The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 24, 1572 is one of the darkest blots on the history of France, staining the name of one of the world’s foremost nations. At that time, according to Rev. James A. Wylie in his History of Protestantism, the Protestant population of France was estimated to be between one half and one quarter of the total population. Wylie’s view is that the lower total is probably the more accurate one. Reformation.org claims that the population of France in 1572 amounted to twenty million people and if that total is accurate, it means there must have been at least five million Protestants, known as Huguenots, a name of somewhat obscure origin.
The massacre in France is reminiscent of the massacre of Irish Protestants that took place in the seventeenth century, known as The 1641 Rebellion. Both massacres were carefully planned and both were aimed at wiping out Protestantism in the different lands. Strangely, the numbers estimated to have been killed in the two campaigns of slaughter are strikingly similar, albeit in both instances widely different estimates have been given for the numbers that lost their lives. One estimate for the St. Bartholomew’s massacre is as low as 10,000 with the highest being 100,000. Wylie reckons about 70,000 lost their lives.
Both massacres were characterized by savage cruelty and treachery practiced against many of the victims. Behind both lay the Church of Rome – indeed in the case of the French, the massacre was plotted by Pope Pius V, who had a fanatical hatred of Protestantism.
In order to understand the enormity of what began on August 24, 1572 (for that was merely the first day of a campaign that lasted two months) we need to trace the rise of the evangelical (Protestant) faith in France.
A professor at the Sorbonne, a college of the University of Paris, Jacques Lefèvre, has been credited with being the father of French Protestantism. Lefèvre was a devout Romanist before God opened his eyes to the glorious truth of Justification by Faith. Let us hear again from the venerable Wylie:
“The man who was the first to emerge from the darkness that covered his native land is entitled to a prominent share of our attention. Lefèvre was in all points a remarkable man. Endowed with an inquisitive and capacious intellect, hardly was there a field of study open to those ages which he had not entered, and in which he had not made great proficiency. Lefèvre, thinking to crown the saints with a fairer and more lasting garland than the perishable flowers he had offered to their images, formed the idea of collecting and re-writing their lives: He had already made some progress in his task when the thought struck him that he might find in the Bible materials or hints that would be useful to him in his work. To the Bible – the original languages of which he had studied – he accordingly turned. The virtues of the real saints dimmed in his eyes the glories of the legendary ones. Having opened the Bible, Lefèvre was in no haste to shut it. He saw that not only were the saints of the Bible unlike the saints of the Roman Calendar, but that the Church of the Bible was unlike the Roman Church. From the images of Paul and Peter, the doctor of Étaples now turned to the Epistles of Paul and Peter, from the voice of the Church to the voice of God. The plan of a free justification stood revealed to him. It came like a sudden revelation – like the breaking of the day. In 1512 he published a commentary, of which a copy is extant in the Bibliothèque Royale of Paris, on the Epistles of Paul. In that work he says, ‘It is God who gives us, by faith, that righteousness which by grace alone justifies to eternal life.'” Wylie adds, “It is important to mark that these occurrences took place in 1512. Not yet, nor till five years later, was the name of Luther heard of in France.”
One of Lefèvre’s first converts was William Farel who later was instrumental in persuading John Calvin to join him in Geneva. This significant step for the Reformation cannot be overestimated. Lefèvre was also responsible for translating the Bible into French, completing the translation of the New Testament on October 12, 1524. The gospel made rapid progress in France, and among those professing conversion was William Briconnet, Bishop of Meaux, a town about 35 miles to the east of Paris. Briconnet became a fervent preacher of the gospel; he removed the Franciscans from the pulpits of his diocese, visited all his parishes and instituted a theological seminary for the training of able ministers of the New Testament. The sister of King Francis I, Margaret of Angouleme, Queen of Navarre, was converted and later in the history of those times we meet with her daughter and successor Queen of Navarre, Jeanne d’Albret. Jeanne d’Albret has been described as “one of the most illustrious women in all history.” She was a woman of fine intellect and wholly committed to the Protestant cause; her son became king of France, bearing the title of Henry IV.
As the gospel spread across France, the Roman Catholic church became greatly alarmed and soon the cry went up that the Bishop of Meaux had become a Protestant and had gathered around him a company of heretics. Sadly, when faced with the prospect of prison, or even death at the stake, the bishop turned back, prayed once more to Mary and the saints, and silenced the Protestant preachers in his diocese. It is very doubtful whether he was ever truly converted.
The first martyrs were a humble Christian named Denis; a young disciple Pavane of Lefèvre; one known as the “Hermit of Livry”; and a wool-comber named Leclerc.
One other person needs to be introduced – Gaspar de Coligny, soldier and admiral. Admiral de Coligny was born in 1517. Wylie says of him:
“He served with great distinction in the wars of Flanders and Italy, was knighted on the field of battle, and returning home in 1547 he married a daughter of the illustrious house of Laval—a woman of magnanimous soul and enlightened piety, worthy of being the wife of such a man, and by whose prompt and wise counsel he was guided at more than one critical moment of his life. At an early age, Coligny was taken prisoner by the Spaniards, and to beguile the solitary hours of his confinement, he asked for a Bible and some religious books. His request was complied with, and from that incident dates his attachment to the Reformed doctrines. But he was slow to declare himself. With Coligny, Protestantism was no affair of politics or of party, which he might cast aside if on trial he found it did not suit. Having put his hand to the plough, he must not withdraw it, even though, leaving castle and lands and titles, he should go forth an outcast and a beggar. For these same doctrines men were being every day burned at the stake. Before making profession of them, Coligny paused, that by reading, and converse with the Reformed pastors, he might arrive at a full resolution of all his doubts. But the step was all the more decisive when at last it was taken. As men receive the tidings of some great victory or of some national blessing, so did the Protestants of France receive the news that Coligny had cast in his lot with the Reformation. They saw in Coligny’s adherence an additional proof of its truth, and a new pledge of its final triumph.”
The greatest persecutor of the Huguenots was Catherine de Medici. She was the niece of Pope Clement VII and when just a girl of fourteen or fifteen she was married to the Duke of Orleans, the second son of Francis I, the French king. When the king died, followed by his successor, her husband ascended the throne as Henry II. He, too, was destined to die young, as was his oldest son, Henry III. The next monarch was Charles IX, Catherine’s second son who was just nine years old when he became king. He was a weak man whom Wylie tells us would, in better times, have become a patron of the arts. His mother was almost completely in control of his life and she was an evil, scheming woman and, like Pius V, had an utter detestation of the gospel. She sent her son to be trained by the Duke of Retz. The character of the duke has been drawn in the following lines: “Cunning, corrupt, a liar, a great dissembler, swearing and denying God like a sergeant.” Dr Wylie adds this assessment of the situation:
“Under such a teacher, it is not difficult to conceive what the pupil would become; by no chance could he contract the slightest acquaintance with virtue or honour. What a spectacle we are contemplating! At the head of a great nation is a woman without moral principle, without human pity, without shame: a very tigress, and she is rearing her son as the tigress rears her cubs. Unhappy France, what a dark future begins to project its shadow across thee!”
The position of the Huguenots became much worse as a result of a massacre in 1562 at Vassy, a town about ten miles from Paris. The Duke of Guise and his army fell upon the people of God at a time when they were engaged in worship. There followed three Huguenot wars and various efforts at securing a lasting peace, without any real success. Finally the great plan was struck upon by which the Huguenots would be eliminated – The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The scheme involved the arrangement of a marriage between Henry (later Henry IV),the son of Jeanne d’Albret, and the sister of Charles IX. The aim was to draw the leading Protestants into Paris and within days have them all killed before embarking on a nationwide slaughter. The Huguenots fell into the trap and Admiral Coligny was barbarously slain along with thousands of others in Paris and in the rest of France – the most reliable estimate thought to be 70,000 as stated.
The massacre did not prove decisive in driving the Huguenots from the land and when Jeanne d’Albret’s son became king he enacted the Edict of Nantes which gave a considerable degree of freedom to Protestants, although far from being perfect. Sadly, Henry, who had been brought up in the Protestant faith, converted to Rome in order to secure his throne. When the Edict of Nantes was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685, many Huguenots left France – some say 400,000 – and settled in Britain, Ireland, Protestant European nations, and America.
As a footnote: Charles IX lived only 21 months after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and is said to have died an agonizing death and to have been tormented on his deathbed by the memory of what he had done to his subjects. Pius V died before the massacre, but the Vatican issued a number of medals celebrating the slaughter.
Rev. Gordon Ferguson, is retired from his pastoral ministry in London England, and is the former principal of the Whitefield College of the Bible. He currently lives in Moira, Northern Ireland.
[We offer our sympathy to Rev. Ferguson on the passing of his beloved wife, Anne, on August 11, 2018. All who knew Anne will testify of her gracious and godly character. May the Lord comfort her family and friends who mourn her loss. As a firm believer in Christ, Anne is now in the presence of her Lord.]