24 August 1572 – The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

St Bartholomew's Day Massacre by François Dubois
St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois

On this day in 1572, the St Bartholmew’s Day Massacre took place. An estimated 3,000 French Protestants (Huguenots) were massacred in Paris, 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.

The wedding had taken place six days earlier, on 18th August, but the Huguenots were still in the city to discuss grievances regarding the 1570 Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the peace treaty which had ended the third French War of Religion. On the 22nd August, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the leader of the Huguenots, was shot and seriously wounded. It is not known who ordered the attempt on his life, but there are three main suspects: the Guises (leaders of the Catholic party), the Duke of Alba (the man governing the Netherlands) and Catherine de’ Medici. Whatever the truth behind the assassination attempt, the shooting triggered trouble. The Huguenots were angry and demanded an investigation into the shooting, which the King agreed to do, but on 23rd August the King and his mother agreed that the Huguenots were a threat that needed dealing with, and made the decision to order the murders of the Huguenot leaders.

Just before dawn on 24th August 1572, Admiral Coligny was stabbed to death by Besme, one of the Duke of Guise’s men, and thrown out of his bedroom window. This killing sparked off city-wide violence with Parisians turning on Huguenot men, women and children, killing them and throwing their bodies into the River Seine. The violence in Paris lasted three days, but news of the Paris trouble sparked off massacres in Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon, Bourges, Rouen, Orléans, Meaux, Angers, La Charité, Saumur, Gaillac and Troyes, and the violence lasted until well into October in some cases.

We do not know exactly how many people died in these horrific massacres. The Huguenot Maximilien de Béthune, duc de Sully, who escaped the massacre in Paris by carrying a “Book of Hours” under his arm, reported that 70,000 Huguenots were murdered, whereas modern historians, Ranke and Henri Martin, estimate the number of victims in Paris at 2000. Philip Benedict, in his article “The Saint Bartholomew’s Massacres in the Provinces”, puts the death toll at 2,000 in Paris and 3,000 in the provinces, compared to a total of 30,000 quoted by historians F. Fernández-Armesto and D. Wilson in “Reformation: Christianity and the World 1500 – 2000”. Whatever the true figure, it was an horrific event.

(Taken from On This Day in Tudor History by Claire Ridgway)

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11 thoughts on “24 August 1572 – The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre”
  1. It truly was an absolutely horrific event. Francis Walsingham was also there on diplomatic work and was lucky to escape with his life. The experience really disturbed him and it greatly impacted how he dealt with the threat of Mary, Queen of Scots later on. He firmly believed her presence in England made a similar event possible here.

    Quite a few people are Huguenots descendants and just don’t realise it. My family are Huguenot descendants, but, didn’t know until we did our family tree a couple of years ago.

  2. I remember my 4th grade teacher lecturing about this event and she never told us what started it. I think she was a little one sided since she was Catholic; we went to the same church! Great article and I continue to enjoy everything posted here; it is a great place to get information and to get ideas for research or for writing stories!

  3. Nothing can ever justify terrible senseless slaughter of innocent people no matter what their beliefs are. The massacre of Huguenots in Pairs and across France does not excuse Walsinghams Nazi type hounding of English Catholics and was only an excuse for a man who was a bigot to authorize the terror under Elizabeth. The same can be said for Mary’s over the top persecution as well and the history of violence in Ireland dating back to Oliver Cromwell which continued by both sides until 1997.

    What did kick it off? I think it was revenge for a high born Catholic who wanted an accord with the Hugeonot party and desire to silence a group that supported the King of Navarre to succeed to the French throne. This was the initial plot but it was hijacked by radicals who wanted to kill all the prominent Protestants in Paris. Like all mad schemes it went wrong and resulted in the order being given to kill everybody. It all got out of control, resulting in bands of armed men roaming the streets, not just in Paris but in the Provinces as well. Inevitably soon a free for all began with people being killed, some as the result of grudges by neighbours, others caught up in the general blood lust and killed whether they were Hugeonot or not.

    As usual the stories are exaggerated. Having said that, the numbers are unknown, but confirmation of them being in the 1000s and right across the country sent shockwaves around Europe. Walsingham hid but saw people killed. He did make many stories up to show the terror of these three days of murder. The King of Navarre Henri the husband of Catherine de Medici daughter Margot was captured, dragged to an alter and given a grave choice: die or convert. Henri was either a coward or smart, depending on your point of view, and he became a Catholic. Ironically he was sincere later on in the faith and made a set of Declarations of Nantes which said all should worship freely as they chose. As King Henry IV he tried to make peace with Catholics and Hugeonots. His own former supporters killed him because of his tolerance.

    The Queen Dowager Catherine de Medici was blamed for the massacre, some books have tried to clear her but really would such an event, that appears to have been planned in advance, have been possible without royal knowledge, consent or orders?

    1. I don’t think any of us would condone the killing of others in the name of religion (even if it’s still carried out today), but I think comparing Walsingham’s treatment of the English Catholics to the Nazis isn’t all justified. I suspect that witnessing the St Batholomew’s Day Massacre first hand hardened his views and made the possibility of something similar possibly happening in England all the more real.

      That’s not to justify any persecution, but I think it provides a far more plausible context for his later behaviour than writing it off as pure bigotry (and in any case, religious tolerance was hardly a common characteristic of the sixteenth century on either side of the debate). Moreover, given what he undoubtedly saw happen in Paris, Walsingham hardly needed to invent stories of what happened. Whatever the numbers killed, it was clearly a bloodbath.

      In terms of the English Catholics, it could be argued that they could apportion most blame for their treatment to the stupidly of Pope Pius V and his ‘Regnans in Excelsis’ bull, which achieved nothing other than to mark out all English Catholics as enemies of the state. It’s hardly a coincidence that they were treated more harshly after 1570 than beforehand.

      The motivation behind the Massacre itself is hard to fathom. I’m inclined to think it wasn’t premeditated in terms of the scale of what it became. I think it likely that certain political figures (Catherine de Medici included) wanted the removal of Admiral Coligny and the heads of the Huguenot party in order to permanently hobble the movement in France. Whether they intended this even before the arrival of all the Huguenots in Paris for the wedding or just used the opportunity that presented itself is difficult to say. Either way, it soon became uncontrollable. For all the religious turmoil in England at the time, it seems England got off quite lightly in terms of casualties compared with what happened in France.

      1. Of course the persecution of people by a police state, any police state, modern or otherwise is comparable to Nazi Germany because they had the same agenda, search for, seek out, crush, destroy and eliminate. That was the purpose of terror by the state, regardless of their imagined justification. Because of the horrors he had witnessed, Walsingham returned to England with one agenda, dehumanization and elimination of Catholics under the patronage of William Cecil. England was a police state end off and that is what Nazi Germany was a police state. Numerous historians have said the same and as a historian I agree. The numbers do not compare, thankfully, but the methods used certainly do. People were dragged out of their homes, rounded up, imprisoned, tortured and killed on the mere pretence of a plot just to justify his anger. Elizabeth had to curb him or he would have gone further, resulting in many many thousands of deaths on his mere say so.

  4. In the words of Max von Sydow’s character in “Hannah and Her Sisters” – “If Jesus Christ came back to Earth and saw what people were doing in His name, he’d never stop throwing up.”

  5. I believe my Huegenot ancestors, who resided in Paris, were warned t o leave Paris shortly before this massacre occurred. They were smuggled out to he Channel Island of Jesrey. According to research .

  6. It is indeed awful ! Les Guerres de Religión en France! Terrible massacres in the name of God – the sad thing is that today humanity continúes killing in the name of God – Must see the wonderful movie- La Reine Margot –

  7. The Alexandre Dumas series ‘The Valois Romances’ is truly great reading. The series of three titles covers the period 1572 – 1585. The first title ‘Marguerite De Valois’ begins shortly before the marriage of Marguerite and Henri de Bourbon of Navarre, thus shortly before the massacre. Reviewers of this work have claimed the novel is very close to then-known history.

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