St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre: Causes, Events, Impact

A royal wedding gives way to a brutal massacre in 1572

painting showing the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris in August 1572
Huguenot painter Francois Dubois created Le Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy not long after the event. Coligny's body can be seen hanging from a window.

The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre was a wave of mob violence directed against the French Protestant (Huguenot) minority by the Catholic majority. The massacre killed more than 10,000 people over a period of two months in the fall of 1572.

Fast Facts: St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre

  • Event Name: St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre
  • Description: Violent attack by Catholics on Protestant minority beginning in Paris and spreading out to other French cities, killing between 10,000 and 30,000 people over three months.
  • Key Participants: King Charles IX, Queen Mother Catherine de Medici, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny
  • Start Date: August 24, 1572
  • End Date: October 1572
  • Location: Began in Paris and spread throughout France

It came at the end of a week of celebration and feasting in Paris as King Charles IX hosted the wedding of his sister, Margaret, to Prince Henri of Navarre. The marriage of the Catholic princess to a Protestant prince was designed in part to heal divisions between Catholics and the Protestant minority in France, but in the early-morning hours of August 24, just four days after the wedding and on the eve of St. Bartholomew’s Day, French troops marched into Protestant neighborhoods, shouting “Kill them all!”

A Fragile Peace

The direct roots of the massacre are complex. In the most general sense, it was a result of the birth of the Protestant Reformation more than a half-century earlier. In the decades that followed Martin Luther’s challenge to the Catholic Church, Protestantism spread across Western Europe, and with it came violence and chaos as centuries-old social and religious norms came under increasing pressure.

The situation for Protestants in France, who were called Huguenots, was particularly harsh. The Huguenots were relatively small in number, as only about 10-15% of the French population converted to Protestantism. They tended to come from the artisan class and the nobility, which gave meant they could not easily be ignored or brought to heel. Hostilities broke into open war three times between 1562 and 1570.

In the summer of 1570, faced with mounting debts from the ongoing Third War of Religion, Charles IX sought a negotiated peace with the Huguenots. The Peace of Saint Germain, signed August 1570, granted Huguenots control of four fortified cities across France and allowed them to once again hold office. The treaty ended the war and allowed new freedoms to the Protestant minority, which enraged the hard-line Catholics within the royal court. That simmering anger ultimately led to the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

An Assassination Attempt

Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a nobleman who led Huguenot troops in the late war, became friendly with Charles IX in the years following the Peace of Saint Germain—much to the dismay of the King’s formidable mother Catherine de Medici and the anti-Huguenot faction lead by the powerful Guise family. Charles, at just 22 years old, was easily swayed by those around him, and there was considerable fear that the formidable 55-year old de Coligny would use the impressionable young king to advance the Huguenot cause. As the royal wedding approached in the summer of 1572, de Coligny proposed that Charles lead a joint Catholic-Huguenot action to support Protestants fighting the Spaniards in the Netherlands.

It’s not clear when Catherine de Medici and the Guises determined Coligny needed to be removed, but by the morning of August 22, there was a plan in place. That morning, Coligny attended a meeting of the royal council at the Louvre and left with his bodyguards at around 11 am. On his way back to his rooms on the Rue de Bethisy, an assassin jumped out of an alley and shot Coligny in the arm.

Charles rushed to Coligny’s side. The wound to his arm was not mortal, but the admiral was bedridden and in severe pain.

Once back at the palace, Catherine and her faction began to pressure the young king to take dramatic action to prevent a Huguenot uprising. At a royal council meeting the next day, the members were absorbed with fear that the Huguenots within the city would launch a retaliatory attack. There were also rumors of a 4000-strong Huguenot army just outside the walls.

Adding to the pressure, Catherine spent hours alone with her son, urging him to order a strike against the Huguenots. Unable to withstand the pressure, Charles finally gave the order to kill Huguenot leadership. The attack, led by the Duke of Guise and 100 Swiss Guards, was to begin around dawn the next day, St. Bartholomew’s Day.

The Massacre

Coligny was among the first to die. Swiss Guards pulled him from his sickbed and slashed at him with axes before throwing his dead body out the window into the courtyard below. His head was cut off and taken to the Louvre to prove the deed was done.

But the killing didn’t stop there. Soldiers “all went with their men from house to house, wherever they thought they might find Huguenots, breaking down the doors, then cruelling massacring those they encountered, without regard to sex or age,” wrote the Protestant minister Simon Goulart, who took the testimony of survivors not long after the attack.

Catholic Parisians, possibly urged on by militant priests, soon joined in the slaughter. Mobs began targeting Huguenot neighbors, trying to force them to renounce their heresy and murdering them when they refused. Many tried to escape, only to find the city’s gates closed against them.

This mass slaughter went on for three days and stopped only when most of the Huguenots in the city were exterminated. “Carts piled high with the dead bodies of noble ladies, women, girls, men and boys were brought down and emptied into the river, which was covered with dead bodies and ran red with blood,” Goulart reported. Others were tossed in a well normally used to dispose of animal carcasses. 

Violence Spreads

As news of the killings in Paris spread across France, so did the violence. From late August to October, Catholics rose up and launched massacres against Huguenots in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon, Bourges, Rouen, Orléans, Mieux, Angers, La Charité, Saumur, Gaillac, and Troyes.

How many were killed in the massacre has been debated for almost 450 years. Most historians believe around 3,000 were killed in Paris, and perhaps 10,000 nationwide. Others believe it might have been between 20,000 and 30,000. A large number of Huguenot survivors likely converted back to Catholicism for their own protection. Many others emigrated Protestant strongholds outside France.

The Aftermath

However unplanned it may have been, Catholics across Europe viewed the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre as a great victory for the Church. At the Vatican, the killings were celebrated by Pope Gregory XIII with special masses of thanksgiving and a commemorative medal honoring Ugonottorum strages 1572 (“Slaughter of the Huguenots, 1572”). In Spain, King Philip II was said to have laughed for one of the only times in memory upon hearing the news.

The Fourth War of Religion broke out in November 1572 and ended the following summer in the Edict of Boulogne. Under the new treaty, Huguenots were given amnesty for past acts and were granted the freedom of belief. But the edict ended almost all the rights given in the Peace of Saint Germain, and restricted most Protestants from actually practicing their religion. Fighting between Catholics and the dwindling Protestant population would continue for another quarter-century until the signing of the Edict of Nantes in 1598.

Sources

  • Diefendorf, B. B. (2009). The Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre: A brief history with documents. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martins.
  • Jouanna, A. (2016). The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre: The Mysteries of a Crime of State(J. Bergin, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
  • Whitehead, A. W. (1904). Gaspard de Coligny: Admiral of France. London: Methuen.