Charles IX (1560 - 74)
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Paris and the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre:
August 24, 1572

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While the reform movement in the Church predated the 16th century, it spring to life with particular vigor with Martin Luther in Germany in 1517. This protest (Protestant – one who protests) movement spread throughout Europe. In England it led to the break with Rome and the emergence of the king as the head of the Church of England. In Spain it was ruthlessly suppressed by the Inquisition. It found more fertile ground in northern Europe. In France, the protest movement had mixed success. It attracted a strong group of adherents who came to be known as Huguenots, while at the same time it was strongly resisted by a Catholic monarch and some of the Catholic nobility. In France the driving intellectual force was John Calvin rather than Martin Luther. His Institutions of the Christian Religion (1536) was very influential in France.

Paris was, in general, religiously conservative, and offered an intellectual bulwark against emerging Protestantism. So did the city militia, which rallied against the threat of an invasion under the command of Conde in 1562. At this time Paris was a walled city. The Plan de Braun,* published in 1572 by Georges Braun but reflecting Paris in 1520, shows a larger enclosed area on the right bank, anchored by the Louvre at the bottom (west and downstream) end of the map.

By this time France was ruled by the sons of  Henri II. Charles IX (portrait to left) and his mother, Catherine de Medici found themselves in the middle between strong leadership on the Catholic side, in the person of the duke of Guise and strong leadership on the Protestant side, in the form of Henri of Navarre and Admiral Coligny.

France was wracked by a series of wars between Protestants and Catholics, with atrocities on both sides. An early instance of conflict occurred in Paris in 1561 when a reformed minister was preaching in St. Medard (in the 5th arr. today) and Catholics had the bells rung to disrupt the service. This set off a riot that left 100 people dead. (Guizot 245). Conflict erupted in the countryside. Vassy was a famous massacre of Protestants, celebrated in the city by Catholics. Guizot counts more massacres of Protestants by Catholics than vice versa between 1561 and 1572.

More generally, there were a series of religious wars between 1561 and the end of Charles’ reign, actually through the rest of the century. The king and queen mother were generally ineffective in dealing with this conflict, at times encouraging it and at other times seeking reconciliation. Paris was not immune from risk. In 1568 Conde and Coligny marched on Paris and laid siege to Chartre on the way. Negotiations by Catherine de Medici brought a temporary respite and spared Paris siege and famine.

One of the great ways to bridge differences, create and strengthen alliances and create a civil atmosphere between conflicted parties is to inter-marry. But just as it didn't work for Romeo and Juliet, likewise it didn't for Henri of Navarre and Marguerite of Valois, Charles IX’s sister. After much negotiation they were married August 18, 1572. The Catholics were distressed at the rapprochement with the Protestant Henri and the king became ambivalent about the wisdom of this union.

At the time of this wedding Paris was a caldron waiting to boil over. The city was full of Huguenot visitors there for the wedding of Navarre and Marguerite. The Catholics were in general possession of the city, and street conflict was inevitable. Admiral Coligny was attached and shot, and protested to the king. The king was increasingly ineffective and indecisive. Catherine de Medici, also vacillating,  finally decided that the death of Coligny was the right course of action. The king was in too fragile a position. “War is inevitable” (she and her counselors argued). “Better to win a battle in Paris, where we have all the chiefs in our clutches than to put it to hazard in the field.” When confronted with the request to kill Coligny on August 23 (or early 24th) the king gave in. “By God's death, since you think it is proper to kill the admiral, I consent; but (kill) all the Huguenots in Paris as well in order that there remain not one to reproach me afterwards. Give the orders at once.” (Guizot 296) This sentiment is widely attributed to Charles, but scholars disagree if it was actually said and rather if the duke of Guise acted to solve the Protestant question himself.

Coligny was seized, killed, beheaded and hung out to be displayed. Henry of Navarre’s new wife was broke in upon in her residence and had to be rescued by her guard. She and Henry escaped. Throughout Paris over the next couple of days Huguenots were hunted down and killed. The Paris fatality estimates range widely, from 1000 to 4000. Charles sent conflicting directions throughout France and the slaughter of Huguenots was carried out nationwide. Once again estimates vary widely, and range from 30,000 to 100,000.

Many Huguenots fled to England, where they were welcomed. Although the Huguenots lost a great military leader in Admiral Coligny, Henri continued the fight. The strong leadership on either side (the duke of Guise on the Catholic’s) meant decisive battles were rare. Paris remained in Catholic control, under Charles IX who died shortly thereafter, and under his brother, Henri III. In fact, Henri III’s control turned out to be tenuous. In May 1588 the duke of Guise entered the city against orders and Henri, faced with civil unrest, withdrew. Within the next two years both the duke of Guise was assassinated (on the orders of Catherine de Medici?) and Henri III was assassinated (by a Catholic monk, in revenge for the death of Guise).

It was not until March 1594 that Henri of Navarre, now Henry IV, was able to enter Paris, and that was on a diplomatic conversion. Before this, Paris faced another siege, in 1590.


Cole, R. A Travelers History of Paris

Guizot, France, vol. 3 (245 – 306) web site for the Plan de Braun