The Eve of St. Bartholomew
About four hundred years ago there was a small kingdom, spread over the cliffs and ravines of the western Pyrenees, called Navarre. Its half-million of inhabitants caught fish in the coves of the Bay of Biscay, or trimmed vines upon the sunny slopes of the mountains—an independent, frugal, happy people. In this little kingdom one day in midwinter, 1553, Henry the Fourth, destined to be not only King of Navarre but of all France, was born.
The old King of Navarre, his grandfather, was still alive. He at once assumed entire control of the boy. As soon as the child was born the old man rubbed his lips with a clove of garlic, and made him suck wine out of a golden cup, to make him strong and vigorous. By his command the young prince was brought up in an old castle in the Pyrenees. It was craggy and gloomy, dark firs grew up the hillsides, eagles screamed overhead, a foaming torrent swept by the walls. In this storm-battered castle the future king of France was nurtured as a peasant boy. Bareheaded and barefooted he ran about the mountains, with the mountain lads he climbed cliffs and waded torrents; he lived on brown bread, beef, cheese, and garlic; his face was bronzed by sun and wind.
When he was yet young his grandfather died, leaving his mother Queen of Navarre. Henry was recalled from his mountain home to the palace at Navarre, where his father and mother lived, there to learn the courtly graces which distinguished him through life.
When eight years old Henry was taken to Paris to attend with his parents the wedding of Mary Stuart with Francis, son of the King of France. The boy's vigorous beauty attracted the attention of the king.
"Will you be my son?" he asked, drawing the boy toward him.
"No, sire," cried the boy in his mountain patois. "That is my father," he added, pointing to the King of Navarre.
"Well, then, will you be my son-in-law?" continued the King of France.
"Oh, with all my heart!" answered the sturdy little fellow, and from that time a marriage between Henry of Navarre and Margaret, the little French princess, only four years old at the time, was agreed upon.
It was this marriage that, years afterwards, brought matters to a crisis in France, and was the immediate cause of the massacre of St. Bartholomew. The annals of the world are filled with stories of crime, but this terrible massacre of the Huguenots is, perhaps, without a parallel, the greatest crime recorded in history. The victims were invited to Paris under the guise of friendship and goodwill, received with solemn oaths of peace and protection, to rejoice at the union of Henry and Margaret, only to be murdered in cold blood before those wedding festivities were over.
Now at the close of the sixteenth century all Europe was agitated by the great controversy raging between Protestants and Catholics.
In France the Protestants, locally known as the Huguenots, though not very numerous, were powerful in rank, and were headed by some of the noblest families in France, including the Prince of Conde, Admiral de Coligny, and the House of Navarre.
In 1560, Francis, King of France, died, and his brother Charles, a delicate boy of twelve years old, succeeded to the throne. The government was conducted by his mother, Catherine de Medici, and she, to serve her own ends, determined to crush the Protestants in France and get rid of them altogether.
Now the Queen of Navarre was a Protestant, but the king was a Catholic. As the strife between the parties grew warmer, they agreed to separate, and the king took Henry to Paris with a Protestant tutor. The queen took leave of her son in tears, begging him never to abandon his faith.
Henry's temptations at the French court were very great. Catherine de Medici disliked the boy's energetic spirit and his devotion to the Protestant faith, and put every temptation in his path.
When the King of Navarre was killed soon after this, and the boy was left alone at the French court, the Queen of Navarre grew anxious, and urged Catherine to allow her son to return to Navarre. But Catherine refused. Henry was to marry her daughter Margaret one day, and he must abandon his Protestant religion and become a Catholic. At last the Queen of Navarre travelled to Paris in order to persuade Catherine to let the boy return with her to Navarre.
Catherine received her with lavish affection, but she took care that the queen should be carefully guarded and virtually kept her a prisoner at the court.
When the Queen of Navarre found out Catherine's intentions she planned her escape. One day there was a hunting-party, at the close of which the queen and her people separated themselves from the rest of the company. The horses were all tired, but fresh horses had been provided at an appointed place. The queen and her son quickly mounted the fresh horses, and, turning their faces south, they rested neither day nor night until the clatter of their horses' hoofs resounded among the mountains of Navarre.
The whole of Europe had taken up the controversy between Protestants and Catholics. The fleet of England crossed the Channel, the Pope summoned his legions to the field, and squadrons poured through the defiles of the Alps on to the plains of France. Catholic Spain shouted the war-cry, and the blast of bugle and tramp of men sounded amid the fastnesses of the Pyrenees. Protestant Germany sprang to arms, and all met on the battlefield of Jarnac.
Henry of Navarre was there heading the Huguenots, with the Prince of Conde. In his first battle he was destined to defeat. Conde was killed, and the Huguenots were defeated.
After the battle the Huguenots hailed the young Prince Henry as their commander-in-chief.
Meanwhile the marriage between Henry and Margaret, sister of King Charles the Ninth of France, was being urged on by both Protestants and Catholics. The Queen of Navarre was very reluctant to hasten on a match she strongly objected to. But Coligny saw advantages in it. "It will be a seal of friendship with the king," he wrote confidently to Navarre.
The young King of France, too, was anxious, "I have made up my mind to give my sister Margaret to my good brother Henry," he said, "for by this means I hope to marry the two religions.
Still the Queen of Navarre doubted the sincerity of the French court.
"I pray you gratify the extreme desire we have to see you among us," wrote Catherine to the reluctant queen. "You will be loved and honoured as you deserve to be."
At last the Queen of Navarre gave way. In February 1572, she started for Blois, and travelling slowly reached that city early in March. She was received by Catherine de Medici and the king with every mark of affection. The king called her his "dear good aunt, his best beloved, his darling," till the gossiping historian at the French court says "every one was astonished."
In the evening, when the queen had retired for the night, Charles turned to his mother laughing.
"Now, mother, confess that I play my little part well." "Yes," she answered anxiously, "you play it well enough, but you must keep it up."
"Trust me for that," said the king; "you shall see how I will lead them on."
Early in May the Queen of Navarre moved on to Paris, where preparations for the wedding were being urged on. The move proved fatal to her. In less than a month she sickened and died. So ostentatious were the lamentations of Catherine, so frantic the apparent grief of Charles the king, that it was suggested the queen had been poisoned. Be that as it may, the wedding preparations went on, though the death of the queen increased the distrust with which many of the Huguenots looked on these favours so lavishly bestowed on their party.
Admiral Coligny was an exception. From every quarter he received warnings and cautions, but he trusted the young king's word, his promise of protection; he believed that Charles was really anxious to bring about a union of Protestants and Catholics; and he refused to listen to the murmurs of treachery in the court.
It was the eighth of July when Henry, now King of Navarre, entered Paris attended by the young Prince of Conde, Admiral Coligny, and some eight hundred of the most distinguished men in France. The Protestants were all dressed in mourning garments; they formed a striking contrast to the gaily-dressed Catholic gentlemen who went out to meet them.
At the gate of St. Jacques a magnificent train of nobles and officers attached to the court met the Protestant party, the corporation of the city attended in their scarlet robes, the Duke of Guise and the king's two brothers, all were there to welcome the bridegroom, the young King of Navarre.
In deadly silence the procession passed through the crowded streets of Paris to the Louvre. No voice was raised to greet the Huguenot princes, only murmurs of disapproval ran through the crowd from time to time, and muttered cries of "Guise "and "Anjou." The King of Navarre alone found favour, as he rode along between the two Catholic princes of France, his handsome face and winning smile attracting all alike.
The betrothal took place on the seventeenth of August at the Louvre, and the following day the wedding took place at Notre Dame.
It was a glorious summer day, this morning of the eighteenth of August. Cannons roared, bells rang out from every steeple, thousands of people crowded every roof and balcony whence a view of the procession might be obtained. Banners, pennants, ribbons waved in the air and hung festooned from window to window, from roof to roof.
A raised covered platform led from the bishop's palace, where the bride was staying, to the pavilion where the ceremony was to take place. A magnificent platform had been raised on the open space fronting the cathedral of Notre Dame, canopied with tapestry.
It was yet early in the day when Henry led forth his bride. He was dressed in pale yellow satin, embroidered with silver, and adorned with pearls and precious stones. To show his close affection, Charles, King of France, was dressed like him, for "my brother of Navarre loves me and I love him," the young king had said but shortly before.
Margaret, too, was gorgeously dressed: brilliants flamed among her hair, her dress was of cloth of gold, her stomacher was sprinkled with pearls to resemble a silvery coat of mail, the train of her large blue mantle was four ells long.
Along the raised platform walked the bishops and archbishops, leading the way in copes of cloth of gold. Then came the cardinals, resplendent in scarlet, knights of St. Michael with their orders, and the great officers of state; some one hundred and twenty ladies, brilliant in silks, brocades, and velvets, attended the Princess Margaret. The whole procession was magnificent.
After the wedding ceremony had been performed in the pavilion, Henry led his bride into the church of Notre Dame to hear mass; then on to the bishop's palace, where a magnificent dinner had been prepared for them, only to be followed by a supper at the Louvre for the whole wedding-party.
The next three days were spent in festivities, balls and banquets, masques and tourneys, in which both Huguenots and Catholics took part. All seemed peace and good will, all old feuds and enmities forgotten and buried in the past.
In all the amusements Henry of Navarre distinguished himself; he had a kind word for everybody, was ready with jest and humour, and Charles seemed fonder of him than ever. Admiral Coligny, too, seemed high in favour at the French court; the more Charles saw of him, the more pleased he seemed with the loyalty and honesty of the old Huguenot warrior.
But things were reaching a crisis.
Catherine saw that the strong old Huguenot was gaining influence with Charles, and determined to get rid of him as a dangerous rival.
It was the twenty-second of August.
Coligny had gone to the Louvre on business, and was on his way home when he met the young king Charles. With him he stopped to watch a tennis match till past ten o'clock, when he turned homewards. He was reading a petition that had just been placed in his hands, when suddenly he staggered back. A cry escaped him, "I am wounded!" It was true. He was hit with two bullets; one carried off the first finger of his right hand, the other wounded him in the left arm. "Go and tell the king," he said as they carried him to his hotel.
The news spread like wildfire. A messenger, all breathless, burst into the tennis court shouting, "The admiral is killed! the admiral is killed!"
Charles threw down his racket angrily.
"What!" he cried, "shall I never have a moment's quiet? Must I have fresh troubles every day?"
Vowing to avenge the admiral, the king withdrew. Something must be done at once to preserve the public peace, which at that moment was in greater danger from the enraged Huguenots than from the astonished Catholics.
The guards were mustered, posts were strengthened, the sentries at the gates were doubled, and no person was allowed to come armed into the streets.
The King of Navarre, accompanied by some seven hundred Huguenots, visited the old admiral, threatening vengeance on the murderer. No wonder the queen-mother Catherine was in a panic. If the admiral recovered, as seemed likely, her part in the plot could not be concealed; the blow had failed. There was danger all around; the Huguenots were angry and suspicious, murmuring crowds filled the streets, an outbreak seemed imminent. Steps must be taken, and at once. Coligny, the old Huguenot warrior, must die.
It was after dinner on the night of the twenty-third of August that Catherine led the king, with some three or four others, into the private garden of the Tuileries, there to unfold her plans. The time, she said, was ripe. Eight thousand Huguenots were in the city breathing vengeance, though, as yet, unarmed; the King of Navarre and the Prince of Conde were in the Louvre and could not escape; the admiral was in bed unable to move; their enemies were caught, and in one hour the whole hated sect of Huguenots might be abolished. They ought no longer to resist the will of God, but give reins to the popular fury.
So said Catherine. Her own mind was made up, but to get Charles's sanction to the murder of Coligny was no easy matter.
All next day Paris was in a restless state. It seemed as if some great catastrophe were pending, suspicion was in the air, the wildest stories were afloat.
In vain did Catherine urge on Charles the immense importance of killing the Admiral Coligny. Bursting into one of his fits of passion, he swore that Coligny should not be touched.
"Woe to any one who injures a hair of his head!" he cried. "He is the only true friend I have, except my brother of Navarre."
Still Catherine did not flinch. Argument after argument did she use to convince her son of the danger of their present position.
"France will be again torn by civil war, and there is but this one way of escape," she urged.
The king sat moody and silent, biting his nails as usual He would not consent.
At last Catherine, in her despair, used her last argument.
"Perhaps, sire," she whispered in his ear, "perhaps you are afraid!"
As if struck by an arrow, Charles started from his chair. Storming like a madman, he bade her be quiet.
"Kill the admiral then if you like," he screamed, "but kill all the. Huguenots with him—all—all—all, so that not one be left to reproach me hereafter. See to it at once—at once! do you hear?"
So saying he dashed furiously out of the room. The conspirators were aghast at his violence. But there was no time to be lost. He had spoken the word, he might change his mind, the Huguenots might get wind of the plot. The murderous scheme must be carried out at once, that very night.
The Duke of Guise was summoned to the Louvre and given command of the undertaking. The different parts of the tragedy were quickly arranged.
"It is the will of our lord the king," said the duke, "that every good citizen should take up arms to purge the city of that rebel Coligny and his heretic followers. The signal will be given by the great bell of the Palace of Justice. Then let every true Catholic tie a white band on his arm, and put a white cross in his cap, and begin the vengeance of God."
So the preparations, aided by the darkness of a starless night, went forward. Soldiers assembled, guards were stationed to cut off flight, citizens were armed with sabres and muskets.
Shortly after midnight Catherine entered her son's chamber. She found him pacing the room in one of his fits of passion, swearing the Huguenots should not die.
"It is too late to retreat, even were it possible," declared Catherine.
It was the eve of St. Bartholomew. In feverish agony they waited for the appointed signal. Fearing lest Charles's resolution should utterly fail, Catherine ordered the alarm bell to be struck at once. As the harsh sound rang through the air of that warm summer night, it was caught up and echoed from tower to tower, rousing all Paris from its slumbers. It was the knell of death rolling over the unconscious city. The first stroke of the bell had not ceased to vibrate, when the uproar began. The sound of clanging bells, crashing doors, musket shots, and the rush of armed men was followed in another moment by the shrieks of the victims, and high over all the yells of the mob, "more pitiless than hungry wolves," till the stoutest hearts quailed and the strongest trembled.
The sound which roused Catherine to frenzy froze the very blood of the young king. Trembling in every limb, he shouted for the massacre to be stopped, for the admiral's life to be spared.
It was too late! Already beacon-fires and alarm-bells had sent the signal throughout France.
And Coligny? He was in bed when the uproar began. A loud knock at the outer gate roused him. "Open in the king's name" was the cry outside, and soon armed men were rushing up the stairs. Coligny, who by this time had risen, knew what it meant. He sent away a few faithful servants who wished to defend him.
"I have long prepared to die," murmured the old warrior. "No one can defend me now. I commend my soul to God."
"Are you the admiral?" shouted the ruffians, as they entered the room.
"I am," answered Coligny.
These were his last words. A sword was thrust through his body, and the old Huguenot was dead, his body being thrown into the street below.
Old men, young girls, helpless children were alike smitten down. The shouts of the assailants, the shrieks of the wounded as blow upon blow fell, the incessant report of muskets and pistols, the tramp of soldiers, created a scene of terror such as human eyes have rarely seen.
"Let not a single Protestant be spared to reproach me with this deed." These were the king's orders as the morning slowly dawned on this ghastly scene.
In vain did Charles order the massacre to be stopped at the end of one day. The blood of the Catholics was up, and the massacre continued for a week, till some eighty thousand Protestants were slain in France.
Nevertheless the massacre was in vain. True, the Huguenots lost their best leaders, with the exception of Henry of Navarre; they were stunned, scattered, weakened, but by no means crushed.
Charles died some two years afterwards. After the fatal night of St. Bartholomew he suffered from extreme nervous agitation, and on his death-bed he endured agonies of remorse for what he had done. But the horrid deed was done, and must ever be remembered as one of the greatest blots in the history of Europe.