When it comes to history, there are few events more anticipated, more idealized, or more relished than a royal wedding. Although modernity has mostly swept away the need for such spectacles, the idea of two bejeweled hands reaching out to clasp the glittering future of an entire kingdom still holds a certain allure. For many centuries, the convenient union of two fitting royals not only offered an opportunity to don fine velvets, it afforded the populace a chance to connect with their leaders on a more intimate level and support them in a shared effort to gain peace, stability, and prosperity in the future—or at least that was the idea. The merging of two influential houses meant a lot more than sex on silken sheets, it could mean the end to regional conflicts and the promise of a richer, safer, and more engaging life.
Because many people under the monarchy lived in relative serfdom, laboring under a feudal system favoring nobility, their success in feeding their families and staying alive depended greatly on the good fortune of those above them. The fact that royal weddings were rarely organized in the name of love was of little consequence, mostly because the two individuals being joined were simply taking part in duties far beyond themselves—they were symbols of a better future for everyone. Such a union was never intended to bring happiness to the bride and groom per se but rather to legitimize their bloodline and ensure their ongoing power. When the Royals were happy, the kingdom was happy. And so, the event was typically arranged, planned, and executed by outside forces, all of whom expected to benefit in some way. A successful union meant a lot more than just finding contentment—it could seal the fate of a nation by dictating societal realities around war, religion, prosperity, and cultural preservation.
Such was the scheduled marriage in 1592 between Margaret of Valois—the daughter of King Henri II of France and the infamous Catherine de’ Medici—and Prince Henry of Navarre from the House of Bourbon. As a result of the union, Henry’s less prestigious family would rise, while giving him a legitimate shot at the French throne. The marriage was intended to bring stability and accord to a tenuously peaceful France who had been battling religious separatism between the Huguenots and the Catholics for decades. So, the announcement of a wedding between Henry’s Protestant family and Margaret’s staunchly Catholic one seemed like an ideal solution.
But what was supposed to be a lavish ceremony for the people of Paris soon gave way to one of the most violently shocking episodes in French history. The elegant spectacle promising champagne and canapés quickly devolved into an affair so brutal, it left thousands of people dead in the streets and turned the vibrant city into a chaotic swirl of fear and murder. This two-month season of blood, otherwise known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, traded matrimonial bliss for sheer terror and set the tone for years of civil unrest in the region.
Although one of the most horrifying episodes of the Protestant Reformation, the massacre itself seemed to begin rather innocently. While it was true France had been on a trajectory of religious unrest for some time, no one expected an eruption of violence during a such a harmonious time in the monarchy. After all, Catherine de’ Medici had given her daughter’s hand in marriage to the House of Bourbon, so peace must be on the horizon, oui? Non. Anyone who assumed this was the case had clearly miscalculated the angst of the people and more importantly, the ambition of Catherine de’ Medici, who may have used her own daughter’s wedding to destroy her enemies.
In general, France was a difficult place to live in for a Protestant in the 16th century. The Reformation had arrived in medieval Europe and was beginning to change the religious, political, and intellectual landscape of the French people, who up until that point, had faithfully bowed to the Catholic Church. For them, this was an unwelcome and unacceptable shift. The Papal authority ruled with a heavy fist, so when reformers like John Calvin and Henry VIII argued for a redistribution of power and the freedom to embrace Christianity on their own terms, Catholics were appalled. And when people began to listen more closely to separatist talk and question the authority of the church in northern and central Europe, that perturbation quickly morphed into anger. The Catholics were basically shocked by the heresy of it all, while the Protestants were tired of their resistance—hence, there was much strife between the two factions.
The Huguenots intended to colonize the New World and had begun to flourish in many ways, establishing considerable wealth and a fresh outlook on the autonomy of religion. This made the Catholics jealous, resentful, and frightened that their way of life may soon be consumed by a more powerful doctrine. So, when a big royal wedding was announced between the children of the devoutly Catholic Catherine de’ Medici and prominent Huguenot Queen Jeanne d’Albret, it seemed an olive branch had appeared just in the nick of time.
But considering the religious tension, Paris was mostly shocked by Catherine’s decision to marry her daughter into a Protestant family. Not only was she (and most of Paris) Catholic, but the mother of the groom, Queen Jeanne d’Albret was an outspoken leader of the Huguenot movement—making the two powerful women enemies by design. Despite the possibility of an amicable union, most of France still hated the Protestants and did not want them anywhere near the royal court. Yes, the union of Margaret and Henry of Navarre could feasibly soothe the religious divide, but it would never ensure the dominance of the Catholic Church—in fact, it had the potential to do quite the opposite. This reality had many people scratching their heads and wondering why Catherine de’ Medici would ever agree to such a thing?
Despite the pervasive disapproval, the wedding date was set for August 18, 1572, and both Catholics and Protestants prepared themselves for a grand celebration in Paris. A number of influential Huguenots began to arrive in the city, raising the temperature of the political and social unrest. According to the narrative, Catherine and her son King Charles IX of France (Margaret’s brother) were tired of the ongoing religious strife in the area and had chosen pragmatism over bitterness in the name of peace, unity, and the promise of an heir. The two royal figures were determined to keep war from breaking out again and knew a liaison with Henry of Navarre’s powerful Huguenot family would secure their reign. But there were problems—the Catholics of Paris were outraged when the wedding was announced, not to mention the Pope and King Phillip II of Spain showed their contempt by publicly condemning the decision. But Catherine would not be dissuaded and went on with her plans.
The day of the wedding finally arrived and the sound of ringing bells could be heard throughout the beautiful city. But while people gazed out into the streets from every window and balcony, the Papists murmured how Margaret would soon be married to a heretic. King Charles IX genuinely liked his soon-to-be-son-in-law Henry and even dressed like him that fine day, riding out by his side in support of the impending nuptials. All distress in the kingdom seemed to slip away as envoys of marvelously adorned guests showed off their finest jewels, and the bride made her progress in royal fashion, blazing with diamonds and pulling a 20-foot train behind her elegant gown.
In the spirit of compromise, the sanctuary had been decorated in both the Romish and Protestant design, with the grandeur of the cathedral and the open sky above the onlookers. But while there were certainly nods to equity, the more elegant Parisians generally looked down on the less refined Protestants, many of whom had mortgaged their estates to purchase their finery. In turn, the Huguenots looked with disdain upon the “gay city and pompous idolatries of its worship.” They refused to bow their heads as the “host” was raised during the ceremony and did not cheer for the bride and groom as they passed by. But the royal couple seemed happy enough and the day was considered mostly a success.
The wedding came and went, leaving Paris abuzz with festivities, and it was at this point that Catherine’s agenda shifted to something more sinister. Perhaps fear began to creep in as she watched her son converse with influential Protestants. Maybe she felt the other side was beginning to influence her son in ways she could not control. One prominent Huguenot leader, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, seemed intent on cornering the king and pushing his wartime agenda. Regardless of exactly what triggered her, Catherine decided it was time to destroy the Protestants, not embrace them, by ordering the assassination of their prominent leader, Admiral Coligny. Since he had arrived in town, he had been nothing but a burr in her saddle—always pulling the king into his problems and creating strife among the two factions. Catherine began to see him for what he was—a divisive and problematic enemy—who was now officially in her way. Determined to regain her authority over the situation, she set her sights on getting rid of him.
The Admiral was not particularly enjoying his time in Paris and felt largely annoyed by the local anti-Huguenot sentiments which made criticism a fashionable and popular pastime.To make matters worse, he heard the news of a conflict in Troyes just two weeks before, where some Protestants were attacked by a band of Papists while returning home from Church. An infant who had been baptized that day was killed while in his nurse’s arms, and the whole group was forced to run for their lives. Coligny received the news the day after the wedding and was incensed. He insisted on seeing King Charles IX, but to no avail—the royal was too weary from all the celebrating to accept visitors. Coligny wanted answers. What would be done about the incident in Troyes? And, as many of his counterparts had been asking, why were there so many guards being posted around the city? Was his own life in danger? The religious mood had clearly shifted, and he wanted reassurances from the king of their mutual support. When this did not happen, Coligny notified Catherine he was leaving the festivities early in protest. But for her scheme to work, he must stay—so she graciously eased his concerns by saying, “Monsieur l”Admiral, let us enjoy ourselves until the festivities are over. Give me three or four days more. Let me rest. Then, upon the words of a king, I will satisfy you and all those of your religion.” Although he was still anxious to leave, as many of his friends had done, he was assuaged by Catherine’s honeyed words. Little did he know, he had just sealed his own fate.
Coligny’s fears were confirmed just days later as a shot fired from a nearby window tore off his index finger and shattered his left elbow as he was leaving the Louvre. Bleeding and shocked, he was quickly escorted home by his attendants, and the king was notified. He immediately sent his own doctor to attend to the Admiral’s wounds and even visited him, a gesture that suggested he knew nothing of his mother’s plans to kill Coligny.
Up until that point, the two men had been getting along rather well, creating a liaison that convinced Catherine even further of the Admiral’s manipulating ways. If Charles IX were to ever endorse the religious campaign of the Huguenots, it would be a disaster for the Catholic Church. Without knowing for sure, allowing the Admiral to live was simply too much of a risk. But when he did not die according to plan, Catherine was forced to concoct a new one, something of which she was rather adept. She quickly banned any sort of private communication between Coligny and the king, and taking her son aside, she convinced him of the Admiral’s conspiring ways. She reminded her son that Coligny’s influence could drag France into a war with Spain over the Netherlands, a fact that posed a real danger to their control. Ultimately, the Admiral was an enemy of their plans and must be eliminated. She looked sharply at her son and said, “God never gave a man so fine an opportunity of getting rid of his enemies at a blow… If you delay, you will lose it. We shall all be lost.” Although hesitant at first, the king eventually agreed.
Just 48 hours after the assassination attempt, Admiral Coligny was recovering in his apartment when he heard a heavy knock on the door. Led by the Duke of Guise who led the Catholic faction, a group of mercenaries descended on the Admiral’s doorstep and demanded entry. When the Admiral’s manservant opened the door, he was instantly killed by a dagger-wielding attacker, but Coligny’s himself was able to leap away for a moment before the mob could enter his room.
Seeing the fury in the eyes of the intruders did not scare Coligny, who quickly resigned himself to a brave death—but not before he gave them a piece of his mind. One of his murderers stated, “he never saw anyone less afraid in so great a peril, nor die more steadfastly.” Facing his attackers, he admonished them for their cowardice in killing an innocent man, a man many years their senior—but before he had even finished his sentence, he was stabbed through the mouth and chest and thrown to the ground.
The mob was large and the conspirators outside called up to see if the deed was done, but it seemed the elderly man was still hanging on. His limp body was shoved through the window into the crowd below where onlookers confirmed the famous Huguenot’s identity and rallied around him chanting ani-Protestant slogans. They kicked, tore, and stabbed Coligny’s body, again and again, finally killing him by cutting off his head and dragging his corpse through the streets of Paris. His house was pillaged, and the marauders began searching the area for other nearby Protestant leaders. Some managed to escape, while others were ripped from their beds and murdered in cold blood.
The tension in the city was at its zenith, as the people listened incredulously to the news of Coligny’s death. Some cried out in horror, others in praise, while each party waited to see who would make the first move by drawing their sword and bringing the conflict to light. It was a pivotal moment of revolution, and Coligny’s blood in the street may as well have been blood in the water, drawing in the circling of sharks. At this point, Catherine had accelerated her plan and informed the French people that the Huguenots were in revolt. Catholicism was about to be rooted out, and it was time for them to fight!
Both the Catholics and the Protestants had prepared themselves for a celebration in Paris, but the revelry soon took on a much darker note. Catherine’s campaign against the Huguenots had begun; the periphery of the city was lined with guards; and the prominent Protestant leader, Admiral Coligny, lay mutilated in the streets. With a little more coaxing from his mother, the king ordered another offensive strike and officially kicked off the massacre of all Huguenots found within city limits and beyond. By the end of the week, some 10,000 Protestants lay dead—5,000 of whom were in Paris alone—and the conflict had spread throughout the city and into the countryside.
In Lyon, city officials tried to protect the Protestants by placing them in jail cells until the rabble died down, but the seething crowds broke in and killed the prisoners any way they could—stabbing, strangling, and drowning whoever they found inside. The violence raged on from August to late October. Chains were set up to block the streets and prevent Protestants from escaping, and the Rhône river became so jammed with dead bodies, no one could eat fish for months. Because feelings of envy and resentment were so pervasive among the populace, the houses of the rich were also pillaged, regardless of religious affiliation. To safeguard themselves from killing each other in the midst of the chaos, the Catholics agreed to tie bits of white linen around their left arm and paint a white cross on their hat to make them more recognizable. In the smoky darkness of early morning when the violence began, they wanted to be sure they would not accidentally kill each other.
Though Margaret’s mother, Catherine, may have hoped a union between her daughter and her distant cousin Henry of Navarre would help stifle the Huguenots’ fervor, in the end, all it did was put thousands of them in peril.Just six days after the wedding of Margaret and Henry, the streets of Paris were running red with blood as assassinations were being carried out on a massive scale. But as it turned out, Margaret was not her mother’s pawn and managed to save the lives of both her husband and several other prominent Protestant figures by hiding them in her apartment as the conflict raged outside. By keeping them in her rooms and refusing to admit the assassins, her new husband and many others were spared Catherine’s wrath.
But before closing the history book on the St. Bartholomew Massacre, there is a second narrative to consider—one that paints Catherine de’ Medici in an even darker light. While some say she first agreed to the wedding out of a brief delusion for peace, others insist her craftiness at rooting out the Huguenots was far more premeditated. Just two months before the wedding even took place, in June 1572, the groom’s mother, Queen Jeanne III, fell gravely ill after returning home from a shopping trip. She had collapsed and lay in severe pain for days, eventually dying under mysterious circumstances. Although she had been in poor health for some time, no one could figure out why she had passed away so unexpectedly.
While no one at the time suspected Catherine de’ Medici of any foul play, the subsequent events of the St. Bartholomew Massacre have led some to wonder if Catherine had actually orchestrated Jeanne’s death, suggesting the St. Bartholomew Massacre was not the result of unpredictable tempers but rather, the consequence of a well-designed coup by the Medicis. After all, Jeanne had been a vocal critic of the impending wedding and would likely have found a way to call it off, while Catherine was known to have intimate knowledge of poisons. Jeanne’s death also conveniently left the kingdom of Navarre in the hands of her son Henry whose increased financial holdings would bolster the monarchy a great deal.
Despite its brutality, not everyone was horrified by the massacre. Phillip II of Spain welcomed the event, and Pope Gregory XIII even commemorated the day by ringing celebratory bells throughout Rome. To explain the two-month season of blood to his loyal subjects, King Charles IX claimed the violence had squashed a covert Protestant plot designed to destroy the crown. Given the backing of Spain and the Catholic Church, this seemed like a valid explanation. And so, the Reformation’s promise of hope, change, and religious autonomy was consumed by a fierce Catholic hatred and temporarily stifled. In the aftermath of the massacre, Henry of Navarre was forced to feign conversion to Catholicism and imprisoned for close to four years before managing to escape to Paris in 1576. But years later, in 1589 when King Henry III was murdered by a Catholic fanatic, Margaret’s husband finally took the French throne and became the first royal from the House of Bourbon.
Many Protestants renounced their faith in the months after the attack, either out of fear for their safety or the belief that God had abandoned them. For others, the massacre solidified their resentment towards the Catholics and fueled the need for revenge. so, instead of crippling the Protestants as Catherine had hoped, the massacred only revived past hatred between the two religious factions and created an entirely new breed of hostility. Until this point, the Protestants had embraced the Calvinistic belief of obedience and civility, both of which were soon dismissed in place of the need for rebellion and tyranny in certain conditions. Massacres followed in other towns like Orléans, Meaux, Bourges, Albi and Rouen, and Toulouse, making the St. Bartholomew massacre not just a day, but a season.
The detrimental political effects on the Catholics was undeniable as all of Europe turned a shocked expression to the brutality. Protestant countries were more ready than ever to send troops and material to the aid of the Huguenots.Before he was killed, King Charles’s successor and brother, Henry III, was eventually forced to officially denounce the events in Paris and take responsibility for the outcome.The massacre was soon regarded as the most tragic event of all the religious conflicts of the Reformation and sparked additional wars in the future between the Catholics and the Protestants.When the conflict finally died down in 1598, the Huguenots were given substantial rights and freedoms, although it did not put an end to the ongoing hostility felt by the Catholics. Many historians say these shifts were precursors to the French Revolution where the need for liberation and religious freedom became a central focus for the oppressed, leading indirectly to the deaths of three million people.
And the rest is history.
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