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The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy in French) in 1572 was a targeted group of assassinations, followed by a wave of Roman Catholic mob violence, both directed against the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants), during the French Wars of Religion. Traditionally believed to have been instigated by Catherine de' Medici, the mother of King Charles IX, the massacre took place six days after the wedding of the king's sister to the Protestant Henry III of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France). This marriage was an occasion for which many of the most wealthy and prominent Huguenots had gathered in largely Catholic Parismarker.

The massacre began two days after the attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the military and political leader of the Huguenots. Starting on 23 August 1572 (the eve of the feast of Bartholomew the Apostle) with murders on orders of the king of a group of Huguenot leaders including Coligny, the massacres spread throughout Paris. Lasting several weeks, the massacre extended to other urban centres and the countryside. Modern estimates for the number of dead vary widely between 5,000 and 30,000 in total.

The massacre also marked a turning point in the French Wars of Religion. The Huguenot political movement was crippled by the loss of many of its prominent aristocratic leaders, as well as many re-conversions by the rank and file, and those who remained were increasingly radicalized. Though by no means unique, it "was the worst of the century's religious massacres." Throughout Europe, it "printed on Protestant minds the indelible conviction that Catholicism was a bloody and treacherous religion".


The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day was the culmination of a series of events:

An unacceptable peace and an unacceptable marriage

The Peace of Saint-Germain put an end to three years of terrible civil war between Catholics and Protestants. This peace was precarious, however, since the more intransigent Roman Catholics refused to accept it. With the Guise family, who led this faction, out of favour at the French court, the Huguenot leader, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, was readmitted into the king's council in September 1571. Staunch Catholics were shocked by the return of Protestants to the court, but the queen mother, Catherine de' Medici, and her son, Charles IX, were determined not to let war break out again. They were also conscious of the kingdom's financial difficulties, which led them to uphold the peace and remain on friendly terms with Coligny. The Huguenots were in a strong defensive position as they controlled the fortified towns of La Rochellemarker, La Charité-sur-Loiremarker, Cognacmarker, and Montaubanmarker. To cement the peace between the two religious parties, Catherine planned to marry her daughter Marguerite de Valois, to the Protestant prince Henry of Navarre (the future King Henry IV). The royal marriage was arranged for the 18 August 1572. It was not accepted by traditionalist Catholics, or by the Pope. Both the Pope and King Philip II of Spain strongly condemned Catherine's policy.

Tension in Paris

The impending marriage led to the gathering of a large number of well-born Protestants in Paris, who had come to escort their prince. But Paris was a violently anti-Huguenot city, and Parisians, who tended to be extreme Catholics, found their presence unacceptable. Encouraged by Catholic preachers, they were horrified at the marriage of a princess of France with a Protestant. The Parlement of Paris itself decided to snub the marriage ceremony.

Compounding this bad feeling was the fact that the harvests had been poor, and taxes had risen; the rise in food prices and the luxury displayed on the occasion of the royal wedding increased tensions among the common people. A particular point of tension was an open air cross erected on the site of the house of Philippe de Gastines, a Huguenot who had been executed in 1569. The mob had torn down his house and erected a large wooden cross on a stone base. Under the terms of the peace, and after considerable popular resistance, this had been removed in December 1571 (and re-erected in a cemetery), which had already led to about 50 deaths in riots, and mob destruction of property. In the massacres of August the relatives of the Gastines family were among the first to be killed by the mob.

The court itself was extremely divided. Catherine had not obtained the pope's permission to celebrate this irregular marriage; consequently, the French prelates hesitated over which attitude to adopt. It took all the queen mother's skill to convince the Cardinal de Bourbon to marry the couple. Beside this, the rivalries between the leading families re-emerged. The Guises were not prepared to make way for their rivals, the House of Montmorency. François, Duke of Montmorency and governor of Paris, was unable to control the disturbances in the city. Faced with a dangerous situation in Paris, he elected to leave town a few days before the wedding.

Shift in Huguenot thought

In the years preceding the massacre Huguenot "political rhetoric" had for the first time taken a tone against not just the policies of a particular monarch of France, but monarchy in general. In part this was led by an apparent change in stance by John Calvin in his Readings on the Prophet Daniel, a book of 1561, where he had argued that when kings disobey God, they "automatically abdicate their worldly power" - a change from his views in earlier works that even ungodly kings should be obeyed. This change was soon picked up by Huguenot writers, who began to expand on Calvin and promote the idea of the sovereignty of the people, ideas to which Catholic writers and preachers responded fiercely.

Nevertheless, it was only in the aftermath of the massacre that anti-monarchical ideas found widespread support from Huguenots, among the "Monarchomachs" and others. “Huguenot writers, who had previously, for the most part, paraded their loyalty to the Crown, now called for the deposition or assignation of a Godless king who had either authorised or permitted the slaughter”. Thus, the massacre "marked the beginning of a new form of French Protestantism: one that was openly at war with the crown. This was much more than a war against the policies of the crown, as in the first three civil wars; it was a campaign against the very existence of the Gallican monarchy itself".

Huguenot intervention in the Netherlands

Tensions were further raised when in May 1572 the news reached Paris that a French Huguenot army under Louis of Nassau had crossed from France to the Netherlandish province of Hainaultmarker and captured the Catholic strongholds of Monsmarker and Valenciennesmarker (now in Belgium and France, respectively). Louis governed the Principality of Orange around Avignonmarker in southern France for his brother William the Silent, who was leading the Dutch Revolt against the Spanish. This intervention threatened to involve France in that war; many Catholics believed that Coligny had again persuaded the king to intervene on the side of the Dutch, as he had managed to do the previous October, before Catherine had got the decision reversed.

The attempted assassination of Admiral de Coligny

After the wedding, Coligny and the leading Huguenots remained in Paris in order to discuss some outstanding grievances about the Peace of St. Germain with the king. On 22 August, an attempt was made on Coligny's life as he made his way back to his house from the Louvremarker. He was shot from an upstairs window, and seriously wounded. The would-be assassin, Maurevert, escaped in the ensuing confusion, and it is still difficult today to decide who was ultimately responsible for the attack. History records three possible candidates:

  • The Guises: the Cardinal of Lorraine (in fact in Rome at the time), and his nephews the Dukes of Guise and Aumale are the most likely suspects. The leaders of the Catholic party, they wanted to avenge the death of the two dukes' father Francis, Duke of Guise, whose assassination ten years earlier they believed to have been ordered by Coligny. The shot aimed at the admiral came from a house belonging to the Guises.

  • The Duke of Alba, who governed the Netherlands on behalf of Philip II: Coligny planned to lead a campaign in the Netherlands to participate in the Dutch Revolt to free the region from Spanish control. During the summer, he had secretly dispatched a number of troops to help the Protestants in Mons, who were now besieged by the Duke of Alba. So the admiral was a real threat to the latter.

  • Catherine de' Medici: according to tradition, the Queen Mother had been worried that the king was increasingly becoming dominated by Coligny. Amongst other things, Catherine feared that Coligny's influence would drag France into a war with Spain over the Netherlands. Nevertheless, it is difficult to believe in her culpability today, given the efforts the Queen Mother had made to ensure the peace and tranquility of the state. If she was not the author of the assassination attempt, however, she may at least have been aware of what the Guises or the Spanish were planning.

The massacres


The attempted assassination of Coligny triggered the crisis that led to the massacre. Admiral de Coligny was the most respected Huguenot leader, and enjoyed a close relationship with the king, although distrusted by his mother. Aware of the danger from the Protestants, the king and his court visited Coligny on his sickbed and promised him that the culprits would be punished. While the Queen Mother was eating dinner, Protestants burst in to demand justice, some talking then and elsewhere in menacing terms. Fears of Huguenot reprisals grew. Coligny's brother-in-law led a 4,000-strong army camped just outside Paris and, though there is no evidence it was planning to attack, Catholics in the city feared it might take revenge on the Guises or the city populace itself. That evening, Catherine held a meeting at the Tuileriesmarker Palace with her Italian advisers including Albert de Gondi, Comte de Retz. On the evening of 23 August, Catherine went to see the king to discuss the crisis. Though no details of the meeting survive, it is evident that Charles IX and his mother took the decision to eliminate the Protestant leaders.

Shortly after this decision, the municipal authorities of Paris were summoned. They were ordered to shut the city gates and to arm the citizenry in order to prevent any attempt at an uprising. The king's Swiss Guard was given the task of killing a list of leading Protestants. It is difficult today to determine the exact chronology of events and to know the moment the killing began. It seems a signal was given by ringing bells for matins (between midnight and dawn) at the church of Saint-Germain l'Auxerroismarker, near the Louvremarker, which was the parish church of the kings of France. Before this, the Swiss guards had expelled the Protestant nobles from the Louvre palace and then slaughtered them in the streets.

Admiral Coligny was dragged from his bed, by a group led by Guise in person, killed and his body thrown out of the window; Huguenot nobles in the building had first put up a fight. The tension that had been building since the Peace of St. Germain now exploded in a wave of popular violence. The common people began to hunt Protestants throughout the city. The ferocity of the slaughter was incredible. Chains were used to block streets so that Protestants could not escape from their houses. Women and children were butchered in cold blood. The bodies of the dead were collected in carts and taken to throw in the Seinemarker. The massacre in Paris lasted three days, despite the king's attempts to stop it. Among the slain were the composer Claude Goudimel and the philosopher Petrus Ramus. Holt concludes that "while the general massacre might have been prevented, there is no evidence that it was intended by any of the elites at court", listing a number of cases where Catholic courtiers intervened to save individual Protestants who were not in the leadership.

The two leading Huguenot princes, Henry of Navarre and his cousin the Prince of Condé (respectively aged 19 and 20), were spared as they pledged to convert to Catholicism; both would renounce their conversion when they had escaped Paris.

On August 26, the king and court established the official version of events by going to the Paris Parlement. "Holding a lit de justice, Charles declared that he had ordered the massacre in order to thwart a Huguenot plot against the royal family". A jubilee celebration, including a procession, was then held, while the killings continued in parts of the city.

In the provinces

Although Charles had dispatched orders to his provincial governors on August 24 to prevent violence and maintain the terms of the 1570 edict, from August to October, similar massacres of Huguenots took place in a total of twelve other cities: Toulousemarker, Bordeauxmarker, Lyonmarker, Bourgesmarker, Rouenmarker,Orléansmarker, Meaux, Angersmarker, La Charitémarker, Saumurmarker, Gaillacmarker and Troyesmarker. In most it followed immediately the arrival of the news of the Paris massacre, but in some places there was a delay of more than a month. According to Mack P. Holt: "All twelve cities where provincial massacres occurred had one striking feature in common; they were all cities with Catholic majorities where there had once been significant Protestant minorities.... All of them had also experienced serious religious division... during the first three civil wars... Moreover seven of them shared a previous experience ... [they] had actually been taken over by Protestant minorities during the first civil war..."

In several cases the Catholic party in the city believed they had received orders from the king to begin the massacre, some conveyed by visitors to the city, and in other cases apparently coming from a local nobleman or his agent. It seems unlikely any such orders came from the king, although the Guise faction may have desired the massacres. Apparently genuine letters from the duc de Anjou, the king's younger brother, did urge massacres in the king's name; in Nantesmarker the mayor fortunately held on to his without publicising it until a week later when contrary orders from the king had arrived. In some cities the massacres were led by the mob, while the city authorities tried to suppress them, and in others small groups of soldiers and officials began rounding up Protestants with little mob involvement. In Bordeaux the inflammatory sermon on September 29 of the Jesuit Edmond Auger encouraged the massacre that was to occur a few days later.

In the cities affected the loss to the Huguenot communities after the massacres was numerically far larger than those actually killed; in the following weeks there were mass conversions to Catholicism, apparently in response to the threatening atmosphere for Huguenots in these cities. In Rouen, where some hundreds were killed, the Huguenot community shrank from 16,500 to fewer than 3,000 mainly as a result of conversions and emigration to safer cities or countries. Some cities which were not affected at all by the violence nevertheless also witnessed a sharp decline in their Huguenot population.

Soon afterward both sides were preparing for a fourth civil war, which began before the end of the year.

Death toll

Estimates of the number that perished in the massacres, “have varied from 2,000 by a Roman Catholic apologist to 70,000 by the contemporary Huguenot duc de Sully, who himself barely escaped death". Accurate figures for casualties have never been compiled, and even in writings by modern historians there is a considerable range, though the more specialised the historian, the lower they tend to be. At the low end are figures of about 2,000 in Paris and 3,000 in the provinces, the latter figure an estimate by Philip Benedict in an article in 1978. Other estimates are about 10,000 in total, with about 3,000 in Paris and 7,000 in the provinces. At the higher end are total figures of up to 20,000, or 30,000 in total, from "a contemporary, non-partisan guesstimate" quoted by the historians Felipe Fernández-Armesto and D. Wilson. For Paris, the only hard figure is a payment by the city to workmen for collecting and burying 1,100 bodies washed up on the banks of the Seine downstream from the city. Body counts relating to other payments are computed from this.

Reactions to the massacre

The Politiques were horrified but many Catholics inside and outside France regarded the massacres, at least initially, as deliverance from an imminent Huguenot coup d'etat. The severed head of Coligny was apparently despatched to the Pope Gregory XIII, though it got no further than Lyons, and the Pope sent the king a Golden Rose. He ordered a Te Deum to be sung as a special thanksgiving (a practice continued for many years after) and had a medal struck with the motto Ugonottorum strages 1572 showing an angel bearing a cross and sword next to slaughtered Protestants.

The Pope also commissioned the artist Giorgio Vasari to paint three frescos in the Sala Regiamarker depicting the wounding of Coligny, his death, and Charles IX before Parliament, matching ones on the defeat of the Turks at the Battle of Lepanto marker. "The massacre was interpreted as an act of divine retribution; Coligny was considered a threat to Christendom and thus the pope designated 11 September 1572 as a joint commemoration of the Battle of Lepanto and the massacre of the Huguenots".

On hearing of the slaughter, Philip II of Spain “laughed for the only time on record”. In Paris, the poet Jean-Antoine de Baïf, founder of the Academie de Musique et de Poésie, wrote a sonnet extravagantly praising the killings. On the other hand, the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II, King Charles's father-in-law, was sickened, describing the massacre as "shameful". Moderate French Catholics also began to wonder whether religious uniformity was worth the price of such bloodshed and they began to swell the ranks of a movement, the Politiques, which placed national unity above sectarian interests.

The massacre caused a “major international crisis”. Protestant countries were horrified at the events, and only the concentrated efforts of Catherine's ambassadors, including a special mission by Gondi, prevented the collapse of her policy of remaining on good terms with them. Elizabeth I of England's ambassador to France at that time, Sir Francis Walsingham, barely escaped with his life. Even Tsar Ivan the Terrible expressed horror at the carnage in a letter to the Emperor.

The massacre "spawned a pullulating mass of polemical literature, bubbling with theories, prejudices and phobias" Many Catholic authors were exultant in their praise of the king for his bold and decisive action (after regretfully abandoning a policy of meeting Huguenot demands as far as he could) against the supposed Huguenot coup, whose details were now fleshed out in officially sponsored works, though the larger mob massacres were somewhat deprecated: "[one] must excuse the people's fury moved by a laudable zeal which is difficult to restrain once it has been stirred up". Huguenot works naturally dwelt on the harrowing details of violence, expounded various theories of the conspiracies that had long planned the massacres, and often showed extravagant anti-Italian feelings directed at Catherine, Gondi, and other other Italians at court. Diplomatic correspondence was readier than published polemics to recognise the unplanned and chaotic nature of the events, which also emerged from several accounts in memoirs published over the following years by witnesses to the events at court, including two dramatic and influential accounts by members of the royal family that were not recognised as fake until the 19th century, those supposedly by Marguerite of Navarre,, and Anjou.

Both sides drew comfort from eccentric works by members of the opposite faith. The author of the Lettre de Pierre Charpentier (1572) was not only "a Protestant of sorts, and thus, apparently, writing with inside knowledge", but also "an extreme apologist for the massacre ... in his view ... a well-merited punishment for years of civil disobedience [and] secret sedition..." A strand of Catholic writing, especially by Italian authors, broke from the official French line to applaud the massacre as precisely a brilliant stratagem, deliberately planned from various points beforehand. The most extreme of these writers was Camilo Capilupi, a papal secretary, whose work insisted that the whole series of events since 1570 had been a masterly plan conceived by Charles IX, and carried through by frequently misleading his mother and ministers as to his true intentions. The Venetian government refused to allow the work to be printed there, and it was eventually published in Rome in 1574, and in the same year quickly reprinted in Geneva in the original Italian and a French translation.

It was in this context that the massacre came to be seen as a product of Machiavellianism, a view greatly influenced by the Huguenot Innocent Gentillet, who published his Discours contre Machievel in 1576, which was printed in ten editions in three languages over the next four years. Gentillet held, quite wrongly according to Sydney Anglo, that Machiavelli's "books [were] held most dear and precious by our Italian and Italionized courtiers" (in the words of his first English translation), and so (in Anglo's paraphrase) "at the root of France's present degradation, which has culminated not only in the St Bartholemew massacre but the glee of its perverted admirers". In fact there is little trace of Machiavelli in French writings before the massacre, and not very much after, until Gentillet's own book, but this concept was seized upon by many contemporaries, and played a crucial part in setting the long-lasting popular concept of Machiavellianism that so infuriates scholars of his actual thought. It also gave added impetus to the strong anti-Italian feelings already present in Huguenot polemic.

Christopher Marlowe was one of many Elizabethan writers who were enthusiastic proponents of these ideas. In the Jew of Malta (1589-90) "Machievel" in person speaks the Prologue, claiming to not be dead, but to have possessed the soul of (the Duke of) Guise, "And, now the Guise is dead, is come from France/ To view this land, and frolic with his friends" (Prologue, lines 3-4) His last play, The Massacre at Paris (1593) takes the massacre, and the following years, as its subject, with Guise and Catherine both depicted as Machiavellian plotters, bent on evil from the start. The Catholic Encyclopedia of 1913 was still ready to endorse a version of this view, describing the massacres as "an entirely political act committed in the name of the immoral principles of Machiavellianism" and blaming "the pagan theories of a certain raison d'état according to which the end justified the means".

The French 18th century historian Louis-Pierre Anquetil, in his Esprit de la Ligue of 1767, was among the first to begin impartial historical investigation, emphasizing the lack of premeditation (before the attempt on Coligny) in the massacre and that Catholic mob violence had a history of uncontrollable escalation. By this period the Massacre was being widely used by Voltaire (in his Henriade) and other Enlightenment writers in polemics against organized religion in general. The question of whether the massacre had long been premeditated was not entirely settled until the late 19th century; Lord Acton changed his mind on the matter twice, finally concluding that it was not.


Role of the royal family

Over the centuries, the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre has inevitably aroused a great deal of controversy. Modern historians are still divided over the responsibility of the royal family:

  • The traditional interpretation makes Catherine de Medici and her Catholic advisers the principal culprits in the execution of the principal military leaders. They forced the hand of a hesitant and weak-willed king in the decision of that particular execution. This traditional interpretation has been largely abandoned by modern historians including, among others, by Janine Garrisson. However, in a more recent work than his history of the period Mack P. Holt concludes, of the initial conspiracy: "The ringleaders of the conspiracy appear to have been a group of four men: Henry, duke of Anjou; Chancellor Birague; the duke of Nevers, and the comte de Retz" (Gondi). Apart from Anjou, the others were all Italian advisors at the French court.

  • According to Denis Crouzet, Charles IX feared a Protestant uprising, and chose to strangle it at birth in order to protect his own power. The execution decision was therefore his own, and not Catherine de' Medici's.

  • According to Jean-Louis Bourgeon, it was the violently anti-Huguenot city of Paris which was really responsible. He stresses that the city was on the verge of revolt. The Guises, who were highly popular, exploited this situation to put pressure on the king and the queen mother. Charles IX was thus forced to head off the potential riot, which was the work of the Guises, the city militia and the common people.

  • According to Thierry Wanegffelen, the member of the royal family with the most responsibility in this affair is Henry, Duke of Anjou, the king's ambitious younger brother. Following the failed assassination attack against the admiral de Coligny, which Wanegffelen attributes to the Guise family and Spain, the Italian advisers of Catherine de Medici undoubtedly recommended in the royal Council the execution of about fifty Protestant leaders to benefit from the occasion by eliminating the Huguenot danger, but both the Queen Mother and the King were very firmly opposed. However Anjou, lieutenant general of the kingdom, present at this meeting of the Council, could see a good occasion to make a name for himself with the government. He contacted the Parisian authorities and another ambitious young man, running out of authority and power, the duke Henri de Guise (whose uncle, the clear-sighted Charles cardinal of Lorraine was then detained in Rome). The Parisian St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre results from this conjunction of interests, and this offers a much better explanation as to why the men of the duke of Anjou acted in the name of the lieutenant general of the kingdom, consistent with the thinking of the time, rather than in the name of the King. One can also understand why, the day after the start of the massacre, Catherine de Medici had condemned by royal declaration of Charles IX the crimes, and threatened the Guise family with royal justice. But when Charles IX and his mother learned of the involvement of the duke of Anjou, and being so dependent on his support, they issued a second royal declaration, which while asking for an end to the massacres, credited the initiative with the desire of Charles IX to prevent a Protestant plot. Initially the coup d'étatt of the duke of Anjou was a success, but Catherine de Medici went out of her way to deprive him from any power in France: she sent him with the royal army to remain in front of La Rochelle and she had him elected King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

Role of the religious factions

Traditional histories have tended to focus more on the roles of the political notables whose machinations began the massacre than the mindset of those who actually did the killing. It was ordinary lay Catholics that were involved in the mass killings; there is overwhelming evidence that they believed they were executing the wishes of the king, and of God.

At this time, in an age before mass media, “the pulpit remained probably the most effective means of mass communication”,. Despite the large numbers of pamphlets and broadsheet in circulation, literacy rates were still poor. Thus, some modern historians have stressed the critical and incendiary role that militant preachers played in shaping ordinary lay beliefs, both Catholic and Protestant.

Historian Barbara B. Diefendorf, Professor of History at Boston Universitymarker, wrote that Simon Vigor had "said if the King ordered the Admiral (Coligny) killed, 'it would be wicked not to kill him'. With these words, the most popular preacher in Paris legitimised in advance the events of St. Bartholomew's Day". Diefendorf says that when the head of the murdered Coligny was shown to the Paris mob by a member of the nobility, with the claim that it was the King’s will, the die was cast. Another historian Mack P. Holt, Professor at George Mason Universitymarker, agrees that Vigor, "the best known preacher in Paris" preached sermons that were full of references to the evils that would befall the capital should the Protestants seize control. This view is also partly supported by Cunningham and Grell (2000) who explained that "militant sermons by priests such as Simon Vigor served to raise the religious and eschatological temperature on the eve of the Massacre".
Historians cite the extreme tension and bitterness that led to the powderkeg atmosphere of Paris in August 1572. In the previous ten years there had already been three outbreaks of civil war, and attempts by Protestant nobles to seize power in France. Some blame the complete esteem with which the sovereign's office was held, justified by prominent French Roman Catholic theologians (e.g. Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet), and that the special powers of French Kings "were accompanied by explicit responsibilities, the foremost of which was combating heresy".

Holt, notable for re-emphasising the importance of religious issues, as opposed to political / dynastic power struggles or socio-economic tensions, in explaining the French Wars of Religion, also re-emphasised the role of religion in the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. He noted that the extra violence inflicted on many of the corpses "was not random at all, but patterned after the rites of the Catholic culture that had given birth to it." "many Protestant houses were burned, invoking the traditional purification by fire of all heretics. Many victims were also thrown into the Seine, invoking the purification by water of Catholic baptism". Viewed as a threat to the social and political order, Holt argues that "Huguenots not only had to be exterminated - that is, killed - they also had to be humiliated, dishonoured, and shamed as the inhuman beasts they were perceived to be." However Raymond A Mentzer points out that Protestants "could be as bloodthirsty as Catholics. Earlier Huguenot rage at Nimes (in 1567) led to... the massacre of a hundred or so Catholics, mostly priests and prominent laymen, at the hands of their Protestant neighbours. Few towns escaped the episodic violence and some suffered repeatedly from both sides. Neither faith had a monopoly on cruelty and misguided fervour."

Some, like Leonie Frieda, emphasise the element within the mob violence of the "haves" being "killed by the 'have-nots'". Many Protestants were nobles or bourgeois and Frieda adds that "a number of bourgeois Catholic Parisians had suffered the same fate as the Protestants; many financial debts were wiped clean with the death of creditors and moneylenders that night". At least one Huguenot was able to buy off his would-be murderers.

The historian H.G. Koenigsberger (who until his retirement in 1984 was Professor of History at King’s College, University of London) wrote that the Massacre was deeply disturbing because "it was Christians massacring other Christians who were not foreign enemies but their neighbours with which they and their forebears had lived in a Christian community, and under the same ruler, for a thousand years". He concludes that the historical importance of the Massacre "lies not so much in the appalling tragedies involved as their demonstration of the power of sectarian passion to break down the barriers of civilisation, community and accepted morality".

An explanation of this may lie in the analysis of the massacre in terms of social anthropology by the religious historian Bruce Lincoln, who describes how the religious divide, which gave the Huguenots different patterns of dress, eating and pastimes, as well as the obvious differences of religion and (very often) class, had become a social schism or cleavage. The rituals around the royal marriage had only intensified this cleavage, contrary to its intentions, and the "sentiments of estrangement - radical otherness - [had come] to prevail over sentiments of affinity between Catholics and Protestants".

On 23 August 1997, Pope John Paul II, who was in Paris for the 12th World Youth Day, issued a statement on the Massacre. He stayed in Paris for three days and made eleven speeches. According to Reuter and the Associated Press, at a late-night vigil, with the hundreds of thousands of young people who were in Paris for the celebrations, he made the following comments: "On the eve of Aug. 24, we cannot forget the sad massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day, an event of very obscure causes in the political and religious history of France. ... Christians did things which the Gospel condemns. I am convinced that only forgiveness, offered and received, leads little by little to a fruitful dialogue, which will in turn ensure a fully Christian reconciliation. ... Belonging to different religious traditions must not constitute today a source of opposition and tension. On the contrary, our common love for Christ impels us to seek tirelessly the path of full unity".

Cultural references

The Elizabethan dramatist Christopher Marlowe knew the story well from the Huguenot literature translated into English, and probably from French refugees who had sought refuge in his native Canterburymarker. He wrote a strongly anti-Catholic and anti-French play based on the events entitled 'The Massacre at Paris'. Also, in his biography The World of Christopher Marlowe, David Riggs claims the incident remained with the playwright, and massacres are incorporated into the final acts of three of his early plays, 1 and 2 Tamburlaine and The Jew of Malta - see above for Marlowe and Machiavellism.

The story was also taken up in 1772 by Louis-Sébastien Mercier in his play Jean Hennuyer, Bishop of Lizieux. This play was translated into English, with some adaptations, by actress and playwright Elizabeth Inchbald in 1792. Whilst Inchbald kept the historical setting, it was clear that The Massacre was also a reference to the recent September Massacres of the French Revolution.

Joseph Chénier's play Charles IX was a huge success during the French Revolution, drawing strongly anti-monarchical and anti-religious lessons from the massacre. Chenier was able to put his principles into practice as a politician, voting for the execution of Louis XVI and many others, perhaps including his brother André Chénier. However, before the collapse of the Revolution he became suspected of moderation, and in some danger himself.

The story was fictionalised by Prosper Mérimée in hisChronique du règne de Charles IX (1829), and by Alexandre Dumas, père in La Reine Margot, an 1845 novel that fills in the history as it was then seen with romance and adventure. That novel has been translated into English and was made into a commercially successful French film in 1994 as La Reine Margot, starring Isabelle Adjani.

Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera Les Huguenots (1836), very loosely based on the events of the massacre, was one of the most popular and spectacular examples of French grand opera.

The Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais managed to create a sentimental moment in the massacre in his painting A Huguenot on St. Bartholomew's Day (1852), which depicts a Catholic woman attempting to convince her Huguenot lover to wear the white scarf badge of the Catholics and protect himself. The man, true to his beliefs, gently refuses her. Millais was inspired to create the painting after seeing Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots.

The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre and the events surrounding it were incorporated into the D.W. Griffith film Intolerance (1916). The film follows Catherine de' Medici (Josephine Crowell) plotting the massacre, coercing her son King Charles IX (Frank Bennett) to sanction it. Incidental characters include Henri of Navarre, Marguerite de Valois (Constance Talmadge), Admiral Coligny (Joseph Henabery) and the Duke of Anjou, who is portrayed as homosexual. These historic scenes are depicted alongside a fictional plot in which a Huguenot family is caught among the events.

A serial in the Britishmarker science fiction television series Doctor Who officially entitled The Massacre of St Bartholomew's Eve, but often referred to by fans simply as The Massacre, is set during the events leading up to the Paris massacre. Leonard Sachs appeared as Admiral Coligny and Joan Young played Catherine de Medici. This serial only survives in audio form.


  1. Knecht, pp. 51-2;Robert Jean Knecht in The French Religious Wars 1562-1598, Osprey Publishing, 2002, ISBN 1841763950
  2. H.G. Koenigsberger, George L.Mosse, G.Q. Bowler, "Europe in the Sixteenth Century", Second Edition, Longman, 1989
  3. & Evans, G.R. (1987), Atlas of the Christian Church, Macmillian, London, ISBN 0-333-44157-5 hardback, pp. 113;
  4. Knecht (2001), 359
  5. Holt (2005), 79-80
  6. Holt (2005), 86
  7. Mack P. Holt The French Wars of Religion 1562-1626, (Cambridge University Press, 2005 ed.), p. 78-9 google Books
  8. & Wilson, D. (1996), Reformation: Christianity and the World 1500 - 2000, Bantam Press, London, ISBN 0593-02749-3 paperback, pp. 237;
  9. Holt (1995 ed), pp. 95
  10. Holt (2005), 81
  11. Robert Jean Knecht, The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France, 1483-1610: 1483-1610, p. 356, Blackwell Publishing, 2001, ISBN 0631227296, 9780631227298, Google Books
  12. Garrisson, 82-83, and Lincoln, 96, and Knecht (2001), 361
  13. Holt,
  14. Historians are reluctant to speculate on the composition or size of the group of leaders targeted at this point, beyond the few obvious heads. Most potential candidates were accompanied by groups of gentlemen as staff and bodyguards, like Coligny, so each killing could have been expected to involve killing these as well.
  15. Knecht (2001), 364> The site is now 144 Rue de Rivoli, with a plaque commemorating the event, though both building and street layout post-date the 16th century. New York Times on the plaque
  16. Holt (2005 edn), 88-91 (quotation from p. 91)
  17. Lincoln, 98
  18. Holt (2005 edn), 91
  19. Philip Benedict (Rouen), Rouen During the Wars of Religion, Cambridge University Press, 2004, ISBN 0521547970, 9780521547970
  20. Holt (2005 edn), 91. The dates are in Garrison, p. 139, who adds Albi to the 12 in Holt. online
  21. Holt (2005 edn), 91
  22. Holt (2005 edn), 93-4, and Benedict (Rouen), 127
  23. Benedict (Rouen), 127
  24. Knecht (2001), 367
  25. Knecht (2001), 368, though see Holt (2005), 93-5 for a different emphasis
  26. ("Emond" or "Edmond"). Garrison, 144-45, who rejects the view that this "met le feu au poudres" (lit the powder) in Bordeaux. See also: Jonathan L. Pearl, The Crime of Crimes: Demonology and Politics in France, 1560-1620, Wilfrid Laurier Univ. Press, p. 70 1998, ISBN 0889202966, 9780889202962 Google Books
  27. Holt (2005 edn), 95, citing Benedict (Rouen), 127-132
  28. Saint Bartholomew’s Day, Massacre of (2008) Encyclopaedia Britannia Deluxe Edition, Chicago;
  29. The range of estimates available in the mid-19th century, with other details, are summarized by the Huguenot statesman and historian François Guizot in his A Popular History of France from the Earliest Times, Volume IV
  30. Alastair Armstrong: France 1500-1715 (Heinemann, 2003) pp.70-71;
  31. Philip Benedict, The Saint Bartholomew's Massacres in the Provinces, The Historical Journal, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Jun., 1978), pp. 205-225, Cambridge University Press [1], cited by Holt (2005 edn), p. 91, and also used by Robert Jean Knecht in The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France, 1483-1610 (Blackwell, 2001) p.366, and here
  32. Lincoln, 97 (a "bare minimum of 2,000" in Paris), and The History of Terrorism: From Antiquity to Al Qaeda, By Gérard Chaliand, Arnaud Blin, Edward Schneider, Kathryn Pulver, Jesse Browner, University of California Press, 2007, ISBN 0520247094, 9780520247093, citing Guerres et paix de religion en Europe aux XVIe-XVIIe siecles by David El Kenz, (2008)
  33. Garrisson, p, 131; (ed.) (1998), Oxford Encyclopedia World History, Oxford University Press, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-860223-5 hardback, pp.585; and & Evans, G.R. (1987), Atlas of the Christian Church, Macmillian, London, ISBN 0-333-44157-5 hardback, pp. 113;
  34. (2003) The Faith: A History of Christianity, Pimlico, London, ISBN 0-7126-0720-x paperback, pp.456; Lord Acton, who discusses the matter in some detail, found that "no evidence takes us as high as eight thousand", and found those contemporaries in the best position to know typically gave the lowest figures - Lectures on Modern History Google books
  35. Sheila Perry, Aspects of Contemporary France, p.5, Routledge, 1997, ISBN 0415131790, 9780415131797
  36. & Wilson, D. (1996), Reformation: Christianity and the World 1500 - 2000, Bantam Press, London, ISBN 0593-02749-3 paperback, pp. 236 - 237;
  37. Garrisson, 131; see also the 19th century historian Henry White, who goes into full details, and lists the estimates of other historians of his day
  38. (1969, ninth edition), A History of Europe: Volume One, Fontana Press, London, pp. 581;
  39. Carter Lindberg: The European Reformations (Blackwell, 1996) p.295.
  40. E. Howe: Architecture in Vasari's "Massacre of the Huguenots" (Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 39, 1976 (1976), pp. 258-261) [2]
  41. (et al. eds.) (1904), The Cambridge Modern History - Volume III: Wars of Religion, Cambridge University Press, Oxford, pp.20;
  42. Georges Bordonove Henri IV (Editions Pygmalion, 1981) p.82: le honteux bain de sang
  43. Cunningham, A. & Grell, O. P. (2000) 'The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine & Death in Reformation Europe', Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-46701-2 paperback, pp. 59;
  44. According to Stephen Budiansky in chapter 1 of Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage (Viking, 2005)
  45. Google Books. Ivan was against Anjou becoming King of Poland.
  46. Sydney Anglo, Machiavelli - the First Century: Studies in Enthusiasm, Hostility, and Irrelevance, p. 229, Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN 0199267766, 9780199267767 Google Books. See also: Acton and the Massacre of St Bartholomew, H. Butterfield Cambridge Historical Journal, Vol. 11, No. 1 (1953), pp. 27-47 JSTOR on the many shifts in emphasis of the historiography of the massacre over the next four centuries.
  47. Anglo, 237-240
  48. Anglo, 272-80
  49. See Butterfield, 1955, passim; The Catholic Encyclopedia article on Saint Bartholomew's Day has several quotations
  50. The Memoirs of Marguerite de Valois online
  51. Anjou's was the source of the quotation attributed to Charles IX: "Well then, so be it! Kill them! But kill them all! Don't leave a single one alive to reproach me!" See the Catholic Encyclopedia and see note 18 Butterfield, pp. 183 (and note), and 199; Anjou's account was defended by a minority of historians into the early 20th century, or at least claimed as being in some sense an account informed by actual witnesses.
  52. Anglo, 251
  53. Anglo, 253ff
  54. Anglo, 254-65
  55. Anglo, 283 - see also the whole chapter
  56. Anglo, 286
  57. Anglo, Chapters 10 and 11; p. 328 etc.
  58. Project Gutenburg Jew of Malta text.
  59. Catholic Encyclopedia article on Saint Bartholomew's Day
  60. Barbara Whitehead, Revising the Revisionists, in:Politics, Ideology, and the Law in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of J.H.M. Salmon, ed. John Hearsey McMillan Salmon, Boydell & Brewer, 1994 ISBN 187882239X, 9781878822390 p.162
  61. The subject of Butterfield's chapter, referenced below.
  62. Mack P. Holt; The Duke of Anjou and the Politique Struggle During the Wars of Religion, Cambridge University Press, 2002, ISBN 0521892783, 9780521892780 p. 20
  63. Atkin, N. & Tallett, F. (2003) Priests, Prelates & People: A History of European Catholicism Since 1750, Oxford University Press, Oxford, ISBN 0-19-521987-2 hardback, pp.9;
  64. Diefendorf, B.B. (1991) Beneath The Cross: Catholics & Huguenots in Sixteenth Century Paris, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-79-507013-5 paperback, pp.157;
  65. Holt, M. P. (1995) The French Wars of Religion 1562 - 1629, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-35359-9 hardback, pp.88 - 89;
  66. Cunningham, A. & Grell, O. P. (2000) The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine & Death in Reformation Europe, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-46701-2 paperback, pp. 151;
  67. Holt, (1995), p.86;
  68. Holt, (1995), p.44;
  69. Holt (1995 ed.), pp. 9;
  70. Holt (1995 ed.), pp. 87;
  71. Holt (1995 ed.), pp. 87;
  72. Mentzer, Raymond A., The French Wars of Religion in The Reformation World, Ed. Andrew Pettegree, Routledge, (2000), ISBN 0415163579, p. 332.
  73. Frieda, L. (2003) Catherine de Medici, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, ISBN 0753820390, p.p. 314. 316;
  74. Knecht (2001), 364
  75. Koenigsberger, H.G. (1987) Early Modern Europe 1500 - 1789, Longman, Harlow, ISBN 0-582-49401-X paperback, pp. 115;
  76. Koenigsberger, pp. 115;
  77. Lincoln, chapter 6, pp. 89-102, quotation from p. 102
  78. Susan Maslan, Revolutionary Acts: Theater, Democracy, and the French Revolution, JHU Press, 2005, ISBN 0801881250, 9780801881251 p. 40

Other references

  • Butterfield, Herbert, Man on his Past, Cambridge University Press, 1955, Chapter VI, Lord Acton and the Massacre of St Bartholomew
  • Denis Crouzet : Les Guerriers de Dieu. La violence au temps des troubles de religion vers 1525-vers 1610, Champvallon, 1990 (ISBN 2-87673-094-4), La Nuit de la Saint-Barthélemy. Un rêve perdu de la Renaissance, Fayard, coll. « Chroniques », 1994 (ISBN 2-213-59216-0) ;
  • Jean-Louis Bourgeon : L'assassinat de Coligny, Genève, Droz, 1992. Charles IX devant la Saint-Barthélemy, Droz, coll. « Travaux d'histoire éthico-politique », 1995 (ISBN 2-600-00090-9) ;
  • Janine Garrisson, 1572 : la Saint-Barthélemy, Complexe, 2000 (ISBN 2-87027-721-0). (in French) Google books
  • Lincoln, Bruce, Discourse and the Construction of Society: Comparative Studies of Myth, Ritual, and Classification, Oxford University Press US, 1989, ISBN 0195079094, 9780195079098 Google Books

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