Innocent, Godly Marie Durand Kept Faith in Prison
PROTESTANT CONVERTS in France were known as Huguenots. They fought desperate wars for survival when Roman Catholics tried to stamp them out of existence. In 1598 King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes, giving Protestants considerable rights. However, over the years, France’s Catholic majority chipped away at these provisions until 1685, when Louis XIV revoked the edict altogether. Huguenots who could not flee the country worshiped secretly and suffered penalties when caught.
Unable to lay hands on a minister named Pierre Durand in 1728, the king’s soldiers arrested his father Etienne. Etienne’s wife, Claudine, had already died in captivity. To arrange some protection for his thirteen-year old daughter Marie, Etienne married her to Matthew Seres. However, Seres was imprisoned alongside his father-in-law. The Catholics held Marie hostage unless her brother Pierre would give himself up. Marie urged him not to do so. As a consequence, when she was just fifteen, she was taken to the tower of Constance.
This tower, which stood in a swamp near the River Rhone in Aigues Mortes, France, served as both a women’s prison and a lighthouse. The prisoners were kept in an upper room. Narrow windows allowed only a little light and air. A hole in the floor opened to a guardroom below. Smoke belched upward through the opening, and the women tossed their waste down. The dungeon was bitterly cold in winter and suffocating in summer. Marie, however, was a ray of sunshine in this gloom. She comforted the prisoners, taught them Huguenot songs, nursed the sick, and wrote letters for those who could not write.
In 1732, Pierre was captured and hanged. However, because Marie refused to recant her faith, she was not freed. For thirty-eight long years she endured the privations of the tower. Her appeals to churches and government officials sufficed to get the prisoners a copy of the Psalms, which she read aloud each evening. She also obtained permission for the women to get a breath of fresh air on the rooftop.
In 1767, Prince de Beauveau, the newly appointed governor of the region, inspected the prison. His aide wrote “We saw a great circular apartment, destitute of air and of daylight, and in that great room forty women languishing in misery, infection, and tears. The governor could scarcely contain his emotion, and for the first time, without doubt, those unfortunate women perceived compassion on a human face. I see them still, at our sudden entrance, like an apparition, all falling at his feet, deluging them with their tears, striving to find words, but able only to express themselves in sobs...The youngest of those martyrs was more than fifty years old. She was only eight years old when she was arrested, because she had gone to a preaching service with her mother, and the punishment was lasting still.”
Voice trembling, the governor told the women, “You are free!” and arranged for their care, ignoring the objections of the bigoted and debauched King Louis XV, who was determined to stamp Protestantism out of France. On the day after Christmas, 26 December 1767, thirty-six wretched women stumbled from the tower. Marie’s face was gaunt and drawn from suffering. She returned to her childhood home, but everyone dear to her was long dead. A church in Amsterdam supported her until her death in 1776.
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For more on the experience of the Huguenots, read Christian History #71, Huguenots and the Wars of Religion