February 19th, 2013 Headsman
In September 1761, a man named Francois Rochette was detained in Toulouse, France, having been arrested traversing the nearby countryside on suspicion of being one of that area’s robbers.
Rochette was not a robber.
He was much, much worse: a Huguenot minister.
Interrogation soon made the situation clear. Technically, his heretical calling could subject Rochette to the death penalty, but the authorities weren’t going to be unreasonable about this — and “as Rochette was not surprised in the exercise of his function, he might easily have escaped by concealing his profession. Those, who interrogated him went even so far as to point out to him this means of acquittal.”
Every legal regime needs a bit of discretion, a bit of look-the-other-wayism, lest the letter of the law excite a judicial slaughter that public sentiment could never support.
Francois Rochette wasn’t interested in signing himself off a clerk or a cloth-merchant and being on his cagey way. He would not elide his calling: would not abet an other-way look.
Rochette’s obstinately overt Protestantism and the prospect of juridical proceedings against him put the whole city on edge. Catholics and Huguenots armed themselves, bracing for a horrid St. Bartholomew’s Day replay. Three brothers named Grenier hastened to Toulouse to aid their fellow-Huguenots, and were arrested; miraculously, the feared citywide bloodbath never quite materialized.
But now Francois Rochette and his Grenier backers would stand trial, in an environment where authorities were disposed to view their offense as one not merely of wrongthink but of stirring up a civic disturbance and endangering the city itself. They were accordingly condemned to death by a now-stringent court for their literally dangerous heresy on February 18, 1762.
That night, the Huguenots’ last on earth, inevitably featured a visitation of Catholic priests come to save their souls.
“It is for your salvation,” said they, “that we are here.” The answer of one of the prisoners was, “If you were at Geneva, ready to die in your bed (for no one is slain there on account of his religion), would you be pleased if four ministers came, under the pretence of zeal, to persecute you until your last breath? Do not, then unto others that which you would not wish to be done unto yourselves.”
This is from the public-domain History of the Protestants of France, to whom we turn the fatal narration.
On the 19th of February, at two o’clock in the afternoon, the mournful procession started on its way. Rochette was, according to the terms of the sentence, bare-headed, bare-footed, with a halter hung about his neck, from which, before and behind, labels were suspended, with these words, Minister of the pretended Reformed religion.
When the array passed before the church of Saint Etienne, an attempt was made to force him, in pursuance of the terms of the Parliament’s condemnation, to kneel with a torch of yellow wax in his hand, and to ask pardon of God, the king, and justice, for all his crimes and misdeeds.
Rochette stepped down from the tumbril, and instead of abjuring or making a confession which his heart denied, he pronounced on his knees the following words: “I beseech God to pardon me for all my sins, and I firmly believe that they have been washed away by the blood of Jesus Christ, who has redeemed us so dearly. I have no pardon to ask of the king, whom I have ever honoured as the Lord’s annointed, and loved as the father of my native land; I have ever been a good and faithful subject, and of this I believe my judges to be convinced. I have always preached to my flock patience, obedience, and submission; and my sermons, which you possess, are summed up in these words: ‘Fear God, honour the king.’ If I have contravened the law touching religious assemblies, it was by God’s commandments I contravened them; God must be obeyed before men. As for justice and the law, I am guilty of no offence against them, and I pray God may pardon my judges.”
Every door, balcony, window, roof, and approach near to the place of execution, was covered with spectators. “Toulouse,” says Count de Gebelin, an eye-witness, who related these circumstances, “Toulouse, that city drunk with the blood of martyrs, seemed a Protestant town. People asked what was the creed of these heretics; and when they heard our martyrs speak of Jesus Christ and of his death, every one was surprised and afflicted. They were infinitely touched, also, with the lofty, yet mild bearing of the three brothers, which compelled their admiration almost as much as the inexpressible serenity of the minister, whose graceful and spiritual physiognomy, whose words full of firmness and courage, and whose youth, filled every beholder with interest, knowing, as all did, that he only died because he disdained to save his life by a lie.”
Rochette was executed first. He exhorted his companions until the end, and sang the canticle of the Protestant martyrs: This is the blessed day. “Die a Catholic,” said the executioner, moved with pity. “Judge which is the better religion,” replied Rochette, “that which persecutes, or that which is persecuted.”
The youngest of the thre brothers (he was only twenty-two years of age), hid his face in his hands to shut out this tragic scene. The two others contemplated it with calmness. As they were gentlemen, their sentence was, to be beheaded. Tyembraced each other, recommending their souls to God. The eldest offered his head to the axe first. When it came to the turn of the last, the executioner said: “You have seen your brothers die; change, lest you perish like them.” “Do thy duty,” said the martyr, and his head rolled upon the scaffold.
Count de Gebelin adds, as he concludes his recital: “Everyone present returned home in silence, in a state of consternation, and unable to persuade themselves that there could be such courage and such cruelty in the world; and I, who describe it, cannot refrain from tears of joy and sadness, as I contemplate their blessed lot, and that our church should be still capable of affording examples of piety and firmness that will compare with the most illustrious monuments of the primitive church.”
It was only days later — March 10, 1762 — that Toulouse followed up this example of piety and firmness by breaking Jean Calas on the wheel in another prosecution of a Huguenot driven by sectarian sentiment (albeit not directly for heresy, in the Calas case).
Backlash against the Calas case, led by Voltaire, helped put to the fore the long-percolating Enlightenment values of tolerance. Official persecution of Protestants slackened greatly in the years to come and never again rose to a death penalty situation; the whole policy was officially revoked in 1787.
Also on this date
- 1861: The Bascom Affair hangings, Apache War triggers
- 1878: J.W. Rover, sulfurous
- 1836: Giuseppe Fieschi, Pierre Morey, and Theodore Pepin, infernal machinists
- 1790: Thomas de Mahy, Marquis de Favras
- 1388: Robert Tresilian, former Chief Justice
- Daily Double: The Merciless Parliament
- 1858: Chief Leschi
- 1942: Frank Abbandando and Harry Maione, mob hitmen