Cromwell Lecture

Cromwell’s intervention in 1655 to halt the confessional cleansing of Milton’s ‘slaughtered saints’ in Piedmont.



I myself first came across the Waldensians at 14 years old as part of the then O-level European History syllabus at about the same time as I came across Oliver Cromwell in the English History ditto and also learnt Milton’s outraged agit prop lines. This was fortunate because, over 15 years later in Venice, I met a member of this audience and her sister and her dog and mentioned I could find Venetian baroque oppressive—perhaps because I was a Protestant. ‘We are Protestants too.’ Waldensian? ‘Avenge O Lord thy slaughtered saints …’ Milton’s words won the heart of a determinedly anti-matrimony journalist and teacher! 


Cromwell himself would have learnt about the heroic proto-Protestant Waldensians living their faith ‘underground’ from Calabria to the Baltic at Huntingdon Free Grammar School, where the Master Rev. Thomas Beard taught through his textbook Theatre of God’s Judgements that all Nature mirrored God’s all-seeing will. The deeds of this man of action were thus ‘Not mine O Lord but Thine’, and both success or failure marked divine approval or disapproval! Thus Cromwell’s great victories were blessed, but his failures like the 1655 Grand Design in the Caribbean, and his temptation over taking the Crown were marks of Divine disapproval. His success, as in the survival of the Waldensians, marked the relief of evident approval. The Book of Revelations was the source of so many of his strategic plans, for were not the persecuted Huguenots and Waldensians the two servants killed at the Door of the Beast of the Apocalypse! 


With John Milton it was personal. Milton’s dearest friend at St Paul’s School had been Charles Diodati, whose early death broke John’s heart. Charles was the nephew of Giovanni Diodati, whose Italian translation in exile of the Bible, the first in the vernacular, was to be used by the Waldensian Church. 


It has been claimed, and believed by many in England, that St Paul had taken the short-cut through the Cottian Alps and the Waldensian Valleys on his way to Provence and Marseilles. ‘Anglican’ divines like Hooker the theologian and the bibliophile Archbishop Ussher of Armagh and Primate of Ireland believed that St Paul had founded a primitive church in the Alps and that the Waldensians were the survivors of this. They thus provided a living link with the pre-Gregorian Early Christian Church. So the reformed Catholicism of the Church of England, rather than the post-Gregorian Church of Rome, was the true successor to the Primitive Church. 


However, it was at the rich crossroads of Europe in Lyon that in c. 1180 Waldo, a rich merchant, during a party sees a friend suddenly die. He repents, embraces poverty and follows Jesus’ instruction to his discipls and travels along with his followers as Christ had instructed his disciples to do and preaches the Gospel in the vernacular. This was dynamite. The interpretation, or even the translation, of the Word was exclusively the property—and power—of the Church of Rome. 


This way lay heresy. Francis, a generation later, was tolerated, and then encouraged, because he did not preach the Word. The Waldensians went underground, centring on Alpine holes in the wall in the Cottian Alps like Pra del Torno in Val Angrogna, where the barbets [uncles] studied the Bible in the winter and then set off in pairs as ‘merchants’ with ‘a pearl of great price’ (the Gospel) to visit isolated little communities throughout Europe. What we know of them is from transcripts of the Inquisitions Interrogations in trials for Heresy, usually leading to the Stake. 


Throughout the Middle Ages the underground clandestine Waldensian Church also inspired important Reformation figures. Richard II’s queen was Anne of Bohemia and via her connections Wycliffe’s chief follower Peter Payne linked up in Prague with the Hussites, the Taborites and the Moravian Brethren, and through them the Waldensians. ‘I shall be condemned and called a Waldensian and a Wycliffite’, wrote Luther. Calvin, as a law student in Bourges, was encouraged to study Luther’s works by his landlord, a Waldensian cloth merchant. 


The ideas of Luther and his follower Melancthon quickly spread south of the Alps from 1519 and two students at Turin University became Waldensian ‘barbas’ [uncles] or preachers. Luther himself wrote to Duke Charles III of Savoy in 1523 to promote the preaching of the Gospel. In 1526, two barbas, Giorgio from Calabria and Martin Gonin from the Angrogna Valley, were sent north by Synod to discover more and met William Farel of Geneva, who provided them with a large quantity of Reformation literature to take back. This studied, the Synod of Merindol of 1530 sought clarification on questions of doctrine especially predestination, morality, liturgy, discipline and church organisation, and they returned to be welcomed by the Reformer John Oecolampadius of Basle, who sent them on to Martin Bucer (later Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Cambridge) at Strasbourg. William Farel of Geneva accompanied them back to the 1532 Synod of Chanforan, in Val Angrogna, which voted after long and contentious debate to join Farel’s Genevan Reformation—and also to pay for a new French translation of the Bible to be made in the College of Barbi, the little theological faculty high up in the natural hole in the wall of Pra del Torno. ‘Make your own Reformation but have much regard to your own heritage as to that of others’, had been the considered advice of the Czech Christian Brothers in a letter to the 1533 Synod in Praly, but now the die had been cast. Now, too, the itinerant ministry, confession and vows of poverty and chastity were also abolished. 


Monumento di Chanforan in Val d’Angrogna. (Photograph: Gabriella Peyrot)






The Waldensian resistance in their mountain fastnesses was so determined that in 1561 the Duke of Savoy, with the Treaty of Cavour, granted (alone at that time in Europe) toleration of a different confession from that of the ruler; however, only within strict bounds, outside the plains and valley floors and with the order to keep their settlements and churches above 600 metres.


Yet in the same year of 1561 in Philip II of Spain’s Italian Province of Calabria, the Waldensian community in Guardia Piemontese were massacred at what is still called the Bloody Gate. The characteristic traditional Waldensian dress still remains, but no Waldensians. Again in 1561 their Waldensian brothers and sisters in Dauphiné, just over the Alps from the Italian/Savoyard Waldensian Valleys, who had also voted as congregations for non-resistance, were summarily exterminated by Jesuits. 

Farel had been impressed by the Bible study of the Waldensians in tiny matchbook-sized Gospels. However, these books, easily concealable about the clandestine Barba’s person, were in the ‘old French’ dialect (by the 1530s barely comprehensible) and so these versions of the Good News needed modernising as well. The Cambridge University Library has a collection of these ‘jewels of great price’ rescued from the flames by Samuel Morland, Cromwell’s Commissioner Extraordinary to Turin, from the week-long burning of religious books that followed the fall of Pra del Torno in 1655. 


The Reformation was the triumph of the Word over the image; indeed, it was often iconoclastic towards ‘distractions’ such as painted walls and sculptures. The pulpit for preaching the Word in the vernacular replaced the rood screen separating the congregation from the miracle of the Mass as the centre of attention. The resurrected, therefore risen, Christ was represented by an empty Cross, for He was risen. This replaced the crucified dead Christ suspended over the rood screen half hiding the priest as he performed the miracle of the elements becoming the body and blood of Christ. 

For Luther, the miracle was that, as in Romans 1 17, ‘The just shall live by faith’. No human action can save sinful man, but only what God does through the believers when they believe in the power of his Son’s death on the Cross and Resurrection, which alone can bring forgiveness and salvation. There was no church and no priest with a bank account of Masses to mediate between the individual man or woman and God. For Luther there was ‘a priesthood of all believers’. Luther was locked up disguised as a knight in the Wartburg Castle, but printing—the new Internet—meant that his books were everywhere, and above all Luther’s translation of the Bible, which created a unified German language, but divided Christendom. The Internet, too, brings unanticipated conflicts. 


It was Calvin’s cousin Pierre Robert Olivetan, a Hebrew scholar who, hidden in the Coulege di Barbi in Pra del Torno at the end of Val Angrogna, had newly translated the Old Testament from Hebrew and revised Lefèvre d’Étaples’ New Testament from the Greek and signed off the final page: Des Alpes, Février 1535. 


In his foreword Olivetan wrote: ‘The poor people [Waldensian shepherds] who make you this gift have been banished and separated from you for more than 300 years. Ever since, they have been regarded as the most wicked, execrable and ignominious of all time. Their name has become a byword, a term of reproach and abuse. Yet they are truly patient people who by silence and hope have overcome all the assaults and violence of their enemies.’ 


In 1534 Olivetan’s young cousin John Calvin resigned his Catholic benefice in France and moved to Basle. ‘Without the Gospel we are useless and vain, without the Gospel wealth is poverty, wisdom is folly before God, strength is weakness. But through the power of the Gospel we are made children of God.’ So wrote Calvin in the Latin preface to what, until the nineteenth century, became the accepted French Protestant version of the Bible—as Luther’s was the German one. In 1588 its English translation became the English Geneva Bible—the Bible used by Cromwell throughout his life! (The King James Authorised Version only came into common use after 1660.) This, however, was the ‘pure’ Genevan translation, which gave its adherents the name of ‘Puritans’. Here was no biblical evidence for bishops, copes or choirs but rather WASHING for BAPTISM, and CONGREGATION instead of CHURCH. 


This was the moral and even physical world that Oliver and his contemporaries inhabited. The intra-Protestant battle had moved from the fight to print the Bible to the battle for which Bible? In the spectrum of Church and Chapel, Cromwell was a Congregationalist, who firmly believed that we reach faith through individual trial and error. He dissolved all three of his Parliaments because they sought to impose Presbyterian confessional uniformity after abolishing Anglicanism. For Cromwell, and his soldiers, this was jumping out of the frying pan into the fire in imposing another exclusive authoritarianism on the individual seeker after truth. We advance in faith through responding to God’s blessing, or otherwise, of our actions. Individual faith made each sinner responsible for his actions. Science, for we are in the age of Newton and Boyle, is equally a testing of hypotheses—of trial and error. Cromwell is a Janus figure on the cusp of modernity! 


If the tiny Waldensian Church of ‘slaughtered saints’, whose Church had reputedly been formed by St Paul while crossing the Alps, could produce this ‘pure’ version of the Bible, and also bear a huge cost of up to 1500 gold ecus to do so, no wonder the Lord Protector felt and reacted, as the Ambassador to Turin Samuel Morland said, ‘as if the massacre was happening to his closest family members’. 


No less impassioned was John Milton, Cromwell’s Latin Secretary or official writer in Latin, the language of diplomacy, of dispatches. These, in the case of the Piedmontese Easter of 1655, were so intemperate and ‘undiplomatic’ that the young Ambassador Samuel Morland thought it would be counter-productive to present them unvarnished directly to Madama Cristina, the Dowager Duchess of Savoy and Regent on behalf of her son. for she had not only initiated the persecution but was also the sister of Charles I’s widow Queen Henrietta Maria. But then the children of converts are invariably bigots, although their father Henry IV, the erstwhile leader of the French Protestant Army, had agreed to a politique conversion to Catholicism, famously exculpating his apostasy with ‘Paris is worth a mass’ so as be to crowned King of France. However, his nonchalance did not convince the Catholic zealot François Ravaillac, more representative of the age, who assassinated Henry in 1610. 


Milton also galvanised British public opinion with his famous Sonnet, whose gory and graphic images describe massacres also seen in English and Dutch woodcuts taken from eyewitness diplomatic descriptions. 


On the late Massacre in Piedmont

Avenge O Lord thy slaughtered Saints, whose bones

Lie scattered on the alpine mountains cold,

Even them who kept thy truth so pure of old

When all our fathers worshipped Stocks and Stones, 

Forget not: in thy book record their groans

Who were thy Sheep and in their ancient Fold

Slayn by the bloody Piedmontese that rolled

Mother and infant down the rocks. Their moans

The Vales redoubled to the Hills, and they

To Heaven. Their martyred blood and ashes sow

Over all the Italian fields where still doth sway

The triple Tyrant: that from these may grow

A hundred-fold, who having learnt thy way

Early may fly the Babylonian woe.



On 25 January 1655 the Savoyard Judge Andrea Gastaldo pronounced an Ordinance that the Waldensians who had descended into the valley floors at Torre Pellice, Luserna and the entrance to the Po Valley, all places prohibited to the Waldensians under the 1561 Treaty of Cavour, had to return back to their mountainsides after selling their farms to Catholics. 


‘Madama Cristina’, Christine Marie of France, Duchess of Savoy, artist unknown.

This legal proceeding seemed the usual diplomatic/judicial dance once again. However, this time a powerful and determined trio had combined at the Turin Ducal Court at Rivoli to deal with these polluting heretics once and for all. The Marquis of Pianezza shared the Counter Reformation repugnance so keenly felt by also Madama Cristina (Regent on behalf of her son and herself sister to Charles I’s widow, Queen Henrietta Maria) and her Jesuit Confessor. Pianezza advanced the 35 miles to Val Pellice on 17 April 1655 with an army militia while the Waldensians sent their women, children and animals a la Brua, to the high pastures at the head of the valleys. Meanwhile 500 men stayed in trenches under the redoubtable partisan leader Bartolomeo Jahier. 


Pianezza occupied Torre Pellice on the valley floor, and with Pianezza’s troops busy looting, a stalemate would have ensued had not a company of Irish Catholic mercenaries going to fight against the Spanish for the Governor of Villanova d’Asti appeared coming over the Sestriere Pass at the head of Val Chisone, the neighbouring Waldensian valley. They thus threatened the Waldensian rear. Pianezza invited these willing freebooters in exchange for booty, wine and rape to massacre the Waldensians in their mountain refuge. 


However, what made this the massacre of the Piedmontese Easter [the Protestant Easter was different from the Catholic, still-Gregorian Calendar date] was that Pianezza learnt that six French Regiments, again composed of, or including, Irish mercenaries, were also marching over the Alps going to besiege Pavia, which had just been captured from the French by the Spanish. 


On 19 April Pianezza reported, ‘there arrived here with great cheerfulness’ Sir James Preston’s Irish Regiment. ‘I have lodged them to their satisfaction and had them provided with wine at the expence of these “barbette” [Waldensians]. As far as bread goes I hope that they will be able to find plenty soon where they are headed to and perhaps even some better things.’ On 21 April arrived the Chamblay Regiment, the Grancey on the 22nd, the Villa on the 23rd and the Carignan and the Montpezat on the 29th. In all 5000 men were quartered with license to massacre, rape and pillage among a population about twice that. The figure of 1712 killed of both sexes is the most reliable. 



At the end of April Pianezza reported: ‘Yesterday they began to throw away their arms wherever they happened to be and simply pleaded for mercy. It is amazing to see to what misery they have been reduced; losing themselves in flight across the snow, abandoning their own children of whom some have died … most of the heretics have crossed the mountains though many have died from cold and avalanches.’ 


A Jesuit priest, Fabrizio Torre, whose task was to deal with Waldensian recantations wrote to a fellow Jesuit: ‘It is not a matter of war, but rather of exterminating a multitude of enemies of God and rebels against their prince….And who can tell of the public devotions, the confessions, the communions and prayers before the Blessed Sacrament, so that the troops imbued thereby with faith and courage swept over the snow-laden Alps hunting down the wild beasts of hell with such butchery that to escape death by steel they rushed headlong with wives and children into the valleys where they saw nothing but fire and slaughter….the soldiers terrified these wretches, who could find no better way to escape than to kill themselves. Others taking better advice came in their hundreds, in remorse and humility, to the Holy Catholic Faith.’ 


Given the bestial behaviour of these egged-on troops illustrated, described and witness-signed by Waldensians and Catholics in Samuel Morland’s 1658 700-page book ‘With a most naked and punctual relation of the late Bloody Massacre in 1655’, suicide would have seemed a wholly rational option. 


There followed the destruction now of the Rora Valley with Gentile’s Irish Regiment ‘doing marvels’ and of the Germanasca and Chisone Valleys. By 6 May Father Ceserana, Madama Cristina’s Jesuit confessor, accompanying Pianezza, could report ‘that the heretics have been hunted and proscribed from every place, land, roof of the surrounding area and are vanquished, beaten and subjected.’ 


On 18 May in the Cathedral Square in Turin the remarkably low number of 40 Waldensians including 2 Pastors made their abjuration. However on the heights of Rora, in the Valley of the Invincibles above Villar in the Pellice Valley and from Pramollo towards Val Chisone two masters of guerrilla resistance – Bartolomeo Jahier and Joshua Janavel – led an indomitable and exemplary resistance; even indeed in July briefly retaking Torre Pellice itself, though Jahier was subsequently surrounded and killed with his 50 men. Janavel’s Guerrilla Manual Instructions is still difficult to better. 


If Huguenot military help from volunteers was already forthcoming, so too was pressure from ‘The Protestant International’ led by Oliver Cromwell. This was stimulated also by the able media war the literate Bible reading Waldensians were conducting. No longer was this just a confessional cleansing land grab. Now the Waldensian Question mobilised the faithful in Huguenot France, Switzerland and of course Holland, but above all in the greatest Protestant European Power that was the United Commonwealth that is Republic of England, Scotland and Ireland, whose reactions were informed by the work of the Waldensian’s chief Secret Service Agent in this matter: the Italian speaking Swiss Pastor of the French Speaking Protestant Church in London Pastor Stoppa, who was constantly travelling on the Continent. 


Being in the midst of negotiating a peace with Cardinal Mazarin’s France, Cromwell could put pressure on Mazarin to dictate terms to his client neighbour the Duke of Savoy and his Bourbon Regent Mother Madama Cristina. Then there was Admiral Blake’s powerful 25 ship strong Mediterranean Fleet [one of three Cromwellian Fleets] attacking the white-slaving by Barbary pirates of British seamen. Blake could easily be diverted to bombard the Savoyard port of Nice, as indeed international opinion believed imminently it would do. Cromwell also proposed for British military action to support the tiny remaining Waldensian Army in val Chisone but, as Secretary of State Thurloe pointed out, nothing like that could be done without the support of the vacillating Swiss, who were themselves involved in an armed spat between the Protestant and Catholic cantons. 


Already military stalemate had been reached by the Savoyards, who now found themselves with a terrible reputation throughout Protestant Europe and beyond. Mazarin proposed a compromise peace, while Morland, the British Ambassador at Turin, issued Latin threats written by Milton. For a domestically none too popular Cromwellian regime the popularity of the support for the Waldensians from Fifth Monarchists to Anglicans was a boost and was expressed in the £39,000 raised by a national day of fasting in June which was kicked off with a personal contribution by Cromwell of £2000. [£39,000 is 80 per cent of what Cromwell’s Grand Design of sending a Fleet and an invading Army to Hispaniola, and then Jamaica, cost]. Apart from aid in restoring the Waldensians land, farmhouses and churches and providing for pastors, some of this sum will have gone on continued Resistance after the precarious peace which lasted down to the 1684 Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. But that is another story – which Napoleon called ‘One of the finest actions in military history!’


Meanwhile the Treaty of Pinerolo [then French Territory and garrisoned with 10 per cent of the French Army] on 18 August 1655 was negotiated by a Waldensian delegation led by the Moderator Jean Leger, a Savoyard delegation led by Count Truchi and one from the five Protestant Swiss Cantons led by Salomon Hirzel from Zurich and all under the decisive moderation of the French Ambassador to Turin Ennemond Servient, who knew what Mazzarin knew Cromwell wanted. By this agreement the Duke of Savoy conceded Letters Patent granting freedom of worship to the Waldensians in their Three Valleys, as well as reparations, permission to trade and exoneration from certain taxes – until the next time!

Only then did Cromwell sign a military Treaty with France against Spain. At the Battle of the Dunes what the French Army called “the best troops in the world” [i.e. the Cromwellian Ironsides] captured Dunkirk and its hinterland from Spain. The port, previously a nest of Royalist privateers under Prince Rupert, was England’s first Continental outpost since the loss of Calais a century before and crucially provided the Protectorate’s control over both sides of the Straits of Dover.


Not for nothing did Pauluzzi, the Venetian Ambassador to the Lord Protector’s Court in London report in a dispatch to the Doge that ‘the Court of England by sheer force has made itself the most dreaded and conspicuous in the world.’

John Thurloe, the all-seeing Secretary to the Council, effectively was of the decided opinion that ‘The Protector in all these cases governs himself by the Protestant cause’.

The relief of the Waldensians gave every appearance of being a ‘blessed’ success. The Treaty of Pinerolo in August 1655 could have been more generous – and would have been – if the Great Design to capture Hispaniola with a fleet and army had succeeded. Spain would have been severely reduced in power, the flow of silver and gold to Spain severely curbed. At this point the threat of the reality of an Anglo-Spanish Alliance against France would have forced Mazzarin’s hand further. 


Indeed was the humanitarian support for the Waldensians a strategic miscalculation leading to an alliance with a rising powerful enemy: France, rather than allying with a declining one: Spain, remains an open question for armchair war gamers.

However, I am of the opinion one finds the key to Cromwell’s foreign policy back in 1630 when he sells up all that he has, moves to St Ives, convenient for embarking his worldly goods to King’s Lynn, so as to be ready to join the next flotilla across the ‘desert’ of the Atlantic to the Promised Land. However as a shareholder in the Providence Island Company, would his destination have been not Massachusetts but rather off the coast of Nicaragua, ready to ‘reverse the Euphrates’ [Revelations] of Spanish Gold that was financing the Hapsburg war machine. 


The Company’s Board of 20 Directors seem a list of the leading political leaders of the Parliamentary Opposition and of the Protectorate: the Lords Warwick, Holland, Bedford, Brooke and Saye and Sele, all of whom raised regiments for Parliament, the Earl of Essex was Commander in Chief of the Parliamentary Army, Oliver St John was the Company Lawyer, John Pym was Treasurer and Oliver’s cousin John Hampden, of Ship Money fame, was the contact between the shareholders and their agents on the islands off the Spanish Main. The settlers had to be ‘godly’ and to mix growing cotton and tobacco with privateering against the Spanish bullion fleet. Card-playing, gaming, whoring, drunkenness and profanity were banned. The historian C V Wedgwood noted wryly that ‘a carefully chosen minister – a German Calvinist refugee from the Palatinate – was expelled for singing catches on a Sunday. The Earl of Warwick and his friends were sincerely trying to create there nests of pirates with the behaviour and morals of a Calvinist theological seminary.’ Paradise Found!!


Anyone studying the Massacre of the Waldensians in 1655 and its wider ramifications owes a great debt to Dr Giorgio Vola of Florence University, whose premature death lost me a friend while at the same time removing the most assiduous Cromwell hound be it in libraries and archives or indeed wherever the trail might lead. His forensic labours in tracking the remains of the monies donated in 1655 have opened up an fascinating trail as to how money flowed through the financial system of a country which unlike France, Spain and Holland did not have a National Bank, but used the resources of the great City financiers, and the international connections of the Exiled Protestant Churches in London. He deserves a lecture of his own.


I choose to end on a positive, even a miraculous, note. 

Pope Francis, the first Jesuit to become a Pope, was the son of dirt poor Piedmontese emigrants to Argentina. He became Head of the South American Jesuits and then Archbishop of Buenos Aires, where he got to know the Spanish speaking Waldensian Church Colony in Montevideo and invited one retired Waldensian Pastor to take a room in the Jesuit Retired Priests Home. So when Francis became Pope he made contact, with the result that a meeting was arranged when the Pope came to Turin as part of the Shroud Celebrations – the latter not something a Jesuit would be over-enthused about. And so on 22 June 2015 at prime morning TV time, the Pope came to the Waldensian Church just round the corner from via Madama Cristina – yes, her!


On a dais before the pulpit – no altar of course – with lots of jolly banter and positive body language with the Moderator – Pope Francis asked pardon for 800 years of persecution and kissed the Moderator’s gift of the Olivetan Bible, which the Pope clasped to his bosom and which has since been placed conspicuously on show in the Vatican Library. The blessing at the end of the service was given by a Waldensian Methodist laywoman. Thinking about it takes your breath away. ‘You cannot, indeed should not, forget the past, but you can use it to rise to another level’, as Archbishop Rowan Williams commented on the matter in Cambridge. I think Cromwell would have found much to commend in this. He believed in long learning curves!


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Originally given as a lecture to The Cromewell Association in London, this text was then featured in 2 parts across the summer 2019 and 2020 editions of the Waldensian Review.

Part 1: Download, Read Online

Part 2: Download, Read Online

Lecture to the Cromwell Association

London, October 2017 \\ Richard Newbury

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