Oliver Cromwell became the ruler of England—the Lord Protector—in 1653, after the English Civil Wars. In 1655, when news came to England of the massacre of Waldensians by French troops, Cromwell, and all England, were gripped with horror and indignation at the reports of the brutal treatment of “those of like precious faith.” Accounts of the kidnapping, rape, and gruesome torture of women and children especially fueled the English fury.

The Puritan pulpits of England rang out with fiery sermons condemning the acts. Across England many church interiors were painted red as a constant reminder to the public of the suffering of their brothers and sisters in the Alps.

For months Cromwell was preoccupied with the plight of the Waldensians. He sponsored a public collection of money for relief for the survivors, and even donated £2,000 of his own. As much as half a million pounds was raised as a result of the campaign. He oversaw the details of the relief program, to ensure that the money reached those in most need.

He also sent letters to various European rulers (composed by his famous secretary, John Milton), calling for their help, even implying military intervention. Finally, after close negotiations between Cromwell and Catholic France, the French pressured the Duke into stopping his cruel campaign.

The following are two of Cromwell’s letters, and a poem by Milton.

Letter to the Duke of Savoy (1655)* [* This is a translation of the original, which was composed in Latin by John Milton. From William S. Gilly’s, Narrative of an excursion to the mountains of Piedmont, London, 1827.]

Most serene Prince,

We are informed by letters received from several places in the vicinity of your dominions, that the subjects of your royal highness, professing the reformed religion, have been commanded by an edict, published by your authority, to quit their habitations and lands, within three days after the promulgation of the said edict, under pain of death, and the confiscation of their property, unless they shall enter into an engagement to abjure their own, and to embrace the Roman Catholic faith, before the end of twenty days. We have learnt also, that regardless of their humble petitions to your highness, praying that you would be pleased to revoke the said edict and to grant the same privileges, which were anciently conceded by your serene ancestors, your army fell upon them, cruelly slaughtered great numbers, imprisoned others, and drove the rest to fly for refuge to desolate places, and to mountains covered with snow, where hundreds of families are reduced to such extremity, that, it is to be feared, they will all shortly perish with cold and hunger. Upon receiving intelligence of the melancholy condition of this most oppressed people, it was impossible not to feel the greatest commiseration and grief; for we not only consider ourselves united to them by common ties of humanity, but by those of the same religion. Feeling therefore, that we are invoked by the sacred voice of brotherly love, we declare that we should fail in our duty to ourselves, to God, to our brethren, and to the religion we profess, if we were not deeply moved by a sense of their calamities, and if we did not employ every means in our power, to obtain an alleviation of their unparalleled sufferings. It is on this account that we most earnestly entreat, and conjure your highness, in the first place, to call to mind the enactments of your serene ancestors, and the concessions which they made and confirmed from time to time in favour of the Waldenses; which concessions were granted, no doubt, in obedience to the will of God, who desires that liberty of conscience should be the inviolable right of every man, and in consideration of the merits of these their subjects, who have ever been found valiant and faithful in war, and obedient in time of peace. And as your serene highness has graciously and nobly trodden in the steps of your predecessors in all other things, we again and again beseech you, that you will not depart from them in this instance, but that you will revoke this edict, and any other that is oppressive to your subjects, in consequence of their professing the reformed religion; that you will restore to them their paternal habitations and property; that you will confirm their ancient rights and privileges; that you will cause reparation to be made for their injuries; and order an end to be put to all vexatious proceedings against them. If your highness will comply with this request, you will do what is most acceptable to God; you will comfort and support the minds of those unhappy sufferers, and you will be conferring a favour upon the neighbouring Protestant states, and especially upon us, who will consider such clemency as the effect of our intercession; which will constrain us to do every kind office in return, and will be the means not only of strengthening, but of renewing and increasing the relations and friendship, which have subsisted between this commonwealth and your dominions. Promising ourselves much from your justice and moderation, we heartily pray God to direct your mind and thoughts, and so to grant you and your people the blessings of peace and truth, and to prosper all your undertakings.

Given at our court at Westminster, the 25th day of May, 1655.

Oliver, Protector

A Letter of His Highness the Lord Protector of England, &c. to the Cantons of the Swisses Professing the Reformed Religion, in Favour of the Poor Protestants of the Valleys of Piedmont.* [* This is an excerpt from the letter as it appears in Samuel Moreland’s History of the Evangelical Churches of the Valleys of Piemont, London 1658. Reprinted by Church History Research & Archives, 1982. We have italicized Cromwell’s roundabout statement implying taking military action if necessary. Cromwell himself considered seeding forces if need be.]

Most Noble Lords,

… We thought good to write unto you, and to signifie how much we judged it the concernment of us all to help and comfort our exiled and disconsolate Brethren, by such means as shall be thought proper and convenient; and thereby to provide, not onely for the removal of their present evils, but also to prevent their further growth, or any danger which may happen to us all by the example and consequence of this action. Hereupon we have written Letters to the Duke of Savoy, wherein we have entreated him, that of his clemency he would deal more gently with his faithful! Subjects, and restore them (being now almost undone) to their Estates and native countreys. We hope that he will be entreated by our, or rather by the joynt intreaties of us all and that he will readily grant what we so earnestly desire. But if he shall appear otherwise minded, we are ready to advise with you about such means as may be most conducing to the redress and relief of these poor innocent men, and our dear Brethren in Christ, who groan under so many injuries and oppressions, and which may preserve them from a most certain and causeless destruction, whose safety and preservation, according to your wonted piety, cloth (we are confident) ly very near upon your hearts. Given at our palace at Westminster the 25. of May, 1655.

Your Lordships good Friend Oliver P.

On the Late Massacre in Piedmont

By John Milton 1655* [* John Milton, genius of English poetry, was the author of Paradise Lost.]

Avenge O Lord thy slaughtered Saints, whose bones

Lie scatter’d on the Alpine mountains cold,

Ev’n them who kept thy truth so pure of old

When all our Fathers worship’t 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 roll’d

Mother with infant down the rocks. Their moans

The vales redoubl’d to the hills, and they

To heav’n. Their martyred blood and ashes sow

O’re all th’ 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.