The Times of Gedeon Merlet by Robin Marlatt Farr
The "Huguenot period" in France, which preceded the life of Gedeon Merlet and continued long after he had led the country was a bloody, turbulent and cruel episode in terms of religious intolerance and civil warfare even judged by the unrest that characterized the 17th. Century in Europe.
The most famous early Huguenot exile was, of course, John Calvin who fled to Basel and established his Church there in 1534. By 1545 massacres of Huguenot reformists had spread widely in France almost certainly because the Reform movement had increased so rapidly in terms of adherents.
Louis I de Bourbon, Prince of Conde, became the Protestant standard bearer and took up arms in 1562. A Protestant army fought over a wide territory over the next several years until it was defeated at Jarnac and Conde killed. However, Conde's sister-in-law was the Queen of Navarre and she presented her son to the Reformers to lead the Protestant army. He became Henry IV who, in 1798, proclaimed the Edict of Nantes. Neither Henry's succession to the throne of France nor the Edict of Nantes really abated the religious persecution of the Huguenots. Henry's life was in many ways typical of the monarchs of his time. He led a turbulent life, often switching allegiance to suit his ambitions, strong on the battlefield, fathering many illegitimate dukes and duchesses, yet sympathetic to the needs of his subjects. He became one of France's most popular kings.
Despite his Protestant upbringing, he abjured his Protestantism to marry the sister of Charles IX, probably recognizing that this was a more strategic way to reach the throne of France than continual warfare. His marriage, however, was marred by the massacres of Huguenots (known as the Massacres of Saint Bartholemew). Henry thereupon escaped from the French Court, quickly recanted his Catholicism, and took up arms again to lead the Protestant rebel forces. The reigning French monarch was assassinated, probably arranged by Henry who suffered the same fate later (a not uncommon occurrence in this bloody period). Henry, King of Navarre, was now recognized as successor to the throne of France. The surest way to Paris, however, was to convert again to Catholicism, which he did. The famous remark "Paris is well worth a mass" is attributed to Henry at this time.
Henry as King finished the Tuileries and built the great gallery of the Louvre, restored order to a country which had been devastated by religious conflict, and proclaimed the Edict of Nantes in 1598. Twelve years later he was himself assassinated in Paris. The Edict awarded right of assembly, property rights etc to French Protestants. Although a bold stroke on Henry's part, it did not end the harrassment of French Protestants. The Catholic Clergy began what has been called a "judicial war" which intensified between 1643 to 1663 (the period in which Gedeon Merlet and his family fled from France and ultimately arrived in New Amsterdam). A multitude of proclamations and decrees followed the Edict which attacked Huguenot family life, property rights and civil freedoms. "Commissioners" for the Edict were established controlled by the Clergy and ruling on all Huguenot activities in the various regions of the country. The Catholic Clergy were dedicated to the revocation of the Edict which they achieved in 1685. One of the more obnoxious forms of harrassment was a system called "dragonnades" by which dragoons of the French army were quartered in Huguenot homes with instructions to maltreat their hosts.
Even before the revocation of the Treaty of Nantes, civil war had broken out between Louis XIII and the Huguenot forces. The revocation of the Edict of Nantes has been termed "one of the most flagrant political and religious blunders in the history of France." It is estimated that more than 400,000 Protestants migrated to Holland, Prussia, England and America. There is evidence to suggest that this large migration included
many skilled artisans and trades people. (Gedeon who was a carpenter could be considered among these numbers.) By 1715 Louis XIV proclaimed that he had " put an end to the exercise of the Protestant religion."
It was not until 1789 that the National Assembly, following the Revolution, restored some of the civil rights of the Huguenots and recognized the validity of Protestant marriages. The process of recognition continued
under Napoleon but was sharply reversed after the fall of Napoleon when a period known as "white terror" exposed Protestants to outrages, particularly in the south of France at Nimes and caused the Huguenots to
flee again. (Nimes was the principal centre of the Reformation in France.)
Gedeon Merlet arrived at New Amsterdam (Staten Island) on October 12, 1662, during the period when some of the worst excesses of the "judicial war" against Huguenots were occuring in France. However. the Merlets had arrived to a new kind of turbulence and bloodshed in the New World. Staten Island was inhabited by the Raritan indians who laid waste completely to the first white settlements by 1655, just seven years before Gedeon's arrival. The first permanent settlement was made in 1661, one year before his arrival. Staten Island was a major Huguenot destination because the Dutch West Indies Company had purchased the Island and granted land to French Huguenots at the settlement of Oude Dorp (old town) south of the Narrows. However, two years after Gedeon's arrival the British, under the Duke of York, captured Staten Island and brought English and Welsh farmers to establish homes and farms. The Merlets had arrived in the New World only to encounter yet more turbulence and change.