The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

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On the night of 24 August 1572, the most notorious episode of religious violence in the Reformation era occurred. On Saint Bartholomew’s Day, a wave of assassinations and Catholic mob violence swept through Paris, and the River Seine ran red with the blood of French Protestants, the Huguenots. The killings lasted several weeks, as the massacre expanded outwards to the countryside and other urban areas. Some 70,000 perished in a slaughter sparked amidst celebrations of a marriage between a Protestant king and a Catholic princess. A marriage ironically intended to bring peace to France triggered the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

As with many of the most horrific events in human history, the road to the slaughter began years before the first shot was fired. From 1562, France had been wracked by conflict between Catholics and Huguenots, as the two religious groups vied for the French throne. Though the Catholics controlled most cities, Huguenot military and political power was focussed in four key strongholds: La Rochelle, Cognas, Montauban and Charité-sur-Loire. Numerous treaties and accords attempted to establish concord between the two factions, but even after the seminal Peace of Saint-German (agreed in August 1570) tensions still remained high.

To try to end the religious turbulence, an unexpected marriage was arranged. The young Huguenot, Henri de Navarre, was to wed the Catholic King’s sister, Marguerite de Valois, in the Cathedral of Norte-Dame. The union ought to have brought together the various rival factions, concluding forever the French Wars of Religion. Eagerly anticipating the end of their repression, many prominent Protestants travelled to Paris to celebrate, provoking anger from local Catholics, many of whom felt their power was being disproportionately diminished by the Protestant minority. Although France had a large Catholic majority, the Huguenots made up between 10% – 15% of the French population, and counted numerous important nobles amongst their ranks, including several men who were close confidantes of the King.

The most prominent of these men was Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the leader of the Huguenots and a key advisor to Charles IX. A powerful and influential Protestant, he was feared by many Catholics. Among his enemies were the formidable Queen mother, Catherine de Medici, and the staunchly Catholic Guise family. It is unclear when de Medici and the Guises resolved to kill Coligny, but they had long been concerned he would use the impressionable young Charles IX to advance the Huguenot cause and drag France into a war with Spain over the Netherlands. On 22 August, Coligny was ambushed returning to his house from the Louvre. A bullet, fired from an upstairs window, was lodged in his arm, but the admiral survived the attempt on his life – though the injury left him bedridden.

Panic permeated through the halls of the Louvre. Terrified of the dangers of Huguenot reprisals, the King vowed to identify and punish the culprits. Yet Catherine de Medici and other leading Catholics still dreaded a Huguenot uprising, as rumours soon spread of a Huguenot army 4,000 strong camped outside Paris. At a royal council the next day, Catherine and her allies spent hours urging Charles IX to order a pre-emptive strike to decapitate the Huguenot leadership. Eventually, the King gave in. The Paris municipal authorities were summoned and ordered to shut the city gates, in order to prevent any external Huguenot interference in what was to follow.

That night, the King’s Swiss mercenaries stormed Huguenot residences and slaughtered the Protestants in the streets. A special detachment of soldiers, led by the Duke of Guise, dragged the ill Coligny from his bed and murdered him. The Admiral’s corpse was flung from his window, decapitated and castrated in the street. The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre had begun.

The killings sparked an explosion of popular hatred against the Huguenots throughout the city of Paris. Violent mobs, exhorted on to action by militant priests, joined in the massacre and pounced on those Huguenots who had come to celebrate the royal marriage. Caught off guard during the night, Huguenots (men, women and children alike) were butchered in the thousands. Theodore de Beze wrote that they were killed “like sheep at the slaughterhouse.” Corpses were dismembered and dumped in the Seine to flow downstream. For three days, the savagery continued. A royal plea by Charles IX to show restraint went unheeded, and the violence only ended when the killers ran out of Huguenots to kill. After the death of Coligny, the remaining two leading Huguenots, Henri de Navarre and the Prince of Condé, were spared as they pledged to convert to Catholicism. Both fled Paris as soon as possible and subsequently renounced their conversions.

Charles IX attempted to frame the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre as a defensive action designed to prevent a Huguenot plot against the crown. Few believed him. As news of the massacre rippled through France, it was followed by blind fanaticism. Bloodthirsty religious fervour had been simmering following the recent Christian victory over the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto, and now it boiled over as smaller massacres (urged on by inflammatory sermons) plagued most major cities in France. Instead of crippling the Huguenots, the massacre merely marked the resumption of religious hostilities and sparked the fourth war between the Catholics and Protestants. Exactly how many died has been fiercely debated for four and a half centuries, but all that is known is that the number of Huguenots in France fell dramatically, and by the end of the 16th Century, only 7% of the French population was Protestant. However, we ought to note that many Huguenots either converted or fled France, and this demographic collapse was not solely due to massacres and murders.

Across Europe, Catholics viewed the events of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre as a success. In Spain, King Philip II was said to have laughed for the first time in his life upon hearing the news. In the Vatican, Pope Gregory XIII celebrated with a special mass and struck commemorative medals to immortalise the event. In contrast, Protestant nations were horrified, and began repealing the freedoms enjoyed by many of their Catholic minorities. 

Religious tolerance in France itself fluctuated for the next century. After his accession to the throne, the Protestant Henri de Navarre (now Henri IV) signed the Edict of Nantes in 1598, providing the Huguenots with more rights than they had ever possessed before – including the right to practice their faith without the threat of prosecution. Though it was hailed as the end of the struggle between Catholics and Protestants, peace barely lasted a century. Louis XIV, the Sun King, promoted persecution of Huguenots and eventually revoked the Edict of Nantes with the Edict of Fontainebleau, ending the French experiment with religious tolerance.

Erlanger, P. 1960. Le massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy. Gallimard

Le Gall, J-M. 2013. La Saint-Barthalémy. L’Express