In the 14th century, Pope Pius IV determined to exterminate the Waldenses from France. The Waldenses had built and formed themselves into two corporate towns, and had pleased the local nobles with their honesty and quiet industry. After some time, they sent to Geneva for two ministers, one for each town. Hearing of this, Pope Pius IV saw an opportunity to fulfill his plan. He sent a cardinal and two monks first to the town of St. Xist, and told the people that nothing would happen to them if they would accept the preachers appointed by the Pope. If they refused, they would be deprived of their property and lives. They were to attend mass that very afternoon to show their willingness to comply.
Instead of obeying, the inhabitants of St. Xist fled into the woods. Disappointed, the cardinal and the monks then proceeded to the other town, La Garde. There, having learned from the dilemma at St. Xist, they ordered the gates to be locked and all avenues guarded. The same proposal was made to the people of La Garde, with the added lie that the inhabitants of St. Xist had immediately agreed to the same proposal. The people agreed to follow the example of their brethren at St. Xist.
Having won La Garde, the cardinal immediately sent troops to massacre the people of St. Xist, hunting them down in the woods and sparing none. Many were killed before the Waldenses began to fight back. Finally, the troops were compelled to retreat, whereupon the viceroy of the region declared all outlaws and deserters pardoned if they could catch and kill the inhabitants of St. Xist. Several outlaws appeared and finished exterminating the people of St. Xist.
Then, the cardinal began making more demands of the people of La Garde. Fullest protection was offered them if they would embrace the Roman Catholic religion. The Waldenses, however, unanimously refused to renounce their religion or embrace the errors of the Pope. Thirty of them were immediately tortured publicly to terrify the rest. Those who survived and watched the torture still remained constant in their faith, declaring that nothing could make them renounce God, or bow down to idols. They were hunted down and killed, until there was not a single Waldense left in France.
As a result of this persecution, many Waldenses fled to the valley of Piedmont in Italy, where they enjoyed a brief period of peace. However, the peace was short-lived and they again experienced persecution. Many were killed for truth. The Waldenses decided that their clergy would begin preaching in public (until then they had only preached privately) so that everyone might know the purity of their doctrines. Until then they had possessed only the New Testament and a few books of the Old in their own language, and so they employed a Swiss printer to furnish them with a complete edition of the Bible.
News of this move enraged the duke, and he sent troops against the Waldenses to kill them. But the troops returned, saying that the Waldenses were too numerous for the small army. Also, the Waldenses were well acquainted with the country, had secured all the passes, were well armed, and were determined to defend themselves. The troops were recalled and the duke decided to place a bounty on each Waldense head. Several were tortured to death.
A delegation was sent to the Waldenses asking that they would return to the Church of Rome. If they did so, they could continue to enjoy their houses and lands, and live without being harassed. To prove their obedience, they would have to send 12 people of their leaders to be dealt with at discretion. Rejection of this proposal would result in persecution and death.
The Waldenses replied that nothing would make them renounce their religion and that they would never consent to entrust their most valued friends to their worst enemies. This so exasperated the parliament of Turin, that they begged for troops to be sent by France to help them exterminate the Waldenses. Just as these troops were ready to depart, however, the Protestant princes of Germany sent word that if France took action, Germany would assist the Waldenses and war would break out. To avoid a war, the plan was halted, and peace reigned for a time.
After a few years, a representative of the Pope travelled to Turin and mentioned that he was astonished that the Waldenses had not yet been uprooted from the valley of Piedmont or compelled to return to the Catholic Church. He implied that duke’s neglect of this matter aroused suspicion that the duke himself was a traitor of Rome. Wishing to prove his zeal, the duke ordered the Waldenses to attend mass regularly on pain of death. Upon the refusal of the Waldenses, the duke sent out troops to begin extermination. Hundreds were killed. Those who fled had their houses plundered and burned. Ministers and schoolmasters were cruelly tortured. If any wavered in their faith, they sent them to the galleys to be converted by hardships. Not being as successful as he wanted, the duke increased the numbers of troops and added outlaws to assist in the extermination.
The Waldenses took as many belongings as they could, left the valley, and hid in the Alps. The troops plundered and burned the villages, but they could not force the passes to the Alps, gallantly defended by the Waldenses. Eventually, the duke stopped the bloodshed. But by then, almost all had been destroyed.
Adapted from John Foxe, The Book of Martyrs (London: Pickering & Inglis, no date): 71-78.