corner graphic   Hi,    
Facebook image
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to

The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 17 — Protestantism in France From Death of Francis I (1547) to Edict of Nantes (1598)

Chapter 16 — The massacre of St. Bartholomew

Resource Toolbox

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19  20  21  22  23  24

 1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18  19

Final Arrangements—The Tocsin—The First Pistol-shot—Murder of Coligny—His Last Moments—Massacre throughout Paris—Butchery at the Louvre—Sunrise, and what it Revealed—Charles IX Fires on his Subjects—An Arquebus—The Massacres Extend throughout France— Numbers of the Slain—Variously Computed—Charles IX Excusing Accuses himself—Reception of the News in Flanders—in England — in Scotland—Arrival of the Escaped at Geneva—Rejoicings at Rome—The Three Frescoes — The St. Bartholomew Medal.

It was now eleven o'clock of Saturday night, and the massacre was to begin at daybreak. Tavannes was sent to bid the Mayor of Paris assemble the citizens, who for some days before had been provided with arms, which they had stored in their houses. To exasperate them, and put them in a mood for this unlimited butchery of their countrymen, in which at first they were somewhat reluctant to engage, they were told that a horrible conspiracy had been discovered, on the part of the Huguenots, to cut off the king and the royal family, and destroy the monarchy and the Roman Catholic religion. [1] The signal for the massacre was to be the tolling of the great bell of the Palace of Justice.

As soon as the tocsin should have flung its ominous peal upon the city, they were to hasten to draw chains across the streets, place pickets in the open spaces, and sentinels on the bridges. Orders were also given that at the first sound of the bell torches should be placed in all the windows, and that the Roman Catholics, for distinction, should wear a white scarf on the left arm, and affix a white cross on their hats.

"All was now arranged," says Maimbourg, "for the carnage;" and they waited with impatience for the break of day, when the tocsin was to sound. In the royal chamber sat Charles IX, the Queen-mother, and the Duke of Anjou. Catherine's fears lest the king should change his mind at the last minute would not permit her to leave him for one moment. Few words, we may well believe, would pass between the royal personages. The great event that impended could not but weigh heavily upon them. A deep stillness reigned in the apartment; the hours wore wearily away; and the Queen-mother feeling the suspense unbearable, or else afraid, as Maimbourg suggests, that Charles, "greatly disturbed by the idea of the horrible butchew, would revoke the order he had given for it," anticipated the signal by sending one at two o'clock of the morning to ring the bell of St. Ger-main l'Auxerois, [2] which was nearer than that of the Palace of Justice. Scarcely had its first peal startled the silence of the night when a pistol shot was heard. The king started to his feet, and summoning an attendant he bade him go and stop the massacre. [3] It was too late; the bloody work had begun. The great bell of the Palace had now begun to toll; another moment and every steeple in Paris was sending forth its peal; a hundred tocsins sounded at once; and with the tempest of their clamor there mingled the shouts, oaths, and howlings of the assassins. "I was awakened," says Sully, "three hours after midnight with the ringing of all the bells, and the contimed cries of the populace." [4] Above all were heard the terrible words, "Kill, kill!"

The massacre was to begin with the assassination of Coligny, and that part of the dreadful work had been assigned to the Duke of Guise. The moment he heard the signal, the duke mounted his horse and, accompanied by his brother and 300 gentlemen and soldiers, galloped off for the admiral's lodging. He found Anjou's guards with their red cloaks, and their lighted matches, posted round it; they gave the duke with his armed retinue instant admission into the court-yard. To slaughter the halberdiers of Navarre, and force open the inner entrance of the admiral's lodgings, was the work of but a few minutes. They next mountd the stairs, while the duke and his gentlemen remained below. Awakened by the noise, the admiral got out of bed, and wrapping his dressing-gown round him and leaning against the wall, he bade Merlin, his minister, join with him in prayer. One of his gentlemen at that moment rushed into the room. "My lord," said he, "God calls us to himself!" "I am prepared to die," replied the admiral; "I need no more the help of men; therefore, farewell, my friends; save yourselves, if it is still possible." They all left him and escaped by the roof of the house. Co1igny, his son-in-law, fleeing in this way was shot, and rolled into the street. A German servant alone remained behind with his master. The door of the chamber was now forced open, and seven of the murderers entered, headed by Behme of Lorraine, and Achille Petrucci of Sienna, creatures of the Duke of Guise. "Art thou Coligny?" said Behme, presenting himself before his victim, and awed by the perfect composure and venerable aspect of the admiral. "I am," replied Coligny; "young man, you ought to respect my grey hairs; but do what you will, you can shorten my life only by a few days." The villain replied by plunging his weapon into the admiral's breast; the rest closing round struck their daggers into him. "Behme," shouted the duke from below, "hast done?" "Tis all over," cried the assassin from the window. "But M. d'Angouleme," replied the duke, "will not believe it till he see him at his feet." Taking up the corpse, Behme threw it over the window, and as it fell on the pavement, the blood spurted on the faces and clothes of the two lords. The duke, taking out his handkerchief and wiping the face of the murdered man, said, "Tis he sure enough," and kicked the corpse in its face. A servant of the Duke of Nevers cut off the head, and carried it to Catherine de Medici and the king. The

trunk was exposed for some days to disgusting indignities; the head was embalmed, to be sent to Rome; the bloody trophy was carried as far as Lyons, but there all trace of it disappears. [5]

The authors of the plot having respect to the maxim attributed to Alaric, that "thick grass is more easily mown than thin," had gathered the leading Protestants that night, as we have already narrated, into the same quarter where Coligny lodged. The Duke of Guise had kept this quarter as his special preserve; and now, the admiral being dispatched, the guards of Anjou, with a creature of the duke's for their captain, were let loose upon this battue of ensnared Huguenots. Their work was done with a summary vengeance, to which the flooded state of the kennels, and the piles of corpses, growing ever larger, bore terrible witness. Over all Paris did the work of massacre by this time extend. Furious bands, armed with guns, pistols, swords, pikes, knives, and all kinds of cruel weapons, rushed through the streets, murdering all they met. They began to thunder at the doors of Protestants, and the terrified inmates, stunned by the uproar, came forth in their night-clothes, and were murdered on their own thresholds. Those who were too aftrighted to come abroad, were slaughtered in their bed-rooms and closets, the assassins bursting open all places of concealment, and massacring all who opposed their entrance, and throwing their mangled bodies into the street. The darkness would have been a cover to some, but the lights that blazed in the windows denied even this poor chance of escape to the miserable victims. The Huguenot as he fled through the street, with agonized features, and lacking the protection of the white scarf, was easily recognised, and dispatched without mercy.

The Louvre was that night the scene of a great butchery. Some 200 Protestant noblemen and gentlemen from the provinces had been accommodated with beds in the palace; and although the guests of the king, they had no exemption, but were doomed that night to die with others. They were aroused after midnight, taken out one by one, and made to pass between two rows of halberdiers, who were stationed in the underground galleries. They were hacked in pieces or poniarded on their way, and their corpses being carried forth were horrible to relate, piled in heaps at the gates of the Louvre. Among those who thus perished were the Count de la Rochefoucault, the Marquis de Renel, the brave Piles—who had so gallantly defended St. Jean D'Angely—Francourt, chancellor to the King of Navarre, and others of nearly equal distinction. An appeal to the God of Justice was their only protest against their fate. [6]

By-and-by the sun rose; but, alas! who can describe the horrors which the broad light of day disclosed to view? The entire population of the French capital was seen maddened with rage, or aghast with terror. On its wretched streets what tragedies of horror and crime were being enacted! Some were fleeing, others were pursuing; some were supplicating for life, others were responding by the murderous blow, which, if it silenced the cry for mercy, awoke the cry for justice. Old men, and infants in their swaddling clothes, were alike butchered on that awful night. Our very page would weep, were we to record all the atrocities now enacted. Corpses were being precipitated from the roofs and windows, others were being dragged through the streets by the feet, or were piled up in carts, and driven away to be shot into the river. The kennels were running with blood. Guise, Tavannes, and D'Angoul~me—traversing the streets on horseback, and raising their voices to their highest pitch, to be audible above the tolling of the bells, the yells of the murderers, and the cries and moanings of the wounded and the dying—were inciting to yet greater fury those whom hate and blood had already transformed into demons. "It is the king's orders!" cried Guise. "Blood, blood!" shouted out Tavannes. Blood! every kennel was full; the Seine as it rolled through Paris seemed but a river of blood; and the corpses which it was bearing to the ocean were so numerous that the bridges had difficulty in giving them passage, and were in some danger of becoming choked and turning back the stream, and drowning Paris in the blood of its own shedding. Such was the gigantic horror on which the sun of that Sunday morning, the 24th of August, 1572 —St. Bartholomew's Day—looked down.

We have seen how Charles IX stood shuddering for some moments on the brink of his great crime, and that, had it not been for the stronger will and more daring wickedness of his mother, he might after all have turned back. But when the massacre had commenced, and he had tasted of blood, Charles shuddered no longer he became as ravenous for slaughter as the lowest of the mob. He and his mother, when it was day, went out on the palace balcony to feast their eyes upon the scene. Some Huguenots were seen struggling in the river, in their efforts to swim across, the boats having been removed. Seizing an arquebus, the king fired on them. "Kill, kill!" he shouted; and making a page sit beside him and load his piece, [7] he continued the horrible pastime of murdering his subjects, who were attempting to escape across the Seine, or were seeking refuge at the pitiless gates of his palace. [8]

The same night, while the massacres were in progress, Charles sent for the King of Navarre and the Prince de Conde. Receiving them in great anger, he commanded them with oaths to renounce the Protestant faith, threatening them with death as the alternative of refusal. They demurred: whereupon the king gave them three days to make their choice. [9] His physician, Ambrose Pare, a Protestant, he kept all night in his cabinet, so selfishly careful was

he of his own miserable life at the very moment that he was murdering in thousands the flower of his subjects. Pare he also attempted to terrify by oaths and threats into embracing Romanism, telling him that the time was now come when every man in France must become Roman Catholic. So apparent was it that the leading motive of Charles IX in these great crimes was the dominancy of the Roman faith and the entire extinction of Protestantism.

For seven days the massacres were continued in Paris, and the first three especially with unabating fury. Nor were they confined within the walls of the city. In pursuance of orders sent from the court, [10] they were extended to all provinces and cities where Protestants were found. Even villages and chateaux became scenes of carnage. For two months these butcheries were continued throughout the kingdom. Every day during that fearful time the poniard reaped a fresh harvest of victims, and the rivers bore to the sea a new and ghastly burden of corpses. In Rouen above 6,000 perished; at Toulouse some hundreds were hewn to pieces with axes; at Orleans the Papists themselves confessed that they had destroyed 12,000; some said 18,000; and at Lyons not a Protestant escaped. After the gates were closed they fell upon them without mercy; 150 of them were shut up in the archbishop's house, and were cut to pieces in the space of one hour and a half. Some Roman Catholic, more humane than the rest, when he saw the heaps of corpses, exclaimed, "They surely were not men, but devils in the shape of men, who had done this."

The whole number that perished in the massacre cannot be precisely ascertained. According to De Thou there were 2,000 victims in Paris the first day; Agrippa d'Aubigne says 3,000. Brantome speaks of 4.000 bodies that Charles IX might have seen floating down the Seine. La Popeliniere reduces them to 1,000. "There is to be found, in the account-books of the city of Paris, a payment to the grave-diggers of the Cemetery of the Innocents, for having inferred 1,100 dead bodies stranded at the turns of the Seine near Chaillot, Antenil, and St. Cloud; it is probable that many corpses were carried still further, and the corpses were not all thrown into the river." [11] There is a still greater uncertainty touching the number of victims throughout the whole of France. Mezeray computes it at 25,000; De Thou at 30,000; Sully at 70,000; and Perefixe, Archbishop of Paris in the seventeenth century, raises it to 100,000; Davila reduces it to 10,000. Sully, from his access to official documents, and his unimpeachable honor, has been commonly reckoned the highest authority. Not a few municipalities and governors, to their honor, refused to execute the orders of the king. The reply of the Vicompte d'Orte has become famous. "Sire," wrote he to Charles IX, "among the citizens and garrison of Bayonne, you have many brave soldiers, and loyal subjects, but not one hangman." [12]

Blood and falsehood are never far apart. The great crime had been acted and could not be recalled; how was it to be justified? The poor unhappy king had recourse to one dodge after another, verifying the French saying that "to excuse is to accuse one's self." On the evening of the first day of the massacre, he dispatched messengers to the provinces to announce the death of Coligny, and the slaughters in Paris, attributing everything to the feud which had so long subsisted between Guise and the admiral. A day's reflection convinced the king that the duke would force him to acknowledge his own share in the massacre, and he saw that he must concoct another excuse; he would plead a political necessity. Putting his lie in the form of an appeal to the Almighty, he went, attended by the whole court, to mass, solemnly to thank God for having delivered him from the Protestants; and on his return, holding "a bed of justice," he professed to unveil to the Parliament a terrible plot which Coligny and the Huguenots had contrived for destroying the king and the royal house, which had left him no alternative but to order the massacre. Although the king's story was not supported by one atom of solid truth, but on the other hand was contradicted by a hundred facts, of which the Parliament was cognisant, the obsequious members sustained the king's accusation, and branded with outlawry and forfeiture the name, the titles, the family, and the estates of Admiral de Coligny. The notorious and brazen-faced Retz was instructed to tell England yet another falsehood, namely, that Coligny was meditating playing the part of Pepin, mayor of the palace, and that the king did a wise and politic thing in nipping the admiral's treason in the bud. To the court of Poland, Charles sent, by his ambassador Montluc, another version of the affair; and to the Swiss yet another; in short, the inconsistencies, prevarications, and contradictions of the unhappy monarch were endless, and attest his guilt not less conclusively than if he had confessed the deed. Meanwhile, the tidings were travelling over Europe, petrifying some nations with horror, awakening others into delirious and savage joy. When the news of the massacre reached the Spanish army in the Netherlands the exultation was great. The skies resounded with salvoes of cannon; the drums were beat, the trumpets blared, and at night bonfires blazed all round the camp. The reception which England gave the French ambassador was dignified and most significant. Fenelon's description of his first audience after the news of the massacre had arrived is striking. "A gloomy sorrow," says he, "sat on every face; silence, as in the dead of night, reigned through all the chambers of the royal residence. The ladies and courtiers, clad in deep mourning, were ranged on each side; and as I passed by them, in my approach to the queen, not one

bestowed on me a favorable look, or made the least return to my salutations." [13] Thus did England show that she held those whom the King of France had barbarously murdered as her brethren.

We turn to Geneva. Geneva was yet more tenderly related to the seventy thousand victims whose bodies covered the plains of France, or lay stranded on the banks of its rivers. It is the 30th of August, 1572. Certain merchants have just arrived at Geneva from Lyons; leaving their pack-horses and bales in charge of the master of their hotel, they mount with all speed the street leading to the Hotel de Ville, anxiety and grief painted on their faces; "Messieurs," said they to the counselors, "a horrible massacre of our brethren has just taken place at Lyons. In all the villages on our route we have seen the gibbets erected, and blood flowing; it seems that it is the same all over France. Tomorrow, or the day after, you will see those who have escaped the butchery arrive on your frontier." The distressing news spread like lightning through the town; the shops were closed, and the citizens met in companies in the squares. Their experience of the past had taught them the demands which this sad occurrence would make on their benevolence. Indoors the women busied themselves providing clothes, medicines, and abundance of viands for those whom they expected soon to see arrive in hunger and sickness. The magistrates dispatched carriages and litters to the villages in the Pays de Gex; the peasants and the pastors were on the outlook on the frontier to obtain news, and to be ready to succor the first arrivals. Nor had they long to wait. On the 1st of September they beheld certain travelers approaching, pale, exhausted by fatigue, and responding with difficulty to the caresses with which they were overwhelmed. They could hardly believe 'their own safety, seeing that days before, in every village through which they passed, they had been inimminent danger of death. The number of these arrivals rapidly increased; they now showed their wounds, which they had carefully concealed, lest they should thereby be known to belong to the Reformed.

They declared that since the 26th of August the fields and villages had been deluged with the blood of their brethren. All of them gave thanks to God that they had been permitted to reach a "land of liberty." Their hearts were full of heaviness, for not one family was complete; when they mustered on the frontier, alas! how many parents, children, and friends were missing! By-and-by this sorrowful group reached the gates of Geneva, and as they advanced along the streets, the citizens contended with each other for the privilege of entertaining those of the travelers who appeared the greatest sufferers. The wounded were conveyed to the houses of the best families, where they were nursed with the most tender care. So ample was the hospitality of the citizens, that the magistrates found it unnecessary to make any public distribution of clothes or victuals. [14]

On the suggestion of Theodore Beza, a day of general fasting was observed, and appointed to be repeated every year on St. Bartholomew's Day. On the arrival of the news in Scotland, Knox, now old and worn out with labors, made himself be borne to his pulpit, and "summoning up the remainder of his strength," says McCrie, "he thundered the vengeance of Heaven against 'that cruel murderer and false traitor, the King of France,' and desired Le Croc, the French ambassador, to tell his master that sentence was pronounced against him in Scotland; that the Divine vengeance would never depart from him, nor from his house, if repentance did not ensue; but his name would remain an execration to posterity, and none proceeding from his loins would enjoy his kingdom in peace." [15]

At Rome, when the news arrived, the joy was boundless. The messenger who carried the despatch was rewarded like one who brings tidings of some great victory, [16] and the triumph that followed was such as old pagan Rome might have been proud to celebrate. The news was thundered forth to the inhabitants of the Seven-hilled City by the cannon of St. Angelo, and at night bonfires blazed on the street. Before this great day, Pius V, as we have already seen, slept with the Popes of former times, and his ashes, consigned to the vaults of St. Peter's, waited the more gorgeous tomb that was preparing for them in Santa Maria Maggiore; but Gregory XIII conducted the rejoicings with even greater splendor than the austere Pius would probably have done. Through the streets of the Eternal City swept, in the full blaze of Pontifical pomp, Gregory and his attendant train of cardinals, bishops, and monks, to the Church of St. Mark, there to offer up prayers and thanksgivings to the God of heaven for this great blessing to the See of Rome and the Roman Catholic Church. Over the portico of the church was hung a cloth of purple, on which was a Latin inscription most elegantly embroidered in letters of gold, in which it was distinctly stated that the massacre had occurred after "counsels had been given." [17]

On the following day the Pontiff went in procession to the Church of Minerva, where, after mass, a jubilee was published to all Christendom, "that they might thank God for the slaughter of the enemies of the Church, lately executed in France." A third time did the Pope go in procession, with his cardinals and all the foreign ambassadom then resident at his court, and after mass in the Church of St. Louis, he accepted homage from the Cardinal of Lorraine, and thanks in the name of the King of France, "for the counsel and help he had given him by his prayers, of which he had found the most wonderful effects."

But as if all this had not been enough,

the Pope caused certain more enduring monuments of the St. Bartholomew to be set up, that not only might the event be held in everlasting remembrance, but his own approval of it be proclaimed to the ages to come. The Pope, says Bonanni, "gave orders for a painting, descriptive of the slaughter of the admiral and his companions, to be made in the hall of the Vatican by Georgio Vasari, as a monument of vindicated religion, and a trophy of exterminated heresy." These representations form three different frescoes. [18] The first, in which the admiral is represented as wounded by Maurevel, and carried home, has this inscription—Gaspar Colignius Amirallius accepto vulnere domura refertur. Greg. XIII, Pontif. Max., 1572. [19] The second, which exhibits Coligny murdered in his own house, with Teligny and others, has these words below it—Coedes Colignii et sociorum ejus. [20] The third, in which the king is represented as hearing the news, is thus entitled—Rex netera Colignii Frobat. [21]

The better to perpetuate the memory of the massacre, Gregory caused a medal to be struck, the device on which, as Bonanni interprets it, inculcates that the St. Bartholomew was the joint result of the Papal counsel and God's instnmmntality. On the one side is a profile of the Pope, surrounded by the words—Gregorius XIII, Pont. Max., an. I. On the obverse is seen an angel bearing in the one hand a cross, in the other a drawn sword, with which he is smiting a prostrate host of Protestants; and to make all clear, above is the motto—Ugonot-toturn strages, 1572. [22]

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, March 17th, 2018
the Fourth Week of Lent
There are 15 days til Easter!
Search Historical Writings
Enter query in the box below
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology