As a family, we have been studying the reformation recently. Along with a series of messages by Dr. Joe Morecraft on the Reformation, we have also studied in more detail the London Baptist Confession of 1689, the Westminster Confession of 1646, and various key reformers. As none of these people or events forms in a vacuum, we have also backed up in history to look at people like the Waldenses, John Wycliffe and others. Tonight’s study brought us to look at the French Huguenots in more detail. We read of their spiritual strength and their steadfast faith in the face of fierce Catholic persecution. We came across the story of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Sketches from Church History and were extremely moved by what we read there. What we read reminded me how instrumental trials can be in forging men of sterling character, and it makes me despise the softness and complacency that are the trademarks of our modern society. Below is a brief account from the book of the unbelievable persecution of the Huguenots at the hands of the Catholics:
From the year 1560, the French protestants were known as Huguenots. The chief Huguenot leaders were Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Conde, and Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France. On the Catholic side, members of the Guise family who were related to the king were the chief leaders, particularly, Francis de Guise, and Charles, a Cardinal of the Roman church.
The death of Henry II brought his son to the throne as Francis II, a youth of 16 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 the II’s death, she had been left with a family of five children, and was determined to protect their interest 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 center of action was Catherine de Medici, and although at the beginning she seemed to wish to maintain balance of power between Protestant and Catholic forces, it soon became clear that her ultimate aim was to crush the Huguenots.
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 Coligny. The Huguenots were not aware of the trap that was being set for them. Before the festivities that followed the wedding were over, there occurred one of the most hideous crimes recording in history. The date was Saint 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 the 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 pressed by his mother, 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, August 24, the castle bell tolled; this was the signal for the horrible butchery to begin.
It later became known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 24 August — 17 September 1572, Catholics killed thousands of Huguenots in Paris. Similar massacres took place in other towns in the weeks following, with a total death toll estimated as high as 110,000. An amnesty granted in 1573 pardoned the perpetrators.