One of the most infamous events in all of French history is the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, during which French Catholics, with apparent royal backing, slaughtered thousands of Huguenots (French Protestants) in the streets of Paris. That horrible event is at the center of Alexandre Dumas’ novel La Reine Margot (published in 1845), which was adapted for the screen as Queen Margot (1994, dir. Patrice Chéreau, French with English subtitles).
The Massacre as It Happened
When the French king Henry II died in 1559, he left behind four minor sons and a widow, Catherine de Medici, who acted as regent. It was Catherine’s tragedy to watch three of her sons become king and die without heirs. Francis II died at age 16 after reigning only one year, and was succeeded by Charles IX, his ten year brother, who reigned for 14 years but died without a legitimate son in 1574. He was succeeded by his brother, the probably homosexual Henry of Anjou, who ruled as Henry III until his death in 1589, likewise dying without heirs.
Charles has often been depicted as a weak king, but that may be unfair. He took direct control of the kingdom when he was 13, but looked to his mother for guidance his entire reign, which makes sense given that by the end of it, he was still only 24.
And Charles was ruling during a period of extreme political tensions. France was torn by the Protestant Reformations, divided into hard-core Catholics and Huguenots, who were followers of Jean Calvin. The Catholics were led by the House of Guise, while the Huguenots were led by the House of Bourbon. In between was a faction known as the Politiques, who were Catholics and Protestants who wanted to find a way for the two rival faiths to co-exist peacefully. Members of both factions sat on the Royal Council, and Charles and his mother had to find a way to navigate the competing demands of these two groups. As Catholics, they naturally sympathized with the House of Guise, but they did not want to make the Guises politically dominant by relying on them too much, and so Charles entrusted a good deal of power to Gaspard de Coligny, the Admiral of France and leader of the Huguenots. And to keep Coligny from growing too powerful, Charles and Catherine relied heavily on Henry of Anjou, Charles’ younger brother, as a counterbalance.
Catherine de Medici
Sadly, Charles’ reign was marred by a series of civil wars, conspiracies, and political assassinations. Coligny took over as Huguenot leader after the murder of Louis, Prince of Condé, while Duke Henry of Guise loathed Coligny for orchestrating the murder of his father. Catherine was rumored to have poisoned Jeanne of Navarre, mother of the Huguenot Henry of Navarre, with a pair of poisoned gloves. Both Francis II and Charles IX had been the target of Huguenot kidnapping plots, and at one point, the Guises had orchestrated a slaughter of Huguenots during a worship service. Coligny narrowly survived an assassination plot.
When the Third War of Religion was brought to an end with the Treaty of Saint-Germain, which Charles and Catherine seem to have arranged in good faith, it made sense to try to bring the two warring factions together with a marriage. The proposal was to marry the Huguenot leader Henry of Navarre to Charles’ sister Marguerite. The Treaty granted Huguenots freedom of conscience and the right to worship everywhere across France, so a mixed-religion marriage would act as a reasonable symbol of that treaty. So on April 18, 1572, with large numbers of Huguenots visiting the Catholic stronghold of Paris, Henry and Marguerite were married.
Henry of Navarre
Unfortunately the marriage was ill-conceived. Charles and Catherine were trying to walk a tight-rope between angry Catholics and suspicious Huguenots. There were enormous amounts of bad blood and mistrust on both sides. (Imagine trying to end World War II by marrying one of FDR’s daughters to Adolf Hitler. That’s how much Catholics and Huguenots disliked each other.) Catholics were appalled that Charles would re-admit Coligny to the Royal Council when the Admiral had just been fighting him a few weeks before. European society had not yet developed the notion that Protestants and Catholics could live together; both sides insisted that the other side was wrong, was going to Hell, and did not deserve political or civil rights because they were religiously in error. Additionally, many Huguenots had begun to reject the idea of monarchy entirely and had called for the overthrow of the monarchy or at least the ruling family. On the other side, the Catholic bishop Simon Vigor had been calling for the deaths of Huguenots from Paris pulpits for some time. So the Parisian population was deeply unhappy to suddenly be hosting literally thousands of Huguenots in their midst for the wedding.
Henry and Marguerite
And then, four days later, someone shot Coligny, seriously wounding him. The identity of the assassin is known, but historians have never been able to definitively prove who was behind the assassination attempt. Many have speculated that Catherine was afraid that Coligny’s rising influence over her son would mean the end of her political power, but the most likely suspect was one of the Guises; the assassin was a client of the Guises and had taken his shot from the window of a house owned by them; Charles certainly thought they were the guilty party. Coligny survived the attempt on his life, but it ratcheted up the tensions in the city enormously.
Two nights later, the municipal government of Paris was ordered to shut the gates of the city and arm the citizenry, and in the early hours of St. Bartholemew’s Day, the bells of Saint-Germain rang out. The palace guard of the Louvre forced the visiting Huguenot nobles to leave the palace. Henry of Guise forced his way into Coligny’s house with a band of men, dragged him from his bed, killed him, and threw his corpse out the window. That was the trigger for an orgy of violence that lasted three days. Although the target of the violence seems to have initially been the Huguenot nobility, the general population of the city soon turned their wrath on their commoner Huguenot neighbors, slaughtering men, women, and children. The bodies were thrown in the Seine.
Francois Dubois’ depiction of the Massacre; note Coligny’s body hanging out a window in the background
Marguerite reportedly saved Navarre and a cousin of his by sheltering them in her bedroom and refusing to allow anyone in. Afterwards, he feigned willingness to convert to Catholicism until he was able to get away from Paris, at which point he renounced the notion of a conversion. (Decades later he would actually convert in order to inherit the French crown. Paris, he is reported to have said, “is worth a mass.”)
As the violence spread the following day, Charles frantically tried to stop the killing, to no avail. He sent letters out across the kingdom in an effort to stop the violence from spreading, but as word of the killing spread, at least a dozen French cities experienced their own massacres.
Exactly how many died in the massacre is unknown. Estimates range from 2,000 to 70,000, but the figures generally used today put the deaths in Paris in the 2-3,000 range and nationally in the 7-10,000 range.
The massacre was a profound blow to the Huguenots. They had lost many of their most prominent leaders in the slaughter, and tens of thousands of them had converted to Catholicism out of fear. Many fled the country entirely. Protestant countries were appalled at the carnage, and the Massacre became a rallying cry for opposition to Catholicism across the Protestant world. Pope Gregory XIII was so overjoyed that he ordered a special mass of thanksgiving, sent Charles a golden rose, and issued a commemorative medal. He also commissioned a trio of murals that are still in the Vatican today.
Giorgio Vasari’s depiction of the Massacre; note Coligny’s body falling out a window
Who Ordered the Massacre?
While it’s easy to guess the basic reason the Massacre happened, there’s been a good deal of argument over who ordered it. Well into the 19th century, blame for the Massacre was usually placed on the shoulders of Catherine. She was widely viewed as a domineering schemer who completely controlled her weak-willed son. The wedding was sometimes viewed as a plot to lure the Huguenots into Paris so that they could be slaughtered. In this view, Catherine was vicious, power-hungry, and ruthlessly determined to impose Catholicism. According to a letter attributed to Henry of Anjou, when Catherine finally forced Charles to accept the killing of the Huguenot leadership, he said that if they were going to kill the leaders, it was necessary to kill all the Huguenots, so that he would not have to listen to them accusing him of the crime.
Henry of Anjou, the future Henry III
Early modern historians tended to take a very negative view of women exercising political power. While Queen Elizabeth I of England (a younger contemporary of Catherine) was able to win the admiration of scholars, they were more likely to point to women as unacceptably ambitious and ruthless, the way Catherine was, or as overly sexual and swayed by bad men, as Mary of Scotland was. The notion that female rulers were simply trying to govern while having to overcome obstacles arising from their gender was rarely considered. Instead, their failings were viewed as evidence the women ought not to be involved in politics.
However, that letter of Anjou’s was proven to be a fake in the mid-19th century, and since the collapse of the ‘Evil Catherine’ scenario, alternative views have been put forward. Charles has been accused of orchestrating the killing out of fear that the Huguenots were planning to overthrow him after the attack on Coligny. In favor of this claim is the fact that when Charles sought to end the killing, he issued a decree that said he had taken action to prevent a Protestant plot.
Robert Knecht has argued that the failed attempt on Coligny’s life threw the royal court into a panic. Charles and his council concluded that a Fourth War of Religion was inevitable and decided that the best option was to kill all the Huguenot leaders right away in an attempt to avert the war by killing those who would be leading it. There were 4,000 Huguenots soldiers sleeping outside the city, so if violence broke out, the Huguenots might be able to seize control of Paris. Again, that fits with the royal decree Charles issued. But it doesn’t explain why Catherine initially denounced the killings.
However, a recent theory put forward by Thierry Wanegffelen offers a more complex explanation of the events, especially when combined with Knecht’s views. As Wanegffelen sees it, Catherine and Charles opposed taking any action against the Huguenots after the attempt on Coligny’s life. However, Anjou saw this as an opportunity to advance his power and made an arrangement with Henry of Guise to orchestrate the killings of the Huguenot leadership. Wanegffelen points out that during the slaughter, Anjou’s men claimed to be acting under his authority, not the king’s. Catherine initially denounced the killings, but then realized that she was in danger of ruining Anjou, whose support she needed against Guise. So then Charles took credit for the killings as a way to cover up his brother’s role in it. However, after things had settled down somewhat, Catherine worried that Henry was becoming too powerful and found various ways to get him out of Paris.
Duke Henry I of Guise
This explains the start of the Massacre, but does not explain why it grew so large and resisted Charles’ efforts to stop it. To explain that, we have to turn to the religious tensions and the systematic efforts to demonize the Huguenots made by men like Bishop Vigor. It has also been suggested that there may have been an economic dimension to the killing; the Huguenots tended to be somewhat wealthier craftsmen than the average resident of the city.
The Massacre in the Film
The film opens with the wedding of Henry of Navarre (Daniel Auteuil) and Margot, as she’s called in the film (Isabelle Adjani); Margot is so reluctant to marry a Huguenot that when she is asked during the ritual if she marries him, she hesitates so long that Charles gives her a violent shove.
Isabelle Adjani as the reluctant bride Margot
The wedding celebrations that follow play like a very tension-packed episode of Reign, with lots of flirting between young men and women and open discussion of the various affairs the nobles are having. Margot’s lover is Henry of Guise (Miguel Bosé), and she vastly prefers him over her new Protestant husband, so much so that she tells Navarre not to come to her room on her wedding night. When Navarre show up anyway, he tells her that he needs her as his ally, because he knows he is among enemies. She reluctantly agrees that she will not be his enemy, but she will not sleep with him. Instead, she and her handmaiden, Duchess Henriette of Nevers (Dominique Blanc) sneak out into the streets of Paris to find a lover for her. She finds Leyrac de la Mole (Vincent Perez), a Huguenot who bumps uglies with her in an alleyway.
Given that the novel was written in the 19th century, it is not surprising that it adopts a fairly old-fashioned view of who caused the Massacre. Catherine de Medici (Virna Lisi, with a wonderfully high plucked forehead) is a veritable gorgon, totally dominating her weak son Charles IX (Jean-Hughes Anglade), who is played as virtually insane in his emotional instability. (Given how fiercely he chews scenery when he’s onscreen, it’s a wonder there aren’t holes in the walls.) Catherine has a vaguely incestuous relationship with Henry of Anjou (Pascal Greggory), which is unlikely, given Henry’s strong penchant for young men. Both Charles and Anjou are styled with long, stringy hair (totally wrong for the fashions of the day) and sickly pallors, as if to suggest that Catherine has infected her sons with her malice. Henry of Guise at one point accuses Margot of having had sex with one of her brothers.
Lisi and Greggory as Catherine and Henry of Anjou
Perhaps it plays better in Dumas’ book, but in the film, Catherine’s schemes are malevolent but somewhat ill-formed. Rather than having an overarching plan, she lurches from evil scheme to evil scheme as if she’s making it up moment by moment. She insists that she wants peace with the Huguenots, but she also wants Coligny (Jean-Claude Brialy) dead because she realizes that Charles is coming to see Coligny as a father figure and that means she will lose power. So she is behind the assassination attempt against him, having apparently not stopped to consider the impact killing Coligny would have on prospects for peace.
When it becomes clear that Coligny has survived and the Huguenots are on the verge of rioting, Catherine and Anjou browbeat Charles into authorizing the massacre, forgetting that peace was the original goal. Charles remarks that if they are going to kill the leaders, they must kill them all, so that he will not have to listen to their accusations; the suggestion is that he fears he will hear voices.
Anglade’s pathetic Charles
So Guise, acting as much out of sexual rivalry with Navarre as anything else, goes out to find men willing to do the dirty work. One of the villains he recruits is Coconnas (Claudio Amendola). When the bells finally ring, Guise, Anjou and Coconnas run rampant.
The Massacre sequence is a tour de force of panic, chaos, and violence. Whereas in reality, the Louvre was not the site of the killing, in the film, the killing starts there and spirals outward. Huguenots are lined up against the walls and bayoneted, women have their throats slit, and young nobles are dragged to their doom begging for mercy. Confusion reigns as the bewildered Margot runs through the halls, trying to understand what’s happening. It’s a shockingly effective sequence; I first saw this film 20 years ago, and the massacre sequence has always stayed with me.
Here’s the first part of it. Warning: it’s quite bloody.
Then the killing spreads to the streets and soon corpses are lying everywhere. Coconnas seems to revel in the chance to slaughter Huguenots, and Henriette seems almost psychotically amused by the spectacle. Guise bursts into Coligny’s room and throws him from the window still alive (another inaccuracy, because Coligny’s killing seems to have started the violence).
The results of the massacre
Coconnas bursts into la Mole’s bedroom, but la Mole wounds him and flees through a window across the rooftop. As he searches for a safe haven amidst the violence, Coconnas doggedly pursues him, wounding him twice. Eventually, by wild coincidence, la Mole staggers into Margot’s chambers. Recognizing him, she intervenes when Coconnas tries to enter, telling him that at Judgment Day he will be asked to account for his murders and telling him that he will have to kill her to get to his target. Later, however, la Mole staggers back into the street, where he and Coconnas slowly bludgeon each other into unconsciousness and are mistaken for corpses to be carted off.
Margot learns that Navarre has been taken to the king’s chamber, where she finds him a captive, being browbeaten until he agrees to convert, which he does the next day. Again, this distorts the facts, since Margot is said to have protected him (not la Mole) and Navarre did not actually make a public conversion but only promised to.
Auteuil as Henry of Navarre
Overall, the film’s depiction draws heavily on 19th century notions of the event both in terms of who is behind it, what their motives were, and who was doing the killing. Modern historical explanations have tended to emphasize the complexity of the politics over the personalities of Catherine and her sons and have found sociological explanations for why the Massacre grew so out of control. There’s no sense that the general population of Paris were complicit in the killings, or that the violence lasted for three days. The killings seem over by sunrise.
This fits with 19th century notions of history as being primarily driven by Great Men and Bad Women. If historical events are dictated by individuals in positions of power, then it stands to reason that personal motives such as lust for power, insanity, and sibling resentments are primary historical forces. Thanks in no small part to the historical theories of Karl Marx and his followers, historians now tend to accord a much larger role to the widespread sentiments of the general population and are somewhat less inclined to view personality as the basic explanation for everything. But, as I noted, the source material for the film is 19th century, and bringing the film more in line with contemporary historical analysis would probably have changed Dumas’s plot too much.
The film also tends to demonize the Catholics. Although it makes clear that the Huguenots are just as intransigent as their opponents, the film makes no mention of their more ruthless actions, apart from the killing of Guise’ father. Nor does it show any interest in the theological issues of the day; it is enough to say that the Catholics hate the Huguenots and are willing to slaughter them. In fairness though, it’s probably hard to offer an even-handed treatment of the slaughter of thousands of innocent people.
In the next post, I’ll explore the rest of the film.
Want to Know More?
Queen Margot (English Subtitled)is available on Amazon. The novel is available in English there as well, as Queen Margot; Or, Marguerite de Valois – With Nine Illustrations.There’s also a historical biography of Margot and her mother Catherine, The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom, although Nancy Goldstone is not a professional historian.
One good scholarly introduction to 16th century France is Frederic Baumgartner’s France in the Sixteenth Century.A simple introduction to the Massacre is The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre: A Brief History with Documents (Bedford Cultural Editions Series).