Admiral Gaspard de Coligny was one of the leaders of the Protestant forces within France during the civil wars. He recognized that no victory the Huguenots might gain over their Catholic adversaries would ensure the protection of the Protestant Faith within the coming generations. Any concession that the Catholic royalty of the kingdom gave them would only provide a temporary peace. This peace would be tenuous at best and a perfidious deception at worst. If the Huguenots wished to survive, Coligny believed that they would have no choice but to seek a haven beyond the kingdom of France. He therefore began exploring other options and soon turned his eyes to the New World.
Coligny’s Colony In America
Seventy years previously, Christopher Columbus had discovered America. Since that time, Catholic Spain had begun explorations of Florida and the surrounding region. No Protestant country had yet attempted a settlement in the foreign wilds of that distant land. Looking across the billowing Atlantic, Coligny believed the time had come for the Huguenots to lead the way in this monumental endeavor.
In February of 1562, Coligny sent out two ships of colonists under the command of Captain Jean Ribault. Three months later the small expedition arrived off the coast of Florida. After Ribault safely brought his boats to shore, he and his men knelt and offered thanksgiving to the Lord who had so graciously carried them to the New World in safety. The local Indian tribe (the Timucuans) watched this act of worship and then welcomed the refugees and exchanged gifts with them.
The Second Colony In The New World
Despite its auspicious beginnings, the Huguenots’ initial attempt at colonization in 1562 ended disastrously and they quickly abandoned the settlement in Florida. But, by 1564, the French Protestants began preparations for a second colony. Led this time by René Goulaine de Laudonnière, they fitted out a new expedition. Then, approximately 200 settlers boarded ships to bring the Protestant Faith to the New World.
After crossing the Atlantic, the small group dropped anchor off the coast of Florida on June 22, 1564. Next, they chose a suitable location for a settlement and began construction of a fort on a steep bank overlooking what is now the St. Johns River. The Huguenots named the colony Fort de la Caroline or Fort Caroline.
The local Timucuan Indians proved friendly to the French Protestants. Nevertheless, other enemies soon threatened the existence of the little colony. News of the Huguenot settlement spread quickly. In 1565, an expedition from Catholic Spain was sent out with orders to annihilate the Protestants who had dared invade the lands claimed by the Holy Mother Church. Led by Don Pedro Menendez d’Aviles, the Spanish expedition arrived in Florida on August 28. They swiftly commenced the fulfillment of their orders. To the devout Catholic commander, the expedition “became a crusade, and the eager impulse of ambition was stimulated by all the usual arguments in favor of a holy war.”
A Holy War Against The Huguenots
Assured of the justice of his cause, Menendez boldly led his men in the extermination of the detested Protestant heretics. Armed to the teeth, the Spaniards attacked the Huguenot settlement at Fort Caroline and speedily overcame its Protestant defenders. When Menendez achieved victory, he separated the surviving defenders from their wives and children. Historian William Simms notes: “The women and children thus set apart were consigned to slavery. Of their farther fate the historian knows nothing.”
Then, turning to the men, Menendez called upon them to renounce their heresy and return to the bosom of the Catholic Church. If they refused, then they would suffer death. Two men among the Huguenots did as Menendez commanded and were spared. However, the rest remained firm in their Protestant convictions. Furthermore, they courageously replied: “We are in your power. You are master of our mortal bodies, but with the death before us that you threaten, know that we are members of the reformed Church of Christ, . . . that, holding it good to live in this faith, we deem it one in which it will not be amiss to die!”
The Fall Of Fort Caroline
At this reply, Menendez issued orders for his men to hang the surviving Protestants. They accomplished this work quickly. Soon the bodies of the Huguenot heretics hung suspended from the branches of a nearby oak. Beneath the tree, Menendez erected a monument to ensure that future generations would not misinterpret his actions. The memorial stated: “These persons are not treated in this manner because they are Frenchmen, but because they are heretics and enemies of God.”
Thus perished the Protestant colony of Fort Caroline in Catholic Florida. In God’s mysterious providence, this Huguenot settlement in the New World utterly failed. French Protestants were unable to understand the inexplicable workings of an almighty power. They watched in sorrow as the final traces of Fort Caroline disappeared and melted silently into history. Why had God allowed this colony to fail? Why had He bestowed victory on the Catholic settlement of Spanish Florida? What incomprehensible plan was at work in this defeat of French Protestantism?
The Blood Of The Martyrs Is The Seed Of The Church
With the complete destruction of this French missionary endeavor in the New World, God was indeed at work. Even at that very moment, He was preparing a people—many of whom would study alongside French refugees in Geneva—who would extend His Kingdom by carrying the Light of the Gospel to the darkened shores of America. They would do so in a greater way than the Huguenots within France could have ever hoped or imagined. In God’s wisdom, it would be the British who would at last succeed in sending colonists to create a City on a Hill in this New World. It was a City that would overcome both Roman Catholic Spain and France to establish a Protestant bastion of freedom. Moreover, to this City Huguenots beyond number would emigrate to join in the work of the extension of God’s Kingdom on the mighty continent of America.
Truly God moves in mysterious ways, but His plans always work for the good of His Church and the extension of His Kingdom. No matter how dark the day might appear, God’s Kingdom will know no end. His enemies will one day kneel at His feet and proclaim Him Lord. “The God of heaven [shall] set up a kingdom, which shall never be destroyed: and the kingdom shall not be left to other people, but it shall break in pieces and consume all these kingdoms, and it shall stand for ever.” (Dan. 2:44)
St. Bartholomew’s Eve, a story about the French Reformation, is on sale along with our other audio adventures at givetheadventure.com.
You may also consider reading another Live The Adventure Letter article: Renée Of France And An Island Of Freedom In A Land Of Captivity
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