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Christian History Home > 2001 > Issue 71 > The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre

The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre
Suspicious and scared, the king of France ordered a political assassination. Then the real killing began.
Scott M. Manetsch | posted 7/01/2001 12:00AM

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Before dawn on the morning of August 24, 1572, church bells tolled in the Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois quarter of Paris. Just moments earlier, soldiers under the command of Henri, duke of Guise, had overcome resistance and assassinated the admiral of France, Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny, in his bedroom. They threw the body from the window to the ground below, where angry crowds later mutilated it, cutting off the head and hands, and dragged it through the streets of Paris. As Guise walked away from Coligny's lodging, he was overheard to say "it is the king's command."

The killing unleashed an explosion of popular hatred against Protestants throughout the city. In the terrible days that followed, some 3,000 Huguenots were killed in Paris, and perhaps another 8,000 in other provincial cities.

This season of blood—known as the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre—decisively ended Huguenot hopes to transform France into a Protestant kingdom. It remains one of the most horrifying episodes in the Reformation era.

The dangerous decade

Historians have long debated the causes of the massacres of 1572. Drawing upon Francis Hotman's De Furoribus Gallicis (1573), Protestant interpreters since the sixteenth century have often portrayed Coligny and his coreligionists as heroic victims of a premeditated plot to destroy the Huguenot movement, masterminded by the wicked queen mother, Catherine de Médicis.

Catholic historians, on the other hand, have usually followed the royal interpretation that the king, Charles IX, issued two days after the violence began. In this view, the king and his council ordered the violence as a justified preemptive strike to protect the Catholic crown from a Protestant revolt.

Although differences remain, historians today are in general agreement that the massacres can only be understood in light of the dangerous political developments and seething religious resentments of the preceding decade.

The premature death, following a jousting accident, of King Henri II in 1559 created a protracted political crisis in France. His sons who succeeded him in turn—Francis II (1559-60), Charles IX (1560-74), and Henri III (1574-89)—were young and weak, subject to their ambitious mother, and vulnerable to manipulation by powerful noble factions.

The explosive growth of Protestantism in France only exacerbated this dangerous political situation. By 1562, there were perhaps two million Protestants and nearly 1,250 Reformed churches in France, flourishing despite repeated royal censures and harsh persecution.

"We have churches in nearly all the cities of the realm," boasted Jean Morély, "and soon there will be scarcely a place where one has not been established." Such unbridled optimism was shattered by the onset of war in the spring of 1562. Nonetheless, the powerful Protestant party remained a dangerous factor in the French political crisis.

For the next decade, Catherine and Charles IX struggled feebly between two competing noble factions. The Huguenot party was championed by the admiral Coligny, Louis of Condé (until his death in 1569), and the young Bourbon princes Henri of Navarre and Henri of Condé. It sought legal recognition and freedom of worship for the Reformed churches. The Catholic faction, led by the powerful Guise family, defended the time-honored French tradition of "one king, one faith, one law" and demanded the extermination of the Protestant heresy.

Violence radicalized both Catholic and Huguenot positions and fueled popular resentments. During the decade before Saint Bartholomew's Day, France was ravaged by three successive religious wars. The first war of religion began in April 1562, shortly after Francis, duke of Guise, and his soldiers slaughtered some 60 Protestants who were worshiping in a barn at Vassy.

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