Story of Liberty - Charles Coffin

St. Bartholomew

Charles IX. of France is a weak-headed boy, and his mother, Catherine de' Medici, keeps him under her thumb. She is a wily woman.

She hates the Huguenots, and would like to see the last one in France executed or driven from the kingdom. She has a plan for their extermination; yet it is not wholly hers. The Duke of Guise and the Cardinal of Lorraine are knowing to it, and so is the Pope; and all do what they can to put it in execution. They see that the Huguenots are too powerful to be crushed out in battle. They will bring about a truce, lull the Huguenots into serenity by fair speeches, and then crush them by stratagem. Catherine remembers that Henry of Navarre—the boy who drank wine and garlic—and her daughter Marguerite are betrothed. They are not lovers. Very few princes and princesses marry for love. Henry is willing to accept Marguerite, because it will heal, he hopes, the nation's troubles; but Marguerite is a proud-spirited girl, and means to have something to say about her own marriage.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Charles informs Marguerite that she shall marry Henry whether she does or does not like him. Jeanne and Henry come to the Palace of Blois, and Charles and his mother go out to meet them.

"I give Marguerite not only to Henry, but to the Huguenot party," says Charles.

Little do Jeanne and Henry know what is behind these words. "I love you, my dear aunt," he says to Henry's mother.

Charles and Catherine take their leave.

"Do I play my part well?" Charles asks of his mother.

"Yes; but it will be of no use to begin, if you do not go on," Catherine replies.

What sort of going-on will it be? Snell as the world never saw before, nor since.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Catherine cannot do enough for Jeanne and Henry. She bestows rich and costly presents upon them. One of her gifts to the mother is a pair of perfumed gloves. Jeanne wears them, but in a short time is taken sick. The physicians are baffled by her disease; their medicines do no good. She grows rapidly worse, till death ends her sufferings. The physicians, when asked the cause of her death, shake their heads, or whisper the word "Poison."

The mourning for Jeanne is over, and the marriage of Henry and Marguerite is to be celebrated. All of the great men of the realm come to Paris to attend the festivities—all the Huguenot nobles, wearing their rich dresses. Admiral Coligny, an old man, who has led the Huguenot armies to battle, comes to aid in cementing the peace.

"Don't go; you will be assassinated," say his friends.

"I confide in the word of the king."

He believes that Charles will not see him harmed. The Duke of Guise and all the Catholic chiefs are in Paris. There is a whispering between Catherine and the Catholic leaders. What is the meaning of it?

"We will not ask the Huguenots to go into the Church of Notre Dame to attend the marriage; we will have it in the street, before the door, says Charles; and the Huguenots are greatly pleased at his efforts for conciliation.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


A canopy and a platform are erected in front of the church. All Paris is there, every house-top is covered with people, every window occupied. The ladies of the court are richly robed. Drums beat; trumpets sound; the bells fill the air with their clanging; cannon thunder, and the royal procession passes through the streets to Notre Dame. The bride and bridegroom stand before the archbishop.

"Will you take Henry to be your husband?"

Marguerite makes no reply.

"Will you take Henry to be your husband?"

She does not answer, but pouts her lips and tosses her head.

"Will you take Henry to be your husband?"

Never by look, or word, or gesture will she accept him. But she shall, though! That is what her brother Charles determines. He knows that she has a proud spirit; but is the marriage to stop on that account? Not if he can make it go on. He clasps Marguerite's head in his hands, and compels her to nod assent. The archbishop smiles, and the ceremony proceeds, and Margaret is married in spite of herself. Then come feastings, and tournaments, and great rejoicings; for will not this marriage, this; union of the Huguenot and Catholic, heal all the divisions, and give peace to France? The Huguenots hope so. But a messenger came from the Pope a few days ago, and he has an interview with the king.

"What is the meaning of all this friendship for the heretics?" the Pope asks.

"I cannot tell you; but the Pope will soon have reason to praise my zeal," is the reply of Charles.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


The wedding festivities are over. The Huguenot leader, Coligny, makes ready to leave. He calls and pays his respects to the king, leaves the palace, and walks to his quarters. He is reading a letter as the passes along the street. Crack! The blood spurts from his arm and stains the paper. Some one has fired a pistol at him, and the ball has passed through his arm. He looks calmly around, and sees the smoke curling out of a window. People rush in, but no one is there; the assassin has fled. What is the meaning of it? Is there a trap behind all the feasting and rejoicing? The king hastens to console the brave old man.

"The assassin shall be summarily dealt with," says Charles.

The wedding was on Sunday, and it is now Friday. There are mysterious movements among the Catholics. The Huguenots begin to be alarmed. What is the meaning of the whispering?

Saturday afternoon comes. The Duke of Guise, Duke de Retz, and others, are in the king's palace in the Louvre conferring together. Catherine comes into the chamber where they are assembled.

"It must be done to-night. The king must be brought up to issue the order. The Huguenots are leaving."

That is the conclusion of the council. Catherine goes into the king's apartment. She is his mother, has taught hint to obey her. He is twenty-one years old—weak, irresolute.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


"The Huguenots are going to rise against you. They have sent to Germany for ten thousand men, and to Switzerland for ten thousand," she says.

It is a lie; but she can tell a lie quite as easily as she can the truth, when it will serve her purpose.

"You must nip the insurrection in the bud. Coligny is at the bottom of it; you must put him out of the way. If you do not, there will be another civil war."

"I will not have Coligny harmed," Charles replies.

Evening comes. The wax-candles are lighted in the chambers of the palace. Again Catherine enters the king's chamber.

"War is inevitable unless you put Coligny out of the way. Let him be killed, and the rest of the Huguenots will submit."

Charles paces his chamber. He likes the brave old admiral. He has just bidden him a courteous farewell. Shall he turn round and strike him now? In an anteroom is the collector of taxes, Charron, and some of the chief men of Paris, and Count De Tavannes is talking with them in secret.

"You are to put the Huguenot leader, Coligny, out of the way," says Dc Tavannes.

"We cannot do such a deed."

"Not do it! Then you are not the king's friend. If you do not take hold of it, your own necks will be stretched."

That is not a pleasant thought. The king must be in earnest, and they too will be in earnest.

"Ho! ho! That is the way you take it! We swear that we will ,play our hands so well that St. Bartholomew shall from this moment be remembered," they reply.

The collector of taxes and those with him take their departure. It is past midnight. Paris is in slumber. Not all are asleep, however. The Duke of Guise, the Duke of Anjou, Catherine de' Medici, and ruffians, with drawn swords, are awake on this Sunday morning—this Day of St. Bartholomew. At daybreak a bell will toll, and the crushing-out of the Huguenots will begin. The Duke of Guise is nervous, and so is Catherine. So many know of what is about to happen, that they fear the Huguenots will hear of it.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Catherine hastens to Charles's chamber once more. He is sitting in a chair, moody, angry, silent. He has acquiesced in the plan till now; but as the hour for its consummation approaches, is irresolute. It will be so mean to have the old admiral, and others who have confided in his word, assassinated. Poor weakling that he is, there is still left a little of his better nature. The education that he has received from his mother—that the end always justifies the means—the school of falsehood in which he has been taught, has not quite obliterated all sense of what is right and honorable.

"Since you will not have the leader of the Huguenots harmed, since you are bent on having war once more, permit me to retire with your brother to a place of safety."

He has always obeyed her. He is a boy, with no mind of his own. He springs to his feet.

"Do it! do it! Kill him! Kill all the Huguenots in Paris, that none may be left to reproach me! Give the orders at once!" He rushes out of the room, and into his own chamber.

"Strike the bell!"

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


A moment later, and the bell on the church of St. Germain l'Auxerrois begins tolling at half-past one in the morning. The brave old admiral is asleep in his chamber, with his bandaged arm lying upon the counterpane. A Huguenot minister is sitting by his side, and Doctor Ambrose Parr is in a chamber near by.

Boom! boom! boom! The admiral hears the tolling. There is a tramping of feet in the street; men are rushing up the stairway of the hotel. The admiral understands it. His hour has come. He springs from the bed and puts on a dressing-gown.

"Say a prayer for me, my friend. I commit my soul to my Saviour." The doctor comes in.

"What is the meaning of this commotion?" asks the doctor.

"God is calling us. I am ready. Please leave me, and save yourselves."

The minister and the doctor seek safety in flight—upstairs, out upon the roof, reaching another house. The door of the admiral's room bursts open, and ruffians, with spears and swords, rush in.

"Are you the admiral?"

"Young man, I am. You come against a wounded old man. You cannot much shorten my life."

The spear goes into his bosom.

"Oh, if it were only a man! but it is only a horse-boy."

The ruffian beats him over the head. Others enter and plunge their swords into the prostrate form.

"Have you done it?" It is the Duke of Guise calling from the street. "Yes."

"Throw him clown."

The ruffians drag the lifeless body to the window, raise the sash, and throw it out. It falls with a thud upon the ground. The Duke of Guise looks at it. The face is smeared with blood. He wipes it away with a corner of the dressing-gown. "'Tis he, sure enough;" and stamps his heel into the face.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Ah! Duke of Guise, gloating over the form of the noble foe who was ever your equal in the field or in the cabinet, there will come another day. God never forgets!

A soldier severs the head from the body, and takes it to Catherine de' Medici. So the head of John the Baptist was brought to Herod's wife. To whom does Catherine send it? Who of all on earth will be most pleased to receive such a present? Who but the Pope—her uncle! A messenger carries it to Rome, that the Pope may see with his own eyes that the great Huguenot leader is dead.

Bells are tolling in every steeple. Torches glare in the streets. Armed men are rushing frantically from house to house, breaking in doors, rushing into chambers, murdering men and women in their beds, or plunging their swords into their bosoms as they attempt to flee. Muskets are flashing. Charles himself fires upon the panic-stricken fugitives. All through the hours of the summer night the scene of death goes on. Henry Conde and Henry of Navarre are seized and brought before Charles. Catherine does not want them killed. She has other plans.

"I mean to have but one religion in my kingdom. There shall be mass or death. Make your choice." It is Charles who utters it.

"You have promised liberty of conscience to the Huguenots. I will take time to consider it," is the reply of Henry of Navarre.

"As for me, I shall remain firm in my religion though I give my life for it," Henry Conde replies.

You rebel—you son of a rebel, if you do not change your language before three days, I will have you strangled!"

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Of the throng of Huguenot nobles who come to Paris to attend the wedding, all are seized. The Swiss Guards of the Ling are let loose upon them, and all are massacred. There they lie in a heap in the court-yard of the Louvre—two hundred of the noblest men of the kingdom. Charles, Catherine, the ladies of the court, go out and behold then the men with whom they danced three days ago! They gaze upon their ghastly countenances besmeared with blood, and indulge in ribald laughter. So, it is said, the hyenas laugh when they have dug up the bones of the dead, and crunch them beneath their teeth.

Never before was there such a festival of St. Bartholomew. Families are broken up. There are sudden partings, husbands from wives, parents from children, young men from the maidens whom they love, to meet no more, maybe, this side the grave. In the river are thousands of floating corpses—men, women, children. No age or sex is spared.

"Kill the heretics!" It is the cry of the priests and the soldiers. What though fair maidens plead for mercy? What though mothers pray that the lives of their infants may be spared? There is no pity, and the massacre goes on; and not only in Paris, but in the country—in Lyons, Bordeaux, Orleans. Seventy thousand men, women, and children are slaughtered.

The bells of Rome are ringing, and the gulls of St. Angelo thundering; bonfires blaze; and Gregory XIII., attended by cardinals, archbishops, bishops, and a great throng of prelates, march in procession. A Te Deum  is chanted, and the Pope commissions the painter Vasari to paint the scene of the massacre, and employs an artist to engrave a medal commemorative of the event. The preachers in Rome deliver eloquent orations, and a messenger carries a golden rose to Charles as a present from the Pope.

[Illustration] from The Story of Liberty by Charles Coffin


Fifteen months pass. Charles has acted strangely. The Venetian ambassador, Cavilli, makes the king a visit, and writes of his appearance:

"He is melancholy and sombre. He dares not look any one in the face. He drops his head, and closes his eyes. It is feared that the demon of vengeance has taken possession of him. He is becoming cruel."

He grows weak and feeble, and will have no one near him except his nurse. His conscience is awake, and his mind racked with remorse. The screeches of the victims of St. Bartholomew are ringing in his ears. He sees men, women, and children flying through the streets crying for mercy, pursued by blood-thirsty wretches. The air is filled with ghosts; the ground strewed with ghastly corpses.

"Ah, nurse! what blood! what murder! Oh, what evil counsel have I followed!" Then he prays. "O God, forgive me! Have mercy on me!" Despair sets in. "I'm lost! I'm lost!" On July 30th, 1574, he ceases to breathe, and Henry, Duke of Anjou, Catherine's younger son, becomes Henry III., King of France.