Gaspard II de Coligny (1519 – 1572)
Gaspard, a nobleman who could claim descent from the likes of Alfred the Great and William the Conqueror, became another victim of the fierce conflicts between Protestants and Catholics during the 16th century. Converting to Calvinism in the late 1550s this admiral of the French fleet assumed the role of leading spokesman for the French Protestants and worked through the Queen Mother, Catherine de Medici, to secure religious toleration for his fellow Huguenots.
His plans came to naught when a Protestant congregation was massacred at Vassy in 1562 by the arch Catholic, the Duke of Guise, and his adherents. The Huguenots had no option but to take up arms against the king and three times, in 1562-3, 1567 and 1568-70, Coligny led the Protestant forces. Although victorious at the Battle of La Roche-l’Abeille in 1569 his forces were defeated at the Battle of Moncontour and he sued for peace, the so-called Peace of Saint-Germain of 1570.
Despite these setbacks, le heros de la mauvaise fortune, as he styled himself, soon wormed his way back into the French court and Charles IX’s favours. He lobbied for the French to declare war on their arch rivals, the Spanish, by intervening on the side of the rebellious Protestants in the Spanish Netherlands. His argument was that a war would unite the previously divided French nobility and at the same time strengthen the protestant position within Europe. Catherine de Medici was horrified at the prospect of the French aiding the protestant ascendancy and determined to put a stop to Coligny’s machinations.
In true Game of Thrones stylee, it all kicked off at a wedding, the nuptials of the Protestant Henry, King of Navarre, and the Marguerite de Valois, the French king’s sister. Such an important wedding brought many Protestant nobles to Paris and tensions were running high. On the day after the wedding, 22nd August 1572, a man called Maurevert shot Coligny in the street, the bullet tearing a finger from his right hand and shattering his left elbow. Maurevert fired the shot from a house owned by de Guise and although the King sent his personal physician to tend to his wounds, Catherine de Medici forbade any communications with the injured Huguenot.
The Catholics were now concerned that the abortive assassination attempt would provoke a fierce Protestant response and so decided to get their retaliation in first. In what we now know as the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, on 24th August 1572, assassination squads were sent out to despatch the Huguenot ringleaders, Coligny amongst them. His lodgings were attacked by a group led by Guise and after some resistance, one of the attackers, Charles Danowitz, plunged his sword into the breast of le heros de la mauvaise fortune.
Whilst still alive Coligny was then thrown out of the window and landed at the feet of de Guise. He was only put out of his misery when one of de Guise’s men chopped off his head. A contemporary reported, “he never saw anyone less afraid in so great a peril, nor die more steadfastly”. The concerted massacres were so successful and the Huguenot leadership so debilitated that the Catholics took the opportunity to take vengeance on the Huguenot communities throughout France.
The final death toll has never been accurately established, some Catholic apologists putting it as low as 2,000 and some Huguenots as high as 70,000. Whatever the number, so many corpses floated down the Rhone from Lyons that the residents of Arles were put off from drinking the water for three months.