Coligny Family

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COLIGNY FAMILY. The Coligny brothers were the among the most zealous and consistent aristocratic supporters of Protestantism in sixteenth-century France. Descended from a Burgundian lineage, they had an important landed base in Brittany and its marches. Gaspard de Coligny (14701522), seigneur of Châtillon, fought with distinction in the Italian Wars under kings Charles VIII, Louis XII, and Francis I, becoming marshal of France in 1516. He married Louise de Montmorency, sister of the constable of France; this union produced three sons: Odet de Coligny (15171571), count-bishop of Beauvais and cardinal of Châtillon; Gaspard II de Coligny (15191572), seigneur of Châtillon and admiral of France; and François de Coligny (15211569), seigneur of Andelot and colonel-general of the Royal Infantry.

The Colignys rose to prominence in the 1550s as a result of the patronage of their uncle, the constable Anne de Montmorency, who was the favorite of king Henry II. It was also during this period that the brothers converted to Protestantism. Their mother, Louise, had died in the Reformed faith in 1547. François, seigneur d'Andelot, had been exposed to Reformed ideas from his youth and was encouraged by John Calvin to profess the faith openly in 1556. This infuriated the conservative Henry II, and Andelot was briefly imprisoned in 1558. Gaspard converted during his captivity (15571559) following the defeat of the constable's army at Saint-Quentin by the Imperialists. His wife, Charlotte de Laval, played an important role in promoting the faith while he was away, and on his return to France in October 1559, they began to profess openly and frequented illegal Protestant meetings. Odet, cardinal of Châtillon, only adhered to the Reform party after 1561, and even then he refused to give up his benefices; he was destituted by the pope in 1563, and a year later he married Isabeau de Hauteville. He fled to England in 1568.

Gaspard de Coligny first became known as a leading member of the Reform party in 1560 when he submitted a petition to the king from the Protestants of Normandy demanding toleration. During the First War of Religion (15621563), he emerged as the most effective Protestant commander, while his brother Odet, cardinal of Châtillon, acted as the Protestant envoy to England. The assassination of François, duke of Guise, the leader of the Ultra-Catholic party, in 1563 sparked a vendetta with the Coligny that was to dominate politics for the next decade. The Guise blamed Admiral Coligny for the murder, and both sides mobilized their kinsmen in a dispute (15631566) that cut across the religious divide: Coligny was assured of the support of his Catholic Montmorency cousins; the Guise wooed Louis de Bourbon, prince of Condé, who was Coligny's rival as chief of the Protestant party. A royal declaration of Coligny's innocence in 1566 abated the feud, and allegiances once more coalesced along confessional lines.

Growing suspicion of the policies of King Charles IX's mother, Catherine de Médicis, and Spanish intervention in the Dutch Revolt caused the Protestant leaders to attempt to seize the king at Meaux in September 1567. The subsequent recommencement of the civil war once more placed the Coligny brothers at the forefront of political and military developments. Condé's death at the battle of Jarnac in 1569 left Gaspard in sole command of the Protestant forces, and despite being defeated at Moncontour (October 1569), his more mobile cavalry army was able to elude the larger royal forces. The war ended in stalemate. On the resumption of peace in 1570, Gaspard's Guise enemies were excluded from court, and he increasingly enjoyed influence with Charles IX. However, his demand that royal policy support the Protestant cause in the Low Countries was resisted by the royal council, and it was probably Gaspard's determination to send an expeditionary force to aid his coreligionists that led Catherine de Médicis to sanction the failed Guise assassination attempt on his life (22 August 1572). Charles IX initially offered Gaspard his protection and agreed to conduct an investigation, but he was forced by his mother, Catherine, and his council to order his murder on 24 August, an act that sparked the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

The descendants of the Coligny brothers continued to play an important role in the Protestant cause: Gaspard's daughter Louise (15551620) married William of Orange in 1583; and his son, François (15571591), was a notable captain during the later Wars of Religion and was counselor to Henry of Navarre (Henry IV). During the seventeenth century, the various members of the family gradually reconverted to Catholicism; Gaspard III de Coligny (15841646) enjoyed royal favor as marshal of France (1622) before abjuring Protestantism in 1643 in return for the elevation of the marquisate of Châtillon to a duchy.

See also Catherine de Médicis ; Condé Family ; Dutch Revolt (15681648) ; France ; Guise Family ; Henry II (France) ; Henry IV (France) ; Huguenots ; St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre ; Wars of Religion, French .


Shimizu, Junko. Consflict of Loyalties: Politics and Religion in the Career of Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France, 15191572. Geneva, 1970.

Sutherland, N. M. "The Assassination of François duc de Guise, February 1563" and "The Role of Coligny in the French Wars of Religion" In Princes, Politics and Religion 15471589. London, 1984.

. The Huguenot Struggle for Recognition. New Haven, 1980.

Stuart Carroll