The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Queen Mothers
August 24, 1572
Catherine de Medici was having a bad week. First, she had to organize the wedding of her daughter Margo to Henri de Bourbon, King of Navarre. Even with her connections, the Queen Mother couldn’t get a better date for Notre Dame Cathedral than August. Who would want to be in Paris then? (Be sure to triple the order on the Church incense.) Then, there was a matter of finding a cleric willing to do mixed marriages. Royal marriages required at least an archbishop, but none seemed to approve of a Protestant bridegroom. Fortunately, someone in the groom’s family was still Catholic and he was a Cardinal. Of course, there was always the challenge of seating. The Guises hate the Montmorencys, and neither wanted to be near Huguenots. Finally, at the last minute, she had to plan the massacre of the Protestant guests.
Catherine was almost as surprised by this development as the Protestants would be; and it was all the fault of that Henri de Guise, Duc de Lorraine. Two days earlier, on August 22nd, a Guise employee had attempted to assassinate the Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny. Perhaps Guise had his reasons: he was the leader of the militant Catholics and his father had been assassinated by a Huguenot. An Italian would never begrudge anyone a vendetta, but Catherine did not appreciate Guise’s sense of timing. It rather disrupted the ecumenical mood of the wedding festivities. At least Coligny had survived, and Catherine and her son–King Charles IX–had paid a visit to the invalid. But that good will gesture did not satisfy the outraged Huguenots.
So Catherine and her royal councilors had to come to a decision. (Charles rarely dared to have his own opinion.) Of course, in theory, they should punish de Guise. But De Guise commanded his own army, the Holy League; he was the most popular man in France and especially adored in Paris, and he was allied to Philip II. Any action against de Guise could lead to widespread rebellion, war with Spain and even some excommunications from Rome. So justice was out of the question.
As an alternative strategy the Crown could do nothing, as if the assassination attempt had never happened. But that would infuriate the Protestants and start a civil war in France. The whole point of the marriage between Margo and a Huguenot leader was to maintain peace among the antagonistic religions. However, there was a third way, one that would avert such a war: massacre the Huguenot leaders before they had a chance to rebel. Most of them happened to be in Paris for the wedding. There would never be a more convenient time and place to kill them all. And Catherine felt that she was only being fair. If the Huguenots had been the majority in France, she would have organized a massacre of the Catholics.
So, on August 24, early in the morning, the Duc de Guise got a second chance to kill Gaspard de Coligny. The Royal Guard had also been given a list of Huguenot victims. Some of them were wedding guests at the Louvre; of course, it would have been rude and messy to slaughter them in their beds. So they were dragged into the courtyards. Catherine was quite willing to dispose of her new son-in-law Henri de Bourbon, but for once King Charles stood up to his mother. The King felt that his brother-in-law should be offered the choice of conversion or death; as it turned out, Henri proved more pragmatist than Protestant. At the first opportunity, however, Bourbon escaped Paris and reverted to Calvinism. If the popular lore can be believed, Catherine would spend the rest of her life (another 16 years) trying to poison him.
Now, the massacre had been intended to be a society affair. These were “de” people and worth killing; but the population of Paris hated to miss out on the carnage. They began an unrestrained slaughter of every Huguenot: man, woman and child. Thousands were killed in Paris, and as the news spread through France, it was viewed as an invitation. Until early October, the massacres continued. The number of victims can only be estimated, and the estimations might reflect a certain bias. Whereas the Encyclopedia Britannica cites 50,000 dead, the Catholic Encyclopedia concedes maybe 1100 dead in Paris and perhaps 15,000 in all of France. (The Catholic Encyclopedia also insists that the killings were the work of Machiavellians, not real Catholics.)
Despite all that enthusiastic slaughter, there were still ample surviving Huguenots to plunge France into civil wars that lasted until 1598. Catherine de Medici did not live to see its outcome; however, undeserving, she died of natural causes in 1589. King Charles died in 1574, perhaps accidentally poisoned by his mother. The Duc de Guise was assassinated in 1589, but surprisingly not by a Protestant. Only Henri de Bourbon was left–and he now was the King of France. Of course, to attain the throne, he had to re-convert to Catholicism; but he did grant an edict of tolerance to his former fellow Huguenots.
So the massacre’s only lasting effect was its infamy. According to the Church Calendar, August 24th is the feast day of Saint Bartholomew. But since 1572, St. Bartholomew’s Day is not remembered for a feast.