The world has been shocked by the scenes of carnage that came out of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Yet few recall that Paris was the scene of an even greater, more ferocious butchery that took place during France’s religious wars in 1572. This incident has come to be called the Massacre of St. Bartholomew.
To understand the origins of this event, we must transport our minds back across the span of four centuries. Europe had become divided after 1519 with the advent of the Reformation; soon the continent would split in to mutually hostile camps, Catholic and Protestant, each bitterly hostile to the other, and each finding justification for its intolerance in the ambitions of kings and popes.
France and Germany became battlegrounds. We must understand that religion played a greater part in the lives of Europeans than it does now. It seemed to any man, regardless of his sectarian affiliation, that he had already received the divine truth; and for someone to contradict this truth appeared for him an act of the vilest heresy. It was not difficult to move from this sentiment to murder.
France at the time was ruled by Charles IX, but he was a feeble-minded simpleton. The real power lay in the hands of the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici. It seemed that a generation of acrimony would come to an end with the marriage of Catholic King’s sister Margaret to Henry III of Navarre (a Huguenot).
But Catherine was a devious, manipulative bigot; and her son Charles was a fool. And this combination would prove disastrous. Paris had always been a heavily Catholic city. Many Huguenot leaders had arrived in Paris for the wedding of Margaret and Henry; and this put the city, as well as the scheming Catherine, on edge.
On August 22, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a prominent Huguenot military leader, was shot at from a window while walking from the Louvre to his house. The shot blew apart his left hand and destroyed his upper arm. The assailant was never discovered. The king was on very good terms with Coligny, and swore that he would avenge the attack.
But trouble was brewing. Huguenot leaders were outraged, and demanded speedy justice. Armed groups began to collect here and there, with the expectation that something might happen. Catherine disliked Admiral Coligny, and began to become alarmed at the sight of so many resentful Huguenots in her city; she especially hated the favor and courtesies that the king extended to them. In her view, her son her and his throne at risk.
For her, there could be only one solution: the leading Huguenots would have to be physically liquidated.
She then began to put pressure on the king to endorse some sort of purge. She insinuated that the Parisian Huguenots were secretly planning a revolt to depose him and kill her. There was talk of violent retribution.
Under the best of circumstances he was of limited intellectual ability, and here he simply cracked. Cabinet ministers pressured him to consent to a purge of the Huguenots. In a fit of rage he then shouted out to some intimates during a meeting, before storming out of the room:
By the death of God, since you choose to kill the Admiral, I consent! But then you must kill all the Huguenots in France, so that not one shall be left to blame me…Kill them all, then, kill them all!
The king was not necessarily an evil man, only a weak one; and unscrupulous men close to the throne took advantage of his apparent mental breakdown to conduct a ferocious purge of the Huguenots in Paris. It would be a war without quarter.
From here events moved quickly. City officials were given the order from the court to close the city gates, arm the populace, and be on guard against a Protestant uprising. The king’s personal guard was given a list of Huguenot leaders that were to be liquidated. It is clear that the king was more of passive dupe to these events, rather than an active director; nevertheless, he was the king, and responsibility for what was about to happen fell directly on his head.
It was a case of poor leadership combining with bigotry, fanaticism, and fear. The combination would prove to be explosive.
The carnage began on the night of 23-24 August 1572. Coligny and his bodyguards were killed and thrown out the window of their residence. Around midnight, bells began to ring in a large church near the Louvre; this was taken as the signal to begin the massacre of the Huguenots. The Parisian populace, tense and under continuous stress from all the talk of a Protestant uprising, now vented their repressed rage in an ecstasy of slaughter.
All across the city, the common citizens now began to hunt down and kill any Protestant they could lay their hands on. As often happens in such situations, people also took advantage of the license to kill to settle old scores. Women and children were not spared. Neighbor denounced neighbor, and went at each other with dagger and club.
The streets began to fill with corpses, which were then dumped in the Seine. At various times the king tried to stop the rampage, but by that time it had taken on a life of its own.
For three days, the killing raged. The ring of nearly any church bell was taken as another signal to continue the killings. And then it spread out of Paris and into the provinces.
Estimates on the number of the dead have varied greatly. In Paris the number was probably somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000, which in those days was a large number. In the rest of France, the figures will probably never be known, but a number between 10,000 and 30,000 is probably reasonably accurate.
The general reaction around Europe was one of shock and horror, with a few notable exceptions. The slaughter was applauded in Madrid and by Gregory XIII in the Vatican, who struck a medal in its honor. To retain our sense of balance, however, it must be said that Protestants were often equally guilty of having committed atrocities against Catholics in different times and places.
This was the essence of religious war, or war in general: a complete loosening of the bonds of civilization, and unleashing of the beasts within. And neither side in this matter, in the long run, can lay claim to the moral high ground.
The real lesson for us today is this: when bad leadership is combined with fear, extremism, and ignorance, terrible outcomes are almost assured.
The king himself never overcame his guilt from the massacre. He was haunted by the cries of the victims, cut down in their houses and on the streets. His grip on reality, already tenuous, began to slip away with the passage of the years. He is said to have cried out, during one of his fits of delirium, the following:
What blood shed! What murders! What evil counsel I have followed! O my God, forgive me… I am lost! I am lost! Who but you [to his mother Catherine] is the cause of all of this? God’s blood, you are the cause of it all!
And yet it was he who had allowed his mother Catherine de Medici and her cabal of advisors to launch the massacre.
Those who unleash the twin demons of war and fanaticism are rarely, if ever, able to control the course that they may take. Men deceive themselves when they believe otherwise.
It was true then, and it is true now.