Historical Tales: 6— French - Charles Morris

St. Bartholomew's Day

"Kill! kill! kill!" was the cry in Paris. "Blood! blood! death to the Huguenots!" came from the lips of thousands of maddened murderers. Blood flowed everywhere; men dabbled in blood, almost bathed in blood. A crimson tide flowed in the streets of Paris deep enough to damn the infamous Catherine de' Medici and her confederates. To the crime of assassination on that direful day of St. Bartholomew must be added that of treachery of the darkest hue. Peace had been made between the warring parties. The Protestant chiefs had been invited to Paris to witness the marriage of the young King Henry of Navarre with Marguerite de Valois, sister of the king of France, which was fixed for the 18th of August, 1572. They had been received with every show of amity and good-will. The great Huguenot leader, Admiral de Coligny, had come, confiding in the honor of his late foes, and had been received by the king, Charles IX., with demonstrations of sincere friendship, though the weak monarch warned him to beware of the Guises, his bitter enemies and the remorseless haters of all opponents of the Catholic party.

On the 22nd of August the work of treachery began. On that day a murderous shot was fired at Coligny as he stood by the window of his room engaged in reading a letter. It smashed two fingers of his right hand, and lodged a ball in his left arm. The would-be murderer escaped.

"Here is a fine proof of the fidelity to his agreement of the Duke of Guise," said Coligny, reproachfully, to the king.

"My dear father," returned the king, "the hurt is yours, the grief and the outrage mine; but I will take such vengeance that it shall never be forgotten."

He meant it for the moment; but his mind was feeble, his will weak, himself a mere puppet in the hands of his imperious mother and the implacable Guises. Between them they had determined to rid themselves of the opposing party in the state on the death of the admiral and the other Protestant leaders. Sure of their power over the king, the orders for the massacre were already given when, near midnight of August 24, St. Bartholomew's day, the queen, with some of her leading councillors, sought the king's room and made a determined assault upon the feeble defences of his intellect.

"The slaughter of many thousands of men may be prevented by a single sword-thrust," they argued. "Only kill the admiral, the head and front of the civil wars, and the strength of his party will die with him. The sacrifice of two or three men will satisfy the loyal party, who will remain forever your faithful and obedient subjects. War is inevitable. The Guises on one side, and the Huguenots on the other, cannot be controlled. Better to win a battle in Paris, where we hold all the chiefs in our clutches, than to put it to hazard in the field. In this case pity would be cruelty, and cruelty would be pity."

Duke of Guise


For an hour and a half the struggle with the weak will of the king continued. He was violently agitated, but could not bring himself to order the murder of the guest to whom he had promised his royal faith and protection. The queen mother grew alarmed. Delay might ruin all, by the discovery of her plans. At length, with a show of indignation, she said,—

"Then, if you will not do this, permit me and your brother to retire to some other part of the kingdom."

This threat to leave him alone to grapple with the difficulties that surrounded him frightened the feeble king. He rose hastily from his seat.

"By God's death!" he cried, passionately, "since you think proper to kill the admiral, I consent." With these words he left the room.

The beginning of the work of bloodshed had been fixed for an hour before daybreak. But the king had spoken in a moment of passion and agitation. An hour's reflection might change his mind. There was no time to be lost. The queen gave the signal at once, and out on the air of that dreadful night rang the terrible tocsin peal from the tower of the church of St. Germain l'Auxerrois, the alarm call for which the white-crossed murderers waited.

Quickly the silence of the night was broken by loud cries, shouts of vengeance, the tramp of many feet, the sharp reports of musketry. The work was begun. Every man not marked by a cross was to be slaughtered. The voice of murder broke fearfully upon the peacefulness of the recently quiet midnight hour.

The noise roused Coligny. He rose hastily and threw on his dressing-gown. The cries and shots told him what was going on. He had trusted the faithless Guises and the soulless De' Medici, and this was what came of it.

"M. Merlin," he said to a clergyman who was with him, "say me a prayer; I commit my soul to my Saviour."

Some of his gentlemen entered the room.

"What is the meaning of this riot?" asked Ambrose Paré.

"My lord, it is God calling us," said Cornaton.

"I have long been ready to die," said the admiral; "but you, my friends, save yourselves, if it is still possible."

They left him, and escaped, the most of them by the roof. Only one man stayed with him, Nicholas Muss, a German servant, "as little concerned," says Cornaton, "as if there was nothing going on around him."

The flight had been made barely in time. Hasty footsteps were heard below. The assassins were in the house. In a moment more the chamber door was flung open and two servants of the Duke of Guise entered.

"Art not thou the admiral?" asked one of them, Behme by name.

"Young man," answered Coligny, "thou comest against a wounded and aged man. Thou'lt not shorten my life by much."

Behme's answer was to plunge a heavy boar-spear which he held into the body of the defenceless veteran. Withdrawing it, he struck him on the head with it. Coligny fell, saying,—

"If it were but a man! But it is a horse-boy."

Others rushed into the room and thrust their weapons into the dying man.

"Behme," cried the duke of Guise from the court-yard, "hast thou done?"

"It is all over, my lord," answered the assassin.

The murderers flung the body from the window. It fell with a crash at the feet of Guise and his companions. They turned it over, wiped the blood from the face, and said,—

"Faith, it is he, sure enough!"

Some say that Guise kicked the bleeding corpse in the face.

Meanwhile, murder was everywhere. The savage lower orders of Paris, all, high and low, of the party of the Guises, were infected with the thirst for blood, and the streets of the city became a horrible whirlpool of slaughter, all who did not wear the saving cross being shot down without mercy or discrimination.

The anecdotes of that fatal night and the succeeding day are numerous, some of them pathetic, most of them ferocious, all tending to show how brutal man may become under the inspiration of religious prejudice and the example of slaughter,—the blood fury, as it has been fitly termed.

Téligny, the son-in-law of Coligny, took refuge on a roof. The guards of the Duke of Anjou fired at him as at a target. La Rochefoucauld, with whom the king had been in merry chat until eleven o'clock of the preceding evening, was aroused by a loud knocking upon his door. He opened it; six masked men rushed in, and instantly buried their poniards in his body. The new queen of Navarre had just gone to bed, under peremptory orders from her mother, Catherine de' Medici. She was wakened from her first slumber by a man knocking and kicking at her door, with wild shouts of "Navarre! Navarre!" Her nurse ran to open the door, thinking that it was the king, her lady's husband. A wounded and bleeding gentleman rushed in, blood flowing from both arms, four archers pursuing him into the queen's bedchamber.

The fugitive flung himself on the queen's couch, seizing her in his alarm. She leaped out of bed towards the wall, he following her, and still clasping her round the body. What it meant she knew not, but screamed in fright, her assailant screaming as loudly. Their cries had the effect of bringing into the room M. de Nançay, captain of the guards, who could not help laughing on seeing the plight of the queen. But in an instant more he turned in a rage upon the archers, cursed them for their daring, and harshly bade them begone. As for the fugitive, M. de Leran by name, he granted him his life at the queen's prayer. She put him to bed, in her closet, and attended him until he was well of his wounds.

Such are a few of the anecdotes told of that night of terror. They might be extended indefinitely, but anecdotes of murder are not of the most attractive character, and may profitably be passed over. The king saved some, including his nurse and Ambrose Paré his surgeon, both Huguenots. Two others, destined in the future to play the highest parts in the kingdom, were saved by his orders. These were the two Huguenot princes, Henry of Navarre, and Henry de Condé. The king sent for them during the height of the massacre, and bade them recant or die.

"I mean, for the future," he said, "to have but one religion in my kingdom; the mass or death; make your choice."

The king of Navarre asked for time to consider the subject, reminding Charles of his promised protection. Condé was defiant.

"I will remain firm in what I believe to be the true religion," he said, "though I have to give up my life for it."

"Seditious madman, rebel, and son of a rebel," cried the king, furiously, "if within three days you do not change your language, I will have you strangled."

In three days Charles himself changed his language. Remorse succeeded his insensate rage.

"Ambrose," he said to his surgeon, "I do not know what has come over me for the last two or three days, but I feel my mind and body greatly excited; in fact, just as if I had a fever. It seems to me every moment, whether I wake or sleep, that these murdered corpses appear to me with hideous and blood-covered faces. I wish the helpless and innocent had not been included."

On the next day he issued orders, prohibiting, on pain of death, any slaying or plundering. But he had raised a fury not easily to be allayed. The tocsin of death still rang; to it the great bell of the palace added at intervals its clanging peal; shouts, yells, the sharp reports of pistols and arquebuses, the shrieks of victims, filled the air; sixty thousand murderers thronged the streets, slaying all who wore not the white cross, breaking into and plundering houses, and slaughtering all within them. All through that dreadful Sunday the crimson carnival went on, death everywhere, wagons loaded with bleeding bodies traversing the streets, to cast their gory burdens into the Seine, a scene of frightful massacre prevailing such as city streets have seldom witnessed. The king judged feebly if he deemed that with a word he could quell the storm his voice had raised. Many of the nobles of the court, satisfied with the death of the Huguenot leaders, attempted to stay the work of death, but a report that a party of Huguenots had attempted to kill the king added to the popular fury, and the sanguinary work went on.

It is not known how many were slain during that outbreak of slaughter. It was not confined to Paris, but spread through France. Thousands are said to have been killed in the city. In the kingdom the number slain has been variously estimated at from ten to one hundred thousand. Such was the frightful result of a lamentable event in which religious animosity was taken advantage of to intensify the political enmity of the warring parties of the realm.

It proved a useless infamy. Charles IX. died two years afterwards, after having suffered agonies of remorse. Despite the massacre, the Huguenots were not all slain. Nor had the murder of Coligny robbed them of a leader. Henry of Navarre, who had narrowly escaped death on that fearful night, was in the coming years to lead the Protestants to many a victory, and in the end to become king of France, as Henry IV. By his coronation, Coligny was revenged; the Huguenots, instead of being exterminated by the hand of massacre, had defeated their foes and raised their leader to the throne, and the Edict of Nantes, which was soon afterwards announced, gave liberty of conscience to France for many years thereafter.