|Start date August 24, 1572||End date 1572|
St bartholomew s day massacre
The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (French: Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy) in 1572 was a targeted group of assassinations and a wave of Catholic mob violence, directed against the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants) during the French Wars of Religion. Traditionally believed to have been instigated by Catherine de' Medici, the mother of King Charles IX, the massacre took place on the wedding day of the king's sister Margaret to the Protestant Henry III of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France). Many of the most wealthy and prominent Huguenots had gathered in largely Catholic Paris to attend the wedding.
- St bartholomew s day massacre
- An unacceptable peace and an unacceptable marriage
- Tension in Paris
- Shift in Huguenot thought
- Huguenot intervention in the Netherlands
- The attempted assassination of Admiral de Coligny
- In the provinces
- Death toll
- Role of the royal family
- Role of the religious factions
The massacre began in the night of 23–24 August 1572 (the eve of the feast of Bartholomew the Apostle), two days after the attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the military and political leader of the Huguenots. The king ordered the killing of a group of Huguenot leaders, including Coligny, and the slaughter spread throughout Paris. Lasting several weeks, the massacre expanded outward to other urban centres and the countryside. Modern estimates for the number of dead across France vary widely, from 5,000 to 30,000.
The massacre also marked a turning point in the French Wars of Religion. The Huguenot political movement was crippled by the loss of many of its prominent aristocratic leaders, as well as many re-conversions by the rank and file, and those who remained were increasingly radicalized. Though by no means unique, it "was the worst of the century's religious massacres." Throughout Europe, it "printed on Protestant minds the indelible conviction that Catholicism was a bloody and treacherous religion".
The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day was the culmination of a series of events:
An unacceptable peace and an unacceptable marriage
The Peace of Saint-Germain put an end to three years of terrible civil war between Catholics and Protestants. This peace, however, was precarious since the more intransigent Catholics refused to accept it. With the Guise family, who led this faction, out of favour at the French court, the Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny was readmitted into the king's council in September 1571. Staunch Catholics were shocked by the return of Protestants to the court, but the queen mother Catherine de' Medici and her son Charles IX were determined not to let war break out again. They were also conscious of the kingdom's financial difficulties, which led them to uphold the peace and remain on friendly terms with Coligny. The Huguenots were in a strong defensive position as they controlled the fortified towns of La Rochelle, La Charité-sur-Loire, Cognac, and Montauban.
To cement the peace between the two religious parties, Catherine planned to marry her daughter Margaret to the Protestant prince Henry of Navarre (the future King Henry IV), son of the Huguenot leader Queen Jeanne d'Albret. The royal marriage was arranged for 18 August 1572. It was not accepted by traditionalist Catholics or by the Pope. Both the Pope and King Philip II of Spain strongly condemned Catherine's policy.
Tension in Paris
The impending marriage led to the gathering of a large number of well-born Protestants in Paris, who had come to escort their prince. But Paris was a violently anti-Huguenot city, and Parisians, who tended to be extreme Catholics, found their presence unacceptable. Encouraged by Catholic preachers, they were horrified at the marriage of a princess of France with a Protestant. The Parlement of Paris itself decided to snub the marriage ceremony.
Compounding this bad feeling was the fact that the harvests had been poor and taxes had risen. The rise in food prices and the luxury displayed on the occasion of the royal wedding increased tensions among the common people. A particular point of tension was an open-air cross erected on the site of the house of Philippe de Gastines, a Huguenot who had been executed in 1569. The mob had torn down his house and erected a large wooden cross on a stone base. Under the terms of the peace, and after considerable popular resistance, this had been removed in December 1571 (and re-erected in a cemetery), which had already led to about 50 deaths in riots, as well as mob destruction of property. In the massacres of August, the relatives of the Gastines family were among the first to be killed by the mob.
The court itself was extremely divided. Catherine had not obtained Pope Gregory XIII's permission to celebrate this irregular marriage; consequently, the French prelates hesitated over which attitude to adopt. It took all the queen mother's skill to convince the Cardinal de Bourbon (paternal uncle of the Protestant groom, but himself a Catholic clergyman) to marry the couple. Beside this, the rivalries between the leading families re-emerged. The Guises were not prepared to make way for their rivals, the House of Montmorency. François, Duke of Montmorency and governor of Paris, was unable to control the disturbances in the city. Faced with a dangerous situation in Paris, he elected to leave town a few days before the wedding.
Shift in Huguenot thought
In the years preceding the massacre, Huguenot "political rhetoric" had for the first time taken a tone against not just the policies of a particular monarch of France, but monarchy in general. In part this was led by an apparent change in stance by John Calvin in his Readings on the Prophet Daniel, a book of 1561, in which he had argued that when kings disobey God, they "automatically abdicate their worldly power" - a change from his views in earlier works that even ungodly kings should be obeyed. This change was soon picked up by Huguenot writers, who began to expand on Calvin and promote the idea of the sovereignty of the people, ideas to which Catholic writers and preachers responded fiercely.
Nevertheless, it was only in the aftermath of the massacre that anti-monarchical ideas found widespread support from Huguenots, among the "Monarchomachs" and others. “Huguenot writers, who had previously, for the most part, paraded their loyalty to the Crown, now called for the deposition or assassination of a Godless king who had either authorised or permitted the slaughter”. Thus, the massacre "marked the beginning of a new form of French Protestantism: one that was openly at war with the crown. This was much more than a war against the policies of the crown, as in the first three civil wars; it was a campaign against the very existence of the Gallican monarchy itself".
Huguenot intervention in the Netherlands
Tensions were further raised when in May 1572 the news reached Paris that a French Huguenot army under Louis of Nassau had crossed from France to the Netherlandish province of Hainault and captured the Catholic strongholds of Mons and Valenciennes (now in Belgium and France, respectively). Louis governed the Principality of Orange around Avignon in southern France for his brother William the Silent, who was leading the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish. This intervention threatened to involve France in that war; many Catholics believed that Coligny had again persuaded the king to intervene on the side of the Dutch, as he had managed to do the previous October, before Catherine had got the decision reversed.
The attempted assassination of Admiral de Coligny
After the wedding on 18 August 1572, Coligny and the leading Huguenots remained in Paris to discuss some outstanding grievances about the Peace of St. Germain with the king. On 22 August, an attempt was made on Coligny's life as he made his way back to his house from the Louvre. He was shot from an upstairs window, and seriously wounded. The would-be assassin, Maurevert, escaped in the ensuing confusion, and it is still difficult today to decide who was ultimately responsible for the attack. History records three possible candidates:
The attempted assassination of Coligny triggered the crisis that led to the massacre. Admiral de Coligny was the most respected Huguenot leader and enjoyed a close relationship with the king, although he was distrusted by the king's mother. Aware of the danger of reprisals from the Protestants, the king and his court visited Coligny on his sickbed and promised him that the culprits would be punished. While the Queen Mother was eating dinner, Protestants burst in to demand justice, some talking in menacing terms. Fears of Huguenot reprisals grew. Coligny's brother-in-law led a 4,000-strong army camped just outside Paris and, although there is no evidence it was planning to attack, Catholics in the city feared it might take revenge on the Guises or the city populace itself.
That evening, Catherine held a meeting at the Tuileries Palace with her Italian advisers, including Albert de Gondi, Comte de Retz. On the evening of 23 August, Catherine went to see the king to discuss the crisis. Though no details of the meeting survive, Charles IX and his mother took the decision to eliminate the Protestant leaders, Holt speculates perhaps "between two and three dozen noblemen" who were still in Paris. Other historians are reluctant to speculate on the composition or size of the group of leaders targeted at this point, beyond the few obvious heads. Most potential candidates were accompanied by groups of gentlemen as staff and bodyguards like Coligny; so, each killing of a leader could have been expected to involve killing these as well.
Shortly after this decision, the municipal authorities of Paris were summoned. They were ordered to shut the city gates and arm the citizenry to prevent any attempt at a Protestant uprising. The king's Swiss Guard was given the task of killing a list of leading Protestants. It is difficult today to determine the exact chronology of events and to know the moment the killing began. It seems a signal was given by ringing bells for matins (between midnight and dawn) at the church of Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois, near the Louvre, which was the parish church of the kings of France. Before this, the Swiss guards had expelled the Protestant nobles from the Louvre castle and then slaughtered them in the streets.
A group led by Guise in person dragged Admiral Coligny from his bed, killed him, and threw his body out of the window. Huguenot nobles in the building had first put up a fight. Although the Huguenot nobles were terrified for the life of their leader, one of Coligny’s murderers recognized his fearlessness of his fate by stating that “he never saw anyone less afraid in so great a peril, nor die more steadfastly” (Dethou). The tension that had been building since the Peace of St. Germain now exploded in a wave of popular violence. The common people began to hunt Protestants throughout the city, including women and children. Chains were used to block streets so that Protestants could not escape from their houses. The bodies of the dead were collected in carts and thrown into the Seine. The massacre in Paris lasted three days despite the king's attempts to stop it. Holt concludes that "while the general massacre might have been prevented, there is no evidence that it was intended by any of the elites at court," listing a number of cases where Catholic courtiers intervened to save individual Protestants who were not in the leadership.
The two leading Huguenot princes, Henry of Navarre and his cousin the Prince of Condé (respectively aged 19 and 20), were spared as they pledged to convert to Catholicism; both renounced their conversions after they escaped Paris. According to some interpretations, the survival of these princes was a key point in Catherine's overall scheme, to prevent the House of Guise from becoming too powerful.
On August 26, the king and court established the official version of events by going to the Paris Parlement. "Holding a lit de justice, Charles declared that he had ordered the massacre in order to thwart a Huguenot plot against the royal family." A jubilee celebration, including a procession, was then held, while the killings continued in parts of the city.
In the provinces
Although Charles had dispatched orders to his provincial governors on August 24 to prevent violence and maintain the terms of the 1570 edict, from August to October, similar massacres of Huguenots took place in a total of twelve other cities: Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon, Bourges, Rouen, Orléans, Meaux, Angers, La Charité, Saumur, Gaillac and Troyes. In most of them, the killings swiftly followed the arrival of the news of the Paris massacre, but in some places there was a delay of more than a month. According to Mack P. Holt: "All twelve cities where provincial massacres occurred had one striking feature in common; they were all cities with Catholic majorities where there had once been significant Protestant minorities.... All of them had also experienced serious religious division... during the first three civil wars... Moreover seven of them shared a previous experience ... [they] had actually been taken over by Protestant minorities during the first civil war..."
In several cases the Catholic party in the city believed they had received orders from the king to begin the massacre, some conveyed by visitors to the city, and in other cases apparently coming from a local nobleman or his agent. It seems unlikely any such orders came from the king, although the Guise faction may have desired the massacres. Apparently genuine letters from the Duke of Anjou, the king's younger brother, did urge massacres in the king's name; in Nantes the mayor fortunately held on to his without publicising it until a week later when contrary orders from the king had arrived. In some cities the massacres were led by the mob, while the city authorities tried to suppress them, and in others small groups of soldiers and officials began rounding up Protestants with little mob involvement. In Bordeaux the inflammatory sermon on September 29 of a Jesuit, Edmond Auger, encouraged the massacre that was to occur a few days later.
In the cities affected the loss to the Huguenot communities after the massacres was numerically far larger than those actually killed; in the following weeks there were mass conversions to Catholicism, apparently in response to the threatening atmosphere for Huguenots in these cities. In Rouen, where some hundreds were killed, the Huguenot community shrank from 16,500 to fewer than 3,000 mainly as a result of conversions and emigration to safer cities or countries. Some cities unaffected by the violence nevertheless witnessed a sharp decline in their Huguenot population. It has been claimed that the Huguenot community represented as much as 10% of the French population on the eve of the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, declining to 7-8% by the end of the 16th century, and further after heavy persecution began once again during the reign of Louis XIV, culminating with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.
Soon afterward both sides prepared for a fourth civil war, which began before the end of the year.
Estimates of the number that perished in the massacres, “have varied from 2,000 by a Roman Catholic apologist to 70,000 by the contemporary Huguenot duc de Sully, who himself barely escaped death". Accurate figures for casualties have never been compiled, and, even in writings by modern historians there is a considerable range, though the more specialised the historian, the lower they tend to be. At the low end are figures of about 2,000 in Paris and 3,000 in the provinces, the latter figure an estimate by Philip Benedict in an article in 1978. Other estimates are about 10,000 in total, with about 3,000 in Paris and 7,000 in the provinces. At the higher end are total figures of up to 20,000, or 30,000 in total, from "a contemporary, non-partisan guesstimate" quoted by the historians Felipe Fernández-Armesto and D. Wilson. For Paris, the only hard figure is a payment by the city to workmen for collecting and burying 1,100 bodies washed up on the banks of the Seine downstream from the city in one week. Body counts relating to other payments are computed from this.
Among the slain were the philosopher Petrus Ramus, and in Lyon the composer Claude Goudimel. The corpses floating down the Rhone from Lyons are said to have put the people of Arles off drinking the water for three months.
The Politiques were horrified but many Catholics inside and outside France initially regarded the massacres as deliverance from an imminent Huguenot coup d'etat. The severed head of Coligny was apparently dispatched to Pope Gregory XIII, though it got no further than Lyon, and the pope sent the king a Golden Rose. The pope ordered a Te Deum to be sung as a special thanksgiving (a practice continued for many years after) and had a medal struck with the motto Ugonottorum strages 1572 (Latin for "overthrow" or "slaughter," "of the Huguenots") showing an angel bearing a cross and sword before which are the felled Protestants.
Pope Gregory XIII also commissioned the artist Giorgio Vasari to paint three frescos in the Sala Regia depicting the wounding of Coligny, his death, and Charles IX before Parliament, matching those commemorating the defeat of the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto (1571). "The massacre was interpreted as an act of divine retribution; Coligny was considered a threat to Christendom and thus Pope Gregory XIII designated 11 September 1572 as a joint commemoration of the Battle of Lepanto and the massacre of the Huguenots."
Although these formal acts of rejoicing in Rome were not repudiated publicly, misgivings in the papal curia grew as the true nature of the killings gradually became better known. Pope Gregory XIII himself refused to receive Charles de Maurevert, said to be the killer of Coligny, on the grounds he was a murderer.
On hearing of the slaughter, Philip II of Spain “laughed for the only time on record”. In Paris, the poet Jean-Antoine de Baïf, founder of the Academie de Musique et de Poésie, wrote a sonnet extravagantly praising the killings. On the other hand, the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II, King Charles's father-in-law, was sickened, describing the massacre as "shameful". Moderate French Catholics also began to wonder whether religious uniformity was worth the price of such bloodshed and they began to swell the ranks of a movement, the Politiques, which placed national unity above sectarian interests.
The massacre caused a “major international crisis”. Protestant countries were horrified at the events, and only the concentrated efforts of Catherine's ambassadors, including a special mission by Gondi, prevented the collapse of her policy of remaining on good terms with them. Elizabeth I of England's ambassador to France at that time, Sir Francis Walsingham, barely escaped with his life. Even Tsar Ivan the Terrible expressed horror at the carnage in a letter to the Emperor.
The massacre "spawned a pullulating mass of polemical literature, bubbling with theories, prejudices and phobias" Many Catholic authors were exultant in their praise of the king for his bold and decisive action (after regretfully abandoning a policy of meeting Huguenot demands as far as he could) against the supposed Huguenot coup, whose details were now fleshed out in officially sponsored works, though the larger mob massacres were somewhat deprecated: "[one] must excuse the people's fury moved by a laudable zeal which is difficult to restrain once it has been stirred up". Huguenot works understandably dwelt on the harrowing details of violence, expounded various conspiracy theories that the royal court had long planned the massacres, and often showed extravagant anti-Italian feelings directed at Catherine, Gondi, and other Italians at court. Diplomatic correspondence was readier than published polemics to recognise the unplanned and chaotic nature of the events, which also emerged from several accounts in memoirs published over the following years by witnesses to the events at court, including two dramatic and influential accounts by members of the royal family that were not recognised as fake until the 19th century, those supposedly by Marguerite of Navarre, and Anjou. Anjou's supposed account was the source of the quotation attributed to Charles IX: "Well then, so be it! Kill them! But kill them all! Don't leave a single one alive to reproach me!"
The author of the Lettre de Pierre Charpentier (1572) was not only "a Protestant of sorts, and thus, apparently, writing with inside knowledge", but also "an extreme apologist for the massacre ... in his view ... a well-merited punishment for years of civil disobedience [and] secret sedition..." A strand of Catholic writing, especially by Italian authors, broke from the official French line to applaud the massacre as precisely a brilliant stratagem, deliberately planned from various points beforehand. The most extreme of these writers was Camilo Capilupi, a papal secretary, whose work insisted that the whole series of events since 1570 had been a masterly plan conceived by Charles IX, and carried through by frequently misleading his mother and ministers as to his true intentions. The Venetian government refused to allow the work to be printed there, and it was eventually published in Rome in 1574, and in the same year quickly reprinted in Geneva in the original Italian and a French translation.
It was in this context that the massacre came to be seen as a product of Machiavellianism, a view greatly influenced by the Huguenot Innocent Gentillet, who published his Discours contre Machievel in 1576, which was printed in ten editions in three languages over the next four years. Gentillet held, quite wrongly according to Sydney Anglo, that Machiavelli's "books [were] held most dear and precious by our Italian and Italionized courtiers" (in the words of his first English translation), and so (in Anglo's paraphrase) "at the root of France's present degradation, which has culminated not only in the St Bartholemew massacre but the glee of its perverted admirers". In fact there is little trace of Machiavelli in French writings before the massacre, and not very much after, until Gentillet's own book, but this concept was seized upon by many contemporaries, and played a crucial part in setting the long-lasting popular concept of Machiavellianism that so infuriates scholars of his actual thought. It also gave added impetus to the strong anti-Italian feelings already present in Huguenot polemic.
Christopher Marlowe was one of many Elizabethan writers who were enthusiastic proponents of these ideas. In the Jew of Malta (1589–90) "Machievel" in person speaks the Prologue, claiming to not be dead, but to have possessed the soul of (the Duke of) Guise, "And, now the Guise is dead, is come from France/ To view this land, and frolic with his friends" (Prologue, lines 3-4) His last play, The Massacre at Paris (1593) takes the massacre, and the following years, as its subject, with Guise and Catherine both depicted as Machiavellian plotters, bent on evil from the start. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913 was still ready to endorse a version of this view, describing the massacres as "an entirely political act committed in the name of the immoral principles of Machiavellianism" and blaming "the pagan theories of a certain raison d'état according to which the end justified the means".
The French 18th-century historian Louis-Pierre Anquetil, in his Esprit de la Ligue of 1767, was among the first to begin impartial historical investigation, emphasizing the lack of premeditation (before the attempt on Coligny) in the massacre and that Catholic mob violence had a history of uncontrollable escalation. By this period the Massacre was being widely used by Voltaire (in his Henriade) and other Enlightenment writers in polemics against organized religion in general. The question of whether the massacre had long been premeditated was not entirely settled until the late 19th century; Lord Acton changed his mind on the matter twice, finally concluding that it was not.
Role of the royal family
Over the centuries, the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre has inevitably aroused a great deal of controversy. Modern historians are still divided over the responsibility of the royal family:
Role of the religious factions
Traditional histories have tended to focus more on the roles of the political notables whose machinations began the massacre than the mindset of those who actually did the killing. Ordinary lay Catholics were involved in the mass killings; they believed they were executing the wishes of the king and of God. At this time, in an age before mass media, “the pulpit remained probably the most effective means of mass communication”.
Despite the large numbers of pamphlets and broadsheets in circulation, literacy rates were still poor. Thus, some modern historians have stressed the critical and incendiary role that militant preachers played in shaping ordinary lay beliefs, both Catholic and Protestant.
Historian Barbara B. Diefendorf, Professor of History at Boston University, wrote that Simon Vigor had "said if the King ordered the Admiral (Coligny) killed, 'it would be wicked not to kill him'. With these words, the most popular preacher in Paris legitimised in advance the events of St. Bartholomew's Day". Diefendorf says that when the head of the murdered Coligny was shown to the Paris mob by a member of the nobility, with the claim that it was the King’s will, the die was cast. Another historian Mack P. Holt, Professor at George Mason University, agrees that Vigor, "the best known preacher in Paris," preached sermons that were full of references to the evils that would befall the capital should the Protestants seize control. This view is also partly supported by Cunningham and Grell (2000) who explained that "militant sermons by priests such as Simon Vigor served to raise the religious and eschatological temperature on the eve of the Massacre".
Historians cite the extreme tension and bitterness that led to the powder-keg atmosphere of Paris in August 1572. In the previous ten years there had already been three outbreaks of civil war, and attempts by Protestant nobles to seize power in France. Some blame the complete esteem with which the sovereign's office was held, justified by prominent French Roman Catholic theologians, and that the special powers of French Kings "...were accompanied by explicit responsibilities, the foremost of which was combating heresy."
Holt, notable for re-emphasising the importance of religious issues, as opposed to political/dynastic power struggles or socio-economic tensions, in explaining the French Wars of Religion, also re-emphasised the role of religion in the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. He noted that the extra violence inflicted on many of the corpses "was not random at all, but patterned after the rites of the Catholic culture that had given birth to it." "Many Protestant houses were burned, invoking the traditional purification by fire of all heretics. Many victims were also thrown into the Seine, invoking the purification by water of Catholic baptism". Viewed as a threat to the social and political order, Holt argues that "Huguenots not only had to be exterminated - that is, killed - they also had to be humiliated, dishonoured, and shamed as the inhuman beasts they were perceived to be."
However Raymond Mentzer points out that Protestants "could be as bloodthirsty as Catholics. Earlier Huguenot rage at Nimes (in 1567) led to... the massacre of a hundred or so Catholics, mostly priests and prominent laymen, at the hands of their Protestant neighbours. Few towns escaped the episodic violence and some suffered repeatedly from both sides. Neither faith had a monopoly on cruelty and misguided fervour".
Some, like Leonie Frieda, emphasise the element within the mob violence of the "haves" being "killed by the 'have-nots'". Many Protestants were nobles or bourgeois and Frieda adds that "a number of bourgeois Catholic Parisians had suffered the same fate as the Protestants; many financial debts were wiped clean with the death of creditors and moneylenders that night". At least one Huguenot was able to buy off his would-be murderers.
The historian H.G. Koenigsberger (who until his retirement in 1984 was Professor of History at King’s College, University of London) wrote that the Massacre was deeply disturbing because "it was Christians massacring other Christians who were not foreign enemies but their neighbours with which they and their forebears had lived in a Christian community, and under the same ruler, for a thousand years". He concludes that the historical importance of the Massacre "lies not so much in the appalling tragedies involved as their demonstration of the power of sectarian passion to break down the barriers of civilisation, community and accepted morality".
An explanation of this may lie in the analysis of the massacre in terms of social anthropology by the religious historian Bruce Lincoln, who describes how the religious divide, which gave the Huguenots different patterns of dress, eating and pastimes, as well as the obvious differences of religion and (very often) class, had become a social schism or cleavage. The rituals around the royal marriage had only intensified this cleavage, contrary to its intentions, and the "sentiments of estrangement - radical otherness - [had come] to prevail over sentiments of affinity between Catholics and Protestants".
On 23 August 1997, Pope John Paul II, who was in Paris for the 12th World Youth Day, issued a statement on the Massacre. He stayed in Paris for three days and made eleven speeches. According to Reuters and the Associated Press, at a late-night vigil, with the hundreds of thousands of young people who were in Paris for the celebrations, he made the following comments: "On the eve of Aug. 24, we cannot forget the sad massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, an event of very obscure causes in the political and religious history of France. ... Christians did things which the Gospel condemns. I am convinced that only forgiveness, offered and received, leads little by little to a fruitful dialogue, which will in turn ensure a fully Christian reconciliation. ... Belonging to different religious traditions must not constitute today a source of opposition and tension. On the contrary, our common love for Christ impels us to seek tirelessly the path of full unity."