San Bartolomeo

The Night of Saint Bartholomew: how to go from a failed assassination to a national massacre

themes: periods: people: places:

Rue de Rivoli, number 162 ca.: I stand under the elegant gallery to look at the statue of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny (1519-1572). The admiral ignores me, too focused in his endless glare duel with the tormented ghosts of the Louvre palace, whose stern presence is perfectly perceivable behind my back. Some stories are never funny to remember for anyone, I concur.

If nearly nobody remembers the admiral, everyone remembers the kings, especially when they’re responsible for one of the worst bloodbaths in the history of their realm.

La statua dell'ammiraglio Gaspard de Coligny
Statue of admiral Gaspard de Coligny in rue de Rivoli.

Gaspard de Coligny has been depicted as a handsome man, surrounded by the aura of a martyr perfectly in tone with his story (killed two times and thrown out of a window when already dead, just to be sure…) but he wasn’t exactly an angel, let’s just say he was a man of his times: member of the Royal Council, close to King Charles IX, great military man. He was a true VIP, with just the smallest flaw: he was the chief of the Protestant faction, not a very enviable position in a France devastated by religious wars. Indeed, Luther and his Thesis had raised hell in Europe, and between reformed and Catholics it had been smackdown time for decades, to the point that dying of old age was as credible a tale as Santa Claus today.

Gaspard de Coligny
Admiral Gaspard de Coligny

On August 22nd, 1572, an assassination attempt to Cligny’s life near the Louvre (around the place where the statue is) leaves the admiral wounded, the protestants enraged and the Catholics disappointed for their failure. Nobody’s impressed: plots, assassinations, poisonings, treason on both sides are, by now, a consolidated routine, and nobody fails to see, behind the attempt, the holy hand of the Catholic faction, led by the ambitious Duc de Guise.


Henri de Guise
Duke de Guise

The admiral, wounded but alive, was honored by a visit of King Charles IX himself, inevitably accompanied by the Queen Mother, Caterina de’ Medici. The king and the admiral were, truth be told, close friends.

Tensions ran high, and king Charles’s position wasn’t enviable at all. He needed to pick a side, but which? Protestants were about to go up in arms: if the king wouldn’t punish the assassination attempt’s instigators, they would; and while they were at it, they could even change king as well. Catholics, on the other hand, remained closed in a threatening silence that seemed to infer: “Either the king sides with us or we’ll change king”. So, there hardly was a good side to choose for king Charles. In the meantime, the duke of Guise was happily thinking about how to change the interior design of the royal chambers, since he’d be on the throne very soon…

To make everything worse, almost all the protestant nobles were unusually gathered in Paris, guests of king Charles IX himself. In fact, those were the days when the very criticized wedding between protestant Henri de Bourbon (1553-1610), king of Nevarra and Coligny’s brother in arms, and beautiful, catholic princess Marguerite, called Margot (1553-1615), sister to the king and daughter of Caterina de’ Medici, was being celebrated. Caterina had hoped to reconcile the two factions with this last, desperate diplomatic gesture, but Coligny’s assassination attempt had ruined everything: so, thank you very much, duke de Guise.

Admiral Coligny on the left, then from above: Caterina de Medici, Charles IX, Henri de Bourbon and Margot newlyweds.

The night of August 23rd, St. Bartholomew’s Night, a secret council gathered in the Louvre: the king was understandably tense, and Caterina too knew that no wedding could now stop the disaster. Someone then suggested Charles a solution that seemed momentous: the reformed nobles were almost all in Paris, a unique opportunity to clean up the house. And the throne would be safe. Come on, we’re going to solve this! Of course, some friends would end up sacrificed, but saving the realm from the threat of chaos was paramount. And here’s what history teaches us: never underestimate a hatred grown in decades of civil war.

By order of His Majesty, Paris’s doors were closed, the waterways too: it was the night of St. Bartholomew’s, Coligny and his reformed companions were dreaming in their beds for the last time.

The bell tower of Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, the church east of the Louvre, would give the signal. The church is still there, the bell tower too, but it’s not the one you can see from the road, which is a relatively new addition.


Saint-Germain- l'Auxerrois
Saint-Germain- l’Auxerrois and the belltower that announced St. Bartholomew’s massacre (the shy one on the background, it’s probably still ashamed…)

An order to eliminate around fifty protestant chiefs had been issued after the wretched advice, but someone got carried away: the massacre went on for some days, drenching Paris, and then the whole of France, in blood.

Il massacro si San Bartolomeo
St. Bartholomew’s massacre, a perfect example of human interpretation of the divine message.

Caterina and Charles must have asked themselves which part of “eliminate SOME protestants, here are the names” hadn’t been understood. It is estimated that in Paris there were 4000 dead in three days.

San Bartolomeo
Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury (1797-1890) Scene from the St. Bartholomew’s Massacre.

Henri de Bourbon and Margot, newlyweds, didn’t have the foggiest about what was brewing for their honeymoon, but they were rapidly told, I imagine: Henri was taken prisoner and in Margot’s chamber came running a protestant gentleman, begging for her husband’s protection. Marguerite saved his life.


Henri de Navarre and Marguerite de Valois appalled after their own Red Wedding.


San Bartolomeo Navarra
Alexandre-Évarista Fragonard (1780-1850), Scene from St. Bartholomew’s Massacre in the apartment of the Queen of Navarra (1836). The poor man had rushed into her room screaming “Navarra!”, hoping to find Henri, King of Navarra.

That’s what happens when you always listen to your mom… king Charles, not exactly the most psychologically stable child already, died crushed by guilt, syphilis, and TBC.

The major problems that the massacre caused to the realm were partially solved only several years later, ironically by the same Henri de Bourbon who survived the massacre and became, unexpectedly, the new king of France under the name of Henri IV.

Interesting fact: Pope Gregory XIII had a commemorative medal of the massacre minted, and I am very curious to know in which terms he was told about the event…


Io e il Louvre con fantasma
Selfie at the Louvre from rue de Rivoli picturing ghosts of unresting victims photobombing me.