On the night of August 24th, 1572, a group of armed men under the command of the Duke of Guise stormed the Paris lodging of Gaspard de Coligny. Upon finding Coligny, praying in his bedclothes and already wounded from a failed assassination attempt a few days earlier, the soldiers stabbed him to death and threw his corpse from his window into the courtyard below. This assault inaugurated widespread mob violence against Protestants throughout Paris, where two to three thousand men, women, and children would be murdered over the next three days, and then throughout France, where several thousand more were slaughtered. This rather sparse summary hardly captures the significance of this event, commonly called the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Such violence, after all, is rarely isolated, but is rather the result of a long buildup of hostilities and has effects that reverberate long after the initial bloodshed has ceased.
The roots of this explosive violence ran deep, arguably finding their real start in the Affair of the Placards. On the night of October 17th to 18th, 1534, French Protestants across the kingdom, including in Paris itself, had posted flyers attacking Catholicism and its adherents. This coordinated display brought Protestantism from a fad inspired by the ramblings of some German bumpkins to a well-organized potential threat in the eyes of King Francis I of France, who proceeded to crack down on the Huguenots, as French Protestants came to be known.
The following decades saw ongoing religious tensions in France, sometimes breaking out into civil war but always featuring mob violence on all sides. Huguenots attacked churches, destroying statues and profaning sacramental objects. Catholics forced displays of religious conformity from their Protestant neighbors. In the upper echelons of French society, this religious struggle dovetailed with dynastic rivalries and court politics, with the Bourbon family heading up the Protestant faction and the Guise family the Catholic faction, all while the Valois kings and Catherine de Medici scrambled to maintain some semblance of order.
It was this struggle to keep the peace that brought all the players for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre into position. Henry of Navarre, a Bourbon and leading member of the French Protestant faction, wedded Margaret de Valois, King Charles IX’s sister, in a brokered marriage meant to ally the two families and ease religious tensions. Although the wedding itself went off largely without incident, Paris was nevertheless packed with prominent members of both the Protestant and Catholic factions.
A rumor spread that the Huguenots were planning to assassinate the king. Whether this was a coordinated ploy by the Guises to eliminate their rivals, a real plot, or simply the result of rampant panicked speculation is up for debate. In any case, the threat felt real enough to the royal family that Catherine de Medici and Charles authorized the Duke of Guise to nip the conspiracy in the bud.
This brings us back to where we began, with Guise and his men killing Gaspard de Coligny and setting off days of riotous bloodshed. In France, the gruesome episode had the predictable effect of reigniting the French Wars of Religion and deepening animosities between the factions. The ramifications were not confined to the borders of France, of course, and Elizabethan England certainly took notice of the bloodshed in Paris.
For her own part, Queen Elizabeth maintained diplomatic relations with France in the wake of the massacre, being at least nominally their ally through the Treaty of Blois. Politically, Elizabeth had been cool towards the Huguenot faction, favoring a policy of non-intervention ever since losing Le Havre, which English forces had captured while reinforcing Huguenots during an earlier phase of the Wars of Religion, only to be driven out by those same Huguenots once they had reached a peace with the Crown. She was nevertheless indignant at the explanation from French delegates sent to smooth the situation over that Coligny had been killed for defying the king, and that if there had been a massacre, it was small and unrelated. Regardless, whether it was born from spite towards her unreliable former Huguenot allies or a need to maintain relations with France in the face of Hapsburg power, Elizabeth’s ambivalent posture infuriated many of her more staunchly Protestant subjects, creating a rift in English politics that would last for the rest of her reign.
The already simmering anti-popery of many English Protestants was stirred up by the massacre, prompting calls for more active support of Protestants on the Continent, a crackdown on English Catholics, a recommitment to Protestant worship, and the execution of Mary Stuart, an English prisoner since 1568. The demands for Mary’s execution were no doubt related to renewed fears rooted in the 1569 uprising in the north intended to place her on the English throne, but they were also tied to her kinship with the Duke of Guise, a cousin through her mother’s family. Many English partisans, for lack of the duke himself, settled on her as a near enough scion of the Guise family to kill in outright revenge.
And revenge it would be, for the Duke of Guise came to stand for all French Catholic partisans in the English popular imagination. Contemporary accounts identify Guise as the instigator of the riots, and the vilification of the Duke of Guise continued as the tale of the massacre was told and retold over the next several years, adding such grisly but apocryphal details as Coligny’s head being sent to the Pope as a gift and encouraged in large part by Huguenot refugees fleeing to England. John Foxe, for instance, an influential voice in shaping the English martyr narrative in the sixteenth century, attacks Guise as “the great Archenemie of God and his Gospell” in the 1576 edition of his Actes and Monuments, and Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 play The Massacre of Paris represents something of a culmination of the Guise-as-villain narrative that permeated the English popular consciousness.
Although the wholesale shift to a holy war footing favored by the more partisan elements at court did not come into effect, the Elizabethan government nevertheless took steps to prepare for possible violence. England had had laws on the books calling for militias since 1558, but these had been largely unenforced for the first decade of Elizabeth’s reign. In late 1572, however, the English government began actively fostering militias, building large bases of combatants to be mustered in time of war with a backbone composed of soldiers equipped with modern weapons and trained in modern tactics, such as the Trayned Bandes represented by GSM-Bristol. There were other concerns that no doubt informed this renewed interest in militarization- heightened tensions with Spain during the Treasure Crisis and the recent Northern Rebellion, for instance- but the timing indicates that it was anxieties surrounding the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and its aftermath that gave the final push.
The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, then, stands out as more than just an grisly but isolated incident. For France, it represented a boiling over of deep-seated tensions which hardened the resolve of all parties and ushered in over twenty five more years of religious civil war. While not immediately leading to war for England, the episode nevertheless threw religious concerns in politics into a sharper light, injected renewed fear and anger about France and Catholicism into the popular imagination and ushered in the military institutions that would ultimately be deployed to defend the nation during in 1588 under the threat of a Hapsburg, rather than Guise, invasion.
Michael Lowry Lamble holds an MA in Medieval and Renaissance History, with a secondary concentration in Early Modern European History, from Loyola University Chicago and a BA in History, with minors in Classics and Religious Studies, from Northwestern University. His academic interests include religion, conflict, and identity, as well as historical oddballs of all sorts. In GSM-Bristol, he carries pike, fires shotte, and portions out gunpowder.
- The Massacre of St. Bartholomew by Francois Dubois (French/Swiss 1529-1584), circa 1572-1584, currently housed at the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts
- The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by Franz Hogenberg (Flemish/German 1535-1590), circa 1572
- Admiral Gaspard II de Coligny by Francois Clouet (French 1516-1572), circa 1565-1570, currently housed at the St. Louis Art Museum
- Henry, King of Navarre by an anonymous French artist , circa 1575, currently housed at the Chateau du Pau
- Henry of Lorraine, Third Duke of Guise, Called “The Scarred,” by an anonymous French artist, circa 1580, currently housed at the Museé Carnavalet
 Carlos M.N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016), 540.
 Ibid, 290.
 Barbara Diefendorf, “Prologue to a Massacre: Popular Unrest in Paris, 1557-1572,” The American Historical Review 90, no. 5 (1985): 1076.
 Ibid, 1075.
 Ibid, 1074.
 Eire, Reformations, 538.
 Ibid, 540.
 William Palmer, “Ireland and English Foreign Policy in the 1570s,” The Historian 58, no. 1 (1995): 94.
 Robert M. Kingdon, Myths About the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres, 1572-1576 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988), 125.
 Ibid, 129.
 A. G. Dickens “The Elizabethans and St. Bartholomew” in The Massacre of St. Bartholomew: Reappraisals and Documents, ed. Alfred Soman, 64.
 Palmer, “Ireland and English Foreign Policy in the 1570s,” 94-95.
 Dickens, “The Elizabethans and St. Bartholomew,” 62.
 Kingdon, Myths About the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacres, 1572-1576, 135.
 Thomas Timme, trans., The three Parts of Commentaries Containing the Whole and Perfect Discourse of the Civill Warres of Fraunce, Under the Raignes of Henry the Second, Frances the Second, and of Charles the Ninth, With an Addition of the Cruell Murther of the Admirall Chastilion and Divers Other Nobles Committed the 24th Day of August Anno 1572 (London: Henry Middleton, 1574), 4:15; Jaques Auguste De Thou, Histoire es Choses Arrivees de son Temps, in Readings in European History, ed. J.H. Robinson (Boston: Ginn, 1906), 2:180-183.
 Eire, Reformations, 540.
 Lisa Ferraro Parmelee, “Printers, Patrons, Readers, and Spies: Importation of French Propaganda in Late Elizabethan England,” The Sixteenth Century Journal 25, no.4 (1994): 856.
 John Foxe, Actes and Monuments, (London: John Day, 1576), 2001.
 Parmelee, “Printers, Patrons, Readers, and Spies: Importation of French Propaganda in Late Elizabethan England,” 872.
 David Eltis, The Military Revolution in Sixteenth-Century Europe (London: I.B. Tauris 1998), 108.