In 18th Century France, Catholicism had become the official religion of the country, with no legal right for those of other faiths to practice them. Protestants had been harshly oppressed throughout the country, triggered by the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685. Issued by Louis XIV, the edict revoked the previous Edict of Nantes, which had given the French Protestant Huguenots the right to practice their religion without persecution. Many protestants fled to other European nations with some, such as Prussia and Denmark, actively encouraging them to relocate.
By the mid 18th Century the worst of the persecution had eased, however protestants remained second class citizens in the eyes of many catholic officials. One such citizen was Jean Calas, a cloth merchant living in Toulouse with his family. While Calas himself was a staunch Protestant, one of his sons converted to Catholicism in 1756.
Five years later, Calas’s eldest son was found hanged at the family’s home. When questioned the family initially claimed that the young man, Marc-Antoine, had been murdered by an intruder. The story quickly unraveled and they later admitted that Marc-Antoine had taken his own life. With suicide considered a heinous crime at the time, the family had conspired to make the death appear to be a murder.
Due in part to the attempted cover-up, a court found that Jean Calas had in fact murdered his son to prevent him following his brother and converting to Catholicism. Despite Calas’s claims of innocence and the testimony of his Catholic governess, Calas was found guilty and sentenced to be tortured. This process included wrenching his arms and legs out of their sockets, forcing vast amounts of water down his throat and a public beating with an iron bar, during which each of his limbs were broken twice. Throughout his ordeal he continued to profess his innocence. Despite the lack of a confession, on March 9th 1762 the Toulouse regional court sentenced Calas to death.
The unfortunate merchant was ultimately put to death using a method known variously as the breaking wheel, execution wheel or catherine wheel. Bound to a large cart wheel on a public scaffold and in agony from his broken bones, Calas took more than two hours to die. Throughout he refused to confess. Following his execution his family’s property was seized and his daughters were sent to a covent. His widow and remaining sons fled to Switzerland.
The outcome of the trial began to be questioned, with anger growing that the harsh judgement reflected anti-Protestant sentiment amongst French officials. The leading voice of opposition became the French philosopher Voltaire. His status provided him the platform to mount a campaign to have the sentence overturned, being of the belief that Marc-Antoine had taken his own life due to mounting gambling debts. His campaign was successful, and in 1764 Louis XV annulled the sentence and fired the chief magistrate of Tolouse. The family received 36,000 livres from the King in compensation. Voltaire was highly critical of the Catholic church’s role throughout the trial and retrial, and his experience became the key tenant is his work Treatise in Tolerance a year later, calling for tolerance between all faiths.