This Disastrous French Royal Wedding Ended in Carnage and Became Known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

This Disastrous French Royal Wedding Ended in Carnage and Became Known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

Jennifer Conerly - October 9, 2018

In August 1572, French Huguenots (Calvinist Protestants) flooded to the Catholic stronghold of Paris to witness the royal wedding of the Princess Margaret of Valois to King Henry of Navarre. The political match intended to heal the French Wars of Religion that had plagued the country for ten years, but it had the opposite effect. Decades of tensions between Catholics and Huguenots exploded into a massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Day, causing the waters of the Seine River to run red with blood.

France became deeply divided after the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century. Initially, the new religion reached the lower classes, but it soon spread among members of the nobility. The new Protestant elite conflicted with the high-ranking Catholics of the country. The religious divide projected into the royal succession, in which the Catholic Valois family and the Protestant Bourbon family both claimed descent to the throne. The tensions imploded in March 1562, beginning the French Wars of Religion.

This Disastrous French Royal Wedding Ended in Carnage and Became Known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
Frans Hogenberg. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, ca. 1572. An engraving that is one of the earliest representations of the massacre. Wikipedia.

After the warfare ended with the Edict of St. Germain in 1570, the moderate group, the Politiques, advised King Charles IX to embrace both religions to maintain the peace. The monarch and his regent, his mother Catherine de Medici, increased their tolerance of the Huguenots. In September 1571, King Charles IX appointed the Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the highest-ranking Protestant in France, to his council, inviting more Huguenots to the royal court. To prove their sincerity towards Protestants, Catherine arranged a royal wedding that would end in disaster.

The royal council announced the upcoming royal marriage between the Catholic Margaret of Valois and the Huguenot King Henry of Navarre. Although the union between King Charles’ sister and the King of Navarre meant to heal the rifts between Catholicism and Protestantism, it also had a political goal. It would include the Bourbon family in the French succession, ending the conflicts between the two families. However, the wedding could not have come at a worse time for the struggling country.

This Disastrous French Royal Wedding Ended in Carnage and Became Known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
King Henry of Navarre and Princess Margaret of Valois. The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre followed the wedding of King Henry of Navarre and Princess Margaret of Valois. Although the marriage intended to heal the divisions between Catholics and Protestants, the majority of Catholics did not approve of the match. Wikipedia.

As the royal family raised taxes to fund the celebration, the crops failed. The opulent displays to celebrate the match fueled the resentment of the starving French population towards the elite. Although the French Wars of Religion had passed for the moment, tensions between the Catholics and Protestants continued. The Pope himself condemned the union. The Catholic nations of Europe opposed the religious tolerance that the wedding represented. All of the members of the Parlement of Paris, the city’s representative body of government, refused to attend. Despite the protests, the royal family did not cancel the wedding.

This Disastrous French Royal Wedding Ended in Carnage and Became Known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
The Admiral de Coligny. His attempted assassination on August 22, 1572, ignited the tensions that exploded into violence. After Protestant leaders promised to avenge the attempt on Coligny’s life, the royal council agreed to targeted assassinations of leading Protestants to avoid an uprising. The Admiral was the first on the list. Virtual Museum of Protestantism.

On August 18, 1572, Henry of Navarre married Margaret of Valois. After the celebrations, the elite Huguenots stayed in Paris for a meeting with the king to renegotiate the terms of the Edict of St. Germain. Four days after the wedding, there was an assassination attempt on the Admiral de Coligny. As the King’s valued adviser walked home, an assassin shot him, gravely injuring him. Coligny’s servants and witnesses carried him to his rooms, where the King’s physicians stabilized him. The Admiral had been lucky: he only sustained injuries to his hand and arm.

Hours after the assassination attempt, Coligny’s allies stormed into the palace, interrupting Catherine de Medici at dinner. As tempers flared, the Protestants promised to avenge the attack if the royal family did not investigate. Catherine and the Catholic nobles did not take the threat lightly, calling the king’s council for an emergency meeting. The Catholic elite pushed for violence, focusing on the reality of their situation. When the Admiral’s brother-in-law arrived for the wedding, he stationed his army outside of Paris, with no apparent explanation. Severely outnumbered, Catholics feared reprisal, and they supported a surprise attack against the Protestants.

To prevent a rebellion against the royal family, King Charles IX and his advisers agreed to the planned executions of the highest-ranking Huguenots left in the city. These men were military leaders, veterans of the French Wars of Religion capable of organizing an effective resistance. As the council prepared a list of selected assassinations, they placed the Admiral de Coligny at the top of the list. The Admiral’s bitter enemy, Henry, Duke of Guise, relished the opportunity to eliminate his rival, volunteering to lead his men to Coligny’s home himself.

This Disastrous French Royal Wedding Ended in Carnage and Became Known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
“The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day.” French Huguenots grieving after the massacre. Encyclopedia Britannica.

As the city guards closed off the city, groups of Catholic nobles marched through Paris in the early hours of August 24, 1572, leading the targeted Huguenots out of their homes and executing them on the street. Guise and his men stormed Coligny’s house, killing his servants before they stabbed the Admiral, throwing his body out of his bedroom window. Guise’s men mutilated Coligny’s body, displaying it to the public. King Henry of Navarre knew the mobs were coming for him, and he fled to his wife’s rooms. Margaret barred the door from the Catholic assassins, saving her husband’s life.

Within hours, the violence incited the people of Paris. Joining the elite, the Catholics prowled the streets. Destroying businesses and homes, the mob murdered Protestants of all ranks, even women and children. As the dead bodies piled up, the people tossed them into the Seine River. On August 25, King Charles IX issued a statement to end the violence, insisting that the targeted assassinations meant to thwart an uprising against the royal family. Despite the effort, the murders continued in Paris for the next three days, and similar outbreaks of violence spread throughout the country until the end of the year.

This Disastrous French Royal Wedding Ended in Carnage and Became Known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
Edouard Debate-Ponsan. Un matin devant la porte du Louvre, 1880. A painting depicting Catherine de Medici witnessing the carnage after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Wikipedia.

Reigniting the armed conflicts between the Catholics and Protestants, the immediate aftermath of the massacre resulted in the Fourth War of Religion. Characterized by sieges on Protestant strongholds, the war ended in July 1573, with the Edict of Boulogne. The proclamation severely limited the religious freedoms of Protestants, only allowing them open worship in only three cities. As a result of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the civil war between the Huguenots and the Catholics would continue intermittently for over twenty years.

By 1589, there was only one male heir left to the French throne: Margaret of Valois’ husband, King Henry of Navarre. The political marriage had been a disaster. On opposite sides of the French Wars of Religion, Henry and Margaret lived separately for most of their lives. After his coronation in 1594, Henry divorced Margaret so that he could remarry and have heirs. Henry welcomed his ex-wife at the French court, allowing her to keep her position as the last Valois princess and financing her income. She remained in Paris until her death, forming close friendships with the king and his new queen.

This Disastrous French Royal Wedding Ended in Carnage and Became Known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre
Jacques Boulbene. Henry IV, King of France and Navarre, ca. 1600. After the French Wars of Religion, the first and only Protestant King of France, Henry IV, brought growth and stability to the war-torn country. The reign of his grandson, Louis XIV, brought France to the height of its political and cultural power. Wikipedia.

The coronation of King Henry IV of France ended the Valois dynasty that had ruled France since the fourteenth century. Through Henry’s descendants from his second marriage to Marie de Medici, the Bourbons would rule France for the next two centuries. Despite the opposition to a Protestant king, Henry IV helped France recover from decades of civil war. Converting to Catholicism, he signed the Edict of Nantes in 1598, promoting religious toleration throughout the country.

Maintaining a fragile peace between the Catholics and the Huguenots allowed Henry to rebuild the country during his reign. Without the threat of civil war, the king improved the infrastructure of the country. He promoted education and increased agricultural production, bringing France into a period of prosperity. Upon his death in 1610, Henry had earned the love of his people, embracing his nickname “Good King Henry.” France would eventually reach the epoch of its cultural and political power under the reign of Henry’s grandson, “the Sun King,” Louis XIV.


Where did we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Wars of Religion.” Encyclopedia Britannica.

“The Eight Wars of Religion: 1562-1598.” Virtual Museum of Protestantism.

“Henry IV.” Wikipedia.

“St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.” Wikipedia.