St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre

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ST. BARTHOLOMEW'S DAY MASSACRE. Early on the morning of 24 August 1572 (St. Bartholomew's Day by the Catholic Church calendar), French Catholic troops began to slaughter unarmed Protestants who had gathered in Paris for a royal wedding. The wave of popular violence that followed resulted in the death of some two thousand persons in Paris and another three thousand in other French cities. Known collectively as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, these events constitute the most infamous episode in the French Wars of Religion and a turning point in these wars. Scholars continue to debate the questions of who authorized the killings and why, who took part in them, and what they tell us about the nature of religious intolerance.

Although some contemporaries believed the massacre to be the product of a conspiracy plotted during Queen Mother Catherine de Médicis's 1565 meeting with Spanish emissaries at Bayonne, most scholars now regard it as a more immediate response to deteriorating relations between Huguenots and the crown in the aftermath of the Peace of Saint-Germain, which ended the third religious war in August 1570. Popular opposition to the measures of toleration accorded the Protestants made the peace difficult to enforce, and yet Protestant leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny continued to press for full enforcement. He further irritated Catherine by attempting to convince her son, the young King Charles IX, to send troops to aid Dutch Protestants in their revolt against Spain. Some historians believe that Catherine, jealous of Coligny's growing influence over Charles IX, tried to have the admiral assassinated on 22 August 1572. Others have blamed members of the Ultra-Catholic Guise family for the attempt, which wounded but did not kill Coligny. This was the view of the Huguenot leaders, who had assembled in Paris to celebrate the wedding of Henry of Bourbon, king of Navarre, to the king's sister, Marguerite of Valois. Their demand for revenge appears to have sparked both a popular outcry and a defensive reaction on the part of the king and queen mother, who feared a Protestant coup.

A secret meeting in the Louvre on the night on 23 August resulted in the order to eliminate the Huguenot leadership. We do not know how many persons were to be killed or how willingly the king consented to the plot, but it is clear that in the aftermath of the order the killings took on a life of their own. The duke of Guise's men first dispatched the admiral and then hunted down other Huguenot leaders. Overhearing Guise remind his troops that they killed at the king's command, militiamen posted about the city to ensure its defense began to take part in the violence. Private citizens joined in, and the murders spread to encompass ordinary men, women, and children. Looting was common, and some of the victims' corpses were mutilated or subjected to crude parodies of judicial and religious rites. Some Protestants saved their lives by recanting their faith; others were hidden by charitable friends until they could secretly flee. It took more than a week to recover order in Paris, by which time the killing had spread to other French cities.

In some towns the killing began as soon as word arrived of the massacre in Paris. In other cases, a precarious peace was maintained until local events touched of a wave of murders several weeks later. At least twelve cities, including the provincial capitals of Lyon, Rouen, Bordeaux, and Toulouse, experienced significant levels of violence. All were predominantly Catholic cities that had once harbored sizeable Huguenot minorities, and all witnessed the same popular participation and ritualistic murders as Paris. In each, moreover, participants appear to have shared a common belief that the king had authorized the killing.

While surviving Protestant leaders fled to the west and launched a fourth religious war, Huguenot propagandists publicized the murders in order to gain international support for their cause. Articulating new theories of political resistance, François Hotman, Théodore de Bèze, and other Huguenot writers defended the right of subordinate magistrates to withdraw obedience from a tyrannical monarch who would permit such atrocities against his subjects. Shock and horror at the extent of the killing prompted some moderate Catholics to oppose the renewal of war and advocate further compromises in order to secure a lasting peace. Although this policy ultimately triumphed with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, the immediate result of the moderates' defection was rather to encourage Ultra-Catholics to demand that the king act more decisively to eliminate the Protestant heresy. Saint Bartholomew's Day thus initiated the last, radical phase of the religious wars, at the same time that it seriously traumatized the Huguenot faithful and permanently undermined the Protestant movement in France.

See also Bèze, Théodore de ; Coligny Family ; Guise Family ; Henry III (France) ; Henry IV (France) ; Huguenots ; Nantes, Edict of ; Resistance, Theory of ; Wars of Religion, French .


Benedict, Philip. "The Saint Bartholomew's Massacres in the Provinces." Historical Journal 21 (1978): 205225. The best study of the provincial massacres.

Diefendorf, Barbara B. Beneath the Cross: Catholics and Huguenots in Sixteenth-Century Paris. Oxford and New York, 1991. Focuses on the circumstances that led up to the massacre in Paris.

Holt, Mack P. The French Wars of Religion, 15621629. Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 1995. Sets the massacre into the broader context of the religious wars.

Kingdon, Robert M. Myths about the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacres, 15721576. Cambridge, Mass., 1988. How the massacres were used for propaganda purposes.

Barbara B. Diefendorf

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St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre

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St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre