Admiral Gaspard de Coligny: An Exemplar of Nobility
God expects believers to live nobly in view of our high calling in Christ—a point explored in last week’s essay, “What It Means to Be Noble.”
Yet where do we find good examples of this in history?
One of the most striking role models of noble service in the annals of the Church comes from the nation of France during the Protestant Reformation.
Monument to Gaspard de Coligny, by Gustave Crauck (1827-1905), at the Temple Protestant de l’Oratoire du Louvre, Paris
A man who personified noble sacrifice, servanthood, and humble leadership like few others ever to live was Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. Gaspard descended from one of the most prestigious families in France. His father before him distinguished himself as a leader, serving as the Marshal of France, the Governor of Picardy, the Lieutenant of the Principality of Orange and the County of Guienne, and was in high favor with Francis I.
The elder Coligny died in the year 1522 at thirty-seven years of age when he was marching to relieve Fontarbia. Gaspard was only five years old when his father passed away, yet the memory of his father’s legacy and the rich Coligny family heritage was instilled into Gaspard by his faithful mother, Louise of Montmorency, from a young age. Coligny’s biographer, Walter Besant, notes that Gaspard and his brothers were expected to take responsibility and lead:
Her sons were the inheritors of a noble name; they were born to take their place in the front—to bear the brunt of battle, the burden of responsibility, perhaps the odium of defeat. They must be trained to take their place without pride and without fear.
Coligny took his responsibilities to lead seriously, and he rose in position in his native country, being named Governor of Paris and later Admiral of France.
Coligny’s strong Christian upbringing led him to introduce significant reforms in the French army. Besant notes that “. . . [Coligny holds] the honor of being the first general in modern times to perceive the enormous advantage of having a disciplined rather than a disorderly infantry. . . . It was he who first made it possible for a camp to be orderly, God-fearing, anticipating Cromwell by a hundred years.”
Coligny demanded that women not be mistreated by his men. According to Besant, “he ordered . . . that the honor of women was to be protected. . . . A soldier who attacked a woman was to be hanged or strangled.” The French historian Pierre de Brantôme made this observation: “before [Coligny], there was nothing but . . . ravishing among the bands, so that they resembled companies of Arabs and brigands, not noble soldiers.” Besant concludes:
It was Coligny who thought for all, worked for all, provided for all. It was Coligny who disciplined the unruly soldiery, training to maintain among them, even in civil war, the virtues of the Christian life.
The Battle of St. Quentin: A Turning Point for Greater Service
Gaspard de Coligny, by the studio of Jan Antonisz van Ravesteyn
While Coligny acted with noblesse oblige in fulfilling his duty to serve the nation of France, God ordained a defeat of his army at the Battle of St. Quentin to prompt him to consider even greater obligations that he had to serve the kingdom of God.
Upon being beaten by the Spanish following a valiant defense at St. Quentin, Coligny was personally taken captive by the victorious Spanish and imprisoned at Flanders.
Coligny’s mother, a staunch Protestant, had trained him in the true faith, but prior to this point, the Admiral had not taken an active role to lead the Huguenot cause in France.
The reformer John Calvin saw Coligny’s imprisonment as an opportunity to encourage him to embrace a bigger vision of noble leadership. On September 4, 1558, Calvin both affirmed Coligny’s well-known virtues in a personal letter to the Admiral, while exhorting him to submit to God’s larger purpose for his life:
I have heard, that our heavenly Father has so fortified you by the power of his Spirit, that I have occasion rather to give him praise for his kindness than to urge you to greater efforts. . . . [Yet] It is not enough to shew ourselves valiant, and not to faint, or lose heart in adversity, unless we keep this in view, to submit ourselves entirely to the will of God, and acquiesce in it peaceably.
John Calvin by Hans Holbein the Younger
Calvin’s prodding—along with Coligny’s own prayers and personal reflection—led him to become the standard-bearer for the Huguenots when he was released from prison.
Coligny’s expanded vision for noble service is reflected in this telling statement he made: “That which I desire most is that God be served everywhere, and chiefly in this realm, in all purity and according to His ordinance, and after, that this kingdom [of France] be preserved.”
Calvin also urged Madame Coligny, the Admiral’s wife, to build up and encourage her husband in his calling—a great lesson that all Christian women should take to heart as their husbands bear the burden of leadership: “Reflect that it is your duty by your example to aid him in taking courage.”
Coligny did indeed “take courage” and became a great and noble leader of the French Huguenots, to the encouragement of many.
The Admiral was singular in France for his unswerving commitment to the true faith, a point acknowledged by John Calvin in a letter to fellow reformer Heinrich Bullinger: “The admiral is the only one on whose fidelity we can count.”
Following the bloody Massacre of Vassy in March of 1562 in which the Duke of Guise and his soldiers brutally murdered more than 60 Huguenots at a private church gathering, Admiral Coligny became the undisputed leader of the Huguenot forces during the early years of the French Wars of Religion.
He was also instrumental in forming the first Protestant colonies in the New World. The same year that Huguenot believers were viciously slain at Vassy, Jean Ribault founded Fort Caroline in Spanish Florida. The chief patron of this Huguenot colony was none other than Admiral Coligny.
Yet another Protestant colonization project—secretly directed by the Admiral—was undertaken in Brazil by Vice-Admiral Nicolas Durand de Villegaignon, a close colleague of Coligny.
Philip II of Spain by Giacomo Antonio Moro
While Philip II of Spain sent a large fleet that obliterated Fort Caroline, and the Portuguese expelled the Huguenots from Brazil in 1567, no less an authority than New England Puritan Cotton Mather rightly credited Admiral Gaspard de Coligny as an esteemed predecessor whose vision for planting the Reformed faith in the Americas predated the Jamestown, Plymouth, and Massachusetts Bay colonies by more than forty years. Mather termed the later efforts of the English colonizers as “another essay” that must be viewed in light of Coligny’s “admirable” work.
Admiral Coligny not only faced bitter opposition from pro-Catholic forces across the Atlantic, but he became a marked man in his home country of France. Because of his ferocious and faithful leadership of the Huguenots, the Admiral was targeted for assassination by members of the Guise family as well as the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici.
When the St. Bartholemew’s Day Massacre commenced in Paris on August 24, 1572, Coligny was the first person targeted and killed, with the Duke of Guise personally leading the Death Squad that stormed the Admiral’s quarters. As his murderers were closing in, Coligny declared to his attendants: “I have long been prepared to die. Save your lives if you can: you cannot save mine.”
Admiral de Coligny impressing his murderers, by Joseph-Benoît Suvée
After dispatching Coligny, the Admiral’s dead body was thrown from the castle window, where the Duke of Guise stood below. After examining his corpse, Guise stated: “I know him. It is he.”
Guise then reportedly kicked Coligny’s body, after which his limbs were severed, and his trunk was drug throughout Paris for three days.
Coligny’s unflinching and sacrificial service for Christ’s honor—a mantle of leadership that cost him his life—has led the Admiral to be considered “the most noble of all Frenchmen.”
While John Calvin is surely France’s most influential Reformed giant, Admiral Gaspard remains one of the most remarkable French heroes of all time. The noble selflessness portrayed by the Admiral is well-summarized in his own words, inscribed in his honor at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.:
I will freely forgot all things, whether evil or injury, done unto me alone, provided that the glory of God and the public weal be safe.
Though France has given the world a long line of foppish rakes, the Admiral is not one of them, and his exemplary service for Christ remains an inspiring witness to this day.
May the enduring life lessons of this noble man spur us on to greater things.
Editor’s Note: Click here for a more detailed look on the Scriptures’ teaching on “What It Means to Be Noble.”