The Vaudois were members of a Christian sect founded at Lyon in 1179 by Pierre Valdo. They only admitted belief in the Bible, especially the Apostles of early Christianity. They refused the sacraments and the cult of Saints, and they established their own clergy. The Vaudois were excommunicated in 1184.
The doctrine included absolute poverty and non-violence. The Vaudois sect, similar in some respects to the Cathars or to 16th-c Calvanism, numbered about 20,000 members. They sent forth pairs of missionaries to many lands, and were persecuted savagely in France, Italy and especially Spain.
Most of the Vaudois parishes were located in the Alpine valleys of the Piedmont: Lucerna, Perouse and San Martino, known as Les Vallees Vaudoises (the Protestant Valleys of Piedmont).
In 1476 the Duchess of Savoy ordered her commanders to use any means in their power to compel the Vaudois to join the Catholic Church. In 1437 Pope Innocent VIII proclaimed a general crusade against them, and "summoned all the Catholic powers of Europe to take up arms for their extermination. Absolution was freely offered to all who should participate.
In 1560 a new crusade was organized against them by the Pope. All the villages were to be ravaged and destroyed, unless the people embraced Catholicism. Instead, the Vaudois abandoned their valley homes for mountain retreats and fastnesses, hiding in caves and fissures of the rocks. The ideal defensive nature of the terrain helped them several times to defeat large numbers of attackers with only a few defenders. One attack by 1200 soldiers was defeated by 50 Vaudois.
The treaty of 5 June 1561 granted amnesty to the Protestants of the Valleys, including liberty of conscience and freedom to worship. Prisoners were released and fugitives were permitted to return home. The Reformation was also somewhat beneficial to the Vaudois, with the religious reformers showing them respect, but they still suffered in the Wars of Religion (1562-1598).
In 1655 the Duke of Savoy commanded the Vaudois to attend Mass or remove to the upper Valleys, giving them twenty days in which to sell their lands. In a most severe winter these targets of persecution old men, women, little children and the sick "waded through the icy waters, climbed the frozen peaks, and at length reached the homes of their impoverished brethren of the upper Valleys, where they were warmly received." There they found refuge and rest. Deceived by false reports of Vaudois resistance, the Duke sent an army. On 24 April 1655, at 4 a.m., the signal was given for a general massacre, the horrors of which can be detailed only in small part.
The massacre was so brutal it aroused indignation throughout Europe. Oliver Cromwell, then ruler in England, began petitioning on behalf of the Vaudois, writing letters, raising contributions, calling a general fast in England and threatening to send military forces to the rescue. Again the survivors were promised restoration to their homes and freedom of worship. A few years of troubled peace followed. Then Cromwell died.
In 1685 Louis V revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed freedom of religion to his Protestant subjects. In the renewed persecution, an edict decreed that all inhabitants of the Valleys should publicly announce their error in religion within fifteen days under penalty of death and banishment and the destruction of all the Vaudois churches. Armies of French and Piedmontese soldiers invaded the Valleys, laying them waste and perpetrating cruelties upon the inhabitants.
The 15,000 Vaudois had about 2,500 capable of bearing arms against the combined might of France and Savoy. For three days they held off the attackers, then surrendered to false promises of peace. Their surrender was followed by devastation in every hamlet and atrocious barbarities. The entire population of the survivors was thrust into the dungeons of thirteen prisons. After six months only three thousand remained alive.
The half-starved remnants were released and banished from their homes. Hundreds of children were forcibly torn from their parents to be reared as Catholics. With many perishing on the journey, the remaining adults crossed the Alps to a place of refuge in Switzerland, and were eventually welcomed by the Protestant states of Switzerland, Germany, and Holland.
Three years later, a band of 800 led by Henri Arnaud, their soldier-pastor, assembled on the shores of Lake Geneva, re-crossed the Alps amid incredible hardships, and retook their native Valleys. They defeated a force of 2,000 French, inflicting upon them a loss of 700 men, to only 22 of their own. They later held out for two months against an army of 20,000. Forced to take refuge on the heights of the Balsille, they spent the winter on this lonely rock. By now there were only 400 left, resisting the combined armies of France and Savoy.
Spain, Austria and England had declared war against France. The Duke of Savoy joined them, granting peace and protection to his Vaudois subjects, and permitted them to return to their homes in the Alpine Valleys, promising them toleration in religion. Back came the Vaudois from distant lands where they had been scattered, Switzerland, Germany, Holland and England. Never again were they to be removed.
Napoleon conquered the Piedmont, but under him they enjoyed genuine religious freedom, and he protected them in their rights. Following Napoleon's defeat in 1814, the Vaudois were again cruelly persecuted.
In 1487, Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull for the extermination of the Vaudois (Waldensians), offering plenary indulgence to all who should engage in the Crusade against them. (the same year he confirmed Tomas de Torquemada as Grand Inquisitor of Spain) Alberto de' Capitanei, archdeacon of Cremona, responded to the bull by organizing a crusade to fulfill its order and launched an offensive in the provinces of Dauphiné and Piedmont. Charles I, Duke of Savoy eventually interfered to save his territories from further confusion and promised the Vaudois peace, but not before the offensive had devastated the area and many of the Vaudois fled to Provence and south to Italy.
On 17 February 1848, the King of Sardinia granted his Vaudois subjects freedom of religion on an equality with his other subjects. The 800-year war between Rome and the mountain Church was ended.
Some of the descriptive content from a report by "Archibald F. Bennett, Brigham Young University, 1960"