On Thursday August 24, 1572, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, thousands of Protestants are murdered in the streets of Paris. Climax of the devout fanaticism and Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants the history of France have been interspersed with for a decade, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre leads to the violent execution of 4,000 Huguenots in Paris, before spreading to fifteen more cities in the French realm.
And yet, the tension between the two Churches seemed to have eased, at least, theoretically. After two bloody wars of religion, the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye is signed on August 5, 1570 by King Charles IX and admiral Gaspard of Coligny – head of the Protestants – putting an end to the third war of religion. But the treaty – granting new safety guarantees to the Huguenots – causes ultra-Catholics to get mad, as led by the De Guise brothers, considering it too favorable for the Protestants.
Therefore, to improve the relationship between the two clergies and seal the fragile reconciliation, regent Catherine de’ Medici promises her daughter – Marguerite of Valois – to the leader of the Protestants – Henry of Navarre. The wedding of Queen Margot and Henry IV is celebrated on August 18, 1572 at the Notre-Dame de Paris cathedral, only a few days prior to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. What happened between August 18 and 24, 1572 for the situation to deteriorate to this extent?
Amid subsistence crisis and bad economic conditions, the Parisian people cannot put up with the luxury and the extravagance of the festivities for the new spouses and the elites invited to join in – Catholics and Protestants being invited together to the banquets and parties.
Furthermore, on August 22, in the morning, admiral Gaspard of Coligny – King Charles IX’s advisor and converted to Protestantism – is victim of a murder attempt. He is injured by two arquebus shots shot by Gascon captain, de Maurevert, when leaving the Louvre, where he was taking part in the King’s Council addressing the upcoming Dutch War of Independence, considered to support the rebels against Philip II of Spain.
The leader of the Protestant faction is certain, a war against Spain is the best way to conciliate Catholics and Protestants against a common enemy, but the Duke of Guise – leader of the Catholic faction alongside the Duke of Anjou and likely backer of the murder attempt – is strongly opposite.
The homicide fails, Coligny is only hurt, but the event rekindles tensions between the two clergies. King Charles IX – mad – goes to his advisor’s side who implores him not to look to avenge him, but the Protestant commandants are already crying out for justice. At the Palais du Louvre, Catherine de’ Medici has to face with the wrath of the Catholic leaders who consider the monarchy is too easy and permissive on the Huguenots.
Fearing the discharged soldiers might rebel and be led by Coligny’s dominating character, and to save the monarchy, the queen-mother gathers a royal council in the night from August 23 to 24, 1572, during which she decides, along with the king’s Catholic entourage, to get rid of Admiral de Coligny and other Protestant leaders – most of them being in town to attends the wedding’s festivities. A list of Huguenots is put up.
According to hypotheses, Charles IX immediately suffered from the Council’s decision and capitulated because of the pressure from the pro-Spanish Catholic party, as he ordered these murders himself to restrain a likely Huguenot conspiration. On August 24, 1572, the bell of the Church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois sounds the alarm and gives the signal for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
Admiral of Coligny is brutally assassinated in his bed by mercenary Charles Danowitz. Thrown out of the window, the body is given to the people, emasculated and thrown into the Seine, and recovered to be dragged in the streets of the capital city, then hung by the feet to the gibbet of Montfaucon. His main lieutenants, La Rochefoucauld, Teligny, Nompar de Caumont, Soubise, as well as about 200 Huguenot nobles, accommodated in the Louvre and in the streets nearby, are killed by guards and Catholic militiamen showing a white cross on their hats and a white scarf as distinguishing features.
But the Parisian people – thinking they are acting as agreed with Charles IX – show blind fanaticism and makes the most of the exactions launched by the king to quench their thirst of anti-Huguenots. For three days, Protestants are chased down in the city, streets are filled with their blood. Men, women, and children and massacred without distinction, and in horrible circumstances, their goods are sacked. Violence is extreme and escapes from the royal control. Although Protestant, Henry of Navarre and the Prince of Condé are spared because of their royal blood, on the condition they convert to Catholicism.
Halfway through the day, Charles IX orders the massacre to stop, but the king struggles to get obeyed and the conflict spreads to about fifteen cities – against the king’s will. In La Charité-sur-Loire, Meaux, Bourges, Orléans, Angers, Saumur, Lyon, Troyes, Rouen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Castres, Gaillac and Albi, local St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres are held from mid-August to mid-September 1572, leading to the death of over 10,000 Protestants in the kingdom. Faced with the Catholics’ pressure, the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye is annulled; this is the beginning of the fourth war of religion.
To find out more, head to the 1st arrondissement, discover the Church of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, a stone’s throw from the Louvre, where the alarm was sounded in the night between August 23 and 24, 1572. This is one of the oldest churches in Paris, and one of the biggest gothic monuments in the capital city.
Eglise Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois
2 Place du Louvre
75001 Paris 1
Métro Louvre - Rivoli - Pont Neuf.
En tête : Le Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy de François Dubois, Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts de Lausanne.
La Nuit de la Saint Barthélémy, Luyken ou Luiken ou Luijken, Jan ou Johannes, Musée Carnavalet
Un matin devant la porte du Louvre, Édouard Debat-Ponsan, 1880, Clermont-Ferrand, Musée d'art Roger-Quilliot.