The Massacre at Paris
French Wars of Religion: St Bartholomew's Day Massacre
Queen Joan III of Navarre was reluctant to approve the marriage of her son to the Catholic princess, but nevertheless visited the Valois court at Blois where the marriage contract was signed in March 1572. Unfortunately, she did not live to see the wedding day and died in Paris on 09 June, whereupon her son became King Henry III of Navarre. It was later rumoured that she had been murdered by a pair of poisoned gloves sent by Catherine de Medici as a gift, but there seems to be no evidence at all for this.1 Marlowe has the Duke of Guise murder the Old Queen by this method, ordering the gloves from an Apothecary in Scene II, who then presents the gift in Scene III resulting in the death of Queen Joan (see Marlowe's sources).
[These events are covered by Marlowe's play in Scene I]
Despite the widespread disapproval on both sides of the religious divide, the wedding of the Huguenot Henry, now King Henry III of Navarre, and Catholic Margaret of Valois, daughter of Catherine de Medici and younger sister of King Charles IX of France, duly took place at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris on 18 August 1572. It was followed by four days of celebrations that included tournaments, banquets and grand balls. A wide array of both Catholic and Protestant nobles were invited and attended the wedding and subsequent festivities, including Coligny and the Guises.
On a public level the marriage was unpopular. As noted, Coligny and even Henry's own mother had been against it - the former supporting it only in an attempt to garner some political gains. The Peace of St. Germain was extremely unpopular with Catholics, both politically and economically. The Huguenots had gained rights to worship; jobs and homes previously taken from Huguenots were to be returned; and Charles IX asked the staunchly Catholic Parisians to pay 600,000 livres in taxation to pay off the mercenary troops who had come to the aid of the Huguenots in the Third War.2 Coligny had been paid a pension and readmitted to the government, and Catholics feared that he was unduly influencing the royal policy. Now the King's sister was marrying Navarre, and Huguenot nobles were descending on Paris. Fanatical preachers urged Parisians to slaughter heretics, and Simon Vigor (court preacher, who had previously won the favour of Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine) prophesised blood-shed if the wedding took place, "for God will not suffer this execrable coupling".3
On a personal level, the marriage was also doomed to failure. Margaret loved Henry, 3rd Duke of Guise, but her mother would never permit such a marriage that would hand so much power to the Guises. A number of other proposed matches had come to nothing before the forced marriage to Navarre. Margaret is credited with saving a number of Huguenot lives during the massacre, including her husband's, but Navarre was imprisoned by Catherine de Medici. It was five years before they were reunited in Navarre, but perhaps inevitably the relationship was stormy and both had lovers. Margaret returned to Paris in 1582, but her behaviour scandalised the French court, and after a number of foolhardy enterprises, she was eventually imprisoned by her brother Henry III in 1586. Her marriage to the by-then King of France was dissolved in 1599.
As Coligny was walking back from a meeting with Charles IX at the Louvre4 with an escort to his residence, he was non-fatally injured in the hand and arm by a shot from the upper window of a house. The would-be assassin escaped, but is uncertainly alleged to have been Charles, Seigneur de Maurevert. It is similarly unclear whether the shooter was working alone, for the royals, or for the Guises, although the house from where the shot was fired was owned by the latter.5 As the Admiral convalesced at his lodgings in Paris, King Charles and his mother came to visit him. Coligny opted not to leave Paris, but did ask the King for a bodyguard.
That the Catholics feared a violent reaction from the Huguenots to Coligny's shooting is not in doubt, and the murdered Admiral's brother-in-law Teligny did assemble 4,000 troops just outside Paris.6 Catherine de Medici met with the council on 23 August, including the Duke of Anjou, Guise and the Italians Louis de Gonzague, Duke of Nevers ("Gonzago" in TMAP), Albert de Gondi, Comte de Retz ("Retes" in TMAP), and René de Birogue (Keeper of the Seals), and subsequently with Charles. The exact details of what was decided are not documented, but many historians7 now assert that there was collective agreement to launch a pre-emptive strike whilst many of the Huguenot leaders remained vulnerable in the capital.8 Later that same day, the Mayor of Paris was instructed to secure the city gates and prepare the city militia.
Early on the morning of Sunday 24 August, the Duke of Guise and other Catholic nobles together with a group of the king's guard forced their way into Coligny's lodging and murdered him [Scene V], tossing his body out of a window. Guise had thus, as far as he was concerned, avenged the murder of his father in 1563. Coligny's body was allegedly decapitated, and dragged through the streets for three days, before being hung from a gibbet [Scene XI]. The co-ordinated murder of dozens of Huguenot leaders quickly followed, although Navarre and his cousin Henri de Bourbon Condé escaped death.
Soon after the murder of Coligny, the tocsin of the church of St. Germain l'Auxerrois near the Louvre was sounded, allegedly giving the signal for the massacre to begin. Much of the Catholic populace began to hunt out and slaughter Protestants (men, women and children) in a wave of blood-shed and atrocities. At 11am, the Mayor complained to the King, who issued a royal command to stop the murder and pillaging. To no avail, and the massacre continued for three days and more in Paris, as well as spreading to a dozen other cities throughout the country. No accurate record exists of the full death-toll, but estimates range from 2,000 to 3,000 in Paris and 10,000 to 20,000 nationwide. A payment is however recorded to workmen to bury 1,100 bodies washed up downstream from Paris on the banks of the Seine.9 Amongst the Huguenots murdered in Paris by the mob were composer Claude Goudimel and philosopher Peter Ramus [Scene IX].
The official line given by King Charles IX on 26 August was that he had ordered the attacks in response to a Huguenot plot against the royal family.10 Whilst undoubtedly sparked by these orchestrated murders of the Huguenot leaders, the general massacre in Paris was largely carried out by the civilian population. Whilst many contemporary Protestants perhaps understandably believed the massacre to be premeditated, and some modern historians concur,11 other commentators believe that it was not politically instigated but rather resulted from the intense build-up of religious tensions.12
The massacre obviously had a huge impact on the Protestant cause. Navarre and Condé had survived, but they were imprisoned and forced to convert to Catholicism (Navarre would not escape until 1576). With many of their leaders eliminated and thousands of Protestant civilians murdered, many fearful Huguenots abjured their faith and converted to Catholicism.13 Others chose to emigrate, with England14 the most popular destination, although some headed to Zeeland and Geneva. Nevertheless, significant Huguenot communities survived in the south and west of the country, especially in their stronghold towns, such as La Rochelle and Montauban.
- Note 1: Roelker, Nancy L, Queen of Navarre: Jeanne d'Albret 1528-1572 (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1968) - pp.370-394; and Strage, Mark, Women of Power (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976) - pp.155-6. The latter cites an autopsy.
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- Note 2: [Knecht-Seminar] - p.46.Back to Text
- Note 3: Garrisson, Janine, 1572: La Saint-Barthélemy (Brussels: Complexe, 1987) - p.65 (cited by [Knecht-Seminar] - p.45).
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- Note 4: At this time, the Louvre was the main royal palace in Paris. Francis I (reigned 1515-47) renovated the site in the French renaissance style and acquired much of the remarkable art that is today displayed in the museum (including the Mona Lisa).
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- Note 5: Bourgeon, JL, La Assassinat de Coligny (Geneva: Droz, 1992) is cited by [Knecht-Seminar] p.47 amongst others.
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- Note 6: [Holt] - p.84. Back to Text
- Note 7: [Holt] - p.85; [Knecht-Seminar] - p.48. Back to Text
- Note 8: [Knecht-Seminar] - p.48. Back to Text
- Note 9: Garrisson, op.cit. - p.131. Back to Text
- Note 10: Lincoln, Bruce, Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification (Oxford University Press US, 1989) - p.98. Back to Text
- Note 11: Bourgeon, op. cit. - p.62. Back to Text
- Note 12: [Holt] - p.86. Back to Text
- Note 13: [Knecht-Seminar] quotes 5,000 Huguenots in Paris and 3,000 in Rouen converting to Catholicism in the immediate aftermath of the massacre - p.52. Back to Text
- Note 14: Many headed to Canterbury in Kent, where the 8 year old Marlowe lived. Canterbury already had an established Calvinist community, and Edward VI had earlier granted them use of the Western crypt in the Cathedral for worship. Back to Text