But would Henry’s mother consent? Jeanne d’Albret was Huguenot in body and soul. Coming to the court in 1561, she declared that “she would not go to Mass if they killed her; she would sooner throw her son and her kingdom into the sea than yield”;48 on the contrary, she had her Huguenot chaplain preach to her with all doors open, and defiantly ignored the recriminations of the Parisian populace. When her husband was converted to Catholicism she left him and the court (1562), returned to Béarn, and raised money and troops for Condé. After her husband’s death she made Protestantism compulsory in Béarn (which included the cities of Pau, Nérac, Tarbes, Orthez, and Lourdes); Catholic clergymen were dispossessed and were replaced by Huguenot ministers;49 for fifty years thereafter no Mass was heard in Béarn.50 Pope Pius IV excommunicated her and wished to depose her, but Catherine dissuaded him.51 When Jeanne accepted the offer to bind Valois and Bourbon in marriage she may have remembered this, and Catherine’s long struggle for peace. Besides, Catherine’s sons were sickly; might they not all die and leave the throne of France to Henry of Navarre? Had not the soothsayer Nostradamus prophesied that the Valois dynasty would soon end?

The sickliest of the sons, Charles IX, might have been a lovable youth except for occasional fits of cruelty and temper that blazed out at times into a passion verging on insanity. Between such storms he was a reed in the wind, seldom having a mind of his own. Perhaps he weakened himself by sensual indulgence. He was married to Elizabeth, daughter of the Emperor Maximilian II; but his illicit and lasting love was for his Huguenot mistress, Marie Touchet. He was sensitive to art, poetry, and music; he loved to recite Ronsard’s lyrics, and he wrote in Ronsard’s honor verses as pretty as Ronsard’s own:

Tous deux également nous portons des couronnes,

Mais roi je la reçus; poète, tu la donnes;

Ta lyre, qui ravit par de si doux accords,

Te soumet les esprits, dont je n’ai que les corps;

Elle amollit les coeurs, et soumet la beauté;

Je puis donner la mort, toi l’immortalité.II

When Coligny joined the court at Blois (September 1571), Charles took to him as weakness welcomes strength. Here was a man all the world away from so many who had been pirouetting around the throne: a gentleman, an aristocrat, but quiet and sober, carrying half of France in the power of his word. The young King called the aging commander “mon père,” appointed him commander of the fleet, gave him from the royal purse a grant of 100,000 livres to reimburse him for his losses during the wars. Coligny joined the Council and presided over it in the absence of the King.52 Charles had always been jealous and fearful of Philip II; he resented the dependence of Catholic France upon Spain. Coligny proposed to him that a war with Spain would give France a unifying cause, and would rectify that northeastern boundary upon which Spain was encroaching. Now was the time, for William of Orange was leading a revolt of the Netherlands against their Spanish overlord; one good push, and Flanders would be French. Charles listened sympathetically. On April 27 he wrote to Count Louis of Nassau, who was leading the Protestant rebellion in Hainaut, that “he was determined … to employ the powers which God had put into his hands for the deliverance of the Low Countries from the oppression under which they were groaning.”53 Louis and his brother William of Orange offered to surrender Flanders and Artois to France in return for decisive aid against Spain.54 In the fall of that year Charles negotiated with the Elector Augustus of Saxony for a defensive alliance of France and Protestant Germany.55

Catherine condemned Coligny’s proposals as fantastically impracticable. Now that she had the peace that France so needed, it would be folly to unleash the hounds of war so soon again. Spain was as bankrupt as France, but she was still the strongest power in Christendom; she had just covered herself with glory in the defeat of the Turks at Lepanto; she would have all Catholic Europe—and most of Catholic France—to support her if France entered a Protestant league. In such a war Coligny would be commander in chief, and, through his influence on the impressionable Charles, he would in effect be king; Catherine would be relegated to Chenonceau, if not to Italy. Henry of Guise and Henry of Anjou—brother of the King—learned with dismay that Charles was allowing Coligny to send Huguenot troops to join Louis of Nassau; Alva, forewarned by his friends at the French court, overwhelmed this force (July 10, 1572). A full meeting of the King’s Council heard Coligny defend his proposals for war with Spain (August 6–9, 1572); they were unanimously rejected; Coligny persisted. “I have promised on my own account,” he said, “my assistance to the Prince of Orange; I hope the King will not take it ill if, by means of my friends, and perhaps in person, I fulfill my promise.” He said to the Queen Mother, “Madame, the King is today shunning a war which would promise him great advantages; God forbid that there should break out another which he cannot shun.”56 The Council broke up in excited resentment of what seemed a threat of another civil war. “Let the Queen beware,” warned Marshal de Tavannes, “of the King her son’s secret counsels, designs, and sayings; if she do not look out the Huguenots will have him.”57 Catherine took Charles aside and reproached him for having surrendered his mind to Coligny; if he persisted in the plan for war against Spain she would ask his leave to withdraw with her other son to Florence. He asked her forgiveness and promised filial obedience, but he remained Coligny’s devoted friend.

It was in this atmosphere that Jeanne d’Albret came to Blois to prepare for the marriage that was to unite Catholic and Protestant France. She insisted that Cardinal de Bourbon should perform the ceremony not as a priest but as a prince, not in a church but outside it, and that Henry should not accompany his wife into the church to hear Mass. Catherine agreed, though this would raise more trouble with the Pope, who had refused dispensation for Marguerite to marry the Protestant son of an excommunicated Protestant. Then Jeanne went on to Paris to shop, fell sick of pleurisy, and died (June 9, 1572). The Huguenots suspected that she had been poisoned, but this hypothesis is no longer entertained.58 Despite his own suspicions and grief, Henry of Navarre came from Blois to Paris in August, accompanied by Coligny and eight hundred Huguenots. Four thousand armed Huguenots followed them into the capital,59 partly to see the festivities, partly to protect their young King. Catholic Paris, aroused by this influx and a hundred inflammatory sermons,60 denounced the marriage as a surrender of the government to Protestant force. Nevertheless the ceremony took place (August 18), without papal dispensation; Catherine took measures to prevent the post from bringing a papal prohibition. Henry led his wife to the portals of Notre Dame, but did not enter with her; Paris was not yet worth a Mass. Provisionally he lodged with Marguerite in the Louvre.

Seldom had Paris seethed with such excitement. Coligny, still pressing for open aid by France to the revolting Netherlands, was believed ready to leave for the front. Some Catholics warned Catherine that Huguenots were planning another attempt to kidnap her and the King.61 The hammering of anvils throughout the city revealed the hurried forging of weapons. At this juncture, according to her son Henry, Catherine gave her consent to the murder of the Admiral.62

On August 22, as Coligny was walking from the Louvre to his house, two shots from a window cut off the first finger of his left hand and ripped his arm to the elbow. His companions rushed into the building, but found only a smoking arquebus; the assailant had escaped by the rear. Coligny was carried to his rooms. The King, informed, cried out angrily, “Am I never to have any peace?” He sent his personal physician, the Huguenot Ambroise Paré, to treat the wounds, assigned royal guards to Coligny’s house, commanded the Catholics to leave the adjoining premises, and allowed Huguenots to move in.63 The Queen, the King, and his brother Henry came to comfort the wounded man, and Charles swore the “most terrible oath” to revenge the attack. Coligny again urged Charles to enter the war for the acquisition of Flanders.64 Taking him aside, he whispered some secret. As the royal family returned to the Louvre, Catherine insisted that the King reveal the secret. “Very well, then, by the death of God,” he answered, “since you will know, this is what the Admiral said to me: that all power has gone to pieces in your hands, and that evil for me would come of it.” In a state of frenzy the King shut himself up in his private apartment. Catherine brooded in fearful resentment.65

Henry of Navarre came to Coligny and discussed measures of defense. Some members of the Admiral’s retinue wished to go at once and assassinate the Guise leaders; he forbade them. “If ample justice be not done,” said the Huguenots, “they would certainly do it themselves.”66 All that day Huguenots moved about the Louvre; one of them told the Queen that if justice were not soon executed they would take the law into their own hands.67 Bands of armed Huguenots passed repeatedly by the Hôtel de Lorraine, where the Guises were staying, and shouted threats of death.68 The Guises appealed to the King for protection and barricaded themselves in their house. Charles, suspecting them of having hired the assassin, arrested several of their servants and menaced the Duke of Guise. Henry and his brother the Duke of Aumale asked permission to leave Paris; it was granted; they went as far as the Porte St.-Antoine; then they turned back and secretly made their way to the Hôtel de Lorraine.

On August 23 the Council met to inquire into the crime. They learned that the house from which the shots had been fired was owned (though not occupied) by the Dowager Duchess of Guise, who had vowed to avenge the murder of her husband, Francis; that the assassin had escaped on a horse taken from the stables of the Guises; that the weapon had belonged to one of the Duke of Anjou’s guardsmen. The assassin was never apprehended. According to Anjou’s later account, he and Henry of Guise now decided that Coligny and some other Huguenots must be killed. While Catherine and some members of the Council were assembled in the Tuileries, Anjou’s agent Bouchavannes rushed in with the announcement that the Huguenots in Coligny’s lodgings were planning violent revolt, probably for the next evening.69 To Catherine’s dislike of the Admiral, her anger at what seemed to her his seduction of the King from her guidance, her conviction that the policy of war with Spain would be disastrous for France and her dynasty, there was now added the fear that her life was in immediate danger, and that all power might soon pass into the hands of Coligny and his friends. She agreed that the leading Huguenots should be killed.70

But the consent of the King was desirable, if not necessary; and he was still demanding the prosecution of all concerned in the attack upon Coligny. About ten o’clock in this evening of August 23 the Queen Mother sent Count de Retz to warn Charles of the supposed insurrection. Soon Catherine and her councilors surrounded the young ruler, whose excitement now brought him close to insanity. Catherine assured him that thirty thousand Huguenots were planning to seize him on the morrow and carry him off to some Protestant stronghold, where he would be captive and impotent; had they not twice before attempted such a stroke? If victorious, they would kill her on suspicion of having ordered or allowed the attack upon the Admiral. The boy of twenty-three was told to choose between his mother’s life and the lives of six Huguenots. If he refused consent, and Catholic Paris should overcome the revolt, he would be set aside as a coward and a fool. He resisted these arguments; he asked why it would not suffice to arrest the Huguenot leaders and try them legally; the councilors answered that it was too late to avert revolt by such action. Catherine threatened to withdraw to Italy and leave him to his fate. Finally, toward midnight, in a fit of nervous breakdown and rage, Charles shouted, “By the death of God, since you choose to kill the Admiral, I consent! But then you must kill all the Huguenots in France, so that not one shall be left to reproach me…. Kill them all! Kill them all!” Uttering blasphemies, he fled from his councilors and shut himself up in his room.

If the conspirators had plotted to kill only a few, they now took advantage of the King’s mad order to make the slaughter of the Huguenots as thorough as possible. Catherine insisted on protecting Henry of Navarre; the young Prince of Condé—Henry I—and the Montmorencys were excepted as too noble for slaughter; the surgeon Ambroise Paré was saved by the King; but word was sent out to the district captains of Paris to arm their men and be ready for action at the tolling of church bells at three o’clock in the morning, August 24, St. Bartholomew’s Day. Carte blanche was given the Guises to execute their long-delayed revenge upon the Admiral. Henry of Guise sent word to the officers of the militia that at the tocsin’s sound their men were to slay every Huguenot they could find. The gates of the city were to be closed to prevent escapes.

While it was yet night Guise himself led three hundred soldiers to the building where Coligny lay asleep. Near him were Paré his physician, Merlin his secretary, Nicolas his servant. They were awakened by the clatter of soldiers approaching; they heard shots and cries—Coligny’s guards were being killed. A friend burst into the room crying, “We are lost!” The Admiral replied, “I have long been prepared for death. Save yourselves. I do not wish those who hold you dear to be able to reproach me with your death. I commend my soul to the mercy of God.” They fled. Guise’s soldiers broke in the door. They found Coligny kneeling in prayer. A soldier ran him through and slashed his face; others stabbed him; still alive, he was tossed through the window to fall upon the pavement below at Guise’s feet. After making sure that Coligny was dead, the Duke ordered his men to scatter through Paris and spread the word, “Tuez! Tuez!— Kill! Kill! The King commands it.” The head of the Admiral was severed from his body and sent to the Louvre—some said to Rome;71 the body was given up to the multitude, which mangled it ferociously, cut off the hands and the genitals to offer them for sale, and strung up the rest by the heels.72

Meanwhile the Queen, feeling some remorse or fear, sent orders to the Guises to halt the massacre; they answered that it was too late; Coligny being dead, the Huguenots must be killed or they would surely revolt. Catherine yielded and ordered the tocsin to be rung. There followed such slaughter as cities have seldom known even in the frenzy of war. The populace rejoiced at the freedom given to its suppressed impulses to strike, to inflict pain, and to kill. It hunted out and slew from two to five thousand Huguenots and others; murders previously meditated could now be perpetrated with impunity; harassed or ambitious wives or husbands took the opportunity to rid themselves of unwanted mates; merchants were slain by competitors; relatives too slow to die were pointed out as Huguenots by prospective heirs.73 Ramus the philosopher was killed at the urging of a jealous professor. Every house suspected of harboring Huguenots was invaded and searched; Huguenots and their children were dragged into the streets and slain; embryos were torn from dead mothers and smashed.74 Soon corpses littered the pavement; urchins played games on them. The Catholic Swiss guards of the King entered the fray and slew indiscriminately out of pure joy of slaughter. The Duke de La Rochefoucauld, who had played tennis with the King the day before, was killed by masked men who, he supposed, had come to invite him to some royal frolic. Huguenot nobles and officers who had been lodged in the Louvre as the King of Navarre’s retinue were called into the courtyard and were shot one by one as they came. Henry himself, rising at dawn, went off to play tennis. Charles sent for him and Condé and gave them a choice of “the Mass or death.” Condé chose death, but was saved by the Queen. Navarre promised compliance and was allowed to live. His bride, Marguerite, sleeping fretfully, was awakened by a wounded Huguenot who rushed into her room and her bed; she persuaded his pursuers to spare him. “As I write,” reported the Spanish ambassador, “they are killing them all, they are stripping them naked … sparing not even the children. Blessed be God!”75 Now that the law itself had become lawless, pillage ran free, and the King was informed that members of his court had joined in the sack of the capital. Toward midday some horrified citizens pleaded with him to have the slaughter stopped, and a party of the town police offered to help restore order. He issued commands to halt the massacre; he bade the police imprison Protestants for their own protection; some of these he saved, others, at his bidding, were drowned in the Seine. For a while the carnage abated. But on Monday the twenty-fifth a hawthorn blossomed, quite out of season, in the Cemetery of the Innocents; the clergy hailed this as a miracle; the church bells of Paris rang out to acclaim it; the populace mistook the clangor as a call to renew the slaughter; murder took on new life.

On the twenty-sixth the King went in state with his court, through the streets still littered with corpses, to the Palace of Justice, and proudly certified to the Parlement of Paris that he had ordered the massacre. The president replied with a long address of congratulation. Parlement voted that Coligny’s heirs should be outlawed, his home at Châtillon demolished, the remainder of his property confiscated by the Duke of Anjou. On the twenty-eighth the King, the Queen Mother, and the court visited several churches in a religious festival of thanksgiving for the redemption of France from heresy and the escape of the royal family from death.

The provinces imitated Paris in their amateur way. Inspired by news from the capital, Lyon, Dijon, Orléans, Blois, Tours, Troyes, Meaux, Bourges, Angers, Rouen, Toulouse staged ecstatic massacres (August 24–26). Jacques de Thou reckoned 800 victims at Lyon, 1,000 at Orléans. The King encouraged and then discouraged these holocausts. On the twenty-sixth he sent verbal instructions to provincial governors to kill all leading Huguenots;76 on the twenty-seventh he sent them written orders to protect peaceful and law-abiding Protestants. At the same time he wrote his agent at Brussels to invite the Duke of Alva’s co-operation:

The Duke has many of my rebellious subjects in his hands, and the means of taking Mons and punishing those [besieged] in it. If he answers you that this is tacitly to require him to kill these prisoners and to cut to pieces those in Mons, you are to say that this is what he must do.77

Alva rejected the invitation. When he captured Mons he allowed the French garrison to depart unharmed. Privately he scorned the Massacre of St. Bartholomew as a base means of waging war; publicly he ordered a celebration of the massacre as a triumph for the only true Christianity.78

Some provincial governors kept their populace under civilized control. There were no killings in Champagne, Picardy, or Brittany, and few in Auvergne, Languedoc, Burgundy, or Dauphiné. At Lyon many Catholics denounced the slaughter, and the soldiers refused to take part in it; at Vienne the bishop took the Protestants under his protection, and Catholic families gave hiding to endangered Huguenots.79 But at Troyes and Orléans the bishops gave full rein to the massacre;80 at Bordeaux a Jesuit announced that the Archangel Michael had ordered the killings, and he condemned the tardiness of the magistrates in ordering the executions. Probably the provinces contributed 5,000 victims and Paris some 2,000; but estimates of the total range from 5,00081 to 30,000.82

Catholics generally condoned the massacre as an explosion of resentment and revenge after years of Huguenot persecution of Catholics.83 Philip II laughed beyond his dour wont when he heard the news; now there would be no danger of France’s interfering in the Netherlands. The papal nuncio at Paris wrote to Rome: “I congratulate His Holiness from the depths of my heart that it has pleased the Divine Majesty, at the beginning of his pontificate, to direct the affairs of this kingdom so felicitously and so honorably, and to have so protected the King and the Queen Mother that they would destroy this pestiferous root with such prudence and at such an opportune moment when all their rebels were locked in the cage.”84 When the tidings reached Rome the Cardinal of Lorraine, out of ungovernable happiness, gave the bearer a thousand crowns. Soon all Rome was illuminated; salvos were fired from Castel Sant’ Angelo; bells rang joyously; Gregory XIII and his cardinals attended a solemn Mass of thanksgiving to God for “this signal favor shown to Christian people,” which had saved France and the Holy See from great peril. The Pope ordered a special medal struck to commemorate Ugonotorum strages—the defeat or slaughter of the Huguenots85—and he engaged Vasari to paint, in the Sala Regia of the Vatican, a picture of the massacre, bearing the words Pontifex Colignii necem probat—”The Pope approves the killing of Coligny.”III86

Protestant Europe branded the massacre as dastardly barbarism. William of Orange told the French envoy that Charles IX would never be able to wash the blood from his hands. In England Elizabeth was beset with demands for revenge, and bishops advised her that the only way to quiet the public fury was to put to death at once all Catholics who were in prison for having refused to take the oath of allegiance; at least the Queen of Scots should be executed at once.88 Elizabeth kept her head. She robed herself in deep mourning to receive the French ambassador and met with visible unbelief his protestations that the massacre had been necessitated by imminent Huguenot conspiracy. But she continued to play France against Spain, and to dally with Alençon’s suit for her hand; and in November she consented to act as godmother to the daughter of Charles IX.

Catherine emerged from the shambles cheerful and refreshed; the King was now again her vassal, and the Huguenot problem seemed solved. She was mistaken. Though many French Protestants had accepted conversion as an alternative to death, these recantations proved transitory; within two months of the massacre the Huguenots opened the Fourth Religious War; La Rochelle and several other towns closed their gates to royalist troops and successfully resisted siege. On July 6, 1573, Charles signed the Peace of La Rochelle, guaranteeing the Huguenots religious liberty. Politically the massacre had accomplished nothing.

And now the Huguenot intellectuals, who had heretofore professed loyalty to the King, turned in horror from Charles IX and questioned not only the divine right of kings but the institution of monarchy itself. François Hotman, a Huguenot jurist, had fled to Switzerland after the massacre; a year later he published a passionate attack upon Charles, De furoribus Gallicis: the crimes of that King had released his people from their oath of loyalty; he was a felon and should be deposed. Before the year was out Hotman sent forth from Geneva his Franco-Gallia, the first modern attempt at constitutional history. The Gallo-French monarchy, he argued, had been elective; the king had been, till Louis XI, subject to a national assembly of one kind or another; the now abjectparlements and the long neglected States-General were the weakened remnants of that elective power; and that power had been delegated to these bodies by the people. “To the people alone belongs the right to elect and depose kings.”89 He demanded the periodic assembly of the States-General; this body alone should have the authority to issue laws and make war or peace, to appoint to major offices, to regulate the succession, and to depose bad kings. Here already was the thunder of 1789.

Life itself soon deposed Charles IX. Good and evil in him had struggled to the point where a constitution congenitally botched had broken down from the strain. Sometimes he gloated over the hardihood and the extremity of his crime; at other times he accused himself for having consented to the massacre, and the cries of butchered Huguenots kept ringing in his ears, murdering sleep. He began to reproach his mother: “Who but you is the cause of all this? God’s blood, you are the cause of it all!” She complained that she had a lunatic for a son.90 He became melancholy and somber, thin and pale. He had always tended to tuberculosis; now, his resistance weakened, it destroyed him; by 1574 he was spitting blood. In the spring his hemorrhages grew more violent, and he again had visions of his victims. “What bloodshed, what murders!” he cried to his nurse. “What evil counsel have I followed! O my God, forgive me! … I am lost!”91 On his dying day, May 30, 1574, he called for Henry of Navarre, whom he embraced affectionately. “Brother,” he said, “you are losing a good friend. Had I believed all that I was told, you would not be alive. But I always loved you. … I trust in you alone to look after my wife and daughter. Pray God for me. Farewell.” Soon afterward he died. He was not yet twenty-four.

I. The view that for two years past she had considered the feasibility of removing the Huguenot leaders by murder is ably defended by the Catholic historian Lord Acton in The History of Freedom (London, 1907), pp. 101–49.

II. We both wear diadems; but I my crown Received as king, you, poet, made your own; Your lyre, which charms with concourse of sweet sounds, Subdues the soul, while flesh my empire bounds. It softens hearts, holds loveliness in fee. I can give death; you, immortality.

III. The Catholic historian Pastor, while not excusing the massacre, attempts to explain the papal jubilation as relief after fear that the triumph of Coligny would have brought an end to Catholicism in France, and the union of France with Protestant England, Holland, Scandinavia, and northern Germany in a war of extermination (such as Luther had called for) of Catholicism everywhere.87

You can support the site and the Armed Forces of Ukraine by following the link to Buy Me a Coffee.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!