In the morning of August 24, 1572, the body of a Frenchman fell lifeless from the window of the Paris residence where he was staying. It was neither suicide nor accident. His name was Gaspard de Coligny, the nobleman who took charge of the Protestant cause in France. Moments before his body was dumped out the window, Coligny was killed in cold blood by assassins, triggering the brutal campaign of persecution known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
The Reformation in France struggled against vehement persecution from the beginning. John Calvin was among many Frenchman who lived as a refugee, having fled France in 1533 to take up residence in Geneva in 1536. But Calvin never forgot his homeland. For years, French-speaking Protestant pastors who studied Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion quietly invaded France with the Reformation truths many were hungrily seeking. The Protestant faith grew in France as a result, but so did the opposition to it—often bloody opposition. In 1562 the French Duke of Guise attacked a Huguenot worship service and massacred the congregation. This act was so savage it provoked an armed response from French Protestants and a decade long civil war broke out.
A resolution to the bloody conflict seemed to present itself in a marriage alliance between the Protestant nobleman Henry of Navarre and Marguerite de Valois, the sister of King Charles IX. On August 18 the heavily Roman Catholic city of Paris was packed with Huguenots who came to witness the wedding ceremony. Prominent among them was the leader of the Huguenot resistance, Gaspard de Coligny. But if a resolution seemed to present itself, appearances are often deceiving. Catherine de Medici, mother of King Charles, was vehemently opposed to the Huguenot cause. So vehement was Catherine in her opposition to Protestantism that she arranged an assassination of Coligny on August 22, which failed. Coligny was shot in the hand by the bullet which was meant for his heart. The failure alarmed Catherine, who feared the assassination attempt had alienated the Huguenots and would provoke more serious rebellion on their part. Having convinced her son King Charles of a Huguenot conspiracy in Paris, she began to push for a mass killing. Charles is reported to have sworn in response to his mother’s pleas that “not only the leaders, who alone were implicated, but all the Huguenots of France should die, so that no one might remain to reproach him for the deed.”1
The successful assassination of Coligny on August 24, therefore, was not an isolated incident. The bloody death toll on St. Bartholomew’s Day in Paris alone reached to 8,000. For four more ruthless days, 20,000 more French Protestants were butchered in the surrounding French countryside. Not only the strong younger men who fought in the battles, mind you, but women, children, and the aged were cut down as well. When the pope heard the news in Rome, he called for a ringing of the cathedral bells in celebration, and for a medal to be made commemorating the event.
In some ways the legacy of St. Bartholomew’s Day is a vivid fulfillment of the Lord’s words to Peter on the night before the cross: “Put up again thy sword into his place: for all they that take the sword shall perish with the sword” (Matt. 26:52). Many who took up the sword against the king of France for the Protestant cause also died by the sword. Nevertheless, the unnecessary butchery of the Huguenots in 1572 goes down in church history as an act of unspeakable cruelty and violence against those who simply sought to worship and serve their Lord in peace. Many of the martyred souls who cry out to God for vengeance (Rev. 6:10) had their blood shed in the massacre of August 24, 1572, St. Bartholomew’s Day.
1 John H. Kurtz, Text-Book of Church History, vol. 2 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1892), 123.