Beginning on the 24th of August 1572, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre was undoubtedly one of the most horrendous and violent events in French Huguenot history. This widespread murder of French Huguenots killed between 5000 and 25000 people over the course of more than two months.
Let’s take a closer look at this horrific event in French Huguenot history. Together, let us explore why it happened and examine its repercussions.
Wedding Celebrations In Paris
Starting in Paris, French Catholics, who were the dominant religious group in France at the time, feared a Huguenot uprising. For this reason, they planned to assassinate leading Protestants that were attending the royal wedding. Following years of religious tension in the country after the so-called “new teachings” of the Protestant Reformation, a series of conflicts took place throughout France. The Affair of the Placards became an armed conflict in 1562, triggering the beginning of the French Wars of Religion, which lasted from 1562 to 1592.
After the third war finally ended in 1570, Catholic Queen Catherine de’ Medici hoped to bring peace to the country. To accomplish this, she arranged for a marriage between her Catholic daughter Margaret of Valois and Protestant Henry of Navarre. However, instead of bringing about peace, the event would turn bloody and violent.
Assassination Attempt On Huguenot Leader
The Royal wedding was to take place in Paris, and influential Protestant leaders from all over the country were in attendance for the celebrations. The city became a gathering point for prominent figures in the Protestant community. This influx of Protestant leaders, unfortunately, saw tensions in predominantly Catholic Paris quickly rise, culminating in the assassination attempt of Gaspard II de Coligny. Coligny was the Admiral of France and a prominent French Huguenot. An assassination attempt was made against Coligny, and while he was wounded, he eventually survived.
French Huguenots Voice Their Anger
After the assassination attempt on Gaspard II de Coligny, the Protestants expressed their outrage and made their feelings known. With the French Huguenots clearly upset by what had unfolded, Catherine de Medici and her son Charles IX of France, together with the Paris city council, authorized the targeted killing of Protestant leaders. Fearing an uprising, the French Catholics believed that with so many prominent Huguenot leaders in Paris for the wedding, this was the perfect time to strike. Gaspard II de Coligny, who had survived one assassination attempt, was the first to be executed on August 24th. A group of Swiss Guards pulled Gaspard II de Coligny from his sickbed and brutally attacked him with axes. Subsequently, they callously threw his lifeless body into the courtyard below. They also beheaded Coligny, sending his head to the Louvre to prove that he was dead. Other Huguenot leaders followed in quick succession.
Huguenots Hunted Down Throughout Paris
Following the first killings in Paris, a string of murders began taking place throughout the city as they hunted down French Huguenot leaders, one after another. Moving from one district to the next, going from one house to the next, Catholic Parisians violently murdered thousands of French Huguenots. Mobs even targeted their Huguenot neighbors in an effort to force them to renounce their heresy, murdering all who refused. While many people tried to flee the city, they found that the gates had already been locked, trapping them inside.
The massacre of French Huguenots in Paris lasted three days; streets turned blood-red, and violence engulfed the city. Finally, after days of relentless killings, they brought an end to the massacre when they believed that they had wiped out the majority of the city’s Protestant population. The aftermath left behind a haunting scene of devastation and grief. Disturbing scenes unfolded as carts piled high with the lifeless bodies of men, women, and children emptied into the river. The river, flowing red with blood, served as a harrowing reminder of the atrocious violence that took place.
Killing Of Huguenots Spreads Nationwide
News of these targeted attacks quickly spread to other cities, inciting similar violence in a number of other cities throughout the country. Charles IX of France eventually called for peace, but it was too little too late. The French Huguenots’ massacres had spread countrywide, and they were now well and truly out of anyone’s control. There were mass killings of French Huguenots in cities such as Angers, Bourges, Rouen, Bordeaux, Gaillac, Lyon, Toulouse, Saumur, Orléans, Troyes, Mieux, and La Charité.
The Aftermath Of The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
Historians regard the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the French Huguenots as one of the most bloody and violent religious massacres in human history to this day. Although it may have been unplanned, it was viewed as an important victory for the Catholic Church. Pope Gregory XIII even celebrated the killings at the Vatican with masses of thanksgiving. Additionally, they issued a commemorative medal to honor the “Slaughter of the Huguenots 1572”. It’s said that King Philip II of Spain laughed when he heard the news, which was one of the few times he was ever known to have laughed.
These events would lead to the beginning of the fourth of the French Wars of Religion beginning in November 1572, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives. The French Wars of Religion came to an end in the summer of the following year with the signing of the Edict of Boulogne. This new treaty granted French Huguenots amnesty for their past acts and finally granted their freedom of belief. However, despite granting amnesty and freedom of belief, the Edict of Boulogne had a significant drawback. It effectively restricted the practice of religious beliefs for most Protestants, thus undoing the rights that the Peace of Saint Germain had previously granted them. This would lead Catholics and Protestants to continue battling for a further quarter of a century until they ultimately signed the Edict of Nantes in 1598.