What was the impact of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572) on France

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The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) was one of the bloodiest episodes in Early Modern French history. It marked a turning point in the Religious Wars that devastated France from the 1560s to 1590s. The impact of the massacres was profound. They are generally acknowledged to have changed the course of French history and initiated a new and bloody chapter in the Wars of Religion. The massacre began a series of events that changes the Huguenots, weakened the French monarchy. The massacre will also be shown to have failed to have achieved its objectives and instead of ending the war, prolonged it.

Painting of the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre


France had become increasingly divided between Catholics and Protestants in the decades prior to the massacres. The massacre can only be understood, within the context of French politics and the deep religious hatreds of the times. France had been greatly weakened after the early death of King Henry II in a jousting accident in 1559. This led to a period of profound instability in France, Henry IIs sons all proved to be weak and incompetent rulers. Francis II (1559-60), Charles IX (1560-74), and Henri III (1574-89), were either under the influence of their ambitious mother, Catherine De Medici or various noble families. The country at the same time saw a rapid increase in the number of Protestants. These flourished despite often brutal persecution from the Church and State. Many Huguenots as the French Protestants became known hoped to turn the realm into a Protestant kingdom[1]. The Huguenots were followers of Jean Calvin and they believed that they were the ‘elect’ and that they were destined to be saved, unlike their Catholic neighbors. The Huguenots soon established churches all over France, but they were particularly strong in the South of France. Soon Huguenots and Catholics were living in separate and mutually hostile communities. The Protestant and the Catholic factions were led by nobles. The Catholics were led by the Guise family, who believed that the Huguenots were heretics that should be exterminated [2]. The Huguenots by the Admiral Coligny and Henri of Navarre. Violence became common and sectarian massacres became a feature of French life. The Guise family ignited the First war of religion in 1562 when they massacred Protestant worshippers and it lasted until 1564, in a stalemate. There were two more wars the second in (1567-68) and the third (1568-70), they were all bloody stalemates. These wars were marked by massacres and an endless cycle of sectarian violence. Law and order broke down and bandits roamed the countryside freely. The French king was largely powerless to stop the violence and the wars[3]. By 1572 the Huguenots had been able to establish themselves as a powerful force in France, to the disgust of many Catholics. Despite the official end of the third war of religion, the sectarian violence was ongoing and religious rioting was the norm. The French Kings were too weak to either stop the violence or crush the Huguenots. The situation was greatly complicated by the growing power and ambitions of the Guise family and their faction. The French Royal Family were fearful of the growing power of the Guise faction and as a result was keen not to allow them to become too powerful.

The Massacre

After the third war of religion, king Charles IX or more likely his advisors in order to bring peace to France arranged a marriage between, the Huguenot leader Henri of Navarre and Margaret of Valois, the sister of King Charles IX, in 1572. </ref> Smither, James."The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre and Images of Kingship in France: 1572-1574." The Sixteenth Century Journal (1991): 27-29</ref>. They were married in Paris' at the Cathedral of Notre Dame cathedral. A week of celebrations followed in the wake of the marriage and many Protestant nobles and leaders attended these sumptuous festivities. Catherine de Medici, wanted the support of the Huguenots as she became very suspicious of the Duke of Guise’ intentions. The monarchy, also hoped that this marriage alliance of Valois and Bourbon would help to heal sectarian hatred and end a decade of civil war. Nevertheless, religious tensions remained high. The Catholic clergy had warned that the marriage would provoke the wrath of God on France. Many Catholics feared Huguenot influence at the court and that this would involve France in wars in the Netherlands and Spain. There was an attempt to assassinate the French Protestant leader, Coligny and this lead to an increase in tensions and many Huguenots blamed the Queen Mother, Catherine De Medici. This is highly unlikely. However, the Huguenots reaction drove the Royal family and the Guise family together out of fear of the Huguenots, they decided to launch a preemptive attack. The Royal Council ordered the militia to mobilize and to detain or kill the Protestant leadership. In the early, morning the Royal Guard killed Coligny and other Protestant leaders[4]. Some more leaders, such as Henri of Navarre were detained. The actions of the Royal Guard inspired Catholic mobs to form and they attacked and murdered any Protestant they could find. There had been no plan for a general massacre of Huguenots but events seemed to have spiraled out of control. Catholic mobs murdered Huguenots in many horrific ways and paraded the bodies through the streets[5]. The King ordered the violence to stop but the bloodshed continued for another week. The news of the massacre prompted Catholics in other cities and towns to murder Huguenots. The violence did not end until several weeks later. Many Huguenots only escaped because of the bravery of their Catholic neighbors. The exact number of Huguenots killed in the massacres that swept France in the Autumn of 1572 will never be known[6]. There were exaggerated reports by both sides. Modern research has shown that up to 10,000 Huguenots were killed during the massacres and that 5,000 of these were killed in Paris. The news of the massacres shocked Protestant Europe, on the other hand across Catholic Europe there was widespread celebrations at the news. The Pope ordered the bells to be rung in Rome to commemorate the joyous news of the massacre of heretics in Paris and elsewhere in France.

Painting of the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre

Failure of the Massacre

Those behind the conspiracy had not premeditated the mass murder of Protestants. They had simply seized an opportunity offered to them by the wedding of Henry of Navarre and Charles X sister [7]. The Huguenot community was agitated by the attempted assassination of Coligny and the Guise faction appeared to have used this to persuade the Royal family to participate in their plan. The Guise plan was to kill or arrest the Huguenot leadership not a wholesale massacre of Protestants. If the French Huguenot leaders such as Conde, Coligny and Henry Navarre were eliminated or detained, it was expected that the French Protestant cause would be at least weakened or even fatally wounded [8]. The Duke of Guise persuaded Catherine de Medici, the Queen Mother of the benefits of his plan and she used her considerable influence on her son, the king to agree to the plan. The plan at first went well. The plotters were able to kill or imprison all their targets and it seemed that the Huguenot party was left leaderless. The Parisian mob, whipped up by fiery Catholic preachers attacked the Huguenot population of the city[9]. This had not been foreseen by the planners and was not wanted by them. The King tried to stop the violence but it took a full week before the royal guard restored order in the city. The violence spread to other cities and towns, and the Guise faction hoped that the Huguenots would be annihilated. This was not the case. The Huguenots were more determined than ever to fight for their religion. Despite the fact that, their leadership was either killed or imprisoned they were still well-organized and well-led[10]. The Huguenots still have many strongholds and a formidable army. They also had the support of foreign Protestants. The massacres did not fundamentally weaken the French Protestant cause as expected. This was borne out when French Catholic army attacked Huguenot strongholds. They laid siege unsuccessfully to several French Protestant strongholds. After two years of fighting the Catholics had not achieved any of their objectives and the fourth religious war was another stalemate. By 1594 a peace agreement was thrashed out and although the Huguenots lost some privileges and rights they had survived the Catholic onslaught. It could be argued that the French monarchy was weakened by its ill-advised participation in the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre as they had alienated the Huguenots and they became ever more dependent on hardline Catholics[11].

Weakened Huguenot Cause

The massacres greatly weakened the Huguenot cause. The entire leadership of the French Protestants was either killed or arrested. The loss of Admiral Coligny was a particular blow to the French Protestant cause. The Huguenots were all but leaderless for some time. Then the remaining leaders were badly divided among themselves. The Bourbon Prince Henri of Navarre was given a choice during the massacre, this was to convert to Catholicism or to die[12]. Henri agreed and this saved his life and when he later rejoined the Protestant cause he was a divisive figure whom many did not trust. Then there was a dramatic change in the distribution of French Protestants in the country. Prior to the massacres, the Huguenots had a presence in nearly all of France, after the massacre of St Bartholomew this was no longer the case[13]. Increasingly the Huguenots were forced back into their strongholds in the south and the west. Many Huguenots from elsewhere in France made their way to Protestant strongholds for safety during the massacres in the autumn of 1572. Then there was a large number of abjurations. These were cases when Huguenots renounced their faith and swore to recognize Catholicism as the one and true religion. Reports at the time suggest that several thousand Protestant abjured their faith in Paris alone[14]. Many of those who abjured their Protestant faith did so in order to save their lives. They were forced to abjure their faith at the point of the sword or after torture. However, for the majority of the Huguenot population, the massacre proved to them that there could be no compromise with the Catholics or the king. Many Huguenot preachers denounced the Catholic Church as the Anti-Christ and called for an unending struggle against it. The Massacres made the French Protestants more committed to their struggles. As a result, the war became even bloodier and more brutal[15]. The religious wars that followed the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre became even bloodier and the rules of war no longer applied to the conflict. The Huguenots knew that they faced extermination if they were defeated in the religious wars and this prolonged the conflict. After the St Bartholomew Day’s massacre, France was to suffer a series of religious wars until 1598[16].

Contemporary woodcut of the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre


The St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre resulted in the death of up to 10,000 people. It changed the nature of the religious war in France. The wars became more vicious after the massacre the numbers of people killed rose greatly This reflected the sectarian hatreds unleashed by the massacres. The massacre was intended to end the war or at least to weaken the Huguenot cause. The massacre did weaken the French Protestants but they rallied and fought fiercely. This is because after the massacre they knew that defeat meant extermination. They were also decidedly more militant and less willing, to compromise. The massacre did not end the war as expected by Guise and others it only managed to prolong the war. From a strategic point of view, the massacre was a complete failure. The religious wars dragged on until 1598 and by the time some historians based on parish records believe that some three million people died as a direct and indirect consequence of the sectarian conflicts[17].


  1. Barbara B. Diefendorf, The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre: A Brief History with Documents (Faber, London, 2008), p. 67, 89</re>
  2. Diefendorf, p. 45
  3. Dienfendorf, p. 75
  4. Diefendorf, p. 75
  5. Smithers, p. 31
  6. Dienfendorf, p. 75
  7. Sutherland. M. The Massacre of St. Bartholomew and the European conflict, 1559-1572 (Longman, London, 1973), p. 134
  8. Dienfendorf, p. 115
  9. Sutherland, p 116
  10. Sutherland, p. 117
  11. Dienfendorf, p. 95
  12. Fernández-Armesto, A and Wilson, D. Reformation: Christianity and the World 1500 – 2000 (Bantam Press, London, 1996) 236-37
  13. Sutherland, p. 212
  14. Dienfendorf, p. 145
  15. Fernández-Armesto, and Wilson, p. 237
  16. Fernández-Armesto, and Wilson, p. 229
  17. Dienfendorf, p. 155