper Valleys, where they were warmly received.”
By mid-April, when it became clear that the Duke’s efforts to force the Vaudois to conform to Catholicism had failed, he tried another approach. Under the guise of false reports of Vaudois uprisings, the Duke sent troops into the upper valleys to quell the local populace. He required that the local populace quarter the troops in their homes, which the local populace complied with. But the quartering order was a ruse to allow the troops easy access to the populace. On 24 April 1655, at 4 a.m., the signal was given for a general massacre.
Print illustrating the 1655 massacre in La Torre, from Samuel Moreland‘s History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piedmont, published in London in 1658.
The Duke’s forces did not simply slaughter the inhabitants. They are reported to have unleashed an unprovoked campaign of looting, rape, torture, and murder. According to one report by a Peter Liegé:
Little children were torn from the arms of their mothers, clasped by their tiny feet, and their heads dashed against the rocks; or were held between two soldiers and their quivering limbs torn up by main force. Their mangled bodies were then thrown on the highways or fields, to be devoured by beasts. The sick and the aged were burned alive in their dwellings. Some had their hands and arms and legs lopped off, and fire applied to the severed parts to staunch the bleeding and prolong their suffering. Some were flayed alive, some were roasted alive, some disemboweled; or tied to trees in their own orchards, and their hearts cut out. Some were horribly mutilated, and of others the brains were boiled and eaten by these cannibals. Some were fastened down into the furrows of their own fields, and ploughed into the soil as men plough manure into it. Others were buried alive. Fathers were marched to death with the heads of their sons suspended round their necks. Parents were compelled to look on while their children were first outraged [raped], then massacred, before being themselves permitted to die.
This massacre became known as the Piedmont Easter. An estimate of some 1,700 Waldensians were slaughtered; the massacre was so brutal it aroused indignation throughout Europe. Protestant rulers in northern Europe offered sanctuary to the remaining Waldensians. Oliver Cromwell, then ruler in England, began petitioning on behalf of the Waldensians; writing letters, raising contributions, calling a general fast in England and threatening to send military forces to the rescue. The massacre prompted John Milton‘s poem on the Waldenses, “On the Late Massacre in Piedmont“. Swiss and Dutch Calvinists set up an “underground railroad” to bring many of the survivors north to Switzerland and even as far as the Dutch Republic, where the councillors of the city of Amsterdam chartered three ships to take some 167 Waldensians to their City Colony in the New World (Delaware) on Christmas Day 1656. Those that stayed behind in France and the Piedmont formed a guerilla resistance movement led by a farmer, Joshua Janavel, which lasted into the 1660s.
Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the “Glorious Return”
In 1685 Louis XIV revoked the 1598 Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed freedom of religion to his Protestant subjects in France. French troops sent into the French Waldensian areas of the Chisone and Susa Valleys in the Dauphiné forced 8,000 Vaudois to convert to Catholicism and another 3,000 to leave for Germany.
In the Piedmont, the cousin of Louis, the newly ascended Duke of Savoy, Victor Amadeus II, followed his uncle in removing the protection of Protestants in the Piedmont. In the renewed persecution, and in an echo of the Piedmont Easter Massacre of only three decades earlier, the Duke issued an edict on 31 January 1686 that decreed the destruction of all the Vaudois churches and that all inhabitants of the Valleys should publicly announce their error in religion within fifteen days under penalty of death and banishment. But the Vaudois remained resistant. After the fifteen days, an army of 9,000 French and Piedmontese soldiers invaded the Valleys against the estimated 2,500 Vaudois, but found that every village had organized a defense force that kept the French and Piedmontese soldiers at bay.
On 9 April, the Duke of Savoy issued a new edict, enjoining the Waldensians to put down their arms within eight days and go into exile between 21 and 23 April. If able, they were free to sell their land and possessions to the highest bidder.
Waldensian pastor Henri Arnaud (1641–1721), who had been driven out of the Piedmont in the earlier purges, returned from Holland. On 18 April he made a stirring appeal before an assembly at Roccapiatta, winning over the majority in favor of armed resistance. When the truce expired on 20 April, the Waldensians were prepared for battle.
They put up a brave fight over the next six weeks, but by the time the Duke retired to Turin on 8 June, the war seemed decided: 2,000 Waldensians had been killed; another 2,000 had “accepted” the Catholic theology of the Council of Trent. Another 8,000 had been imprisoned, of which more than half would die of deliberately imposed starvation, or of sickness within six months.
But about two or three hundred Vaudois fled to the hills and began carrying out a guerilla war over the next year against the Catholic settlers who arrived to take over the Vaudois lands. These “Invincibles” continued their assaults until the Duke finally relented and agreed to negotiate. The “Invincibles” won the right for the imprisoned Vaudois to be released from prison and to be provided safe passage to Geneva. But the Duke, granting that permission on 3 January 1687, required that the Vaudois leave immediately or convert to Catholicism. This edict led to some 2,800 Vaudois leaving the Piedmont for Geneva, of whom only 2,490 would survive the journey.
Arnaud and others now sought help of the allied European powers. He appealed to William of Orange directly from Geneva, while others, amongst whom was the young L’Hermitage, were sent to England and other lands to canvas for support. Orange and the allies were glad of any excuse to antagonise France, whose territorial encroachments on all fronts were intolerable. The League of Augsburg was formed in 1686 under Orange, who promised support to Arnaud. In August 1689, in the midst of the wars between the League of Augsburg and France, Arnaud led 1,000 Swiss exiles, armed with modern weaponry provided by the Dutch, back to the Piedmont. Over a third of the force perished during the 130-mile trek. They successfully re-established their presence in the Piedmont and drove out the Catholic settlers, but they continued to be besieged by French and Piedmontese troops.
By 2 May 1689, with only 300 Waldensian troops remaining, and cornered on a high peak called the Balsiglia, by 4,000 French troops with cannons, the final assault was delayed by storm and then by cloud cover. The French commander was so confident of completing his job the next morning that he sent a message to Paris that the Waldensian force had already been destroyed. However, when the French awoke the next morning they discovered that the Waldensians, guided by one of their number familiar with the Balsiglia, had already descended from the peak during the night and were now miles away.
The French pursued, but only a few days later a sudden change of political alliance by the Duke, from France to the League of Augsburg, ended the French pursuit of the Waldensians. The Duke agreed to defend the Waldensians and called for all other Vaudois exiles to return home to help protect the Piedmont borders against the French, in what came to be known as the “Glorious Return”.
Religious freedom after the French Revolution
[The above information has been taken from Wikipedia.]