The carnage and bloodshed of the St Bartholomew’s day massacre were steeped in the religiopolitical machinations of France at the time. It hinged, particularly, on the tug of war between the militant Catholic Guise family and the Huguenot Bourbon family, who each wanted to seize the throne for the purpose of advancing their respective religious views in France. Added to the mix was the Monarchy itself which was stuck in the middle of this conflict and preferred to remain religiously neutral though France was officially a Catholic nation. The Queen mother, Catherine De Medici, was a shrewd political operator and her ultimate goal was to strategically orchestrate circumstances in such a way that the Guise and Bourbon families would fight against each other and destroy each other, thus leaving the way clear for her own family to retain the throne.

In order to do this Catherine’s first move was to create an amicable middle ground between Protestants and Catholics in the realm. She did this by issuing the Edict of January, also known as the Edict of St. Germain which fostered religious tolerance of Protestantism within France. Protestantism had been outlawed in France by Catherine’s father-in-law Francis I and this reversal of circumstances enraged the Guise family and their militantly Catholic supporters.

Paris, France

Despite the fact that Protestantism had been outlawed in France for a period of time in the wake of the debacle with the Placards, thousands of Huguenot preachers were smuggled into the country from Geneva and the movement was rapidly gaining ground. By 1563 there was a network of over 2000 Protestant Huguenot congregations spread throughout France. Many Huguenots belonged to the French nobility and the Bourbon family was one such example.

Regardless of Catherine’s best efforts to create a sort of uneasy religious truce open fighting began between the Catholics and Huguenots when Henry of Guise together with his troops massacred a Huguenot congregation in Vassy in 1562. This was the start of what would come to be known as the Huguenot wars or the French wars of religion that lasted for a period of over 30 years. The Huguenots though initially reluctant to fight soon realized that their only course of action was to defend themselves. Accordingly, they gathered an army under the leadership of Admiral Gaspard Coligny and after 10 years of protracted conflict gained the upper hand.

During this period of time Henry of Guise was killed in battle much to the delight of Catherine De Medici. With Henry of Guise out of the way, all that stood between Catherine and the Royal Valois family from retaining unchallenged supremacy were the Huguenots. And so it was that she began to plot their destruction. Her partners in crime were King Philip II of Spain, his second wife Elizabeth de Valois, who happened to be her daughter and Pope Pius V. Realising that they could not gain a decisive victory on the battlefield due to the military prowess of the Huguenot armies, Catherine, Philip and Pius decided that the best course of action was to annihilate them by means of mass murder. Once the plan was formulated Catherine then took it upon herself to execute it in her own time and way.

Her opportunity came when she proposed a marriage between her daughter Margaret de Valois and the young King of Navarre, Henry of Bourbon. Margaret was Catholic and Henry was a Huguenot. It was the kind of political freewheeling that legends are made of. A Catholic princess marries a Protestant Prince in an attempt to bring peace and mutual understanding between the two parties. Alas, such legends never end well and neither did this particular deal.

There are conflicting accounts as to what exactly led the King to give the order but one thing everyone agrees upon is that on the eve of St Bartholomew’s Day 1572 Charles IX authorized a killing spree like no other. Some accounts say that the peasants were supplied with ammunition and then spurred on by the Catholic elements who had hatched the plot to massacre every single Huguenot they could lay their hands on. The peasants had been told that the Huguenots were conspiring to cut off the King and the royal family and to destroy the monarchy and the Roman Catholic religion. They were told that when the great bell tolled in the Palace of Justice they were to begin the massacre for God, King, and Country. The people were instructed to cordon off streets and public spaces and place sentinels on bridges.

 Catholics were told to wear a white armband and have a white cross painted on their hats. The great bell in the Palace of Justice began to toll at 2 am and soon every bell throughout Paris followed suit. The mob converged screaming “Kill, Kill” and so the massacre began.

The highest priority on the agenda was the assassination of  Admiral de Coligny. He was assassinated by the Duke of Guise and his men. His head was cut off and presented to the Queen mother Catherine de Medici and then embalmed to be sent to the Pope at Rome as a symbol of the Catholic triumph over the Huguenots of France. The Louvre housed 200 protestant noblemen and gentlemen from the provinces and although guests of the King they were massacred without consideration of rank. They were hacked in pieces and their body parts piled in heaps at the gates of the Louvre. For seven days the massacres were continued throughout Paris and extended throughout France. It was a dark day for Protestantism in France, and Geneva once more became a bastion of hope as countless Huguenots streamed within the safety of its walls for refuge from the terrors of persecution.

Further Reading

  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • D’Aubigne, J.H. Merle (1832)- The History of the Reformation
  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism

Recommended Listening 

  • The Great Courses – The Renaissance, The Reformation and The Rise of Nations – Andrew C. Fix – Lafayette College
  • The Great Courses – History of Christianity in the Reformation Era – Brad S. Gregory – Stanford University