Have you ever visited a historical site that stirred your heart and left an indelible effect on your life? Several places have done that for me, but I confess a particular sympathy toward the Waldensian Valleys of the Cottian Alps in the Savoy region between France and Italy. Today, I continue the series I began on April 4th, 2023 about the Palace of Versailles and King Louis XIV.
Last time, we discussed how Louis’s expansion of the Palace of Versailles from a modest hunting lodge into an extravagant residence symbolized his desire to extend France’s reign over Europe.
In this blog, we’ll examine how Louis used his religious policies to advance his belief in the monarchy’s absolute divine power and authority by reaching into the realm of religious freedoms across Europe.
Louis XIV came to the throne at four years of age in 1643, when his father, Louis XIII, died. His mother, Anne of Austria, annulled her husband’s will, appointing a regency council to rule on Louis’s behalf in favor of making her sole regent.
Anne and her chief minister, Cardinal Jules Mazarin solidified the absolute power of the monarchy, angering the nobles and aristocracy, who revolted in a civil war called the Fronde. But by 1653, Mazarin suppressed the rebels and, at the end of the decade, negotiated a peace treaty with Spain, making France a leading European power.
Influenced by his mother, who instilled in Louis the fear of “crimes committed against God,” and Cardinal Mazarin, who had centralized power on the throne, Louis XIV declared himself God’s representative on earth when he began to rule in 1661 after Mazarin’s death. He viewed himself as infallible and all disobedience or rebellion against the throne sinful.
Louis’s self-exultation translated into various indulgences, extravagances, and manipulations but gave France the economic means to become self-sufficient. He also saw himself as the defender of the Catholic faith and all Protestants as disobedient enemies of the throne. Thus began a grand sweep of persecution across French-controlled Europe.
First, Louis revoked the Edict of Nantes, granting freedom of worship and other rights to French Protestants established by his grandfather Henry IV in 1598. Then he replaced it with the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685, which declared the persecution of all Protestants—especially the Janesnists of Port-Royal, the Huguenots, and the Waldensians of the Cottian Alps. He destroyed all Protestant churches, closed their schools, and mandated conversion to Catholicism on the threat of death. Thousands died as their children were taken away and given to Catholic parents to raise. Thousands more fled to neighboring countries in exile from their homes.
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs dedicates one page to the Waldensians. Yet, they greatly impacted Christian Europe during the second millennium A.D. and helped set the stage for the Reformation in the sixteenth century. Their story of enduring faith and valor high in the Cottian Alps between France and Italy during Louis XIV’s reign captivated my attention over a decade ago and set me on a journey that led me to the Waldensian Valleys west of Turin, Italy to talk to local scholars and visit the many museums and sites dedicated to their story.
Some say this courageous group banded together in 1170 A.D., when merchant Peter Waldo took a vow of poverty and appealed to the pope to consider their grievances. Others have suggested that these great men and women of faith came down from the first-century church and carried on the traditions of their ancestors throughout the first two millennia A.D.
After several days combing the Waldensian Valleys, I became convinced their story bore telling. Whether the Waldensian narrative began in 1170 A.D., as is the official church position, or their ancestry is as ancient as the first-century church, it is a real-world drama that breathes life into a steadfast faith that stays the course no matter the cost. The Cave of Faith provides an example of enduring faith where tradition says as many as 300 gathered in secret to worship. When Louis’s dragoons discovered them, they were smoked out and died of smoke inhalation.
The tide turned against Louis XIV’s stranglehold on Europe in 1689, when William of Orange began his Glorious Revolution, engaging Protestants to fight for their freedoms and return from exile to their homes. Waldensians know this as their Glorious Return, when they marched from Switzerland to their home valleys in the Cottian Alps.
The Waldensian story so inspired me that it took on a life of its own in a contemporary romantic suspense series. I wanted to create compelling circumstances for my protagonists in the present that mimicked a need to run the course and finish the race as their ancestors had done through their enduring faith and courage in the past.
A remnant of Waldensians still exists in their home valleys in Italy, and they are always excited to talk to people about their history. They welcome visitors to step into the past and discover their historical roots. You can learn more about them at the Waldensian Cultural Center Foundation or Chiesa Valdese.
But one doesn’t have to fly to Italy if they live in North America. A community of Waldensians lives in Valdese, North Carolina. Each summer, a theater troupe rehearses their history in an outdoor amphitheater dramatic, From This Day Forward. The visitor can also walk the Trail of Faith, a pathway constructed with to-scale outdoor replicas of the historical sites in Italy. There are also other Waldesnian-related museums in the area. Visit their tourist office to get more information.
(Blog first appeared in the Heroes, Heroines and History Blog, 6/4/23)