The Women of the Tower of Constance in France
Editor: This article is Chapter 22 of Famous Women of the Reformed Church, by Rev. James I. Good. (orig. published by The Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1901; available electronically from the Reformed Church in the U.S., 2004).
The Huguenot Church has been famous for its martyrs, but among them none are more noble than the women. We have given a brief sketch of one of them in the previous century, Philippine of Luns. There is one place that is especially associated with the female martyrs of the French Reformed Church. It is the tower of Constance at Aigues-Mortes in southern France, not far from the Mediterranean. There, it is true, they did not die, but they suffered worse, theirs was a living death as they were imprisoned for life. The tower consisted of two large circular apartments, one above the other. The lower one received light only from the other, through a round hole about six feet in diameter. The upper is pierced by a similar aperture in the center of a vaulted ceiling, beneath the terrace that covers the tower. By these apertures alone can smoke escape or the fresh air enter, and with the air, cold, rain and wind.
When the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1585 made it unlawful for the Reformed to worship in France, the galleys on the Mediterranean became the prison for the ministers and the men, and this tower for the women. It was well-named the Tower of Constance or of constancy, for they remained firm and constant to their Reformed faith in spite of their sufferings. Their only crime had been that they had attended a Reformed service in the woods or in caves or had sent their children there. And yet for this they were virtually entombed alive. In it they were continually solicited to give up their faith. Priests and laymen, foreigners and Frenchmen urged them to kiss the crucifix so as to become free. But no, they would not. Twenty-five women were confined there, according to the list given by Marie Durand in 1754.
One of them, Marie Berand, was blind, but in spite of her blindness she was seized, by order of the king, torn from her home and conveyed to the tower where she died, aged 80 years. Another, Marie Rey, had been separated from her children because she had taken part in a Reformed service. She was detained a prisoner since 1737. A third, Marie Neviliard, was separated from her children because she had been married by a Reformed minister, which was illegal according to the law.
The following story is told of a fourth. At the end of March, 1735, in the plain of Bruzac, a Protestant service was being held for the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Suddenly the congregation was broken into by soldiers and all who were not able to escape were arrested, among them a young couple, Francis Fiale and his wife, Isabeau Menet. He was condemned to the galleys either at Marseilles or Toulon, where he died in 1743. His wife was cast into the tower of Constance, where she gave birth to a child, which was taken away from her to be reared a Catholic. Her letters tell the sad story of the sufferings of the long captivity, of the sorrow of separation from her child, and of the death of her husband. Though sad, they are full of hope and piety. Nowhere do they breathe any trace of anger against her persecutors.
But the most interesting and best-known of the captives was Marie Durand. She entered the prison a young girl of 15; she left it an old woman, aged 53, white with gray hairs. Her story was that as the French officers had not been able to catch her brother, one of the most zealous of the French Reformed ministers, who secretly held services, they took her aged father in his place, and imprisoned him until he died. And then the French commandant determined to try it on his daughter, only fifteen years of age. She was to be imprisoned for her brother’s activity. As she was superior in education to most of the women in the tower (who belonged to the artisan class), she soon gained the confidence of the sad colony and became their interpreter and correspondent. She corresponded, especially in the later years, when the surveillance was less strict, with Paul Rabaut, the famous French preacher of the Desert, and others. We once heard Rev. Mr. Bersier, of Paris, tell the story that he had a glove-Psalter—that is a hymn-book such as the French ladies could hide in their gloves.
“This glove-Psalter,” he said, “I can never touch without emotion, for it belonged to a girl who was arrested at the age of fifteen for having gone to worship in the mountains, and who was shut up in the famous tower of Constance, where she remained forty years and where one winter’s night she had her foot half-eaten by a rat. There, on those pages, you can clearly see the traces of her tears, chiefly on some of the Psalms, such as the 42nd, where David says he will once more go to the tabernacle of the Lord and sing his praises in the great congregation.”
In 1764 the register of Aigues-Mortes announced to them that the Jesuits had been driven out of France and that religious liberty was granted in France, but that they would be retained in prison until their death, because most of them were aged and infirm, and as it was not possible to return their confiscated property. At this they were plunged in the greatest consternation, so that they all became sick. In their agony they charged Marie Durant to write to Paul Rabaut, who appealed to the various members of the nobility to aid them.
It was the prince of Beauveau who was mainly instrumental in gaining their freedom. While near the tower on business he determined to visit it. He says they were conducted up an obscure and winding stairs to a large round room deprived of air or of the light of day. There they found fourteen women languishing in misery. As he looked at them he could not control his feelings. They fell at his feet, overpowered with weeping so that they could not at first speak, and when speech came, they all together recounted their common sufferings. He was interested by the story of Gabrielle Guinges, who had given two sons to die in the French wars, yet was permitted to languish in prison. He was touched by the miserable appearance of Jeanne Auguiere and Isabeau Maumejan, who were eighty years of age, and of Isabeau Anne Gaussaint, of Sommieres, who was ninety years and who had been imprisoned for 36 years.
Overcome by a noble instinct of compassion, he himself broke the chains of their sufferings and gave them their liberty. For this he was threatened with the loss of his office. He replied in fiery words, “The king is my master to deprive me of my place, but not to prohibit me from fulfilling my duties to my conscience and my honor.” The prisoners quitted their sad abode. But where could they go? Their property had been confiscated. Their friends were dead. Marie Durand was able to return to her former home, now in ruins. The consistory of Amsterdam hearing of her sufferings and poverty gave her a life-pension of 200 livres. But the flower of their life was gone, given for their faith. Yet “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” Not far from the tower there is now a modest Reformed chapel, where every Sunday the Reformed meet to the number of 150. This church (or temple, as they call Protestant churches in France), was dedicated February 22, 1863.
Let this tower of Constance be an inspiration to the women of our Church today, that they may be constant in their faith. There is no persecution now and yet there is what is worse, a worldliness that silently saps all piety. Oh, if the women of the tower of Constance could remain true to their faith in spite of such persecutions for so many years, what an inspiration it ought to be to the ladies of our Church today to be true to their Reformed churches. May the faithfulness of these martyrs prove an inspiration to nobleness and firmness of character in all who read this book.