Archive for the ‘16th Century’ Category

Twice condemned for not believing in the Trinity

Saturday, January 30th, 2010

Geneva Servetus memorial

On a quiet spot on the outskirts of Geneva, just above the neighbouring bustle of the hospital, stands a memorial, between Beausejour and Roseraie. The Roseraie inscription says “On 27 October 1553, Michel Servet de Villeneuve d’Aragon died on the stake” while the Beausejour side reads: ”We, respectful and grateful children of Calvin, our great reformer but condeming an error that was that of his century, and deeply attached to freedom of conscience… built this expiatory monument, on 27 October 1903.”

The infrequent passer-by is unlikely to pay too much notice. It is only for those who know about Servetus that this atonement memorial may mean something. A near-by street also honours him, the sign reads: Michel Servet (1511-1553, Spanish physician).

Quite by chance, I had discovered the memorial a few years ago, while a Geneva resident. Sufficiently intrigued by the double reference to Calvin and to freedom of conscience, I had researched the fate of the Spaniard. 

This time around, on a visit to Geneva, I was deliberately looking for the memorial, the location of which I only vaguely remembered. I ended up having a bit of a hard time finding it. Assuming Rue Michel Servet would be a logical spot, I walked up and down the street, explored the Plateau de Champel, as Champel is generally indicated as the place where Servetus was burnt at the stake, along with his books. No mention of the execution was to be found on the Plateau.

Rue Michel Servet, Geneva

Rue Michel Servet, Geneva

From there I walked again along the Michel Servet street which winds it way down from the Plateau to the Geneva hospital.

After a little more exploring and walking back and forth, on a side street, I finally spotted the memorial, inaugurated on the 350th anniversary of the Spaniard’s death.

Servetus’ execution marked the end of a long theological dispute between him and Calvin, at a time when autodafes, and the burning of heretics, were the order of the day throughout Europe.

The Spanish physician was the first to describe and publish about pulmonary circulation. A true humanist, in addition to his medical pursuits, Servetus’ studies and research ranged from astrology, geography, jurisprudence to theology.

Born in Villanueva, Aragon, the son of a Catholic notary and a mother whose Jewish ancestors were conversos, Miguel Serveto early on studied Greek, Hebrew and Latin and later went to the University of Toulouse to study law.

After having worked in the service of a Franciscan monk, Quintana, who became Charles V’s confessor, Servetus joined the Protestant reformers in Basel, then moved to Strasbourg. There, by the time he was twenty, he published De trinitatis erroribus (On the Errors of the Trinity), which was followed by two more essays in which Servetus, based on his direct readings of the Bible, rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Servetus also thought that the Trinity dogma made it more difficult to Jews and Moors to convert Christianism.

The books were confiscated. The Spanish Inquisition ordered that he be questioned while warnings were issued against him in several Protestant towns. Servetus fled to Paris where he entered medical school under the name of Michel de Villeneuve. There he met Jean Calvin, a fellow student. Both started engaging in long theological debates, which continued through correspondence after Calvin had to flee Paris, as he was suspected of promoting reformist ideas.

When Michel de Villeneuve was given the position of physician to Archbishop of Vienne Pierre Palmier, he settled in the French city, south of Lyons. While he practised medicine, he also continued his theological research and wrote his major work: Christianismi Restitutio (The Restoration of Christianity). Servetus sent the book to Calvin who responded by sending a copy of his own book: Institutio Christianae Religionis (Institutions of the Christian Religion), which Servetus returned covered with annotations. After a few more exchanges, Calvin stopped the correspondence.

Meanwhile, in Vienne, Michel de Villeneuve was suspected of being the author of the Restitutio and denounced as a heretic. Once his correspondence with Calvin had been produced as evidence, he was soon identified as Servetus. He was arrested by the Roman Catholic authorities in April 1553, and escaped from prison three days following his arrest. On 17 June, the French Inquisition convicted him of heresy and he was sentenced to death by slow burning. The same day, in Vienne, his effigy and his books were burned in abstentia. 

Calvin and the Reformers, Parc des Bastions, Geneva

Calvin, Farel and the Reformers, Parc des Bastions, Geneva

While fleeing to Italy, Servetus stopped in Geneva where he was soon recognized and arrested. Following a consultation with four other Swiss cities, the Protestant authorities condemned him: there too he was sentenced to be burned at the stake. Calvin unsuccessfully tried to convince fellow Reformer Farel that the sentence should be executed through decapitation. On 27 October 1553, Servetus perished in the flames, his books attached to his body by a chain.

While many Protestants approved of the execution, some in Basel and other parts spoke against the decision to put heretics to death. The most vocal of them was theologian Sébastien Castellion who in 1562 said: Killing a man is not defending a doctrine, it is killing a man.

Miguel Serveto’s legacy has become emblematic of the fight for freedom of thought and freedom of conscience.

It is only at the very beginning of the 20th century that monuments were raised to commemorate Servetus. The Champel memorial was inaugurated in 1903 in the presence of representatives from France. The Geneva memorial being deemed insufficient by the Comite du monument Michel Servet, in 1908, a statue was commissioned, but the Geneva authorities did not authorize its installation. It was then decided to donate the statue to the town of Annemasse, in France, just on the other side of the border.

Thanks to an international fund-raising effort, another monument was inaugurated in 1911 in Vienne. An October 22, 1911 New York Times article describes how Americans and “delegates from every civilized country of the globe” attended the inauguration of yet another statue to commemorate the victim of intolerance.

Servetus’ story continues as, at the request of the Vichy Government, the Annemasse monument was destroyed in 1941. The French resistance later organized a wreath-laying ceremony dedicated to Michel Servet, the first victim of fascism. The monument was finally re-erected in 1960.  On the pedestal, an inscription reads:

“The arrest of Servetus in Geneva, where he did neither publish nor dogmatize, hence he was not subject to its laws, has to be considered as a barbaric act and an insult to the Right of Nations”. Voltaire

In Geneva, the 2009 official commemoration of the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth did not mention Servetus…

Of appeals and oranges,… and the birth of a nation

Saturday, October 24th, 2009

As in William of Orange.

Willem, Prins Van Oranje

Willem, Prins Van Oranje

At the time when the Low Countries were under Spanish rule, Willem, Prins Van Oranje (pronounce oran’-yeah) led the fight against the occupier, in the name of religious freedom.

Born in 1533 in Nassau, Willem was raised a Lutheran. When his cousin René de Châlon, Prince of Orange, left the eleven year old Willem all of his property - including the title Prince of Orange - the condition was that Willem receive a Roman Catholic education. Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor was to serve as regent until Willem was old enough to rule. At 22, Willem became commander of the Emperor’s armies. The same year, 1555, the Emperor abdicated and his son, Philip II of Spain came to power.

Increasingly, Protestants in the Netherlands were persecuted under the inquisition policy carried out by representatives of the Spanish crown, acting in the name of the devout Catholic king. The persecution led to growing opposition to Spanish rule.

Church Interior with Iconoclasts, Hendrick van Steenwijck II

Church Interior with Iconoclasts, Hendrick van Steenwijck II

A large group of noblemen formed the Confederacy of Noblemen and on 5 April 1565, appealed to Margaret of Austria - Philip’s natural half sister and governor to the Low Countries - for the end to the persecution of the Protestants by presenting a petition. In 1566, the Beeldenstorm - an iconoclastic movement - destroyed statues and representations of saints in churches and monasteries all over the Netherlands.

Margaret of Austria agreed to grant the wishes presented in the petition but was not allowed to make good on her promises and Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba, was sent from Spain to repress the rebellion.

Having been brought up both as a Lutheran and a Roman Catholic, Willem was a strong believer in religious freedom. He soon became the leader of an armed resistance to the Spanish repression.

In 1568, war started and many battles - including naval encounters - were fought and won by both sides, until 1581, when on 22 July, through the Act of Abjuration, independence from the Spanish Crown was declared, and a new nation was born, built on the ideal of freedom of religion.

This allowed the Duke of Anjou, brother to King Henry III of France to become the new sovereign. He arrived in February 1582, but quickly became quite unpopular. Dissatisfied with the limited power he was given, he left the country in 1583, and Willem remained the stadtholder.

Bullet impact, Prinsenhof, Delft

Bullet impact, Prinsenhof, Delft

In 1580, King Philip II of Spain had declared Willem an outlaw and promised a reward of 25,000 to anyone who would kill Willem. Balthasar Gerard, a French Catholic, determined in 1581 he would try. He finally succeeded on 10 July 1584, killing Willem with two bullets shot at close range. The bullets impact can still be seen in Delft, in the Prinsenhof, the St. Agatha convent which had become the Prince’s residence since 1573.

Willem’s private life reflects the reality of 16th Century Europe where alliances were built across borders, and the choice of a religion could become a question of life and death. Born a Lutheran in then Germany, he inherited a title from a French relative, on the condition that he would convert to Catholicism.  In the fight against Spain Willem had tried to enroll the support of the French Huguenots to protect territories in the Low Countries, but the Saint Bartholomew massacre of 24 August 1572 resulted in most of the French Huguenot leaders being killed. 

Willem married four times. His first wife, the wealthy Dutch Anna van Egmond en Buren, gave him the title of Lord of Egmond and Count of Buren and three children. Three years after her death, Willem married the equally wealthy Anna of Saxony, which allowed him to increase his influence in the Saxony and Palatinate territories. After having five children with Willem, Anna started a liaison with her lawyer, Jan Rubens (later to become Peter Paul Rubens’ father), and gave him a daughter. Willem annulled the marriage claiming Anna was insane.

Louise de Coligny, Willem van Oranje's fourth and last wife

Louise de Coligny, Willem van Oranje's fourth and last wife

He then married the French aristocrat Charlotte de Bourbon-Montpensier, grand-daughter to an illegitimate half-sister to French king Francis I. When she was only two week old, her mother placed her in a royal convent to be raised as a nun. When Charlotte reached 25, she escaped from the convent, converted to Calvinism, and took refuge in the Palatinate. Three years later, she was married to Willem to whom she gave six daughters.

A year after Charlotte’s death, Willem married for the last time in 1583 to Louise de Coligny. Louise was the daughter of the French Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, who along with Louise’s first husband had been killed during the Saint Bartholomew massacre. Following Willem’s death, Louise raised their son, Frederick Henry and Willem and Charlotte’s six daughters.

Willem, Prins van Oranje

Willem, Prins van Oranje


Henri IV of France, a Protestant who converted to Catholicism to become the king of France, and whose wedding celebration to the French king’s sister was the occasion that brought about the Saint Bartholomew massacre, suffered a fate similar to Willem. He too was killed by a Catholic fanatic, Ravaillac.   

In the midst of a 16th Century that was deeply affected by religious turmoil, Willem explained his conflict with Philip II to the Council of State as follows ”I can not approve that monarchs desire to rule over the conscience of their subjects and take away from them their freedom of belief and religion.”

Don’t forget the ladies

Sunday, March 1st, 2009

Women watching a march of the Ligue, Paris, 16th Century

Women watching a march of the Ligue, Paris, 16th Century

And what about women’s rights or the human rights of women? International Women’s Day is this week, an invitation to reflect on the rights of women.

Well, since my last post was about the Magna Carta, maybe we can start our quick overview right there.

Women are indeed mentioned, sometimes en passant, as in the article specifying the three exceptional reasons that would authorize the imposition of an aid, one of which being when the King would marry his eldest daughter.

As a matter of fact, it is mainly in relation to the issue of marriage that women are mentioned in early texts dealing with human rights. This is the area where they are allowed, or not - most frequently not -, to exert some level of free will.

The Magna Carta is no exception. Article 8 - we have seen this reflects a strong preoccupation for the subject - rules:

8. No widow shall be compelled to marry, so long as she prefers to live without a husband; provided always that she gives security not to marry without our consent if she holds of us, or without the consent of the lord of whom she holds, if she holds of another.

If women therefore have some limited level of freedom when it comes to marriage, their words has little legal value, as evidenced by Article 54

54. No one shall be arrested or imprisoned upon the appeal of a woman, for the death of any other than her husband.

The age of discovery and Renaissance in Europe allow women to play more important roles. Not all women, but some really powerful women make their mark, a position of power that is frequently the result of their marriage. Marriage is a way to secure alliances, end conflicts, acquire land, protect inheritance, and women are given little choice as to who their husbands - sometimes two or three, as life expectancy is rather short then -  will be.

The discovery of America, and the Reconquista over the Alhambra are associated to Isabella, Queen of Castille. It is in her own right, but together with her husband, King of Aragon, that Queen Isabella allows Christopher Columbus to set on his expedition, and it is in the name of the two Catholic Sovereigns that the Alhambra is conquered. Both events happened in 1492.

It is also in 1492 that Marguerite de Navarre was born, in Angouleme, the daughter of a 15-year old Louise de Savoie who became a widow at 19, after having given birth to a son, Francis, later Francis I, King of France. By decree of French King Louis XII, the highly educated Marguerite is forced to marry a practically illiterate Charles of Alencon, to ensure that the county of Armagnac stays in the family.

After his death, she remarries the King of Navarre, and as sister to the King of France, Marguerite de Navarre became the most influential woman in France. She had her own salon, corresponded with scholars, such as Erasmus, and wrote poems, plays and stories.

Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre

Jeanne d'Albret, Queen of Navarre, Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris

Her most famous work is the Heptameron, but the one that caused her the most trouble was Miroir de l’âme pécheresse, which was condemned by the conservative Sorbonne as heretic. This, she wrote in 1531 shortly after the death of her infant son, the only son she had at the then advanced age of 38.

Her daughter Jeanne d’Albret is married against her will at 13. The story goes that she had to be bodily carried to the altar. After four years, the marriage is annulled and she later remarried Antoine de Bourbon. As Queen of Navarre, she declares Calvinism the official religion of Navarre. Her son, King Henry III of Navarre, later to become King of France as Henry IV,  married another Marguerite, Marguerite de Valois, sister to three kings of France. It is on the occasion of their wedding, that a large number of Protestants who had came to Paris were murdered during the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, on 24 August 1572, along with several other thousand Protestants in Paris and throughout the country.

While these women, as daughters or sisters of kings, benefited from excellent education, they enjoyed limited freedom, being made to marry in the interest of the kingdom. Marguerite de Valois is featured in Alexandre Dumas’s 1844 novel, named after her, Queen Margot.

At some point in the novel, Queen Marguerite agrees with her mother, Queen Catherine de Medici, about how fortunate men are to be free to run, while women have to stay in the palace and wait. She then explains that it is not her personal fate she is so concerned about, but more the general condition of women.

This would seem to be more of a 19th century comment, attributed to a 16th century woman, similarly to the transposition I described with Rozema’s adaptation of Mansfield Park.

It is difficult to know what the feelings of women were at the time, as the writings of female authors, such as Marguerite de Navarre reflect the feelings of exceptional women, exceptional in the sense of their fortune and education, at a time when education was for the most part reserved to men, although Renaissance certainly brought a change to this.

These exceptional women evolved in a limited circle, frequently related through the marriages arranged between member of the royal families of Europe. Queen Claude de France, Marguerite de Navarre’s sister in law is another example. The daughter of Louis XII of France and Anne de Bretagne, Claude was to inherit the Duchy of Brittany from her mother. With the intention of keeping Brittany separate from the French crown, Anne decided to marry her daughter to Charles of Spain who was to become Charles V. French nobles reacted and convinced King Louis XII to marry Claude to Francis, later Francis I of France. At 7, she became engaged, and married at 15, thus ensuring that Brittany would remain part of France.

Education for women was perceived to be necessary to ensure a good marriage. It is to further her education that Ann Boleyn is sent to the French court, where she becomes a lady-in-waiting to Queen Claude. There she meets Marguerite de Navarre, who is said to have given her a copy of the Miroir de l’âme pécheresse.

It is seldom that women could refuse the marriage that had been arranged for them. Even more difficult was it to refuse to become the King’s mistress. Back at the court of England, Anne refused to become King Henry VIII’s mistress, which prompted the King to secure an annulment for his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Following a long dispute and the refusal of the Pope to grant an annulment, the King decided to break with Rome, and took control over the Church of England.

Anne became Henry VIII’s second wife and in 1533 gave birth to Elizabeth. After she had failed to produce a male heir to the throne, the King had her arrested and executed, in 1536. Twenty-two years later, in 1558, Elizabeth succeeded the Catholic Mary Tudor, her half-sister, daughter of Catherine of Aragon, as Queen of England.

Princess Elizabeth’s education had been extensive: she studied Italian, Latin, French and Greek, and at age 11, she translated Marguerite de Navarre’s The Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul, from the French, and presented it to Henry VIII’s last wife, Catherine Parr. A powerful queen, Elizabeth was able to resist repeated petitions from the English Parliament for her to be married, and became known as the Virgin Queen.

Other powerful women have helped shape European history: queens, regents, King’s mistresses, intellectuals have proven that women can think and act independently. It is not until the 18th Century, however, that women of more modest origin have fought directly for the recognition of the rights of women.

Women Political Club, French Revolution, 1790

Women Political Club, French Revolution, 1790

In my view, three women in particular defined women’s rights in the 18th Century. In the British Colonies, in a famous letter of March 1776, Don’t forget the ladies, Abigail Adams, threatened her husband of a rebellion if women’s interests were not taken into account at the time John Adams represented Massachussetts in the Continental Congress.

In 1791, Olympe de Gouges posted all over Paris her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne, a version of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen that she had adapted to represent the rights of women.

And in 1792, in England, Mary Wollstonecraft publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman where she argues that if women had access to education, they could show themselves to be equal to men.

The fight for equal rights continued well into the 20th Century, with the passionate English suffragettes, as well as later fights, some countries recognizing the right of women to vote as late as 1979.

Chesapeake, George Calvert and Charles Carroll of Carrollton

Saturday, February 21st, 2009

Free to be Catholic, Annapolis

Free to be Catholic, Annapolis, December 2008

Visiting Chesapeake recently was another opportunity to verify that discrimination based on religious belief has been a reality for many centuries.

As one reads up about the early days of American history, it quickly becomes very clear that a large number of the early discoverers and settlers wished to lead a life where they would be free to practice their religious beliefs.

The history of Maryland has been shaped by settlers and people who stood up for their rights. The similarities between two men who deeply influenced the future of the State - George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, and Charles Carroll of Carrollton - were a seredenpitous discovery. Thanks to a royal charter, the first Lord Baltimore - named after Baltimore, Ireland - basically created Maryland. By fighting on the side of independence from the British crown, Charles Carroll played a pivotal role in ensuring that Maryland became one of the 13 founding States. Both men were Catholic, and both men were subject to laws discriminating against Catholics.

This heritage may explain the Free to be Catholic sign which was on display on a religious building close to Charles Carroll of Carrollton’s house in Annapolis, in early December 2008.

Annapolis Church

Annapolis Church

George Calvert, first Lord Baltimore, came to the New World in the hope of finding a refuge for English Catholics. After establishing Avalon, on the island of Newfoundland, he looked for a gentler climate and obtained a royal charter to settle the region that is now Maryland.

In England, Calvert’s family had had to suffer from two penal laws, enacted during the reign of Elizabeth I. The Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity of 1559 required that any citizen wishing to hold a high office would need to pledge an oath of allegiance to the Queen. The oath included a denial of the authority of the Pope over the church.

As a child, George was subjected to many forms of interference in the religious life of the Calvert family: they were compelled to attend church, one of his tutors having been denounced as popish, he and his brother were sent to a Protestant tutor. Catholic servants were banned, and the family was forced to purchase and display an English Bible. In 1593, his mother Grace was committed to the custody of an official responsible for prosecuting Catholics, a “pursuivant.”

After graduating from Oxford, Calvert occupied several positions that led him to becoming one of the two principal Secretaries of State of King James in 1619. As a member of a commission, Calvert in 1613 had to recommend for Catholic schools to be suppressed in Ireland.

Early on, Calvert demonstrated interest in the exploration of the New World, and he invested money in the Virginia Company and the East India Company. When he obtained the position of Commissioner of the Treasury, with rights on the duties collected on imported raw silk, his fortune was secured. In 1620, Calvert purchased a tract of land in Newfoundland.

In 1625, shortly after he resigned his Secretariat position, his conversion to Catholicism became public knowledge. He had retained his place on the Privy Council, a position he had to also abandon when King Charles I required all privy councilors to take the oaths of supremacy and allegiance.

After having moved to Ireland, Calvert decided to pursue his interest in Avalon, the colony he had established in Newfoundland  where he promoted free religious worship, allowing  Catholics to worship in one part of his house and the Protestants in another.

One winter in Avalon was enough to convince him that the rigorous climate was not suited for his colony, and he moved to Jamestown in Virginia, where he knew tobacco could be grown. Upon his refusing to sign the oaths of supremacy and allegiance there, he had to leave and go back to England where he fought for a charter granting him rights over a piece of land on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay. The charter was finally granted on 20 June 1632, five weeks after his death, and Maryland became a refuge for British Catholics, who emigrated to settle tobacco plantations.

A century and a half later, Charles Carroll of Carrollton was the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence. The son of a wealthy plantation owner of Irish descent, he was born in 1737 in Annapolis, Maryland.

Plate to Charles Carroll of Carrollton in front of his house, Annapolis, Maryland

Plate to Charles Carroll of Carrollton in front of his house, Annapolis, Maryland

At the age of eight, he was sent to France where he studied at a college run by English Jesuits in Saint-Omer, and then in Paris, at Louis le Grand. Having started to study law in Bourges and Paris, in 1757, he moved to London to complete his legal education and returned to Maryland in 1765.

Under laws of the British Colonies - similar to those that forced Calvert to resign his Cabinet position - as a Roman Catholic, Carroll was deprived of political rights, including the right to vote.

After the passage of the Stamp Act, and the exorbitant taxes imposed by Maryland Governor Eden, Carroll  became actively involved politically and started writing in the Maryland Gazette, under the name The First Citizen, defending the colonies rights to control their own taxation, and arguing for a return to natural law.

A member of the Annapolis Convention, in early 1776, he was sent to Canada by the Continental Congress along with Benjamin Franklin and Samuel Chase. Their mission was to persuade the Canadian colonies to relinquish their allegiance to the British crown, and join the American colonies in their fight for independence.  Although the mission to Canada failed, Carroll became instrumental in convincing a reserved Maryland Convention to vote for independence.

On July 4, 1776, he was elected to the Continental Congress, and while he was too late to vote for it, he signed the Declaration of Independence, which was officially signed by all members of Congress on an engrossed on parchment version, on August, 2, 1776.

Signing the Declaration entailed a risk for all the signers - as they exposed themselves to confiscation of their properties - but maybe more so for Charles Carroll, considered to be the colonies’ wealthiest individual. Recognizing this, he made sure to add of Carrollton to his signature to ensure that he would be properly identified.

Carroll died at 95 in 1832, two centuries after Calvert, and at the time of his death, as the longest living signer of the Declaration, was regarded with veneration by the American people.