The Colloquy of Poissy
Over the weekend of 10-11 September 2011, the town of Poissy, near Paris, commemorated the first official ecumenical debate to be held in France — 450 years ago.
It is called the Colloquy of Poissy and was a debate between Roman Catholics and Protestants lasting from 9 September to 14 October 1561. The colloquy was convened by the Catholic Queen Regent, Catherine de Médecis, in the reign of her young son, Charles IX.
Catherine has left on record her reason for this attempt at religious reconciliation. In a letter addressed to the French ambassador in Spain, she suggested that they should change the ‘medicine’ administered to Huguenots. Until now, she wrote, violence had only served to advance their ‘contagion’. But now she recommended a ‘way of sweetness’1.
It was another attempt by a French monarch to gain increasing authority, not only over Catholic subjects but over Huguenots, as the Protestants were called. In the mid-sixteenth century, French Protestants numbered nearly two million, comprising a fifth of the total population.
The official title for the commemorative weekend in September was ‘Colloquy of Poissy, 2011 — in the heart of liberty: dialogue and tolerance’.
Its main purpose was to examine these values, as expressed in the present ‘secularity’ ofFrance. It must be noted that French secularity is not the same as mere secularism, for it recognises freedom of religion within varying limits imposed by different local governments.
The Poissy 2011 speakers included the town mayor and his deputy, 15-20 academic professors (all PhDs) and political representatives.
The exhibition (still continuing) begins by highlighting the political and religious context in Franceduring the first half of the sixteenth century, and then examines in detail the 1561 colloquy.
It describes the succeeding development of religious tolerance inFrance, culminating in a law passed in 1905 separating church and state.
To appreciate the 1561 colloquy’s importance, we must recall the religious history ofFranceduring the first half of the sixteenth century.
New Renaissance ideas, as expressed in art, architecture and literature, were welcomed inFranceby King Francis I (reign 1515-1547). European horizons were dramatically widening, as a mighty cultural revolution was embraced byEurope. This was further stimulated by such geographical discoveries as the ‘new world’ ofAmericaand the sea route toIndia.
In addition, the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg, at Mayence inGermany, opened the way for the rapid propagation of new learning. In northernEuropethe Italian Renaissance took on a distinctly religious turn. The first book to be printed by Gutenberg was the Vulgate Latin Bible.
In the early sixteenth century, Martin Luther (1483-1546), an Augustinian monk fromGermany, after a tormented search for the salvation of his soul, found relief through Paul’s letter to the Romans and its teaching concerning justification by faith alone.
God then used Luther to begin the movement now called the Reformation.
This movement came toFrance, first impacting Meaux, a city 30 miles east ofParis. The Catholic humanist, Jacques Lefevre d’Etaples, had translated the Vulgate into French — the New Testament in 1523 and the Old Testament in 1528 — earlier than Luther’s complete 1534 translation of the Bible into German. So the fires of Reformation inFrancewere soon alight!
Francis I was, at first, favourably inclined to the new teaching, but this changed after a strategic blunder by the Protestants.
‘Placards’ or religious posters were suddenly put up everywhere inFrance, violently criticising Catholicism and its practices, and especially the Roman mass. One was even placed on the door of the king’s chamber. We can imagine his reaction!
His response was now persecution, and so was that of the next king, Henry II. After Henry’s death, his queen, Catherine of Médecis, an Italian niece of the pope, entrenched her own authority as she was regent over the successive reigns of her three sons.
It was during the reign of Charles IX, a boy of only 10 years old, that she organised the Poissy debate of 1561.
The 1561 colloquy intended rapprochement between Catholicism and Protestantism, but though the States General (comprising nobility, clergy and burghers) were open to reconciliation, influenced by the chancellor Michel de l’Hospital, the triumvirate of Catholic lords was determined to maintain French Catholicism, whatever the cost.
Catherine de Médecis, a child of the Italian Renaissance, was essentially for freedom of thought, but had also told Philip of Spain, who disliked the idea of the colloquy, that she meant to remain mistress of her own house.
An array of Catholic dignitaries were present — six cardinals, several archbishops, and other bishops and theologians. The cardinals were arrayed in scarlet, the dozen or so Protestant leaders in black gowns.
The Protestants had received royal safe-conducts. Admiral Coligny brought Theodore de Bèze (Beza), in place of John Calvin, fromGeneva.
However, in short, the Poissy Debate failed to achieve the consensus desired by the queen on the doctrinal issues before it.
Beza’s exposition of reformation doctrine was listened to respectfully at first, but when he refuted the mass by saying the resurrected body of our Lord was ‘as far from the bread and wine as was the highest heaven from the earth’, the Catholic response was vehement.
The cardinal of Tournon shouted, ‘He’s blaspheming!’, and complained that these ‘new evangelists’ were using ‘abominable words’.
At the end of the colloquy, Beza presented to the young King Charles a first edition copy of the French Protestant’s confession of faith (later called de la Rochelle), but one wonders how much the lad would have understood.
Lainez, the general of the Jesuits, arrived at the colloquy a few days after its commencement. He had been sent by the pope. His words were virulent, as he called the Protestants ‘wolves’, ‘foxes’, ‘serpents’ and ‘malicious monkeys’.
He begged the queen to throw them out of the kingdom and sought to persuade the French government to promulgate the decrees of the Council of Trent, along with its anathemas on those holding opposing doctrines.
However, it did not all go the Catholics’ way. The Queen of Navarre, a fervent Protestant and mother of future king of France Henry IV, was officially received at the colloquy and allowed to celebrate the Lord’s Supper in the abbey chapel.
One outcome, in January 1562, was the drawing up of the Edict of St Germain, giving permission for the Huguenots to hold their services outside walled cities and in all villages.
Many villages were embracing Reformation doctrine. Not long after, the French reformer, Guillaume Farel, spoke of 300 villages in the valley of the River Gironde, in south west France, that had ‘put down the mass’.
But, sadly, this edict did not prevent the eight religious civil wars that followed the Poissy colloquy, during which the worst tragedy of all took place — the infamous massacre of St Bartholomew in 1572.
This started atParisimmediately after Henry, prince ofNavarre, married Princess Margot, daughter of Queen Catherine.
The persecutions spread throughoutFranceand tens of thousands of Huguenots were savagely put to death.
The decision of King Henri IV, to become a Catholic after four years of his reign (1589-1610), was a political move. In 1598, he proclaimed the Edict of Nantes, concerning religious tolerance.
There are a number of lessons that can be learnt from Poissy in 1561. First, whatever persecutions followed on then, the idea of religious tolerance had been sown. This fact was recognised by the Poissy colloquy organised in September 2011.
Secondly, because of the failure of the 1561 colloquy, most French evangelicals are appreciative of the 1905 law that separates religion from the state and that broke the power of the Roman Church over freedom of conscience.
In the days of Louis XVI, when Gallicanism prevailed2, and after 1685 when the Edict of Nantes was revoked, the Protestants were without any status as citizens. For a century they could not officially marry, their children were illegitimate and their property could not be legally inherited by their offspring. Happily, even writers like Voltaire fought against such intolerance.
Thirdly, 1561 and Theodore Beza’s example reminds us of the necessity of remaining faithful to evangelical and biblical doctrine. Had Beza failed to contend for this, the Huguenots may have been enticed into some unholy covenant withRome.
So Poissy 1561 was a ‘happy’ failure, ultimately honoured by God. It underlined the impossibility of Protestant reconciliation with Romish dogma and tradition. And, today, evangelicals do well to show a similar faithfulness to God’s Word.
1. Célébrations nationales 2011; Ministère de la Culture et de la Communication,Paris (2010).
2. Gallicanism meant in practice that, althoughFrancewas a Catholic country, its monarch preserved the right to choose bishops. The resultant political process increased the monarchy’s power.