Admiral Gaspard de Coligny: Loving the Lord Jesus above Life Itself

5 min

The French nobleman opened again the book he held in his hands. The nobleman was a prisoner of war, taken captive by the Spanish while defending Saint Quentin (France) in 1557. His brother had sent the book for him to read in his captivity. In the eyes of many, it was a forbidden book—a French Bible. Admiral Gaspard de Coligny was about to read that forbidden book! How might that book change his life?

During this time, all of France was awakening to new life under a mighty stirring of God’s Holy Spirit. The king’s sister had embraced the doctrines of the Reformation—that salvation is by faith alone in the Lord Jesus Christ. Here and there throughout the kingdom, especially in the south of France, men and women, boys and girls, were coming to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Coligny’s own brother, Francis, had embraced the Gospel. Even priests and monks were laying aside their superstitions, their incense, candles, beads, and crucifixes, and clinging alone to the salvation given in the Lord Jesus.

However, France lacked a champion to lead them. Yet God was calling such a champion. In the solitude of his confinement, Gaspard de Coligny, the “Admiral of France” and one of the highest military officers in the kingdom, read that forbidden book, believed its words, and opened his heart to the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.

When French theologian and reformer John Calvin in Geneva heard that Admiral Coligny had embraced the reformed faith, he wrote him a warm letter of encouragement, knowing that the Admiral would face intense criticism over his decision. Pierre Viret, a Swiss reformer, rejoiced that a true champion had been added to the faith. Viret wrote, “The arm of the Lord had been stretched out indeed, and a mighty man of war was on their side. Coligny was to be the Joshua of the chosen people.”

But a mighty struggle lay ahead. Would Coligny prove his love for the Lord by his obedience to God’s Word? Would he be willing to suffer the loss of military rank, courtly honor, lands, titles, and even life itself? When the time came to choose between loving this world and loving the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength, would the Admiral of France pass the ultimate test of discipleship?

Gaspard de Coligny was born at the early dawn of the Reformation, on February 19, 1519. Only two years earlier, a German monk named Martin Luther had nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany.

But the light of truth had already begun to dawn in France. In 1512, several years before Coligny’s birth, a very early reformer named Jacques LeFevre had begun preaching justification by faith alone. At the time of Coligny’s birth, LeFevre was already translating the four Gospels into French. Meanwhile, in the foothills of the Alps, another preacher and early reformer named Guillaume (William) Farel was pointing out the idolatry and superstitions of the Roman papacy. A political party in Switzerland had taken the German title Eidgenosse, which later became Huguenot, a term that means “confederates” or “covenant keepers.”

Coligny was born into one of the finest families in all of France. His ancestors had fought in the Crusades as defenders of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. His father was named “Marshall of France,” but died when Coligny was only three years old. The future Admiral of France had a Godly and loving mother, who was one of the first noblewomen to embrace the reformed faith.

Coligny’s mother placed him under a Protestant tutor; he was educated in law, literature, and courtly grace and decorum. Destined one day to command, he first was taught to obey. At an early age, he learned the use of arms and became skilled at swordsmanship. Daily he practiced, clad in armor on horseback, and preparing for the day when he would lead the troops of France into battle.

Coligny led a regiment in the Italian Wars at the young age of twenty-five, distinguishing himself for bravery and coolheaded leadership. He was wounded in battle by a musket ball that severely bruised his head and injured again later by a dangerous wound to the throat. At the age of twenty-five, Coligny was knighted on the field of battle. At age twenty-eight, Gaspard de Coligny was united in marriage to Charlotte de Laval, a virtuous, Godly young lady who proved to be a worthy wife for her noble husband.

In 1551, Gaspard was placed in charge of the training and discipline of the French infantry. He instilled discipline into the ranks, forbade both swearing and dueling among the soldiers, and made the mistreatment of women by the soldiers a capital offense. He also introduced the novel idea of an ambulance corps to accompany the army into battle to more quickly and efficiently carry the wounded off the battlefield.

In 1552, Coligny was given his highest title: Admiral of France. This title was not merely a naval title, but it placed Coligny in command of French colonial interests in the New World and decisions over the deployment of both French fleets and the ground forces. Up to this point, Coligny had been a friend of the reformed faith, but he had not yet come out publicly as a Huguenot. To do so would risk his titles, his rank, and his chance of any future promotion. His position as a Protestant might even jeopardize his lands and estates.

It was at this point that he was taken captive by Spain in the siege of Saint Quentin. In his confinement, he read the Scriptures carefully and decided that he must come out boldly for the Lord Jesus Christ. After Coligny’s release, a party of armed Roman Catholics assaulted a congregation of Huguenots during a worship service. Men, women, and children were killed in cold blood. The Admiral of France could no longer keep silent and only pray for peace.

Coligny summoned his followers to gird on their armor and follow him to battle to defend the Huguenot cause. Long years of bloody civil war lay ahead. The Admiral and his family suffered many things for the love of the Lord Jesus. His titles were revoked and his lands were confiscated. He was declared a traitor by the Parliament of France and a price was placed upon his head.

At the Battle of St. Denys in 1568, Coligny’s disciplined 3,000 troops held off an army of 18,000 royal troops and Spanish mercenaries. But the victory was saddened by news that Coligny’s eldest son was dead. Soon after this, Coligny also lost his faithful wife, Charlotte, to sickness.

Coligny wrote a letter to his surviving children, saying, “We must not count upon what is called property, but rather place our hope elsewhere than on earth. Men have taken from us all they can. Persevere with courage in the practice of virtue.”

The esteemed leader and his family indeed persevered. One thing yet remained that Coligny could offer up to the Lord in loving obedience—his own life. In the early morning darkness of August 24, 1572, a band of desperate assassins came to the door of the room where the Admiral was sleeping. They burst into his bedchamber and brutally murdered him. This first murder in a widespread attempted massacre of all Huguenots marked a dark day in history that became known as the “Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.”

But the truth of God can never be extinguished. The persecuted Huguenots continued to stand firm. One of Coligny’s daughters eventually found refuge in the Netherlands and married a man named Prince William of Orange. He led his people to independence from Spain, and his descendants eventually sat upon the throne of England at the time of the “Glorious Revolution.” A life sacrificed in love and obedience to the Lord Jesus is never sacrificed in vain.

Sources and Further Reference:
Besant, Walter. Gaspard de Coligny. London: Marcus Ward and Co., 1879.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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