Protestantism in the Béarn region

Protestantism was implanted in the independent Principality of Navarre thanks to Jeanne d’Albret, its sovereign. It was joined to France by Louis XIII and the Protestant state disappeared. In spite of persecutions and rural exodus, protestantism lived on especially in Orthez and other urban areas.

Marguerite d’Angoulême and the beginnings of the Reformation

  • Timbre représentant Marguerite d'Angoulême
    Postage stamp depicting Marguerite d'Angoulême © Collection privée

Historiography stresses the princely origins of the Reformation in the Béarn, Navarre, Bigorre, Albret and other territories which were all linked to the Crown of Navarre. Marguerite d’Angoulême, the sister of King Francis I and the wife of Henri II d’Albret, king of Navarre, who promoted evangelical ideas, played an undeniable role. She supported Gérard Roussel, her chaplain and former member of the Meaux Group, who was promoted to the bishopric of Oloron from 1536 to 1555. He tried to set up a pastoral and theological reformation in his diocese expecting a conciliatory solution to help the distressed Catholicism. He created a mass in seven steps but was questioned by the Paris School of Theology, as was his protector. However he never left the Catholic Church in spite of Calvin’s injunctions. Henri II d’Albret, who died in 1555, never responded to religious novelties, but his son-in-law Antoine de Bourbon and Jeanne his daughter, more sustainably so, were involved in promoting a reformation and helped it develop at the pace of the wars raging within France. King Henri IV, born in 1553, would witness and take part in the religious evolution of his mother. It should be noted that the religious legislation was supported by a group of people convinced of new ideas that permeated Béarn like other regions, thanks to commercial, intellectual and family exchanges.

Jeanne d'Albret’s reign and the implantation of the Reformation

  • Jeanne d'Albret (1528-1572) © S.H.P.F.
  • The castle in Nerac (47)
  • Pierre Viret (1511-1571)

At Christmas in 1560, Jeanne d’Albret symbolically took part in the Last Supper, and her 1561 ordinance allowed Reformed worship in her States under a simultaneum regime. Upon her husband’s death in 1562 she reigned alone. The methods of Jean Reymond-Merlin, sent by Calvin to help her reform her States, were too harsh for her as religious peace was reinstated in France after the first war of religion, but she turned to the moderate trend inspired by Jean-Baptiste Morely and established an ordinance on the freedom of belief. After 1566 she reconnected with Geneva and welcomed an emblematic character of the Reformaton, Pierre Viret, the famous Lausanne Reformer, and thus set up a Church in Béarn after the Geneva model.

The invasion of Béarn by Catholic troops

  • The three Coligny brothers © S.H.P.F.
  • Territoires des Albrets au XVIe siècle
    The possessions of the Albrets in the 16th century © Musée Jeanne d'Albret

When Jeanne d’Albret held her court in la Rochelle with Coligny and Condé, during the third war of religion, she probably dreamt of a large Reformed principality in the Aquitaine region, but Béarn was invaded in May 1569 on Charles IX’s order by the Viscount of Terride supported by Catholic noblemen from Béarn and Navarre, who were against their sovereign’s religious policy. Pierre Viret was imprisoned in Pau, and seven pastors were executed. A ‘relief’ force, requested by the Viscount of Montgomery, drove the occupants out and released the stronghold of Navarrenx, who alone had resisted.

The Church ordinances of 1571

The only war of religion in Béarn gave Jeanne d’Albret the opportunity to achieve her work of Reformation: Catholic worship was forbidden. Priests were banned and Church property was confiscated to fund the new worship. Through her Church ordinances of November 1571, Jeanne d’Albret turned Béarn into a Protestant principality ruled by the declaration of faith of La Rochelle. The institutional outcome was undoubtedly the result of the deliberations of the Court of Navarre in La Rochelle, foreshadowing the French ambitions of the Protestant party before the Saint Bartholomew massacre but the formation of the Ligue put an end to their hopes. An assembly system enabled to rule a Church without bishops, and the limits were bound by the sovereign. Confiscated Ecclesiastical property were managed by the State and used to pay pastors’ salaries, to maintain buildings and to operate the academy.

The Reformation in Béarn

  • Psaumes de David (1593) - Arnaud de Salette
    Psaumes de David (1583) - Arnaud de Salette

Though the Reformation was of French-speaking inspiration, the local language was used to spread the new faith ; in 1853, in Orthez, pastor Arnaud de Salette published a translation of the Psalms and of the ecclesiastical prayers of Geneva into Béarn language. An innovative school in the Orthez-Lescar academy was created in 1567, and was turned into a university in 1853. It was headed by important people such as Nicolas des Gallars or Lambert Daneau and aimed at training local administrative and religious elites.

Under the reign of Henri de Navarre and of his sister Catherine de Bourbon

  • © Edigraphie
  • Henri de Navarre et Marguerite de Valois © Collection privée

Pierre Viret died early in the year 1571, and Jeanne the following year. Despite the recantation of young Henri after the Saint Bartholomew massacre, Béarn remained a Protestant Principality under the regency of his sister – Catherine de Bourbon. Her finances enabled to support the wars of Henri, who had become a Protestant again in 1576. Catholicism was only temporarily reinstated in 1599 by the Edict of Fontainebleau, a counterpart of the Edict of Nantes.

Béarn joined to France and Catholicism reinstated

  • Duc Henri de Rohan (1579-1638)

In 1620, Louis XIII’s military expedition commanded that Béarn be joined to France, so that Catholicism could be fully reinstated with its worship and property. In the years that followed, Béarn, whose Protestants were mainly legalists, did not take part in the so-called wars of M. de Rohan, though they were partly caused by these events. Giving back the Churches, used for Protestant worship, resulted in an unrivaled wave of temple building, probably on an absidial architectural design, as testified in a drawing of Pau’s temple or in Arthez-de-Béarn’s vestiges, fatally damaged in 1998.

Under Louis XIV’s reign

  • Dragoons' exactions in a village, oil on canvas
  • Les temples du Béarn dans le seconde moitié du XVIIe siècle
    © Emeline Ferron pour Fondation Bersier

There has been talk of the Protestant experiment in Béarn being a failure. But this term should be put into perspective because, though a half-century of State support was too short for the new faith to be durably implanted in a major part of the Principality, it was still maintained mainly in the Orthez and Salies-de-Béarn district. The end of the independence also impacted the religion of the elites, who partly went along with the sovereign’s religion. Lastly, the region  particularly suffered institutional persecutions earlier than in France and in an exemplary way under Louis XIV’s reign when his main instrument was the Navarre Parliament: the Edict of 1668 reduced the worship places to twenty. The number was brought down to five in 1685 ; Intendant Foucault’s dragoons, sadly renowned for their persecutions in the Poitou region, forced Churches in Béarn to collective conversion.

The period of persecutions

  • Claude Brousson (1647-1698) © S.H.P.F.
  • Bâville, oil on canvas © Musée Fabre, Montpellier
  • Signature, autograph of the administrator Bâville © J350 - Arch Dep Loz

The significant number of departures to England or Holland showed a spirit of resistance. The beginning of the Desert was a difficult period in Béarn, and the first meetings were cruelly smitten, Claude Brousson, for instance, was arrested after a visit to Pau as he was ready to leave Oloron in 1698. He was transferred to Montpellier and beaten up on the order of Lamoignon de Bâville, Intendant of Languedoc, who had relentlessly pursued him. The Protestants in Béarn laid low and did not follow the Camisard rebellion, but anchored their resistance in family worship, supported by the strong structure of the Pyrenean Ostau. This piety, encouraged by Jean Destremau, a former pastor of Bellocq, from Holland was maintained by writings that circulate under the bushel, (copies of sermons, prayers, theological treatises or controversy) and renewed by books sent in bundles of goods by refugee families in England.

Reconstitution of the Reformed Church

  • Paul Rabaut © S.H.P.F.
  • Commemorative plaque in memory of Paul Rabaut Nîmes
  • Court de Gébelin (1725-1784) © S.H.P.F.

The presence of a preacher, probably of a Moravian tendency, was noted late in 1740 and prompted Paul Rabaul, who rebuilt Reformed Churches in France, to send a pastor to restore Churches in the Béarn region following the pattern defined by Antoine Court at the beginning of the century. In 1755, Etienne Defferre, a native of Gallargues near Nîmes, arrived in Béarn and spectacularly performed his task over less than two years: assemblies were held in broad daylight, christenings and weddings were celebrated, consistories were created. In 1757 he was joined by Paul Journet, a native of the Cévennes region, then by Paul Marsoô, the only pastor in Béarn at the time. The community in Orthez was supported by the influential middle-class open to the Enlightenment, whose influence managed to shelter it from the pressing undertakings of the parliament of Navarre. The community regularly wrote to the Court of Gébelin to win civil recognition for the Protestants whose christenings and weddings were not acknowledged.

The period however was not without problem. The Protestant Revival incurred the wrath of the local clergy who prompted the civil authorities to great waves of repression in 1758, 1760-1762, 1766-1767. On the basis of an agreement with the Intendant in 1767, the Protestants in Béarn switched from public assemblies to meetings in barns. They were quickly turned into Houses of Prayer which caused the last Dragonnade in 1778, the last to be inflicted in France. The glorious times however showed a decline in the community, incapable of proselytising and contaminated by ambient Malthusianism. Lastly, Protestantism was divided into two trends that announced the doctrinal discrepancies of the following century. A more urban trend, based on Enlightenment and Freemasonry, was represented by pastor Louis-Victor Gabriac who arrived in 1784 and was opposed to a more rural and more traditional evangelical piety, embodied by Paul Marsoô who was forbidden to practice his ministry in 1805, when the Consistorial in Orthez was created.


The first temple rebuilt in Orthez in 1790

  • Orthez, the temple (64) © Cremer

The Edict of 1787 received a mixed reception, but the Revolution was embraced with enthusiasm and enabled Orthez to have the first rebuilt temple in France, dedicated on 25 November 1790.  The façade bore the text ‘temple dedicated to Evangelical Christian worship’. In 1793, however, the Church was disorganised and turned into stables, as the Protestants in Béarn fell back on family worship.

Napoleon I reinstated Protestantism with equal freedom as Catholicism and Judaism in Organic Articles, a decree of Germinal year X. Though pastors were paid by the State, national Synods were abolished. Thus, after being illegal and then stifled by the Terror, the almost 5,000 Protestants formed the Consistorial Church in Orthez, that ruled over the district.

Protestantism in Béarn in the 19th century

  • Alphonse Cadier (1816-1911)
    Alphonse Cadier (1816-1911) ©
  • Félix Pécaut (1828-1898)
    Félix Pécaut (1828-1898) © S.H.P.F.

Protestantism in Béarn in the 19th century was characterised, on the one hand by its exuberant forms, and on the other by the exodus of its members, and lastly by its ‘Works’. In Béarn, more than anywhere else, one should talk about Protestantism in the plural: firstly, the Revival marked by the Calvinist tradition led by Henri Pyt in Bayonne (1820), born in the Vaud district, by Jacques Reclus in Orthez (1830), and by  J.-L. Buscarlet in Pau (1850), secondly the heirloom of the difficult years marked by Enlightenment that slowly spread with difficulty to reintegrate the religious landscape, opposed by muffled but very efficient anti-Protestantism led by the Bishop of Bayonne. We should not forget that the English and Scottish Anglicans and Presbyterians were well established since the end of the Napoleonic wars. In the mid-century, they were far more numerous than the French Protestants. Finally one should mention the Darbyst group that eroded the fringes of Librism in the years 1850. N. Darby who had probably created his Church in Pau advocated a more equal organisation, without a pastor. He may have convinced part of the community who had lived that way, especially in the countryside, throughout the Desert period.

The Protestant people in Béarn were seriously disrupted by rural exodus in its majority group. Between 1880 and 1890, 10% migrated to the Plate States, or simply to Orthez, Pau, Bordeaux, or Paris. The few late and rare marriages increased the phenomenon. The Protestant urban population, on the contrary, notably grew with descendants of the Huguenots, with Alsatian Protestants who made their way back after 1870, with new Protestants from a neglected Catholic population with sick people from everywhere, and with leading pastors who had strong personalities. Such were Alphonse Cadier, the stubborn and vigilant restorer of the parish in Pau, Emilien Frossard in Tarbes and Jacques Reclus, in the Pyrenean health resorts, a tormented and uncompromising pastor of the Librist trend, but also Félix Pécaud, the founder of secular ethics and of National Education. In fact, ‘Charities’ rallied and bonded the Protestant people of all trends. 23 temples were erected from 1813 to 1906 ; schools were opened in Pau, Orthez, Bellocq, Sauveterre, and Osse-en-Aspe before secular schools were opened. As early as 1859, youth movements, such as UCJG (Young Men’s Christian Association, UCJF (Young Women’s Christian Association) in the countryside or Scouts in Pau, stimulated teenagers, as well as Catholics.

In order to promote educational purposes, the Béarn Protestant newspaper was launched in 1882, and in 1899 pastor Jean Roth created the Avant-Garde (Forefront) paving the way for social Christianity. Parish libraries multiplied and were open until 10:00 pm.

Evangelisation and mission in Béarn

  • Eugène Casalis
  • Morija station © S.H.P.F.

The third common front was evangelisation and missions. In 1850 the Society of Evangelisation in Béarn was founded and worked with the Gypsy and Jewish populations in the Landes and Basque regions. The free Church was interested in the Aragon people of the Pau area with pastors Malan and Pozzi. A specific committee to evangelise the Spaniards was under the charge of the pastor in Madrid, and sent help to missions in Mahon and Oran. Joseph Nogaret, pastor in Bayonne, was responsible for the missionary work of Manuel Matamoros and created a Spanish Evangelist school in 1855. Eugène Casalis of Araujuzon left for Lesotho in 1832.

The law of 1905 in Béarn

  • Gurs Camp, where 12000 Jews were interned © Cimade

The law known as the Separation of the Church and the State of December 1905, and the creation of religious associations, inaugurated the 20th century. The common action of all the Protestants in ‘Charities’ bound the community, on the other hand to the extent that the bulk of the cultural heritage is already built and where the Protestant schools no longer have any reason to exist (with the communalisation) the regime of religious association is well accepted. At the same time evangelising efforts were better organised: Oloron became its centre in 1908; with Albert Cadier and his successor Jacques Delpech, who created the French Mission of Upper Aragon. Though the missionary activity in Spain was hampered by the civil war between 1936 and 1939, Jacques Delpech continued his action in Geneva and members of the CIMADE worked in the camp in Gurs and saved Spaniards and Jews from extermination camps.


Anglo-Saxons became fewer in Béarn

WWI disorganised the Anglican and Presbyterian presence, which had notably increased in the second half of the 19th century and had left a noteworthy mark on the urban environment with many buildings in Pau, Bayonne, Biarritz, Anglet et Cauterets. All trends were present, i.e. the Presbyterian Scotts theologically closer to the French Protestants and all the Anglican tendencies from Low Church to High Church, and even the Oxford trend of English Catholics. In 1992 Christ Church was united to the only French community – presently the Church on rue Serviez. WWII marked the final departures and Saint Andrew in Pau still is the only worship place.

Protestantism in Béarn in the late 20th century

  • Musée Jeanne d'Albret - Vue des jardins
    Jeanne d'Albret Museum - View of the gardens © Musée Jeanne d'Albret (2018)

After 1945 Protestant Churches faced new problems, such as decline in worship attendance, exodus of young adults to university campuses despite the creation of a university in 1968 – which did not provide good supervision of youth. The community became divided, the traditional Huguenot people being mixed with transitional people, notably attracted to the oil industry. The community created a retirement home and a Meeting Centre on Saragose avenue in Pau. For about twenty years the latter hosted cultural, religious, political debates for the whole population in the capital of Béarn. It also ensured the maintenance of the cultural and patrimonial identity by creating a Study Centre in Pau in 1987, a historic association with its headquarters in the departmental Archives that collected Protestant documents from the 16th century onwards, previously preserved in Churches or in families. Then, in 1995, the Centre was moved to Orthez, in the Jeanne d’Albret Museum of the history of Protestantism in Béarn.

Author: Suzanne Tucoo-Chala and Philippe Chareyre

Author: D'après Suzanne Tucoo-Chala et Philippe Chareyre