The Huguenot Society of Maryland

St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre

Among the Huguenot heroes was Henri de Navarre (Henri IV), a great soldier who later became a great king of France. Navarre was a small kingdom on the southwest border of France and northern edge of Aragon and Castile (Spain).


At that time, Catherine de Médicis, Queen of France and the widow of Henri II de Valois, had become the regent for her second son, Charles IX, Catherine decided that a politically wise move that might bring peace to France was to marry her daughter, Marguerite de Valois to Henri of Navarre, both French duke of Bourbon and king of Navarre. The House of Bourbon was the cadet male line of the House of Valois. Thus, the marriage would unite not only the Roman Catholics and the Protestants, but also the Valois line and the Bourbon line. Henri was in line for the French throne if Marguerite’s brothers died without legitimate issue.


The marriage was arranged to take place in Paris on 18 August 1572. Huguenots from all over France came to Paris for the celebration, but Paris had a reputation for despising the Calvinist Huguenots, so the Parisians disliked seeing them in such prominence.


In the meantime, the plot thickened. Charles IX, king of France, was then twenty-two years old, and he was restless under the oppressive supervision of his mother Catherine. Becoming involved was one of the most noble of the Huguenots, Gaspard II de Coligny, Seigneur de Châtillon, who was an able soldier and an Admiral of France. He had become the favorite advisor of the young king; thus creating enemies of Charles’ mother, Catherine, and Henri, duc de Guise. Both wanted to get rid of Coligny, who had gained greater influence with the king than they enjoyed, so what did Catherine and Henri de Guise do? They plotted Coligny’s assassination.


On 22 August, only a few days after the wedding, an unidentified assassin shot Coligny with an harquebus (an heavy, portable matchlock gun). Coligny was wounded, but not killed. The king visited him, assuring him that the assassin would be found and punished.


However all sorts of secret plots were circulating around Paris, and the radical Roman Catholic faction decided not only to complete the murder of Coligny, but also massacre the Protestants who were in Paris.


On 24 August 1572, on the Feast of Saint Bartholomew (la fête de Saint-Barthélemy), in the wee hours of the morning, as church bells rang, Henri de Guise (or his henchmen) stabbed Coligny and threw him, while still alive, from the window of the house where he was staying. Around Paris, Roman Catholic mobs attacked Protestants while still in their beds. The massacre spread throughout France, and before it was over, more than 13,000 Huguenots perished, including approximately five hundred members of the nobility.


In England, Elizabeth I was shocked and ordered her court to dress in black for mourning. In Spain (actually the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, because Spain did not unify into one state until the early 1700s), King Philip II rejoiced. In Rome, Pope Gregory XIII was so delighted that he ordered a Te Deum to be sung, bonfires to be lit in celebration, and a medal to be struck. The medal shows on the obverse a bust of the pope, and on the reverse an angel, with a sword in one hand and a cross in the other, striding over the bodies of the fallen Huguenots. Shocking? Quite a Christian gesture for a pope.


Huguenots began to flee from France to escape the horrors. At this time, at least 4,000 sought an haven in England.