The Saint-Barthélemy massacre is a bloody episode in the history of France in the 16th century, during thereligious wars between Catholics and Protestants. During the wedding of Henri de Navarre and Marquerite de Valois supposed to appease conflicts, an organized massacre of the Huguenots of Paris took place on the night of August 23 to 24, 1572, Saint-Barthélemy day. It continued in the provinces until October, and opened a new period of religious wars. Impossible to assess precisely, the number of victims is estimated at 13,000.
Origin of Saint-Barthélémy
After the short reign of François II, his brother Charles IX succeeded him in 1560, but he was only ten years old, and power was in fact exercised by his mother, Catherine de Medici. This period was marked by internal disturbances, including the massacre of Protestants in Wassy, the Catholic victories of Rouen and Dreux (1562-1563) and then of Jarnac (where the leader of the Protestants, Condé, was killed). The Regent attempted a policy of conciliation and the peace treaty of Saint-Germain (1570) was supposed to restore peace between Catholics and Protestants.
Philip II’s war against Spain and the eventual conquest of Flanders would turn the French away from civil war. The first sign of this reconciliation was to be the marriage of Henri de Navarre. However, throughout the country, and especially in Paris, a powerful Catholic reaction was announced. Catherine de Medici was aware of the dangers of a war against Spain: she saw above all that by continuing the policy of cautiousness with the Protestants, the Valois risked being overthrown by the Guise, supported by the majority of the public opinion.
The failed assassination against Coligny
Protestant Gaspard de Coligny, admiral of France, has been one of the main leaders of the armed struggle since 1562. At that time, his enemy was François de Guise, who died in 1563. Henri, the new Duke of Guise, continued the fighting fiercely. . From 1571, he moved to Paris and played a leading role in the Royal Council. On August 18, 1572, the union of Marguerite de Valois and Henri de Navarre was celebrated. The lavish parties are interrupted four days later, when Maurevert shoots the admiral.
Some historians attribute this attack to Catherine de Medici, worried about Coligny's influence on her son. However, other hypotheses seem possible because the admiral has many enemies. Henri de Guise holds him responsible for the death of his father. Philip II and the Duke of Alba fear he will lend a hand to William of Orange to liberate the Netherlands. It may just be Maurevert's personal revenge. After the failure of the plot, a number of Huguenot nobles, who had come to Paris for the marriage of Marguerite de Valois, the king's sister, to Henri de Navarre (the future Henri IV), demanded an investigation.
The massacre of Saint Barthélémy
The wars of religion create a tense atmosphere in Paris, where preachers lecture crowds and condemn the union of a Catholic princess with a Protestant. To make matters worse, thousands of Huguenots came to the capital for the wedding. Following the attack, they demand that justice be done. The decision to kill Coligny and the main Protestant leaders was taken on the night of August 23. Caught in troubled circumstances, it once again divides historians who offer different avenues. Catherine de Medici may fear that she will be convicted of the attack. The king can see in these murders an opportunity to strengthen his power, undermined by the influence of the Huguenot leaders on subjects of the new religion. The ultra-Catholics of the Council may see it as a means of returning to an uncompromising position. Faced with this threat, the king had no other resource but to get ahead of the Guises and strike the Protestant party himself: it was above all a question of not allowing a large Catholic party to be organized against the royal power.
Charles IX therefore consented to the massacre. The Parisian populace, who were already in a state of extreme excitement, were alerted by the tocsin of Saint-Germain-l'Auxerrois. The massacre claimed more than three thousand victims (including Admiral de Coligny), and the Protestants were killed even in the Louvre. Overwhelmed by the unleashed people, Charles IX succeeded in saving his brother-in-law, Henri de Navarre, and the prince of the Condé blood, who escaped this fate thanks to their forced conversion, and were held at court until 1576. The August 26, the king claims responsibility for the massacre of Saint Bartholomew in front of a court. The Protestant party was partly beheaded, but its harshest elements were able to take refuge in the West, near La Rochelle, and in the South.
The generalization of massacres and its consequences
In a few days, the riots spread to many provincial towns (La Charité, Meaux, Bourges, Orléans, Angers, Lyon, Troyes, Rouen, Bordeaux, Toulouse, Albi, etc.). There are around ten thousand dead. Many Protestants convert, so that their number halved in the 1580s. But the aristocrats opposed to the Catholic king still manifest their military power. We oppose Charles IX, described as a tyrant. Some authors even dispute the royal power after Saint-Barthélemy, such as Théodore de Bèze. Charles IX is forced to make concessions. The Edict of Boulogne of July 11, 1573 grants freedom of conscience and worship. The killings spark outrage all over Europe, with the exception of Italy and Spain.
- La Saint-Barthélemy: The mysteries of a state crime (August 24, 1572), by Arlette Jouanna. Folio, 2017.
- The Night of Saint-Barthélemy: A Lost Dream of the Renaissance, by Denis Crouzet. Fayard, 1994.
- History and dictionary of the wars of religion, Gallimard, 1998.