“Kill them!” screamed Charles, “Kill them all!!” He was twenty-two years old. He was King of France. And it was late at night, he was tired and angry, and he feared for his mother’s life.
His mother, Catherine, had been desperately trying to hold together a country where religious tensions had been mounting for years. She was a Renaissance Catholic, but feared the militant Jesuit Catholics more than the infidel Calvinists. (They called themselves “Huguenots”, but they were protestants direct out of Calvin’s utopian Geneva, so I will call them Calvinists for now.) So despite being “sort of” a Catholic herself, she did her best to make peace with the Calvinist heretics.
But we all know it is impossible to legislate tolerance. There were scuffles, there were outbreaks of violence across the country. I’m sure plenty of accusations of Catholophobia and anti-Huguenotism would have been thrown around, if they had spoken using today’s political jargon.
Desperate to maintain order and peace, she decided to set up a political treaty in the manner most common to the times: she arranged a marriage between her own beautiful (and Catholic) daughter Marguerite, and Henry, the very devout son of the head of the most prominent Calvinist family in France. Oh yes, and Henry also happened to be King of Navarre. It was going to be a spectacular wedding.
But not everyone wanted to see Catholic and Calvinist united together. The Guise family, an extremely rich and influential Jesuit family, may or may not have orchestrated an attempt on the life of Coligny, a highly influential Calvinist and friend of young King Charles, just days before the wedding. The Guise family may or may not have found a way to bend Catherine’s ear, telling her that the Calvinists planned a plot on her life! They will try to get revenge for the attack on Coligny! These infidels are treacherous! They know not the lord, and cannot be trusted! They are terrorists! You never know what they will do next!
Catherine was terrified. She feared that the wedding had been a mistake. You can imagine her shaking, crying late at night. Hearing her friends and her advisors telling her that she had been terribly wrong to trust those people. She had made a mistake, and it could cost her her life.
Now, you can imagine her twenty-two year old son seeing all of this. The power and religious zeal of the Guise family may have frightened Catherine, but they had been advisors to Charles’s family since he was an infant. And now they were telling him: there is violence in the streets, and these infidels will surely kill you and your mother if they can. You have to do something. You have to deal with these unbelievers, Charles.
Do something. Do something.
It was late at night on August 24, 1572. Charles was a frightened, angry child. He was tired, and everyone wanted him to just do something.
“Kill them!”he screamed. “Kill them all!”
Filled with love for Christ and the Lord, the Guise family was only too happy to comply. They locked the doors to the gates of Paris so that nobody could escape. Five thousand Calvinists had come to visit Paris specifically to see the wedding between Henry and Marguerite. Fewer than five hundred of those survived. The city became a frenzy. Not just Calvinists were killed: anybody suspected of being un-Catholic, anybody who looked un-Catholic, anybody whom a Catholic happened to have a grudge against… all were slaughtered. In a whirlwind of unstoppable emotion, husbands killed wives, landlords killed tenants, businessmen killed rivals. The streets became literal rivers of blood.
The killing went on for three days. According to the writings of locals at the time, it was impossible to walk from one city block to the next without stepping across rotting, stinking cadavers. The mob mentality and unhinged violence spread outward across France. When it was all over, anywhere from 30 thousand to 100 thousand people (depending on what historians you ask), mostly Calvinist protestants, were dead.
Pope Gregory XIII–the one that your calendar is named after–called this a “win” for Christianity. He even had some special coins made to commemorate the occasion.
Could it have been prevented? If twenty-two year old King Charles IX had been a little more mature, and kept his head, would things have gone a different way? Or were the tensions so high that it would have ended in violence no matter what anyone did?
We will never know. But I can’t help but think that sometimes, a single person really can make all the difference in the world.If not in a positive way, most definitely in a negative way.
An immature leader, or a hot-headed decision. A particular personality, a particular decision, a particular phrase uttered in anger at just the right moment in time… it can truly change the course history.