St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre
The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre was a wave of Catholic mob violence against the Huguenots (French Protestants) starting on August 24, 1572, and lasting for several months. It marked a turning-point in the French Wars of Religion by stiffening Huguenot intransigence.
In 1572, four inter-related incidents occurred after the royal wedding of Marguerite of Valois to Henry of Navarre, an alliance that strengthened his claim to the throne of France. On 22 August, Catherine de' Medici's agent, a Catholic named Maurevert, attempted to assassinate Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, leader of the Huguenots in Paris, but succeeded only in wounding him and infuriating the Huguenot party. In the early hours of the morning of 24 August, St. Bartholomew's Day, several dozen Huguenot leaders were murdered in Paris, a series of coordinated assassinations that could only have been planned at the highest level. That was the signal for a widespread massacre. Beginning on 24 August, and lasting to 17 September, there was a wave of popular killings of Huguenots by the Paris mob, as if spontaneous. Admiral Coligny was among the slain.
From August to October, similar seemingly spontaneous massacres of Huguenots took place in other towns, such as Toulouse, Bordeaux, Lyon, Bourges, Rouen, and Orléans. Estimates of the number of those murdered range as high as 100,000. Historians generally agree on the figure of 70,000. Contemporary accounts report bodies in the rivers for months afterwards, so that no one would eat fish. Pope Gregory XIII's reaction was jubilant: all the bells of Rome pealed for a public day of thanksgiving, a special commemorative medal was struck, to honor the occasion, and Gregory commissioned Giorgio Vasari to paint a mural celebrating the Massacre. It was not the first such pogrom of the Wars of Religion, nor would it be the last.
Background to the massacres
After the third war in 1570, there was a possibility of peace. The fanatic Catholic House of Guise had fallen from favor at the court and had been replaced by Catholic moderates who were more willing to find a solution to the crisis. The Huguenots were in a strong military position as a result of the Edict of Saint-Germain. They controlled the fortified towns of La Rochelle, La Charité, Cognac, and Montauban. Catherine de Medici had hoped that the marriage alliances of her children would support her move for peace, including the proposed marriage of her son the Duke of Anjou (Henry III) and Elizabeth I of England. By 1572, however, hopes of peace were collapsing. In 1571, the Catholic fleet assembled under Don John of Austria defeated the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto. This confirmed to the Huguenots that Catholicism could resurge across Western Europe, led by Philip II of Spain. In April 1572, 'Sea Beggars' took control of Brielle thus taking control of Holland. This meant that there was pressure within France to intervene on behalf of the rebels in the Netherlands to prevent a Spanish intervention in France. Admiral Gaspard de Coligny was the leader of the Huguenots and the main supporter of this intervention. There was then the possibility of another civil war or a major war against Spain, which was at that time western Europe's greatest Catholic power. By 1572 relations between the Huguenots and the Catholics had deteriorated and in Rouen on a Sunday in March 1571 forty Huguenots were killed because they refused to kneel in front of the host (the eucharist) during a Catholic procession.
The Guise faction had fallen from favor at the French court, and Coligny was readmitted into the king's council in September 1571. The Guises hated Coligny for two reasons: he was the leader of the Huguenots, and they thought he was implicated in the assassination of Francis, Duke of Guise, in February 1563.
The events in fiction
The story was fictionalized by Alexandre Dumas in La Reine Margot, an 1845 novel that is accurate as far as the historical facts go but fills in with romance and adventure between them. That novel was translated into English as Queen Margot and was made into a commercially successful film in 1994.
The massacre was also portrayed in D.W. Griffith's epic silent film Intolerance (1916).
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