Your RDA of Irony

The Best Laid Plans of Mice and Medici

August 24, 1572

Catherine de Medici was having a bad week.    Catherine de MediciFirst, 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 1588, 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.

  1. Edward says:

    Love it !
    This is my favourite period in French history. Isn’t Mazarin play a roll?

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      You are two generations too soon for Mazarin. Richelieu was not even born yet. In one of the Dumas novels set in that period, there is a Captain Richelieu who is worried about supporting his growing family. I would guess that one of the yet unborn children will be sent off to the Church–and do very well.

  2. Hal Gordon says:

    Eugene — In the movie “All About Eve,” Bette Davis has a line: “Bill’s birthday, a date to go down in history…” In the original screenplay, though, the line read, “Bill’s birthday, a date to go down in history–like the Chicago Fire or the massacre of the Huguenots.”

  3. martin jordan says:

    Very interesting and very well written.
    I read somewhere that Catherine is credited with introducing Italian style cooking to France, bringing her own chefs with her when she left Italy, and that this was the starting point for France’s love of, and reputation for fine cuisine.
    Clearly food was important to the girl.
    The fact that she favored food as a way of doing away with her enemies gives the claim an added twist.

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      Hello Martin,

      Catherine de Medici is frequently credited as the mother of French cuisine. If so, it was her most benign maternal relationship. She may well have brought Italian chefs in her entourage and, with her miserable marriage, could well have some tried burying herself in a plate of spaghetti carbonara.

      There certainly was nothing acclaimed about French cuisine during the late Middle Ages. The English fought a Hundred Years War without trying to capture a French chef (Not that the English ever had taste buds, but they do have a sense of status).

  4. As usual, Eugene your posts are wonderful. Well written and with a marvelous sense of humor. I cannot think of a single era of Medieval French History (or Medieval European History, for that matter) that takes precedence over any other. They all had their high and lows as does our contemporary history. They are all interesting. Thank you.

  5. Peggles says:

    So the Catholic Encyclopedia’ s accuracy and honesty have been questioned? Inconceivable!

  6. Nadine,

    What a fascinating article. The disparity between the death counts is quite remarkable, but I’m not surprised that the Catholics were exonerated — by the Catholic Encyclopedia!

  7. Mell Fraser says:

    Great stuff. The Medici had been the financial power behind the thrones of Europe for decades. Now they had one of their own on the throne of France.

    Catherine was one of those ‘strong’ women that history finds so difficult to fathom.

    Did her epithet Madame le Serpente come from her reputed poisoning of her enemies I wonder?

    Eugene, we have some great restaurants in England – now. However, it’s not for nothing we got the nickname of Les Roast Beef from the French.

  8. I have already had my say on the post. It is so much fun to read all the comments and realize how many of us from all parts of the world who enjoy this group. Thanks to all of you.

  9. Bob Kincaid says:

    Such a lovely date!

    Some still remember it for the fireworks display put on at a certain mountain in Italy.

    Never mind whose feast day it is. August 24 is a good day to steer clear of Italians.

  10. Ed bederman says:

    A hell of a bloody mess…

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