St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572

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A post by Professor Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary in California reminded me that this is the week when the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre occurred in 1572. Dr. Clark writes:

One of the great paradoxes of the history of Reformed theology is that “Calvinism” is often pictured as marching across Europe and the British Isles with Nazi-like efficiency….

I do want to remind us, however, that the Reformed faith was confessed by French, Dutch, and English Christians at considerable cost. Many of them confessed the faith all the way to a martyr’s death. Some of us seem to be all too willing to cast aside that for which our brothers and sisters paid with their blood, whether it is the doctrine of justification sola fide or the regulative principle of worship (i.e. sola Scriptura). Those Reformed folk who died in the frenzy of anti-Protestant violence did not die singing cheap and tawdry choruses. If their tongues were not cut out, they died singing the psalms. It’s fashionable now for trendy, lightweight, wanna-be theologians to tell us that we have to move past the old conflicts and especially the Reformation.

(click image to enlarge) “Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre” by Francois Dubois, a Huguenot painter (b. 1529). Although Dubois did not witness the massacre on the night of August 24, 1572, he depicts Coligny’s body hanging out of a window at the rear to the right. Admiral of France (though he was never in naval command) and leader of the Huguenots, had been shot at the street on the 22nd August. He was dragged from his bed, killed and cast from his window into the courtyard below. To the left rear, Catherine de’ Medici is shown emerging from the Louvre to inspect a heap of bodies.  The illustration seems to attempt to combine both happenings.

It is also ironic that evangelicals today all too easily say that many Reformed practices such as infant baptism and liturgical worship are Catholic, while not even realizing that most of their own basic doctrines of justification come straight from the Catholic Council of Trent. If you want to see that I’m not exaggerating, see this article “Does one become a believer by his own decision?”

What was this day all about? Read below the horrible events surrounding this day back in 1572. The article below is reprinted by permission from S. M. Houghton, Sketches from Church History (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 1980), 129-33.

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As in the case of England, religious affairs in l6th-Century France were closely linked with the occupant of the throne. When Lutheran teachings began to enter France the king was Francis I. He was three years younger than Henry VIII of England and in character very similar to him. Like Henry he took pride in patronizing men of letters, though probably he paid little attention to the learned Jacques Lefevre who has been called “the father of the French Reformation.” At first Francis I regarded the Reformation as a struggle of mind against a very conservative Church, but he had no real sympathy with Protestant teachings and his outlook was far from spiritual.

In 1516 for political reasons he made a Concordat with the Pope, and before long, Frenchmen who leaned towards Luther, and later towards Calvin, knew that their lives were imperilled. In our chapter on Calvin it was mentioned that the Genevan reformer, himself a Frenchman, dedicated his Institutes to Francis I in the hope that persecution might be averted. But as Lutheran teachings gained adherents Francis became the more furious and many were burned at the stake. By 1545 thousands had been killed or sent to the galleys, and twenty-two towns and villages had virtually been destroyed.

Dying in the same year as Henry VIII —1547— Francis was succeeded on the throne by his son Henry II who had married Catherine de Medici, an Italian. For ten years she bore her husband no children, but subsequently she had seven, of whom three successively were kings of France. Henry II carried on his father’s policy with even more ardour. A special committee of the French Parlement was formed called La Chambre Ardente (the Burning Chamber) from the number of its victims. To escape, not a few fled to Geneva which became thronged with refugees. Young men of courage, trained in Geneva, often returned to France at the risk of their lives to distribute books and tracts. “Send us wood,” Calvin had said to his fellow-countrymen, “and we will send you back arrows.” He meant, of course, that in Geneva men would be trained to spread Reformation doctrine effectively.

The French king fought back by forbidding pedlars to sell books. Unlettered persons were forbidden to discuss religious matters at home or at work or among neighbours. Printers were regularly visited by government agents. All packages entering France from beyond the frontiers were inspected. Nevertheless Reformation work and witness continued, secretly when necessary, publicly where the king’s authority was weak. In 1559 Henry II met his death at a tournament, his temple being pierced by a lance which he failed to avoid.

From about the year 1560 French Protestants were known as Huguenots. Their name and their creed alike came from Geneva. Certain Genevan patriots were known as Eidgenossen, or Confederates, and this name seems to have been transferred to French refugees in that city. From them it spread speedily throughout France. Not that the Huguenots were evenly distributed. Their chief strength lay in the area bounded on the North by the River Loire, and by the Rivers Rhone and Saône on the East, with Normandy and Dauphiné as outposts. Socially they had numerous followers among the lesser nobility, tradesmen, and professional men in the lower middle class. Very few of the great noblemen joined them and similarly the mass of the peasantry remained solidly Catholic. Paris itself, influenced by its famous university—it had 65 colleges—and its great religious houses, remained a papal stronghold.

The death of Henry II brought his son to the throne as Francis II, a youth of sixteen, who had married Mary Queen of Scots. Before long, however, he died of a disease of the ear, and was replaced by his brother Charles IX, a boy of ten. Catherine de Medici, his mother, then became Regent of France. At the time of her husband Henry II’s death she had been left with a family of five children, and was determined to protect their interests against the Guises on the one hand and the Bourbons on the other. The Bourbons had married into the important House of Navarre, a kingdom on the frontier with Spain, and were represented by their Prince Henry, a friend of Coligny and a Huguenot, though not a man of deep religious convictions.

Shortly after 1560 a period of religious wars, which lasted on and off for thirty years, set in for France. Into the details of these wars we cannot here enter, but we concentrate attention on the lights and shadows of the period. At the centre of action was Catherine de Medici, and although at the beginning she seemed to wish to maintain a balance of power between Protestant and Catholic forces, it soon became clear that her ultimate aim was to crush the Huguenots.

Admiral Gaspar de Coligny

˜We must follow Jesus Christ, our Captain, who has marched before us. Men have stripped us of all they could—solely through the hatred they bear toward us because it has pleased God to make use of me to aid His Church.”

Craftily she hit upon a plan to gain her object. To cement a treaty between the two parties, she proposed that the Catholic Princess Margaret, the sister of king Charles IX, should be given in marriage to Henry de Bourbon, the new Huguenot king of Navarre. All the notables of the land were invited to Paris where the marriage was to take place. Among them was Admiral Gaspar de Coligny. The Huguenots were not aware of the trap that was being set for them.

Before the festivities which followed the wedding were over, there occurred one of the most hideous crimes recorded in history. The date was St. Bartholomew’s Day, 24 August, 1572. On the evening of that day Catherine went to her son, the king, and told him that the Huguenots had formed a plot to assassinate the royal family and the leaders of the Catholic party, and that, to prevent the utter ruin of their house and cause, it was absolutely necessary to slay all Protestants within the city walls. Catherine had prepared a document to this effect and she presented it to the king for signature, in order to make it an official document.

The weak-minded king at first refused to contemplate such a dreadful crime against a section of his subjects, but finally, he yielded and exclaimed, “I consent, but, then, not one of the Huguenots must remain alive in France to reproach me with the deed, and what you do, do quickly.”

The Paris mob was to be given a free hand; only Henry of Navarre, the bridegroom on the occasion, was to be spared. At midnight, the castle bell tolled; this was the signal for the horrible butchery to begin. Coligny was one of the first victims. When the hordes appeared and stormed his house, he realized what was about to happen. “Friends, said he to his companions, “Flee and save your lives. I for one am ready to die, and I trust myself to God’s mercy.” Some of his friends escaped.

Thirsting for blood the crowd faced the calm, dignified Admiral, a young man taking the lead. “Are you Coligny?” he asked. “I am he” was the response; “young man, reverence my grey hairs.” A stab with a sabre was the answer. Mortally wounded, the body was hurled to the pavement in response to the command that came from the courtyard below. While Coligny’s dead body lay there, Henry of Guise stooped down, looked at the Admiral, and said, “I recognize him; it is he himself.” Then, kicking the gentle face, he went out, gaily encouraging his followers. “Come, soldiers, take courage, we have begun well. Let us go on to find others, for so the king commands.”

The body of the Huguenot leader was treated shamefully. The head was cut off and carried to Catherine and Charles. It was afterwards embalmed and sent to Rome as a present for Pope Gregory XIII. The hands were also cut off and for three days the trunk was dragged about the streets of Paris by a band of brutal youths. For three days and nights the massacre continued within the city. Thousands were put to death. Orders were issued to the cities of France to purge themselves of heretics. In many places this decree was disobeyed, but in others it was carried out, and frightful massacres took place.

Philip II of Spain received the news with undisguised joy, for the massacres agreed with his own line of policy. Queen Elizabeth of England expressed disapproval but decided not to quarrel with France because of her dread of Spain. Pope Gregory XIII was so overjoyed that he commanded a salute to be fired, all the church bells to be rung, and a grand Te Deum to be sung. For three nights Rome was illuminated. The Pope also had a medal struck in honour of the victory of the Church. It included an angel carrying a sword and a cross. But, says the famous French statesman Sully, the outrage was followed by twenty-six years of disaster, carnage and horror.

Related posts:

The Tragic Aftermath of the First Protestant Thanksgiving Service

Waldensians: Medieval Reformers

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