Catholics versus Huguenots, 1560-1572
The Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572 was the climactic event of the Sixteen Century French Wars betweeen Huguenots and Catholics.

In her book, Beneath the Cross: Catholics and Huguenots in Sixteenth Century France, (Bew York, Oxford U. Press, 1991), Historian Barbara B. Diefendorf distinguishes three stages of their conflict before the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

In the first period, 1557 to 1563, the gradual breakdown of order in Paris led to the First Civil War, followed by the first try at "toleration" in the Edict of Amboise.

The second period, 1563 to 1567, the developing crisis increased fear in France, especially in Paris, culminating The Second War of Religion.

In the third period, 1567 to 1572, intensifying religious discontent provoked The Third war of Religion and the terrible massacre.

The crisis began with the 1559 death of French King Henry II, succeeded by his very young brother, Francis II, counseled by the Catholic Guises. Intellectual leadership of the Catholic faction depended upon the theology faculty at the University of Paris, as well as Jesuit instructors. And political and military leadership came from the Guise family of nobles, which was headed by Henri, Duc de Guise. (The Duc later planned assassination of the Huguenot leader, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, believing Coligny was involved in father, Henri, at the close of The First War of Religion in 1562.) Huguenot intellectual leadership derived both from bot lay and cerical pastors and printers who encourage literacy for the sake of reading The Bible. Political and military leadersips came from the House of Bourbon, led by Louis I of Bourbon, Prince de Condé.

There developed in 1560 The Conspiracy of Amboise in which Condée planned a march on the Castle of Amboise, abduction of the young king, and arrest of both the Duc of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal. Forewarned, the Guise forces massacred the rebels before they could unify their forces. For weeks, bodies of conspirators hung from trees thereabout.

In 1560 Queen Mother Catherine de Medici became Regent for her son Charles IX. Catherine appointed as chancellor, Michel l'Hospital, a former client of the Guises. Trying to pacify the situation, l'Hospital proposed concession of freedom of conscience, but not of worship for peaceful dissidents in hope of their conversion to "the truth", and in hope that the established Church might accept the reforms asked by the (Protestant) Estates General of Orleans. This apparently initiated the conditions for The Wars of Religion.

Advised by l'Hospital The King issued the Edict of Fontainbleau in April 1561, forbidding injury or denounciation of anyone on matters of faith or provocation of anyone on account of their religion, prohibiting use of "papist" or "Huguenot" epithets and all offenses against property. But Parisians became outraged at the king's seeming tolerance of "heresy." The "Parlement" urged revision of the Edict in the July 1561 Edict of Saint-Germain, which Catholics thought no revision and Huguenots thought provocative.

The 1561 Colloquy of Poissy had sought religious concord, but each party tried to conform the other to its own faith. When one high noble family openly held services in their house in defiance of the edict of July, Catholic priests urged parishioners to arm in defence of their churches from heretics. In late December 1561 came a clash between Huguenots worshipping in the faubourg of Saint-Marcel, and Catholics in the neighboring church of Saint-Medard. Catholics were enraged that no Huguenots were arrested, although thirty Catholics, including six priests, had been. So the January, 1562, Edict of Saint-Germain was considered by Catholics and Huguenots as an edict of limited toleration. Neither Calvin nor his apostle Theodore Beza ever developed a coherent doctrine of tolerance, rather the indivisibility of Christian truth and faith. But in 1562, Huguenots sought temporary tolerance to gain time, to publish propaganda, and acquire manpower to convert the entire kingdom.

By late June, 1962. order destabalized, and rumors of Protestant victories elsewhere Motivated Huguenots to pillage Catholic houses. The assassination of Catholic Duc de Guise by Huguenot Jean de Mere, in February 1563, led to de Mere being publicly executed. This provoked the Second War, followed by The Edict of Amboise, first of the "edicts of pacification", but its enforcement was difficult.

In the following years, Paris endured a subsistence crisis, aggrevated by a plague, flooding of the Seine, shortage of food imports from the country until 1566. And The Second Religious War rrupted in autumn 1567.

Contrary to Catholic fears, Protestsants never entered Paris, and war costs forced Regent Catherine to negotiate the Peace of Longjumeau in the spring of 1568, restoring provisions of the 1563 Peace of Amboise. Unlike previous edicts, it was sent to the "gouverneurs" for publication instead of awaiting approval by the parlements. But Catholic resentment forced a September 1568 revision, the Edict of Saint-Maur, which provoked The Third War in August 1568.

Amid such distrust the 1568 affair of the Cross of Gastines occurred. Two prominent Parisian Protestant merchant brothers, Philippe and Richard Gastine, ad their land confiscated when it was discovered that they had used it for religious purposes, such as preaching and communions. The court order required dismantling the house and selling of the land, with the money used to erect a stone cross bearing a tablet as a warning against future occurrences. The Gastine family and local Protestants petitioned for demolition of the Cross of Gastines, but the petition infuriated Parisian Catholics since the cross had become a symbol of the government's commitment to their faith. For the Protestants, the cross was a symbol of past persecutions. The court compromised and moved the cross to a new site in the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents. Rioters destroyed property near what had been that of the Gastines, and Parisian Protestants became a marked people as the riots continued.

The August 1570 Edict of Saint-Germain to restore peace was the first to give civil and judicial rights to Protestants; no more religious discrimination about admission to schools, universities, hospitals, or other public institutions, and Huguenots could be appointed to public office. This edict was to supersede all other edicts. But again was bitterly opposed by the Roman Catholic Parisian populace.

Throughout the 1560's, Huguenots remained militant, seeking converts to gain control of Parisian government. The Second and Third War of Religion enforced their confidanece, as they continued to survive under repression, proving their moral strength and firm devotion to God's cause. This sense of superiority was what Catholics wished to destroy during the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre.

Many Catholics felt that the toleration of heresy in their midst was like a disease in the body of Christ that threatened the very contract between God and his people. There was an increasing rhetoric among the popular preachers to purge this infection to restore God's favor and with it, social stability.

All of this tension is important background to the watershed event of the wars: the evening of August 23, 1572 -- the feast of St. Bartholomew. The 19 year-old Henri de Navarre and Margot de Valois were married in Paris on August 17 and the festivities were still going on. The entire Huguenot leadership came to Paris for this wedding. Henri himself brought 800 mounted noblemen in his train.

On August 22, as Admiral de Coligny was returning to his lodgings from a visit with the king, an assassin fired at him, breaking his arm and wounding him severely, but not killing him outright. The Huguenots were outraged and demanded justice from the king. Everyone suspected the Guises of the attack. When various Huguenot leaders counselled Coligy to flee the city -- certainly at this time they could have easily made it to the safety of a Protestant stronghold -- he reputedly refused, feeling that it would show a lack of trust in the king. However, the Huguenots were threatening riot in the streets if something wasn't done, and it was a very hot summer.

At some point during the night of August 23, the decision was taken at the Louvre to kill Coligny and the Huguenot leaders gathered around him. Charles IX was certainly there, Catherine de' Medici, Henri d'Anjou. It may not have been originally intended to be a general massacre. CharlesIX was reputedly badgered into this decision by Catherine and his councillors, and when he finally broke he is alleged to have said, "Well, then kill them all that no man be left to reproach me."

During the early hours of Sunday morning, a troop of soldiers came to Coligny's door. They killed the guard that opened the door, and rushed through the house. Coligny was dragged from his bed, stabbed, and thrown out the window to the pavement below. Reputedly the Duc de Guise mocked the body, kicking him in the face and announcing that this was the king's will. Many contemporary sources reported that when Coligny was killed, the tocsin at Saint-Germain was rung, which was a sign for the general massacre to begin. Rumors ran thick and fast, and somehow the militia and the general population went on a rampage, believing themselves to be fully sanctioned by the king and the church. "Kill them all, kill them all; for it is the king's command." Catholics identified themselves with white crosses on their hats, and went around butchering their neighbors. The neighborhood militias played a very significant role in the slaughter. The killing went on for 3 days or so, with the city councillors and the king unable to bring the whole thing under control. There are numerous tales of atrocities, occasional ones of courage and compassion. Historians have debated what really happened and why in excruciating detail ever since.

The Louvre itself was not immune. Henri de Navarre slept in his bridal suite with an entourage of 40 Huguenot gentlemen, all of whom were killed. Henri and his cousin, the Prince de Cond´┐Ż (another Henri, the son of the late Louis who had been the champion of the churches), were dragged before the king and threatened with death if they did not convert. They did, and Navarre became a prisoner of the court for the next four years, living in constant fear of his life.

The massacres spread to the provinces over the next few months. In general, with the exception of Saint Bartholomew, the Protestants destroyed objects, such as sacred images and crucifixes, while the Catholics usually went after human beings. Some thought they had directives from the crown to kill all the Protestants, others thought there was no such thing. The actions of the governors and mayors depended very much on the individuals and the circumstances in their areas. Areas with vocal Protestant minorities often suffered the most.

After the massacre, estimations of 3000 Protestants converted; others fled the country. Catholic parish registers document those seeking baptism. Converts had to venerate the Host by a lit candle, to show acceptance of transubstantiation.

Historians, however, believe that consequences of the massacre were the triumph of Herny of Bavarre become Henri IV, and the Edict of Nantes, which brought peace for nearly a century.

In spite of Henry IV's tolerant acts, French Protestants and Catholics coexisted uneasily. The Catholicism and Protestantism of Parisians was more volatile than elsewhere, otherwise the Wars of Religion would unfolded into a different history.


Denis Crouzet, Les Guerriers de Dieu: La Violence au Temps des Troubles de Religion Vers 1525 - Vers 1610 Volume Two (Paris: Champs Vallon, 1990).
Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France, (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1975).
Barbara B. Diefendorf, Beneath the Cross: Catholics and Huguenots in Sixteenth-Century Paris, (New York: Oxford UP, 1991).
Robert M. Kingdon, Myths about the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacres: 1572 - 1576 (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1988).
Nicola M. Sutherland, The Huguenot Struggle for Recognition (New Haven: Yale UP, 1980).
Linda Taber, "Religious Dissent within the Parlement of Paris in the Mid Sixteenth Century: A Reassassment," French Historical Studies 16, no. 3 (1990).