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An essay by Andreas Austilat

Mass murder in the Lord’s name

Giacomo Meyerbeer’s LES HUGUENOTS depicts, in operatic form, one of the most dreadful massacres in the history of Europe. What really happened in Paris on St. Bartholomew’s Day?

Andreas Austilat, born in Berlin in 1957, studied history and now works as a reporter for the Tagesspiegel, after many years as deputy head of its “Sunday” section.

LES HUGUENOTS, which premiered in Paris in 1836, is the best-known opera by the Berlin-born composer Giacomo Meyerbeer and repeatedly served as a model for other works of grand opéra. The massacre of French protestants in 1572 not only provides Meyerbeer with an opulent setting for his story of Raoul, a Huguenot, and Valentine, a Catholic, but is also a key theme of the opera: in meticulous detail Meyerbeer shows how a smouldering conflict can morph into a catastrophic conflagration.

Eye-witnesses could not agree on why Gaspard de Coligny bent forward at the crucial moment. Was he reaching for a letter that someone was passing to him? Was the tall 53-year-old really stooping to adjust his shoe? Hard to imagine an aristocrat and holder of the title Admiral of France bending down in public to tie a shoelace. But whatever the reason, Coligny’s sudden movement on the morning of 22nd August 1572 saved him from what might otherwise have been a lethal attempt on his life.

His reprieve was short-lived. The incident triggered a wave of madness that spiralled into bloodlust, changed the course of France’s history and became the subject of many a work of literature, music and cinema. The event was used by Alexandre Dumas, the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer and Heinrich Mann, the latter drawing on the material in his two novels on Henri IV. A French film starring Isabelle Adjani also portrays the massacre and the events leading up to it.

At the time of the assassination attempt Gaspard de Coligny was returning from a meeting in the Palais du Louvre. The story goes that not one but two projectiles were fired from a window on the first floor of a building in the rue de Poulies in the old 4th Arrondissement. One ball severed the Admiral’s right index finger, the second smashed his left elbow.

The gunman, identified soon afterwards, had been involved in the murder of a leading French Protestant a few years earlier. No one doubted that the deed would have repercussions in a country irreconcilably divided along religious lines – on the one side the Catholics, on the other the Huguenots, as the French followers of Calvin’s Protestant denomination were known.

The conflict naturally had little or nothing to do with religion per se. Around the year 800 Charlemagne had gathered together the vestiges of the ancient Roman empire and forged a new European empire, a construct that drew its solidity from Charlemagne’s realisation that his hegemony was dependent on a guiding idea to give it legitimacy. The legitimising idea was Christian faith.

This model had worked well for 700 years. Then came the Reformation, at which point the Roman Catholic Church lost its claim to be the only legitimate authority. German princes were no less ready to accept Catholic sway than the English King Henry VIII, who was busy creating the Church of England. In the Low Countries Calvinists were challenging Catholic Spain’s claim to power. And in France the schism came in the form of four Wars of Religion over the course of the 16th century. According to Huguenot estimates, up to a third of the population were adherents of the new dogma, which was widely embraced by the poor, who were tired of being promised consolation in the afterlife, by merchants, whose industry appeared to be in line with God’s plan, and by the aristocracy, who wanted more influence. France’s Protestant community thus grew from a humbled minority into a military power to be reckoned with. After three civil wars France’s administration was on the verge of bankruptcy. A compromise had to be struck if France were not to disintegrate.

Of the key protagonists in this real-world drama only one, Marguerite de Valois, features in Giacomo Meyerbeer’s opera. And a good choice it was. After her death her autobiography made her one of the most interesting witnesses of events; Alexandre Dumas, too, was drawn to her as a personage of interest. The rest of Meyerbeer’s characters are fictional, which is more than can be said for the historical setting, which went down in the annals as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The first character on the scene was Catherine de Medici, niece of two popes and wife of the French monarch. After his death she became regent, her son, the future Charles IX, having not yet achieved his majority. In 1572 King Charles was considered weak. Catherine was struggling to hold sway against the influential de Guise family of Lorraine. They were strongest faction among the Catholics, their Protestant counterparts being the de Coligny clan from Châtillon, headed by Gaspard de Coligny, the admired and dreaded Huguenot field marshal. Then there was Henri of Navarre, a kingdom encompassing the Basque country. Henri’s provenance was the House of Capet, an ancient French dynasty.

Catherine was set on safeguarding her son’s kingdom and hatched a plan that had considerable currency at the time – her daughter Marguerite de Valois would marry Henri de Navarre, ensuring that any future friction remained a family matter. The idea ran up against two of France’s European neighbours, England and the Netherlands, whom France would have preferred to have as allies, and also Spain, which was determined to prevent such an alliance. All three were united in a desire to see France weakened and riven by discord. The wedding of the two royal scions was a balancing act. The bride and groom were both 19 years old. Marguerite complained that Henri had body odour and, despite his high birth, was an uncultivated country bumpkin. She herself was considered to have self-assurance in spades. Another snag was that she was Catholic, he a Protestant, and if they were to be married, the ceremony enshrining their union would first have to be invented.

The de Guise family more than any other was scandalised at the prospect of the marriage. A factor complicating matters was that the de Guise family and Coligny’s family were in the throes of a vendetta following the killing of a de Guise man. Gaspard de Coligny, on the other hand, considered himself to be on the winning side. He had hatched a plan that envisaged France siding with England against Spain – initially on the territory of the Spanish Netherlands, where he imagined they would be welcomed as liberators. The campaign began with a defeat even before the wedding had been celebrated, which boded ill for the Huguenot cause. Paris was selected as the venue for the wedding and the two delegations converged on the capital with their respective figureheads. The de Guise family adopted the wise tactic of staying together, while the Huguenots were dispersed in lodgings scattered across the city. The festivities began on 18th August 1572 but were marred by friction from the first. In the heat of summer there were cases of alcohol-fuelled noblemen from outside mistreating the local population. The Huguenots, who were not particularly taken with Paris, were the first antagonists in this respect. Their strongholds were in the southwest of France, in Gascony, in the west around La Rochelle, in Britany and in the Languedoc, traditionally rebellious in outlook and a region where the Cathars had already challenged the Pope’s hegemony.

What Gaspard de Coligny did not know or could only guess at was that the city was seething with Spanish and English spies and provision had been made to respond to any contingency. Behind the scenes, and despite their enmity, England and Spain were of one mind that they would not tolerate a strong French state, which might take over the Spanish Netherlands, and signed a secret treaty to this effect. It was a measure of her astonishing acumen that Catherine de Medici had managed to preserve the Kingdom of France as an entity. She negotiated with the Ottomans and even considered entering into a cooperation with Algiers. Her dread of the Spanish had been heightened by their defeat of the Ottomans on the high seas. This notwithstanding, she was fulsome in her congratulations and had street celebrations held to mark the event. Little is known about her attitude towards Coligny, although he is said to have told her that if France did not take up arms against Spain there would be another civil war. He also saw an ally in Charles, the son of the King. Such complex dynamics make it difficult to apportion blame for what happened next.

The two shots mentioned earlier set the events in train. There is general agreement on who fired the weapon and also that he was a member of the de Guise family. Emotions were running high across the city and the incident stoked the atmosphere, with rumours abounding that the Huguenots would avenge the outrage. The city’s militia was issued with arms and the authorities pledged to identify the culprit, even though his identify was an open secret. The Swiss Guard, part of the royal guards, was stationed outside Coligny’s house for his protection, although they answered to one of Coligny’s foes. The Huguenots toyed with the idea of leaving Paris, but decided to stay put.

At 4am on 24th August 1572 the Duke of Guise and the Swiss Guard stormed the premises where Gaspard de Coligny was recuperating. His bodyguards were slaughtered along with the other Huguenots present. The assailants were said to include the King’s brother, the Duke of Anjou. Opinions differ on who thrust his halbert into the torso of Admiral Coligny – either one of the Swiss Guards or a mercenary from Bohemia. By all accounts Coligny was thrown, still alive, from a window and killed on the street before his body was mutilated and hung on public display.

The violence spread quickly through Paris. A rumour went around that the King himself had issued the order. Some reports have him on the balcony of the Louvre, wielding a gun. One citizen later wrote: “Carnage ensued the length and breadth of Paris. Before long there was not a street or alleyway where a killing had not occurred. Blood ran in the streets as rainwater after a deluge.” Another wrote: “Bodies piled up across the city, regardless of sex or age. There reigned such chaos and confusion that a man could kill anyone he wanted, be it on grounds of religion or simply because there was something to be gained from the deed.”

The slaughter did not spare women, children or the elderly. Pillaging and rape were widespread and the cry went up in the streets: “Kill them all. By order of the King!” And there was method in the way Huguenot noblemen were hunted down. From Marguerite de Valois’ biography we know that one bloodied man took refuge in the royal bride’s chamber, throwing himself on her bed.

The next day the King ordered a halt to the massacre. Reports put the number of Huguenots killed that night in Paris at 3,000; other French cities experienced pogroms in the weeks that followed. Responsibility for the carnage on the eve of the Feast of St Bartholomew probably lies largely with Catherine de Medici, who came down on the side of the Catholics out of fear of a war with Spain. Not that she can have intended a massacre of this degree and dimension. Historians disagree over whether she groomed her son to condone or initiate the carnage and whether he sank into depression afterwards, as some chroniclers maintain.

Lack of clarity also persists regarding the roles played by neighbouring countries and the hand that the de Guise family had in the affair. Catherine de Medici may have simply let things take their natural course. If, however, all parties were dead set on exterminating the Huguenots or crippling their leadership, they did not succeed. Some of the Huguenot high-ups managed to flee Paris. Henri de Navarre, the newly-wedded husband of Marguerite de Valois, was arrested and forced to convert to Catholicism if he wished to escape the gallows. Henri complied, spending the next two years under house arrest in the Louvre. He finally gave his captors the slip and formally abjured his enforced confession of Catholic faith. Henri became the new Huguenot strongman, leading them in the civil war that followed.

In 1594 Henri de Navarre converted once more to Catholicism, a condition of his formal accession to the throne. Henri, the first monarch of the Bourbon dynasty, oversaw the ratification of the Edict of Nantes. Catholicism remained the state religion but the Huguenots were on an equal footing. As had happened in Germany with the Peace of Augsburg, the Edict appeared to show that parity between religions was possible. Henri also separated from Marguerite de Valois, his bride from the ‘noces sanglantes’, as the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre has come to be known. He married Maria de Medici, one of the wealthiest women of Europe.

In Germany the Peace of Augsburg held until the outbreak of the Thirty Years War in 1618. In France multiple attempts were made on the King’s life. The 18th assassination attempt, in 1610, was successful. The royal coach came to a halt in a narrow street, blocked by another vehicle. The escorts got down to investigate, leaving the King on his own to be stabbed. Not long after his death Cardinal Richelieu, a key figure in Alexandre Dumas’ novel “The Three Musketeers”, presided over a resumption of anti-Huguenot repression, leading eventually to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. This triggered a mass exodus of Huguenots from France. 20,000 settled in Brandenburg alone, many in Berlin. In 1700 they amounted to around a quarter of the city’s inhabitants, with French a commonly heard language amongst the populace.

First printed in the Deutsche Oper Berlin supplement in the Tagesspiegel, September 2016. All photos of rehearsals for “LES HUGUENOTS”: © Bettina Stöß.

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