St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

With King Charles IX’s approval, France’s Catholic nobles murdered several Huguenot leaders and thousands of other Protestants in an attempt to eliminate Protestantism in the nation once and for all. Instead, the massacre renewed the civil wars of religion, severely undermined the crown’s authority, and created profound social disorder throughout France.

Summary of Event

In 1562, a series of civil wars between Huguenot Huguenots and Catholic Catholicism;France forces broke out in France. These wars, known as the French Wars of Religion, Religion, French Wars of (1562-1598) were to last, with intermittent periods of calm, until the 1598 Treaty of Vervins Vervins, Treaty of (1598) and Henry IV’s Edict of Nantes, Nantes, Edict of (1598) which together created a peace and established limited freedom of religion in the country. The immediate causes of the wars were the 1559 decision by Queen Catherine de Médicis to persecute and execute leading Protestants and the 1562 massacre by troops of the Guise family of numerous Protestants in the French provincial city of Vassy. St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572)[Saint Bartholomews Day Massacre (1572)] Charles IX (1550-1574) Catherine de Médicis Guise, Henry I of Lorraine, duke of Henry IV (1553-1610) Coligny, Gaspard II de François Condé, Louis I of Bourbon, prince of Condé, Henry, Prince of Marcel, Claude Jeanne d’Albret Marguerite of Valois Henry III (1551-1589) Philip II (1527-1598) Catherine de Médicis Charles IX (king of France) Condé, Louis I of Bourbon, prince of Coligny, Gaspard II de Marguerite of Valois Henry IV (king of France) Jeanne d’Albret Philip II (king of Spain) Anjou, François, duke of Marcel, Claude Condé, Henry I of Bourbon, prince of Guise,Henry I of Lorraine, duke of Beza, Theodore Henry III (king of France)

An engraving of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, when Huguenot leaders and thousands of other Protestants were killed by French Catholic nobles in Paris.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

After several years of intense fighting, the 1568 Treaty of Longjumeau Longjumeau, Treaty of (1568) put a temporary end to the civil war. Both sides, however, continued their intrigues, and war broke out again in September, 1568. Charles IX adopted a strong anti-Huguenot policy out of fear that the Huguenots might ally with Dutch Protestant rebels, who had revolted against the Spanish occupation of the Netherlands, and provoke a Spanish attack on France. This fear of a possible Spanish invasion of France played a decisive role in August, 1572, when the king approved what came to be known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Meanwhile, at Jarnac on March 13, 1569, Catholic forces won a decisive victory in which the Huguenot leader, Louis I of Bourbon, prince of Condé, was captured and later assassinated. Admiral Gaspard II de Coligny then became leader of the Huguenots. When Coligny’s forces marched on Paris in June, Charles made peace.

Religious tolerance was nominally established once again by the Treaty of St. Germain St. Germain, Treaty of (1569)[Saint Germain, Treaty of (1569)] , and certain towns were given to the Huguenots as strongholds. The most important provision of this treaty was a marriage alliance between Marguerite of Valois, the sister of Charles IX, and Henry of Navarre, the leading Huguenot prince and son of Antoine de Bourbon. Henry was in the line of succession to the French throne. Suspicious of Catherine de Médicis and Charles IX in spite of this treaty, Coligny, Henry of Navarre, and his mother Jeanne d’Albret hesitated to come to court. Their fears were perfectly reasonable, because Catherine de Médicis and Charles IX had already approved several political assassinations, and their promises therefore seemed meaningless. Coligny, however, finally arrived at the royal court in September of 1571, and he was well received.

Coligny persuaded Jeanne d’Albret to accept the marriage proposal, and the marriage of Marguerite of Valois and Henry of Navarre was planned for August 18, 1572. Jeanne d’Albret joined the court in March, 1572, but when she died shortly afterward, her fellow Huguenots suspected that she had been poisoned. This may well have been the case. Mistakenly believing that Catherine de Médicis and Charles IX would not risk killing them since to do so would ensure a resumption of the civil war, Coligny and Henry of Navarre (who had entered Paris in July, 1572, with an entourage of Huguenot nobles) did not realize that they were walking into a carefully prepared trap.

During the early summer of 1572, Huguenot forces had confirmed Charles IX’s worst fears by supporting a Dutch uprising against the Spanish occupation of their homeland. Charles IX believed that King Philip II of Spain now had an excuse for invading France if that was his plan. What exactly transpired next is not entirely clear, but historians generally agree that sometime before the wedding of Marguerite and Henry, Catherine de Médicis decided to have her Catholic forces assassinate Coligny and other leading Huguenots. The presence of so many Protestants at the royal court gave her a unique opportunity to reduce Protestant influence in France with a single stroke. The Guises hired an assassin named Maurevert to kill Admiral Coligny.

On August 22, four days after the wedding, Maurevert shot Coligny. Coligny, however, survived the attack. The complicity of the Guises was quickly established, and the Huguenots demanded justice from King Charles IX. It has never been determined whether Charles IX approved the failed assassination of Coligny. However, it is known that, faced with the ruin of her plans, Catherine de Médicis and her advisers now urged Charles IX to approve another murder attempt on Coligny for the good of the kingdom. Plans of a fictitious Huguenot conspiracy were shown to the king.

Charles gave in to their arguments. It was reported that he ran from the room shouting: “Kill them all, so that none will return to reproach me!” By thus approving the mass murder of his own subjects, King Charles IX guaranteed a resumption of the French civil wars and his own place in history as a monarch who had committed crimes against humanity. With the help of her son François, duke of Alençon (better known by his later title, duke of Anjou), Catherine drew up a list of prominent Huguenots who were to be slain and made arrangements with Claude Marcel, a former mayor of Paris, to recruit thugs and common criminals for the indiscriminate slaughter of all the Protestants who had remained in the city after the wedding. Early on the morning of August 24, Coligny was stabbed to death in his room, and his body was mutilated. Henry of Navarre and Henry I of Bourbon, prince of Condé, were forced to recant their religious beliefs under threat of death.

Dozens of Huguenot nobles were killed in the courtyard of the Louvre. Criminals led by the duke of Alençon and Henry I of Lorraine, duke of Guise, then went through the city systematically attacking and slaying prominent Huguenots. These gangs then began killing Protestants all over Paris. Pregnant women and even children were tortured and murdered. Peter Ramus, the leading French philosopher of the era, was killed, and the English ambassador to France barely escaped with his life. King Charles IX accepted full responsibility for this butchery, and he ordered his troops to carry out similar massacres in provincial cities. He claimed that Huguenots had plotted against his throne. However, only the most fanatical supporters of Catherine de Médicis and the Guises believed this lie.

Significance

It has been impossible to determine the precise number of people murdered during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Contemporaries spoke of between 2,000 and 100,000 victims. An extremely conservative estimate is that at least 7,000 French Protestants were killed as a result of the criminal activity ordered by King Charles IX.

News of the massacre quickly spread throughout Europe. In Rome, Pope Gregory XIII had a solemn thanksgiving sung. Many French Catholics, however, were revolted by the killings. Protestants throughout Europe were appalled by this state-sponsored terrorism. The eminent French Protestant writer Theodore Beza, who was then living in Geneva, eloquently summarized the general Protestant reaction by writing that those responsible for this massacre would be “held in perpetual execration.” Both Catholic and Protestant historians have agreed with Beza’s judgment.

Much to the displeasure of Catherine de Médicis and Charles IX, the massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day did not produce the effect they had expected. The civil war quickly resumed, and it did not end for another twenty-five years. Having approved the political assassinations, Charles IX launched a cycle of violence that would end in the assassinations of his two successors: Henry III in 1589 and Henry IV in 1610.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conner, Philip. Huguenot Heartland: Montauban and Southern French Calvinism During the Wars of Religion. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002. Study of the Wars of Religion, especially of the differences between the experiences of southern and northern France during the wars. Focuses on the southern town of Montauban as a case study of the larger religious, cultural, and political upheavals. Includes maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">England, Sylvia L. The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew. London: John Long, 1938. In this reliable history, the author argues that almost the entire blame for the massacre lies with Catherine de Médicis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Frieda, Leonie. Catherine de Medici. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003. Extensively researched, well-written attempt to rejuvenate Catherine’s reputation and produce a balanced evaluation of her place in history. Includes illustrations, bibliographic references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Garrisson, Janine. A History of Sixteenth-Century France, 1483-1598. Translated by Richard Rex. London: Macmillan, 1995. This well-researched book examines the social and political disorder that ended in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, Mack P. The French Wars of Religion, 1562-1629. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995. A well-written account of the French religious civil wars. Includes bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kingdon, Robert M. Myths About the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres, 1572-1576. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988. Although the title of this book was poorly chosen, Robert Kingdon provides useful descriptions of Catholic and Protestant reactions to this massacre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Love, Ronald S. Blood and Religion: The Conscience of Henri IV, 1553-1593. Ithaca, N.Y.: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. An assessment of Henry of Navarre’s early career and later reign against the background of civil war and religious strife. Concludes with a discussion of Henry’s perception of the conflicting requirements of his crown and his soul, and his 1593 conversion to Catholicism. Includes photographic plates, illustrations, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mentzer, Raymond A., Jr. Blood and Belief: Family Survival and Confessional Identity Among Provincial Huguenot Nobility. West Lafayette, Ind.: Purdue University Press, 1994. Presents reactions to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre from the point of view of provincial Huguenot noble families.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Racaut, Luc. Hatred in Print: Catholic Propaganda and Protestant Identity During the French Wars of Religion. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2002. Rare study of the pro-Catholic pamphleteers in France. Analyzes the strategies, production, and impact of pro-Catholic propaganda of the period. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sutherland, N. M. Henry IV of France and the Politics of Religion, 1572-1596. 2 vols. Bristol, Avon, England: Elm Bank, 2002. Extremely detailed account of the role of religion in France’s monarchy and political sphere during the late sixteenth century. Each chapter discusses a specific political event or issue from the point of view of the conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Includes illustrations, map, bibliographic references, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williamson, Hugh R. Catherine de’ Medici. New York: Viking Press, 1973. Contains an objective analysis of Catherine’s amoral approach to the use and abuse of political power.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wood, James B. The King’s Army: Warfare, Soldiers, and Society During the Wars of Religion in France, 1562-1576. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. An in-depth look at the internal military campaigns of Charles IX and Henry III. Includes bibliographical references and an index.

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Mid-16th cent.: Development of the Caracole Maneuver

Mar., 1562-May 2, 1598: French Wars of Religion

1568-1648: Dutch Wars of Independence

July 7, 1585-Dec. 23, 1588: War of the Three Henrys

Aug. 2, 1589: Henry IV Ascends the Throne of France

Apr. 13, 1598: Edict of Nantes

May 2, 1598: Treaty of Vervins

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