Between August 24 and 26, 1572, thousands of Huguenots were massacred in Paris at the instigation of several members of the French royal family and the Duke of Guise. The infamous event fell on the feast day of St. Bartholomew (August 24), several days after the wedding of Henry of Navarre and Margaret of Valois. The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre ended any hopes of reconciliation between the French Catholics and their Huguenot compatriots during the 16th and 17th centuries. This event is recorded on the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History during that time.
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The Reformation in France
In 1517, Martin Luther published his 95 Theses against the sale of indulgences. Unbeknownst to him, this piece of literature would upset the balance of power and set off a series of wars in and out of Germany even after his death.
The Reformation, ignited by Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, eventually found its way into France. During the 1530s, Protestantism spread quickly in France thanks to the efforts of John Calvin. Unfortunately, French Protestants (Huguenots) never found their homeland a hospitable place for their faith. By the mid-1500s, King Henry II officially sanctioned the persecution of Huguenots, a policy that continued under his son, Francis II. The persecution against them only intensified when Huguenots tried to kidnap the young king in Amboise in 1560. The Conspiracy of Amboise failed, and more than a thousand Huguenots were executed in the aftermath.
Under Francis II (and in the shadow of his powerful mother Catherine de Médici), France’s policy concerning the Huguenots seesawed between repression and conciliation. The tides of conflict could not be held back any longer when France finally plunged into its first War of Religion between 1562 and 1563. The war ended in 1563 with the Peace of Amboise, but the hatred between the Catholics and the Huguenots remained. The second War of Religion exploded in 1567 and ended in 1568 with the Treaty of Longjumeau. The ink was not yet dry on the document when the third War of Religion broke out in the same year. This was ended with the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1570, but peace would be a far-fetched dream for the Huguenots.
Two years after the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, France was once again engulfed in another War of Religion. What made this particular war so notorious was the wantonness of destruction unleashed by the rulers of France against the Huguenots of France and those who came from the Kingdom of Navarre.
The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day
Catherine de Médici – the Italian queen consort of King Henry II of France. She gave birth to the future King Francis II in 1544, and was soon followed by Elizabeth of Valois (1545), Charles IX (1550), Margaret of Valois (1553), and the Duke of Anjou, Henry III (1558). She occasionally played regent during the reign of her husband Henry II and her son Francis II. She became more powerful after the death of Francis II and the accession of her younger son, Charles IX.
Catherine tried to be conciliatory to the Huguenots during the early years of her rule. After the Surprise of Meaux (1567), the queen launched a repressive campaign against Louis I de Bourbon (the Huguenot Prince de Condé) and his supporters. She allegedly ordered the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre along with her younger and more ambitious son, Henry, Duke of Anjou, and some French and Italian noblemen.
Charles IX – the younger son of King Henry II and Catherine de Médici. Charles inherited the throne of France when his older brother died Francis II died in 1560. Sickly, mentally unstable, and unfit to rule, he was long overshadowed by his mentor, the Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, and by his own mother. He was said to have ordered the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day with the instigation of his mother.
Margaret of Valois – younger daughter of Henry II and Catherine de Médici. Her wedding with the Huguenot King Henry III of Navarre on August 18, 1572, was tarnished with the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day on August 24. She became the Queen of Navarre and France following her brothers’ death and her husband’s accession to the throne of France.
Henry I, Duke of Guise – leader of the Catholic faction at the French court and lover of Margaret of Valois. The duke blamed Coligny for his father’s death in 1563 and sought revenge from his youth. He personally supervised Coligny’s assassination in 1572.
Henry, Duke of Anjou – youngest son of Henry II and Catherine de Médici. Primary instigator of the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day.
Jeanne d’Albret – Queen of Navarre and joint ruler with her husband Antoine de Bourbon. She converted to Calvinism during the mid-1500s and imposed Protestantism in Navarre. She would repeatedly come to a head with Catherine de Médici during the French Wars of Religion. Jeanne finally agreed to make peace with the Catholic faction in 1572 with the betrothal of her son Henry III to the French princess Margaret of Valois. Her death in Paris two months before her son’s wedding was blamed on Catherine de Médici.
Henry III of Navarre (later Henry IV of France) – son and heir of Jeanne d’Albret and Antoine de Bourbon. Catherine de Médici and Henry’s mother Jeanne d’Albret arranged his marriage to the French princess Margaret of Valois in 1572 to reconcile the Catholics and the Huguenots. Henry III was one of the few survivors of the Huguenot massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Day.
Gaspard de Coligny – French admiral and leader of Protestant faction at the French court. He became the Huguenots’ most trusted supporter and protector during the Reformation. Henry I, Duke of Guise, blamed Coligny for the death of his father. Coligny became an influential adviser to the mentally unstable Charles IX, something that Catherine greatly resented. On August 22, 1572, assassins allegedly sent by Catherine de Médici (or Henry, Duke of Guise or even Spain) failed to kill Coligny. The second attempt, however, was supervised by the Duke of Guise himself and resulted in the admiral’s death on St. Bartholomew’s Day (August 24). A massacre of tens of thousands of Huguenots followed the death of Coligny.
Before his death, Coligny had been trying to convince Charles IX to lead the French army in a war against Philip II of Spain to take the Low Countries. Coligny hoped that the war against Spain would finally unite the Huguenots and the Catholics, but the plan encountered fierce resistance from the Duke of Guise.
The Wedding and the Bloodbath
The marriage of Margaret of Valois and Henry III of Navarre was solemnized on August 18, 1572, in Paris. It was the culmination of months of negotiation between the Protestant Queen Jeanne d’Albret and the Catholic Queen Catherine de Médici. King Charles IX of France, his younger brother Henry III, and their mother attended the wedding, along with the Catholic and Huguenot nobility. The marriage of Henry and Margaret was supposed to end the enmity between the Huguenots and Catholics, but what transpired afterward only deepened the hatred between the two factions.
Four days after the wedding, an assassin attempted to kill Gaspard de Coligny as he walked home from the Louvre. He escaped with his life intact, but with his left arm fractured by the shot. His bodyguards were unable to apprehend the assassin, but rumors quickly spread that it was Catherine de Médici who sent the killer.
On St. Bartholomew’s Day (August 24), assassins sent by Catherine and Henry, Duke of Anjou (with permission from Charles IX and the personal supervision of the Duke of Guise) made another attempt at Coligny’s life. They attacked him at home and threw his dead body out of a window afterward. His killing was followed by the massacre of Huguenot noblemen who were staying in the Louvre Palace. Henry of Navarre was detained while the massacre was ongoing. Armed men also roamed the streets of Paris and targeted common Huguenots. The bloodbath continued for three days until Charles IX himself ordered the people to stop the killings.
By August 26, 1572, thousands of dead Huguenots laid on the streets of Paris. The killing frenzy also spread to other provinces, pushing the death toll from anywhere between 2,000 (Catholic writers’ estimate) to 70,000 (Protestant writers’ estimate). Philip II of Spain and Pope Gregory XIII greeted the news of the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre with joy. Many of Europe’s Catholic and Protestant monarchs, however, were horrified when they heard of the slaughter in France.
Charles IX’s mental health, on the other hand, deteriorated soon after the massacre. There were moments when he rejoiced at the death of the Huguenots, but there were instances when he would be racked by guilt and rave about them. He was not healthy to begin with, but his health continued to decline as the months passed. He died in 1574 at the age of 23 and was succeeded by his younger brother, Henry III, Duke of Anjou.
Hassall, Arthur. France, Mediaeval and Modern: A History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1918.
Heritier, Jean. French Wars of Religion: How Important Were Religious Factors. Edited by J.M.H. Salmon. Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Company, 1967.
Moran, Patrick Francis. The St. Bartholomew Massacre, 24th August, 1572. Dublin:
“St. Bartholomew’s Day (24th August 1572).” Musee Virtuel du Protestantisme. Accessed December 13, 2017. https://www.museeprotestant.org/en/notice/st-bartholomews-day-24th-august-1572/.
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