Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Battle Hymns of the Huguenots

The Huguenots often found inspiration and solace in the psalms during the French Wars of Religion. Psalms 68 was called the 'Battle Hymn' of the Huguenots, and Psalm 118 has a special place as well in the annals of military history on this date: October 20 (1587). Rowland Prothero and Emile Doumergue tell the tale as follows.

Emilé Doumergue, "Music in the Work of Calvin," The Princeton Theological Review, Vol. VIII, No. 4 (October 1909), pp. 542-543:

Here is that famous verse, for example, of Psalm 118:

This is the happy day
That God Himself did make;
Let us rejoice alway
And in it pleasure take.

Now, in describing the battle of Coutras (1587), won by Henry of Navarre, the son of Jeanne d'Albret, from the Duke de Joyeuse and the Catholic army, D'Aubigne expresses himself thus:

"Of the two artilleries, the last to come, that of Huguenots, was the first in position, and commenced to play before nine o'clock. Laverdin, seeing the damage which it did, rode towards his general and cried out, while still some distance off: 'Sir, we are losing by waiting: we must open up.' The response was: 'Monsieur the Marshal speaks the truth.' He returned at a gallop to his place, gave the word and charged.

"On the other side, the King of Navarre having had prayer offered throughout the army, some began to sing the Hundred-and-eighteenth Psalm: 'This is the happy day.' Many Catholics of the White-Cap cried out loudly enough to be heard: 'S'Death! They are trembling, the poltroons; they are making confession.' Vaux, lieutenant of Bellegarde, who had more frequently rubbed knees with these people and who alone rallied for the combat, said to the Duke: 'Sir, when the Huguenots take this figure, they are ready to lay on with a will.' " And some hours later the victory was theirs.

But this same song, "This is the happy day", has sustained the Calvinists in other combats, more dangerous, more difficult. It is heroic to cast ourselves at a gallop without fear into the midst of the battle. It is more heroic, laid on a bed of agony, to receive, calm and smiling, the assault of the last enemy which man has to conquer on this earth. Such a hero, the author whose narrative we have just read showed himself. His widow relates: "Two hours before his death, he said with a joyful countenance and a mind peaceable and content, 'This is the happy day'." There is something more heroic still. Listen! Far from the excitement of the combat, unsustained by the affections and care of friends, face to face with the mob howling with rage and hate, on the scaffold, at the foot of the gallows, here are the martyrs of the eighteenth century,—the Louis Rancs, the Francois Benezets, the Francois Rochettes,'— who, with their glorious souls, raise towards the heavens where their Saviour listens to them, the song of triumph: "This is the happy day!"


Rowland Prothero, The Psalms in Human Life, pp. 199-200:

In the years that followed, the interest of the Wars of Religion centres round Henry of Navarre. With two at least of his victories, the Psalms are strikingly associated. At the battle of Courtras, October 20th, 1587, before the fight began, the Huguenots knelt in prayer, and chanted Ps. cxviii., verses 24, 25:

"La voici l'heureuse iournee
Que Dieu a faite a plein desir,
Par nous soit ioye demenee
Et prenons en elle plaisir.
O Dieu eternel, ie te prie,
le te prie, ton Roy maintien:
O Dieu, ie te prie et reprie,
Sauue ton Roy et I'entretien."

"'Sdeath," cried a young courtier to the Duc de Joyeuse, who commanded the Roman Catholics, "the cowards are afraid; they are confessing themselves." "Sire," said a scarred veteran," when the Huguenots behave thus, they are ready to fight to the death." The battle ended in the triumph of Henry. The Duc de Joyeuse was killed, and his army utterly routed. More than forty years afterwards (1630), d'Aubigne' lay on his deathbed. Perhaps the memory of the victory returned at his last moments to the dying man." Two hours before his death," so wrote his widow," with a glad countenance, and with a peaceful contented mind," he repeated the Psalm, "La voici l'heureuse iournee," etc., and so passed to his rest.

In 1589 Henry gained another victory under the walls of the Chateau d'Arques, the picturesque ruins of which are still standing in the neighbourhood of Dieppe. There the king and his Huguenot followers were threatened with destruction by the Duc de Mayenne and the army of the League. His forces were but few compared with the number of those arrayed against them; his reinforcements had failed him; the courage of his men was crushed by the weight of superior numbers." Come, M. le Ministre," cried the king to Pastor Damour, "lift the psalm. It is full time." Then, above the din of the marching armies, rose the austere melody of the 68th Psalm, set to the words of Beza, and swinging with the march of the Huguenot companies. Pressing onwards, the men of Dieppe forced themselves like an iron wedge through the lines of the League, and split them asunder. The sea fog cleared away; Henry's artillerymen in the castle could see to take aim; the roll of cannon marked the time of the psalm; and the Leaguers were scattered.

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