Villegaignon, Nicolas Durand De
Villegaignon, Nicolas Durand de a Maltese knight who achieved an unenviable notoriety in connection with one of the most interesting episodes of the French Reformation. He was a native of Brittany, and had distinguished himself as an officer of the royal navy. In 1554 he held the rank of vice-admiral of Brittany. A dispute with the governor of Brest threatened to deprive him of the royal favor, and he conceived that a successful expedition to South America would be the readiest means to obviate that loss. To secure the king's consent, he approached admiral Coligny, giving himself out as a Protestant, and representing that a colony in South America would provide the surest refuge for his coreligionists against the persecutions they were so constantly made to endure. He sailed from Havre de Grace July 15, 1555, with two vessels bearing a large number of colonists and a body of soldiers and laborers, and reached Brazil in the following November. The colony was located on an island near Rio de Janeiro, to which they gave the name of Coligny. Here the work of fortifying engaged the attention of the commander to an extent that, joined with the insufficient and unpalatable food the men received, produced much dissatisfaction among his subordinates; but the display of zealous energy for the establishing of a Protestant Church, which he still kept up, served to quiet the colonists. In March (7 or 10), 1557, a second expedition from France arrived, which brought about three hundred souls, among them the preachers Peter Richer and William Chartier; a reputed doctor of the Sorbonne named Cointa; John de Léry, the principal historian of the enterprise; and six females. Villegaignon repeated the pledges he had made respecting the evangelical worship and organization, and Richer' preached, on the day of arrival, a sermon which was probably the first evangelical sermon heard in the New World.
The arrival of reinforcements relieved the governor of the fears which a conspiracy among his people had excited. He at once employed the new colonists on the fortifications, but allowed them the free exercise of their religion, so that a sermon was preached to them each secular day and two on Sundays. The Lord's Supper was to be administered once a month; but disputes, originated by the Sorbonnist Cointa, arose on the first occasion of its celebration. He demanded, on the authority of the Church fathers, that water should be mixed with the wine; that the ministers should wear sacerdotal robes, etc. In baptism he required that oil, spittle, and salt should be added to the water. Villegaignon supported his demands, and criticized the constitution of the Church of Geneva, upon which the colony was to be modeled. The matter was finally referred to Calvin at Geneva, with the proviso that Richer should not discuss controverted points in the pulpit while his colleague Chartier was absent to obtain Calvin's decision. Chartier departed, and at this juncture Villegaignon threw off the mask. He had learned that his heretical colony had excited the anger of his popish masters in France, and he now pronounced Calvin a heretic, and declared that he would accept no other decision than that of the Sorbonne. He required the reception of the doctrine of transubstantiation, and after a time forbade public worship, and even the exercise of common prayer. He also oppressed the pious colonists, whose conscientious scruples prevented resistance by force. At this time a trading-vessel visited the island, and a large number of the colonists resolved upon a return to Europe; and the governor thereupon confiscated their provisions, books, and tools, and drove them to the mainland. Here they gave themselves to missionary labor. Léry wrote down a brief vocabulary of words in the language of the Topinambus, the fruitage of a brief sojourn extending over no more than two months. The natives had received them kindly, but demanded remuneration for everything needed by the exiles; and when the latter had bartered away even their clothes, they were compelled to embark for France. The vessel was found to be unseaworthy, and, after voyaging a week, five of the returning emigrants preferred to risk their lives in an open boat rather than continue in the ship. This boat was driven to the shore and fell into the hands of Villegaignon, who had four of the five passengers put to death as heretics. The fifth was spared because he was the only tailor in the colony.
The ship in the meantime continued its voyage, impeded by storms and constantly requiring the services of all hands at the pumps. A careless sailor burned off its rigging. The provisions gave out, so that rats and mice were eagerly devoured, as were also shoes and logwood chips. The water also failed. But the port of Blavet, in Brittany, was finally reached, May 26; 1558, and the passengers dispersed to their homes. A casket, sent over by Villegaignon, was delivered to the magistrate of Hennebon, and, on being opened was found to; contain a fully executed legal process intended to deliver the returned colonists over to destruction. The magistrate, however, disregarded the plan, and aided the proposed victims to continue their journey. Richer became pastor at La Rochelle, and lived to see the first siege of that place. John de Léry died later as pastor at Berne. Soon afterwards the colony was wholly given, up, and Villegaignon returned to France. Cointa had previously been banished from the island, and was never heard of afterwards. The Portuguese stormed the fort, cut down the remaining garrison as heretics, and conveyed the cannon to Lisbon. In later life Villegaignon wrote a violent letter against the Palatine Frederick III, on the occasion of his introducing the Reformed doctrine into his principality, and was answered by Peter Boquin. He died miserably in 1571L He had destroyed the earliest foreign missionary enterprise of the Evangelical Church, and given to that cause its earliest martyrs.
See Lerius Burgundus, Hist. Navigat. it Brasil. etc; (Genev. 1586); Thuanus, Hist. em Temp. (Offenbach, 1609); Crespin, Hist. des Martyrs; Beza, Hist. Eccles.; Calvin, Epist. et Respons. (Genevt 1575); Bayle, Dict. Hist. et Crit. s.v. — "Villegaignon" and s.v. "Richer;" Struve, Pfälz. Kirchenhist. (Frankf. 1721). — Herzog, Real-Encyklop. s.v.