24 August 1572 – St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris


Giorgio_Vasari_San_BartolomeoOn this day in history, 24th August 1572, the feast day of St Bartholomew, an awful event took place in Paris, France. An estimated 3,000 French Protestants (Huguenots) were massacred in the city, and a further estimated 7,000 in the provinces.

According to tradition, Catherine de’ Medici persuaded her son, King Charles IX of France, to order the assassination of key Huguenot leaders who had gathered in Paris for the wedding of their leader, Henry of Navarre, to Margaret of Valois, the King’s sister.

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Picture: The massacre, with the murder of Gaspard de Coligny above left, as depicted in a fresco by Giorgio Vasari.

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5 thoughts on “24 August 1572 – St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris”
  1. Famous faces – like the Admiral’s – and other known heads of the movement apart, how did ordinary Parisians recognise a Huguenot when they saw one. They seem to have been ‘well dressed’. They were from ‘outside Paris’. it puzzles me and I hope it is not a trivial question.

    1. Reading in Nancy Gladstones Rival Queens A Joint Biography of Marguarite and Catherine de Medici it appears that the rich Hugeneots were targeted by the Guize in revenge for the deaths of Francoise and Henry Guise and most were well known. The 800 who came with Henry of Navarre were dressed in mourning for Jeanette de Albert his recently deceased mother. Many of these escaped, however as they stayed on the far side of the river. The 20,000 strong Paris civilian militias were given instructions who to look for and searched houses to find specific people. This indicates that the massacre did not start as a free for all, but as a carefully considered trap. The real killing, the horrendous free for all that followed for days began as an order was given to kill the other Hugeneots, which of course meant it all got out hand, nobody intervenes to stop it and people with a grudge used this to settle old scores. This is how they know that many of the ordinary people were not Hugeneots, but as you say, apart from people who were well known as noble families who had Hugeneot connections, just how do you tell if someone was a Protestant or Catholic, unless they wore distinctive dress. A fair number of ordinary people were killed in Paris and the killing went on in other cities too. None of this excuses the terrible crimes of killing people who were different, attempting to wipe out an entire class of people, the way that important Hugeonots were targeted, shows the state was deranged, obsessed and insecure. Catherine even said that she took these steps to prevent a potential insurrection is absolute rubbish. There is only one reason for the state to eliminate a specific group of people in this dreadful and unforgivable manner, pest control. Catherine de Medici, the Guise faction saw the powerful Protestant nobles as a threat, as vermin and in the literature of the day, this was how they were described, with a number of reasons to back up this attitude.

      The government of France saw Hugeonots as trouble because some had been involved in plots, assassinations, political intrigue, wars, rebellious outbreaks, the succession looked as if it would go to a Hugeneot prince and the powerful Guise relatives of the crown had personal reasons for wanting to get rid of their powerful Hugeonot rivals. By the time of this marriage the atmosphere was highly volotile. Not only did nobody really want the wedding, the bride and groom especially, it soon became clear that the Guise faction had plotted to ambush certain leading nobles and the assassination of the Admiral was just the trigger for a bloodbath. To the government, they were simply getting rid of trouble. It may seem evil and mindless to us, but people who order or allow these terribly killings did not even pause long enough to think about why or the people that they killed, other than, and this is even worse, to actually rejoice that a feared or hated group of people had been done away with. It’s a thing without reason, maybe it went too far, it is something that cannot be explained, because no explanation can justify the terror and cruelty of that night and the nightmare that followed.

  2. Catherine De Medici has been described as one of the most sinister women in history, certainly she was ruthless to have ordered the massacre which has gone down as a black day in the history of France, it was said that many of her enemies had a habit of disappearing and she was skilled in the art of slow poison, her son King Charles was mentally unstable and over the years all France grew to hate and fear her, to have people murdered when they had especially arrived to witness a wedding, which after all is supposed to be a joyous occasion and at the one of their leader to and that of her own daughter suggests disturbing traits of a psychopathic nature, Henry V111 was responsible for the slaughter of thousands of people but for a woman to do so in such a callous manner without an iota of remorse is deeply alarming and must have been truly terrifying for the French to have had such a woman ruling their country.

  3. Many accounts give different figures for those killed in this horrible, brainless, shocking massacre, from the well and truly exaggerated 70,000 to modern thinking about 2000 to 3000, but no number can be justified, it is just terrible. It is even more shocking to think that this may have been state sponsored, in order to assassinate high born Hugeonots in the city of Paris for a royal wedding. Princess Marguarite called Margot, the daughter of Catherine de Medici and Henri ii of France, was to marry the Protestant Henry of Navarre, who would inherit the crown if her inadequate sons died, the future Henry iv, in the hope of peace. The peace was still being worked out when the trouble began. With the assassination of several high born Hugeonots, the people of Paris ran riot and went out to kill anyone that they could find. Now, while it is true that the events which sparked off this widespread violence went too far and any intended violence got out of hand, Catherine de Medici has been held up as the instigator of the entire affair. The authorities seem to have done very little to regain control, restore law and order or to protect lives and property. The violence spread to the provinces. It is impossible to know exactly how many people were killed by their neighbours, but the state, in my opinion, had a bloody hand in this terror. Catherine de Medici may not have been as guilty as she is often shown, or her orders were not obeyed and the whole thing exoded beyond her ability to stop the slaughter, but she was responsible. She created the tension in Paris, most probably gave the orders for the assassinations, although some modern historians ssy the evidence shows that she tried to call a stop, expressed regret and horror at how many people were killed. The entire background is very complex, the motivation confusing. Would a Queen even arrange such a wedding just to get the high born Hugeonots in one place in order to wipe them out? Mad as it may seem, the answer is yes, for she would not be the first ruler to trap her enemies in one place and eliminate them, nor would she be the last. The massacre almost cost the life of her son in law and her daughter, as Henry was dragged before an alter and his life and hers threatened unless he converted. Henry did so. Henry of Navarre would go on to be Henry IV of France and coin the phrase Paris is worth a Mass as in it was worth converting to keep the crown. Ironically Henry triex to bring the two sides to the table and issued the Edict of Nantes which, while not making completely religious freedom, made life more tolerant for Hugeonots and Catholics. He was assassinated by a Catholic radical after Mass in the Cathedral in 1625. Nantes itself was evoked in the middle of the reign of Louis XIX, but the attacks or persecution of Huguenots was forbidden. Today such horror seems a world away, but attacks by ISIS and Al Quaida are also aimed at killing hundreds or thousands of people, the attack on that which is different, born out of fear and ignorance and hatred, just as it was back then. All it needs is one evil or deranged mind and people to follow them like sheep and terror is not as far away as we hope.

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