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Gaspard de Coligny and the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

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Martyrs and Murderers: The Guise Family and the Making of Europe by Stuart Carroll tells the story of three generations of treacherous, bloodthirsty power-brokers. It is the sensational saga of the House of Guise, one of the greatest princely families of the sixteenth century, or indeed of any age. In the short excerpt below, Stuart Carroll talks about the run-up to the infamous Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572.


Paris was not only sixteenth-century Europe’s largest city; it was its first metropolis. To wander the warren of streets behind its medieval walls was to experience such a bustle, noise and stench that it was compared to an entire province. Everywhere the visitor was reminded of its extraordinary Catholic heritage: its 300,000 souls were crammed into nearly 300 streets, divided into 39 parishes and served by 104 churches and monasteries; its conservative and celebrated university was spread over 49 colleges on the city’s Left Bank.

As he left the Louvre at 11 am on Friday 22 August 1572, Gaspard de Coligny paid little attention to his surroundings. He had just attended a council meeting, chaired in the absence of the king and the Queen Mother by the Duke of Anjou, and as he walked along was absorbed in reading an important piece of business. He did not return the hostile looks of the locals. At 55 he was the kingdom’s most experienced politician and soldier and used to the menacing carrollgazes of Catholics. The curious were kept at a distance by a dozen bodyguards. His serious expression, penetrating gaze and white beard lent him a gravity that was out of place amid the gaiety of a rejuvenated court. Even his enemies respected his courage and piety. He was often compared to his contemporary, François de Guise—France’s ‘two shining diamonds’. Better educated than the friend who became his bitterest enemy, he was a good Latinist and maintained a journal (since lost) for posterity. Like Guise, the admiral spread fear among his enemies. There was an uncompromising element in his character which suited him well to Calvinist discipline. In war he knew the value of cruelty and terror as a weapon. To the Protestants this made him a hero, and the leadership was in awe of him. That morning he was making the short walk to his lodgings in the rue de Béthisy. Soon after he turned into the rue des Poulies a single shot rang out from a hundred feet away. Protestants placed their trust in providence for good reason: at the very same moment the shot was fired Coligny stopped and turned suddenly, and the shot missed his vitals, fracturing his left forearm and taking off an index finger. His men immediately rushed to the house from where the shot had been fired and tried to force the door, but the assassin had planned well. The house had a rear door that opened onto the square in front of Saint-Germain l’Auxerrois church, where a horse was awaiting him.

Coligny was not killed by the bullet; he would have lived. And yet within forty-eight hours he was murdered. Several days of anarchy followed in which between at least 2,000, and perhaps as many as 6,000, Protestants were butchered. Upwards of 600 houses were pillaged. The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is the greatest imponderable of sixteenth-century history. The barbarity with which defenceless women and children were massacred has echoes of the horrors of the twentieth century—horrors that were literally unspeakable: such was the cruelty and terror of those August days that very few were ever able to set down in words what they had seen or experienced. The task of the historian is made all the more difficult because the sources that survive, written amid the confusion or put together much later in an attempt to shift the blame, are even more than usually partial and suspect. Over the centuries a plethora of suspects and motives have been put forward. Older interpretations rested on Catherine’s reputation as a wicked Italian Queen schooled in the dark political arts of Machiavelli. Coligny’s assassination, it is claimed, had been planned years before and was the signal for a premeditated programme of extermination. Catherine [de Medici], it is claimed, was driven insane by maternal jealousy. Coligny was increasingly powerful at court and threatened to supplant her in her son’s affections, and so she employed the Guise to eliminate the admiral. This conjecture relies more on xenophobia and misogyny than hard evidence. In fact, the evidence for Coligny’s pre-eminence is rather thin: in the year before his death he was at court for a total of only five weeks. In a major reinterpretation in 1973, Nicola Sutherland argued that an assassination was inconsistent with Catherine’s larger political aims. Catherine had spent more than ten years trying to preserve the peace by balancing the Catholic and Protestant factions, and there is little reason to believe that she would suddenly abandon these consistently held policies and order the death of the Protestant leader, let alone a more general policy of extermination. If not Catherine, then who? Sutherland claimed to have uncovered an international Catholic conspiracy, involving Spain, the Papacy, and the Guise. The Spanish scenario is plausible. In the summer of 1572 Coligny was pressing for immediate intervention in the Low Countries. Philip II of Spain and the Duke of Alva wished him dead. Once again, however, the evidence is flimsy. Spanish policy was tempered by realpolitik, recognizing that the admiral was a force for division and therefore contributed to France’s present weakness. There are other suspects and motives: the Duke of Anjou, the Italians on the council, or a combination of the two—all have their accusers. Charles IX has recently been rehabilitated as an idealistic philosopher-king who, fearing that his dream of concord was about to be shattered, played a decisive role in planning Coligny’s murder. Fresh clues have been gleaned from the prosaic (rising grain prices) to the esoteric (the neoplatonic environment of the court). One benefit of recent research has been to uncouple the plot to kill Coligny from the general massacre that followed. Few historians would now argue that the plotters had a premeditated plan to murder thousands. In order to understand the Massacre we must first answer the riddle of Coligny’s death. Only then will we begin to uncover the link between aristocratic conspiracy and mob violence.

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