The French Wars of Religion and the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre


Painting of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois. The body of the Admiral Coligny’s body hangs from a window at the right rear. Catherine de’ Medici is shown at the left rear emerging from the Château du Louvre to inspect a heap of bodies.

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre began on August 24, 1562 in Paris, France. Over a five-day period, Catholic mobs slaughtered some 3,000 French Huguenots (Protestants) who had come to Paris for the marriage of the king’s sister to Henry of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France). Although Catherine de Medici, the mother of the French King, has long been blamed for inciting the massacre, it is unlikely that she did so.

The massacre was one of the earliest events in the French Wars of Religion, a series of armed conflicts between Catholics and Protestants that took place throughout France during the second half of the 16th century.

France was officially a Catholic kingdom. When Protestantism appeared at the beginning of the 16th century, the French king was initially tolerant of the new religion. But over the years, as Protestantism spread, the French crown grew increasingly hostile. By the time the 10-year Charles IX took the throne in 1560, Protestants had few rights.

By then, however, almost half of the French nobility was Protestant. Charles IX’s mother, Catherine de’ Medici – who ruled as her son’s regent – saw that the conflict between Catholics and Protestants was seriously damaging France’s well-being. She sought various means to make peace between the warring factions.

Catherine de' Medici, mother of the French king, Charles IX.

Catherine de’ Medici, mother of the French king, Charles IX.

But the leading nobles of the realm didn’t want peace – they wanted more power. Leading the Catholics was the Duke of Guise, who had long controlled French affairs. Prominent on the Protestant side was Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, who was secretly pursuing an alliance with the Protestant Queen Elizabeth I England.

Although it is hard to mark the exact beginning of the French Wars of Religion, most historians cite the Massacre of Vassy as its first significant event. On March 1, 1562, adherents of the Guise family attacked Protestants worshipping in the town of Vassy (also known as Wassy) in Champagne. The worshippers were killed, along with most of the town’s residents. Protestant retaliations soon followed.

The crown sought various measures to control the escalating tensions. One was marrying the king’s sister, Margaret of Valois, to Henry of Navarre, a Protestant.

The wedding took place on August 18, 1562. Thousands of Protestants – nobles and commoners alike – came to Paris for the wedding. Among them was the Admiral Coligny.

On August 22, while Coligny was in the street, an unknown assailant shot him from a window. The Admiral survived. Many believed the assassination order had come from Catherine de Medici, though this has never been proved.

Regardless of who gave the order, however, the attempted murder of Coligny raised royal fears of Protestant retaliation and, possibly, a coup. For Henry of Navarre was not only a Protestant, he was next in line to the French throne. If Charles IX should die before he had sons, Henry would rule France.

On the morning of August 24, having obtained royal approval the night before, the Duke of Guise and his supporters murdered killing Coligny in his house. The dead Admiral was beheaded and his head sent to Rome. A Parisian mob got hold of the body, which they mutilated and castrated before dragging it through the mud, “drowning” it in the river, hanging it by its heels and burning it over a slow fire for good measure.

The murder of Coligny was the spark that lit the powder keg. For the next five days, Catholics – identified by a white cross worn on their hats — slaughtered Protestant men, women and children at will. The violence spread throughout France, claiming some 10,000 Protestant lives. Henry of Navarre himself only survived by converting to Catholicism — though he repudiated his conversion once he’d escaped Paris.

Charles IX eventually died without issue, and Henry became Henry IV of France. He converted to Catholicism, this time of his own free will. Though it took him some time (and, strangely, some persuading), in 1598 he signed the Edict of Nantes, which granted French Protestants amnesty and substantial civil rights.

For many historians, the Edict of Nantes marks the end of the French wars of religion. The unofficial persecution of Protestants continued, however, and in 1685 was made official when the Edict of Nantes was revoked by Henry IV’s grandson, Louis XIV, the Sun King.


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