“By the light of burning martyrs”

Like some sort of gigantic see-saw, the great wooden beam lowers the tightly bound man into the flaming pyre. After holding him there for a few moments, the king’s executioner quickly raises him out of the flames to prolong the victim’s hideous agony. The crowd filling the street erupts: they cheer wildly, madly. Outraged satisfaction surges in every heart. The taste for vengeance tantalizes every tongue.

Only moments later, the executioner again lowers the condemned man into the raging inferno—and again quickly raises him out of it. The frenzied crowd very nearly succeeds in pulling the roasting victim from the torture machine to tear him to pieces with their own hands.

But the third thrust into the flames finally burns through the ropes binding the suffering martyr to the great wooden balancing beam, and he plunges to his fiery death in the ravening flames. The crowd cheers and King Francis I, silently watching the fruits of his own orders, kneels on the cobblestones in devout prayer for divine mercy on himself and his raging subjects.[1]

How had it come to this? It is 21 January 1535, and only months earlier, Francis I, King of France since the first day of January 1515, had been tolerating his Protestant subjects and even actively protecting them at times. What had caused his about-face? How could such an honest, upright, devout, and even likable man conceive of such horrors, let alone order and participate in them? What had happened?

How had it come to this?

To answer that question, we must go back a bit in time.

Francis I is regarded as one of the best and ablest kings in a monarchy that lasted 15 centuries—no small feat. He had inherited the most unified kingdom in Europe, comprising a land area considerably larger than that of California but smaller than that of Texas, and a population of around 16 million, the largest in Europe.

Foreigners envied France her wealth, with her exports of grain, wine, salt, and cloth, especially toile and silk. Each year, thousands of French peasants and artisans would go to work in Spain, from whence they returned with pockets full of beautiful coins struck in fine silver from Spain’s rich empire in the New World. With a population of 200,000, Paris was an enormous city for that time. Lyon, with 50,000 inhabitants, was made rich by trade, banking, and the production of silk cloth. Lyon was the center of European printing and book publishing, businesses indispensable to the success of the Reformation. Francis had a copy of every book printed in Lyon reposed in his personal library, which would become the basis of France’s present-day National Library.

Francis I founded the modern French state. He was gifted with a remarkable political sense, and even today he is known as “Prince of the Renaissance,” for having introduced the Italian Renaissance into France. Leonardo da Vinci, whom Francis called “father,”[2] died in the king’s arms.[3] He built or renovated splendid buildings[4] throughout his domains, including the astonishing Château of Chambord.

Francis had inherited the Crown of Charlemagne through the divine right by which French kings had ruled since the year 869. This monarchy, established in the year 509, would endure, after an interruption (1792-1814), until the overthrow of Charles X in July 1830, the event that provides the climax and dénouement of Les Misérables.[5] And his belief in the divine right to rule would soon move Francis to actions that he would later bitterly regret.

Giovanni da Verrazzano
Giovanni da Verrazzano

In 1524, King Francis had financed the voyage of Giovanni da Verrazano, who landed at a place in North America that he called “New Angoulême” in honor of the king’s family—a place later known as New Amsterdam and, later still, as New York. France would begin her own New World activities in the fateful year of 1534 when King Francis sent out Jacques Cartier, who would establish French claim to Canada.

Francis I was over six feet tall and large-framed—a giant in those days. He was brave in battle and skillful in diplomacy, although sometimes unsuccessful at both. He was honest. He had truly loved his first wife, the gentle Queen Claude (died 1524), and their children. He loved his sister, Marguerite of Navarre,[6] a firm protector of Protestants—including John Calvin.[7] King Francis loved hunting and dancing. He was psychologically and emotionally well balanced and was a sincere and devout Catholic. He was genial, affable, likable, popular.

Then how could such a man order and then look upon the burning of his own subjects while he devoutly prayed for divine mercy?

The seeds are sown.

First of all, it was a different time, a different world. Freedom of conscience was unheard of. Suggesting such a thing would have been regarded as lunacy. Moreover, the power-politics of the time placed Francis I under great pressure.

Upon the death of Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian von Habsburg in 1519, his grandson, Charles von Habsburg, expected—and intended—to succeed him.

Francis I of France also intended to become Holy Roman Emperor.

But after Charles paid the German Electors the equivalent of 4400 pounds of gold, he was duly elected as Charles V on 28 June 1519. Francis had paid a bribe of only 3300 pounds of gold.[8]

This was a bitter disappointment for Francis, for it placed Charles not only upon the ancient throne of Charlemagne, but also upon the thrones of Austria, Spain, and the Spanish (or Habsburg) Netherlands (present-day Belgium and the Netherlands). Charles’s dominions surrounded France on the east, north, and south. To the west was the English-held Pale of Calais,[9] the Atlantic Ocean, and the England of Henry VIII.

Francis would need allies.

Accordingly, he invited Henry VIII to meet with him on French soil midway between Ardres and the Pale of Calais. The meeting took place during June 1520. Each king tried so hard to outdo the other in magnificence that the meeting has gone down in history as the meeting on The Field of the Cloth of Gold.[10]

But Charles V was also courting Henry VIII as an ally.

The rules for the Cloth of Gold meeting forbade the two kings from competing directly against each other in any of the jousts or other games that were held, but Henry, characteristically, broke the rules by challenging Francis to a wrestling match. When Francis won, Henry was not happy. Nevertheless, the two young sovereigns swore friendship, and Henry returned to England. Fifteen days later, Henry concluded an alliance with Charles V. Later that year, Charles declared war on Francis, beginning the Italian War of 1521-1526.[11]

The geopolitical situation, then, was this: France was surrounded by hostile forces on all sides.

Moreover, in Nérac,[12] at the court of his own sister, Marguerite, Protestants found welcome and protection.

But there was another motivation for Francis to abandon his policy of toleration towards his Protestant subjects, and it was a very personal one indeed, deeply held and profoundly felt. It stemmed from his coronation on 25 January 1515 at the Cathedral of Reims, the city where French kings had been crowned and anointed since the year 816.

After being anointed with holy oil and crowned,[13] Francis, according to ancient tradition, received the Blessed Sacrament—in both kinds. And therein lay the rub: Drinking from the chalice was a royal prerogative and a very ancient one.[14] The only layman permitted to do this was the king. Now, however, “the new religion” was allowing ordinary folk to drink from the cup at the Lord’s table. The king’s subjects were usurping his royal prerogative—as part of their religion! This was shockingly dangerous territory indeed.

And it cannot have soothed the king’s anxieties that at least one of these rebellious usurpers was a member of his own household—a fact brought home to him in a very unsettling way on the morning of 18 October 1534, the day that the Posters Affair burst over France.

Francis felt threatened on his throne from without and, even worse, from within.

Château de Blois
Château de Blois

“Alea iacta est: the die is cast.”

The “Posters Affair” was a furor provoked by the secret posting of anti-Catholic posters during the night of 17 October 1534, in Paris, Rouen, Tours, Orléans, Amboise, and, perhaps most significantly, also at the Château of Blois, where the royal court was in residence, one poster even affixed to the door of the king’s own bedchamber![15] It was most unsettling for the king, whose kingdom was already hemmed in on all sides by hostile powers.

The sentiments of the posters were expressed in harsh terms, equating the ceremonies of the Mass with witchcraft and accusing the pope, the bishops, and all priests and monks of lies and blasphemy.

Until the Posters Affair, French Protestants had been hounded by several parlements of Paris[16] and sometimes even put to death as heretics, but the king himself had been rather tolerant of and lenient towards them. He had actively protected them against the Roman Catholic clergy in 1523 and 1524. And although Leben magazine has documented[17] that Francis had promised Pope Clement VII in 1533 that he would eradicate heresy from France, it had nevertheless been his dream to reunite Christendom where his arch-rival, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, had failed. Francis had even sent embassies to the principal reformers in Germany and Switzerland.[18]

But this posters incident is too much, even for the normally tolerant King Francis. In his mind, this affront to Holy Mother Church contains within it a direct affront and challenge to the very idea of divine-right monarchy. Moreover, the threat comes from within his own kingdom and even within his own household.

Something must be done.

“Death to the heretics!”

From that moment, there is only one cry: “DEATH TO THE HERETICS!”[19]

The posters outrage Catholic opinion and galvanize Catholic action. Suspicion even falls onto the king’s own entourage, and people begin to talk. “If he wants to stamp out heresy, let him start with his own court and with his own family.”[20]  These words are clearly aimed at Marguerite of Navarre.

Summoned to appear in Paris, Marguerite goes there at once, confident in the integrity of the king’s intentions and in his affection for her.

Perhaps for the first time in her life, she finds at the Louvre (at that time a royal palace) a severe and icy reception. Her brother bitterly reproaches her because of the difficulties caused by the “heresy” that she is encouraging. Marguerite holds back her tears and keeps a cool head but closes her mind against his arguments. In reply, she even dares to insinuate that “the present calamities are due rather to the intolerance and fanaticism of the enemies of the gospel.”[21]

As usual where his sister Marguerite is concerned, and despite the gravity of the present crisis, Francis softens and consents to revoke the sentence pronounced against three reformed preachers. Prudently, Marguerite returns to Nérac.[22]

But the king’s indulgence cannot last, for ordinary measures no longer suffice to assuage the thirst for vengeance of the French Catholic clergy, who demand the spectacle of a great public “expiatory procession.” Accordingly, on 21 January 1535, such a procession is held in the presence of an enormous crowd that fills the streets of Paris, while thousands of spectators watch from windows and rooftops.

Moving out through the doors of the ancient Church of Saint Germain[23] about 8:00 in the morning, the majestic procession[24] comprises all the highest dignitaries of the French Church. At the head of the procession are carried the relics of all the martyrs stored in the churches of Paris, including even those of the Sainte-Chapelle,[25] which had not been displayed since the death in 1270 of Saint Louis (King Louis IX).

“There was a great number of cardinals, bishops, priests, and other prelates, along with all the secular colleges of Paris, each man in his proper place. After them came Jean du Bellay, Bishop of Paris, carrying the Blessed Sacrament; then the king, walking bare-headed after the Blessed Host, carrying a large, burning candle of pure beeswax; and after him walked the Queen,[26] the

Princes of the Blood Royal, the two hundred gentlemen [of the royal household], the king’s entire guard, the Court of the Parlement [of Paris], and all the lawyers of Paris.”[27] The ambassadors of Charles V, Henry VIII of England, and the Republic of Venice also participated.

The procession wends its way slowly through the main neighborhoods of the city. Already prepared in the six principal squares of Paris, there stands in each a monstrance containing the Sacred Host, a scaffold, and a large—and ominous—pile of wood.

And at each of the six squares, “… were very cruelly burned alive six persons, to the extraordinary cries of the people, who were so stirred up that they were only with difficulty restrained from seizing the victims from the executioner’s hands and tearing them to pieces. But if the furor was great, the steadfastness of the martyrs was even greater.”[28]

The following week, on 29 January 1534, the king issues a “perpetual and irrevocable” edict “for the extirpation and extermination of the Lutheran sect[29] and other heresies ….”

The edict goes on to declare all Protestants “fugitives” and to outline severe penalties for anyone who should aid or hide them. Rewards are guaranteed for informers. After this edict, persecutions continue in all parts of France in fits and starts, with alternating periods of diligence and toleration. For example, only a few months later, in July, the king would issue the Edict of Coucy—a general amnesty. The on-again-off-again policy “served only to increase the number of Protestants.”[30]

But whodunnit?

The short answer is, “Two men by the name of Antoine.”

We know that Antoine Marcourt wrote the text of the offending posters and that Antoine Augereau was put to death for printing them.

But Augereau had not printed them.

In fact, the posters had been printed not in Paris by Augereau, but in Neuchâtel, a city in Francophone Switzerland, by Pierre de Vingle, acting at the behest of Antoine Marcourt.[31]

Marcourt was one of the French refugees who had formed a community in Neuchâtel around the preacher, Guillaume Farel, who had introduced the Reformation into that city. Like Calvin, Marcourt was born in Picardie, but unlike Calvin, he was a supporter of Zwingli.[32] Farel had summoned Marcourt from Lyon to Neuchâtel to take his place as pastor of a Protestant congregation there. Marcourt had evangelized the city of Neuchâtel and its environs, establishing the Reformation permanently there.

But now we must return to Wayne Johnson’s article in Leben, specifically his documentation of Marguerite of Navarre’s poem “Mirror of the Sinful Soul.”[33]

The Sorbonne (a part of the University of Paris) had condemned Marguerite’s poem, and the enemies of the Reformation could not get to her, sister to King Francis and herself the Queen of Navarre. But they could—and did—get to the man who had printed two separate editions of Margurite’s condemned poem in 1533: Antoine Augereau,[34] a Parisian printer.

Accusing him of having printed the posters under an alias, they had him thrown into the Conciergerie,[35] a prison in Paris where Marie Antoinette would later languish before she was beheaded during the Terror in 1793.[36]

Antoine Augereau was condemned by the Parlement of Paris on 19 December 1534, and was hanged, strangled, and burned at the stake in Place Maubert.[37]

Marcourt would later be stripped of all his pastoral responsibilities by Calvin and Farel.[38]


The Posters Affair of 1534 was the first serious clash between French Catholics and Protestants. It brought about active persecution of French Protestants, including the destruction in April 1545 of a score of villages in the Luberon[39] region by forces under the command of the Baron d’Oppède—with the consent of King Francis. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, were slaughtered, and some 600 were condemned to forced labor in the galleys.[40]

Ultimately the Posters Affair would lead directly to the terrible wars of religion that repeatedly tore France apart between 1562 and 1598.

On his deathbed (1547), King Francis would bitterly regret the Luberon massacres.

But it was too late.



[1] Louis Godefroy, Appendix to Récits Champenois et Briards (2nd ed., Paris, Jolly librarie briarde. 1880) page 127, paragraph E. See also:


[3] René de la Croix, Duke of Castries, “François Ier, Claude de France, Éléonore d’Autriche,” in Rois et Reines de France (Paris: Tallandier, 1979.)

[4] Open link & click on “EXPLORER,” then click on thumbnail photos on RH side & wait for virtual tours. Return to thumbnails by clicking “Explorer”:

[5] Even then, the monarchy continued when Louis-Philippe became the “Citizen King” upon the overthrow of Charles X, but he was given a new title, “King of the French,” rather than the ancient “King of France.” Charles X was the last to bear that title and was the last absolute, divine-right king. Louis-Philippe and Marie-Amélie were driven from the throne in 1848, which brought a final end to the ancient French monarchy. The French Academy does not count any of the Bonapartes as French kings.

[6] Marguerite d’Angoulême d’Alençon, Queen of Navarre & Duchess of Alençon and Berry.

[7] Wayne C. Johnson, “Marguerite of Navarre.” Leben, vol. 3, no. 2, Apr-Jun 2007.





[12] This link takes you to a photo of Queen Marguerite’s home at Nérac, courtesy of Alain Janssoone of, used by permission:

[13] The anointing was even more important than the crowning, as it was that which conferred the divine right to rule. See

[14] Marie Desclaux, “18 october 1534 L’affaire des placards,”


[16] The Parlement de Paris arose out of the medieval Curia Regis (“Royal Court” or “King’s Council”). Detached therefrom mid-13th century. Progressively gained more authority and autonomy. Established by Louis IX (St. Louis) on the Île de la Cité (site of Notre Dame Cathedral). Regularized in 1278 by King Philip III. It was a sovereign court: there was no appeal from its decisions, however, the king of France had certain rights: He could preside over the parlement’s proceedings; modify its judgments and sentences; have a case removed from its jurisdiction and brought before his royal council; or, declare an arrest null and void on grounds of “error.”

[17] Jessica Clark, “Hubert Languet,” in Leben, vol. 3, no. 2, Apr-Jun 2007.



[20] ibid.

[21] ibid.

[22] ibid.


[24] Louis Godefroy, Appendix to Récits Champenois et Briards (2nd ed., Paris, Jolly librarie briarde. 1880) page 127, paragraph E.


[26] By this time, King Francis was—almost incredibly—married to Eleanor of Austria, sister of Emperor Charles V:

[27] Louis Godefroy, Appendix to Récits Champenois et Briards (2nd ed., Paris, Jolly librarie briarde. 1880) page 127, paragraph E.

[28] Théodore de Bèze, Histoire ecclésiastique des églises réformées au royaume de France (Leleux, 1841) p. 13. See also:

[29] “Every dissident was termed a Lutheran, even if he was not necessarily linked to Martin Luther or his teachings.” Jessica Clark, “Hubert Languet,” Leben magazine, vol. 3, no. 2. Apr-Jun 2007.

[30] Théodore de Bèze, Histoire ecclésiastique des églises réformées au royaume de France (Leleux, 1841)



[33] Wayne C. Johnson, “Marguerite of Navarre.” Leben, vol. 3, no. 2, Apr-Jun 2007.


[35]  Bulletin historique et littéraires, vol. 45, page 32:


[37] Literally: “ … pendu [hanged], étranglé [strangled], et brûlé [and burned] … .” I do not know the difference between “hanged” and “strangled” in this sense. How were those sentences carried out? I do not know. Suffice it to say that the burning at the stake part took up whatever slack might have been left over by the execution of the other two sentences.



[40] See also Jean Marteilhe, “Aboard the French Galley,” Leben magazine, April 2010: