What started as a curate’s egg of an episode, ends up with an introduction to a new player, Francis Walsingham, and the story of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris in 1572.
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So the first job is to polish off the story on which I was about to embark – since I mentioned that events in France would ratchet religious tensions up another notch. A bit of background; the French religious wars have already kicked off, as we have heard. Although France was still largely Catholic, the growth of Calvinism had been dramatic and swift – there were probably over a million Huguenots by 1600. At this time of crisis and division, France suffered the problems of a series of minors or inexperienced kings on the throne, and factionalism at court. When Henry II dies in 1559, he was succeeded by the underage Francis II, then Charles IXth was just a nipper of 10 in 1560, and only made it to 24 when he died in 1574. Henry III was a relative OAP when he then succeeded in 1574 and lasted until 1589. In the meantime, the power behind the throne was the regent, the Queen Mother Catherine de Medici. At court the two religious factions tore at each other; the Catholics lead by the Guise, the Huguenots by the Bourbon family. I crudely paraphrase and summarise, and grovel with apology to any French listening.
Catherine tried to manage the factions and steer a way to peace, but variously she and her sons followed a ‘politique’ strategy of trying to ignore religion, or at least to prioritise national unity over religious division, appeasing Huguenots or indulging in wild swings to one side or t’other. To one of such wild swings we arrive in August 1572.
One important thing to recognise is that the French wars of religion have, from the start, an international angle. Their chaos would, for example, free Phillip II’s hand and allow him to release resources against England. We have already seen that England has already made a reasonably disastrous intervention in Le Havre in 1561-2. In 1572 Prince Louis of Nassau lead a Huguenot army in the Netherlands in support of the Dutch revolt, and the Catholic from 1578 sought to involve Pope and bring external support into the conflict, as well as lead Catholic military and spiritual revival in France.
In 1570, Catherine de Medici had tried to broker a lasting peace with the peace of St Germain, bringing the Huguenot leaders Gaspard de Coligny and Henry of Navarre, or Henry de Bourbon into the royal council. And in 1572, a traditional route to peace was also pursued as Catherine married her daughter Margaret of Valois to the Huguenot leader Henry of Navarre. And so, in 1572 Paris was buzzing with this marriage, a scandal to Catholics and a sign of happy ascendancy for the Huguenots. A mass of Huguenot political leaders came to the capital to celebrate the nuptials, and presumably push the boat out a little.
Paris had another visitor at the time – a delegation from England, seeking a French alliance, led by a man called Francis Walsingham. This is a name you might well know, and if you don’t then fear not gentle listener for you will learn to know it. But when I was a lad it was all Elizabeth, Drake, Burghley and Walsingham. Rather unfairly, Leicester, Essex, Hatton, Howard and all that brood, well they were just love interest and also rans. Also of course, Walsingham’s great claim to fame was as a spymaster, possibly with morally dubious methods on occasion, but look I was a callous 12 year old what did I care about that? But in that reputation, I, in company with some proper historians, have done Walsingham something of a disservice; Walsingham was much more than simply a spymaster, good though he was at that. As will gradually unfold, Walsingham’s political influence ranged much more broadly than that. Once promoted to Council as the Queen’s principal secretary, replacing Burghley in that role, his strategic passions remained consistently for protestantism, a vigorous foreign policy, exploration and empire, suppression of Catholicism in England, the destruction of Mary, queen of Scots, and the union of Scotland and England. His opinion on Mary Queen of Scots was reasonably uncomplicated
So long as that devlish woman liveth neither her majesty must make account to continue her quiet possession of her crown, nor her faithful servants assure themselves of safety of their lives
He was, like Burghley, something of a worrier and workaholic. In a paper of 1568 he wrote that
There is less danger in fearing too much than fearing too little
There is nothing more dangerous than security
So not a relaxing person to be around probably, and his relationship with the queen meanwhile is something of a poser. Basically, he thought she was a bit rubbish, and if Elizabeth’s refusal to make decisions at key points, or indeed do what she was told by the patriarchy of the Council, irritated Burghley it positively brought Walsingham out in a rash. As a consequence, Walsingham followed the teenage approach and nagged his Queen until she must have rushed to hide in the cupboard when she heard he was coming to see her. But Elizabeth never fired him, probably because she understood his quality, and had broad enough shoulders and the maturity to deal with the nagging, or avoid being swayed by faction. Unlike her Dad, it might be noted, who would surely have had his entrails removed in a fit of irritation. Just to finish off the summary bit, here are a couple of quotes from the ODNB that might amuse you, reactions to his death which give an idea of just how formidable Walsingham was.
The first was from a Spanish spy to Philip II because, yup, everybody else had spies too not just us. He wrote
‘Secretary Walsingham has just expired, at which there is much sorrow’
Sat in his fastness in El Escorial, the massive palace Phillip had built in Madrid, hidden away in his small office from which he worked night and day for the greater glory of God and Empire, Phillip read the report, as he read pretty much every official paper or request of any significance. On this occasion he wrote next to the words of England’s sorrow
There, yes! But it is good news here
I remember David Starkey once remarking that historians often learn more about a person from their enemies than they do from their friends. Phillip’s relief says a lot.
The other quote is from Burghley, for so long Walsingham’s partner in government. He wrote to a friend
‘I am fully perswaded … the Queen’s Majesty, and hir realm, and I and others his particular frendes have had a great loss, both for the publyck use of his good and paynfull long services, and for the privat comfort I had by his mutuall friendship
Well that’s quite touching, and speaks to a comararderies of the long standing members of the PC which doesn’t often get much of an airing. Finally, the impression we have is of a rather grim religious fanatic, Machiavellian, cold, calculating, controlled, not a lot of laughs on the lad. Well, there is much truth in that characterisation. His wife, for example, was called Ursula. Really not sure why I wrote that, such a random thing that I thought I’d leave it in just in case any of you can think of why Mrs Walsingham’s first name is relevant here. But actually, Walsingham could be pretty impulsive; and although without doubt he looked to advance the international cause of Protestantism whenever he could, yet his advice was considered and balanced. Furthermore, ruthless and fiercely protestant he might be, but he firmly believed also in due process for the most part. Walsingham would have been one those for whom the pace of religious reform was way too slow; nonetheless, he refused to support puritans going it alone and taking the law into their own hands
I would have all the reformation done by public authority…If you knew with what difficulty we retain that we have, and that the seeking of more might hazard that which we already have, you would then deal warily in this time when policy carrieth more sway that zeal
He also had a sardonic sense of humour which Elizabeth evidently rather liked. I’m going to give you a couple of examples of Elizabethan sardonic humour, which will probably make you cross. Most famously is Elizabeth’s sardonic joke, once she had finally signed Mary’s death warrant, that they should inform Walsingham, because ‘the grief thereof will go near to kill him outright’. Still with me or have you left in a huff over poor Mary?
If you are still here, I’m going to give you a smattering of Walsingham’s sardonic comments. I had a beauty, and then because I didn’t have a pen to mark the book, I have lost it. Thoroughly irritating. It was a note from Walsingham to fiercely protestant colleagues gathering for a meeting at his house to make themselves at home like Catholics. Catholics of course would hardly have been welcome at Walsingham’s house. Hardly a humdinger but you know. The quote I do have is Walsingham’s comments on incarcerating Catholic priests from abroad, that
Prisons are the very nurseries of papists
Again, not a humdinger.
Walsingham came of the stock of the lesser Gentry; jolly proud of their ancestry, their own coat of arms, acted as local magistrates; but were not from that group of knights who went to parliament and exchanged gifts with the monarch at Christmas. There is no connection with Walsingham in lovely Norfolk, except in unverifiable tradition. He was probably born in Kent in 1532, and when his Dad died when he was nobbut knee height to a grasshopper, he moved to Hertfordshire with him Mum after her second marriage. Probably. He then turns up at King’s college Cambridge in 1548, although in common with the types preparing for a secular career he did not take a degree. The provost of Kings at the time was one John Cheke, who you may remember also being Edward VI’s tutor and a reformist of some note. Walsingham was therefore steeped in the evangelical and protestant tradition; and it’s also worth noting that he was of the first generation who would never have prayed for the Pope or recognised his authority.
Walsingham looked set for the law, heading for Gray’s Inn, but the death of Edward VI and succession of Mary dished that. Because Francis was cut from a sterner cloth than Burghley. Not for Walsingham Burghley’s nicodemism, no hobnobbing at the table of Catholic ABC, good lord no. Walsingham was one of the Marian exiles – as Mary sought to reimpose catholicism, he left. He appears to have spent some time in Basel, which he remembered with great affection, and also in Padua, where he enrolled at the University. After Elizabeth’s accession he was elected as MP for Lyme Regis in Dorset, but he made little impact on parliament; and in fact throughout his career Walsingham shows very little enthusiasm for the mother of parliaments.
Sadly, we know pretty much zip of Walsingham’s life in 1560s before 1568, although in 1566 he married Ursula St Barbe. It is therefore a bit mysterious as to why he appears in 1568 in the highest quarters of government – writing a paper for Burghley, handling Ridolphi in 1569. And in 1570 his career started in earnest when he was made special envoy to the French court, later changed to become the permanent resident ambassador there. This gave Walsingham something of a pain in his wallet. It is a theme of her reign that Elizabeth was as mean as mouseshit, and the allowance he was given was less than it cost him to live, especially at a court as magnificent as France.
Initially, Walsingham had an easier job than his predecessor, since the Hugenots were in the ascendant. And then came a proposal from the Huguenot camp that hey, why doesn’t 19 year old Henry, brother of the king, marry 37 year old Elizabeth? Obviously, it would be a love match, but while they were are at it, Henry was in line for the throne and was a powerful advocate of the Guise and Catholic faction. So for Coligny and the Huguenot, a bit of good honest winkling was in order – winkling Henry from the Guise camp into the arms of protestant Elizabeth. Catherine de Medici was keen too – here would be another potential enemy neutralised.
The one person who was not keen however, was Henry, not keen at all. He was indeed fiercely Catholic, and had described Elizabeth already as immoral. Although much sweat and effort was spent over negotiations, the gap was wide. Elizabeth essentially wanted to make sure Henry was shorn of political influence in the same way Phillip had been with Mary; and in addition refused to allow Henry to publicly practice his religion; and Henry had just two words for that – Sacre bleu. So despite Walsingham’s hard work, negotiations faltered. This worried Walsingham, not so much because of the succession, though that did worry him, but more because the international situation worried him deeply – and he wanted England to have a firm friendship with France. As he wrote to Leicester
When I particularly consider her majesty’s state, both at home and abroad, so far as my poor eye-sight can discern; and how she is beset by foreign peril, the execution of stayeth only upon the event of this match, I do not see how she can stand, if this matter can break off
Around this time it’s possible that Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, came up with a cunning plan which he advanced to his good chum Walsingham, whom he addressed as ‘my good friend Francis’, that rather than marriage, they turn instead to a peace treaty. After a lot of too’ing and fro’ing, a treaty began to emerge – obviously, it came naturally to neither French or English to make love, they were more in the habit of making war. But eventually in 1572 a defensive alliance was indeed signed, the Treaty of Blois. It was purely defensive, but neither party would help the others’ enemies, and specifically with a few qualms, Catherine and King Charles cut off the Auld alliance and Mary Queen of Scots and dumped them in the bin. Charles made a brief attempt to hold onto it; the English negotiator Killigrew lost his rag ever so slightly; or at least he was forthright
Fire and water cannot be together, the one is contrary to the other. The league is made for a perpetual and strait amity betwixt you and the queen’s majesty of England, and you would treat for the queen’s most mortal and dangerous enemy. This cannot stand together, you must take her now for dead
Thus was Mary cut a little further loose on the raft of life.
Ok so that concludes the introduction of Francis Walsingham, and brings us, rather neatly I think, back to August 1572 and that high society marriage of Henry of Navarre and Margaret of Valois, and the gathering of the great and the good of the Huguenot clans. Tension was high; Catholics still remembered the assassination of the Duke of Guise many years before, which was blamed on the Huguenots; and the Huguenots really didn’t emoll, ladies and gentlemen, they did not tread carefully through the fields of religious sensitivity, there was noting emollient about them. The protestant leader Admiral Coligny demanded a cross be taken from the ruins of a Protestant’s house; and a group of Huguenots loudly mocked a catholic procession of the consecrated wafer representing the body of Christ. That led to something of a barney – by something of a barney, I mean that 40 Huguenots were murdered, which gives cancel culture a new meaning. Catholic preachers thundered against the pollution of a royal protestant marriage.
Still, the marriage went ahead with all due ceremony on 18th August, and the Huguenot leadership considered themselves thoroughly content. They stayed for a few days to talk over stuff with the king, and from such a meeting Coligny returned to his residence in the city. As he did, he passed the house of a servant of the Guise, and from a window he was shot and wounded. But, not killed. The good admiral had a lot of influence over the young king, and King Charles IXth offered Coligny his personal protection; at which Coligny decided it would be rude to leave, and so stayed. A bad call as it happens.
Two days later on 24th August were the celebrations of St Bartholomew’s Day. Now it’s not clear on whose orders Coligny’s attempted assassination had gone ahead; it could have been the Guise of course, maybe even Spain, or possibly even Catherine de Medici on a wobble. But the most worried brows belonged to the Guise; whether or not they were guilty, they reckoned, probably rightly, that they would be blamed. Outside the city was a Huguenot army of 4,000 which rather added to the general panic and worry. The word tinderbox doesn’t begin to cover it.
Now it’s really not clear exactly who started the ball rolling; it could have been the Guise, or maybe it was Catherine de medici herself, which seems odd given that she’d just seen her daughter married. But one story has a late night gathering of Catherine, Charles and their advisers. And that at the meeting, a massacre was planned.
Early on 24th, then, before dawn, a group of posh thugs burst into Admiral Coligny’s house, led by the Duke of Guise. Coligny sold his life dearly, as the saying goes, but eventually he was run through and his body thrown from the window into the street below, where his head was severed from the rest of his body. Meanwhile murders of the other Huguenot leaders were in train – some of them by the King’s personal bodyguard, the Swiss guard. Two Huguenot leaders, the Prince of Conde and Henry of Navarre where spared when they hurriedly converted to Catholicism.
As the city woke up to the celebration of the saint’s day, things deteriorated; somehow the word got out that the king had ordered that the protestants should be killed. Now Huguenots often stood out from the crowd, with different dress; and anyway, catholic and Protestant lived side by side in the city – people knew each other. And so the orgy of the killing of Huguenots started all over the city.
The rascal multitude, encouraged by spoil and robbery, ran with their bloody swords raging throughout all the town. They spared not the aged, nor women, nor the very babies. In joy and triumph, they threw the slain bodies out at the windows, so as there was not in any manner any one street that seemed not strawed with murdered carcasses.
One of the remarkable things about the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre was the carnival atmosphere in which it was carried out. Victims were paraded as if they were all part of a mardi gras festival. Corpses were dragged through the city, body parts offered for sale from butcher’s carts. The very word ‘massacre’ had been a word for a butcher’s slab – and only now became a word for mass slaughter. Killers went around in good humour, laughing, joking, and stopping in taverns to take a break from the thirsty work. At the same time, over 600 houses were sacked and burned, with the massacre providing cover for a bit of looting.
The slaughter carried on in Paris for 3 days. Bodies of the living and the dead were dumped into the Seine; a request for money for the clear up after the chaos had stopped provides the only firm evidence for numbers of deaths, asking payment to remove 1100 bodies, and from this historians try to estimate the numbers of deaths. The slaughter though, was not restricted to the city; from Paris the news ran like ripples in a pool, and a wave of killings spread out into the countryside and 12 other cities. Henry, the king’s brother sent letters actually claiming that the king had ordered the killings. And when the killing was done, indeed Charles IX convened a lit de justice, claiming that he had indeed ordered the killings of the Huguenot leaders in response to reports of a Huguenot plot. The experience in cities varied; in Bordeaux, a Jesuit priest whipped the crowds on; in others, city leaders tried to suppress killings. Charles IX meanwhile hurriedly sent out letters making it clear that he was not ordering the killings – but even that failed to stop the deaths.
The killings finally came to an end in October 1572, and France prepared for a fourth round of civil war, which duly came, after the Prince of Conde and Henry of Navarre had unconverted. The total number of deaths is endlessly disputed; the lowest are for 2,000 deaths in Paris and 3,000 in the provinces. Although the high end goes up to 70,000, a more realistic high end is 10,000, of which 3,000 were in Paris.
Walsingham and his family were in the city throughout. On the first day, word got around that Walsingham’s house was something of a haven for scared protestants; Walsingham was joined there for example by the poet Philip Sidney, as a result of which Sidney and Walsingham formed a close bond, and Sidney would one day marry Walsingham’s daughter. That day a close companion of Coligny, the Sieur de Briquemault arrived at the house, disguised as a porter, and begged for sanctuary. Walsingham would have know that he was not safe – with the uncontrolled chaos of the mob, if his house was targeted the result could well be a nasty death. Nonetheless, Walsingham took Briquemault in, and disguised him as a groom.
The story doesn’t have a happy ending sadly. Several days later, one of Briquemault’s servants was identified, and forced to reveal his master’s whereabouts. The king’s men turned up and demanded entrance to Walsingham’s house, and that he be handed over. Walsingham went with Briquemault to plead for his life – all to no avail, as Briquemault was tried and executed for treason.
You might wonder why I have spent so long on an event which took place in France, rather than in blighty. The answer is that it’s quite difficult to underestimate the impact the St Bartholomew’s day Massacre had on the minds of protestant all over Europe, but particularly in England of course. There was a range of reactions in Europe and much of them positive at this culling of protestants. The Spanish Ambassador in Paris decked his servants in scarlet cloth in celebration. The pope was delighted, sending a golden Rose to Charles IX, and likening the event to the victory of Lepanto over the Turks. Phillip II was reputed to have laughed, a rare event indeed. The Pope commissioned a painting, wherein you can see Coligny descending from the window. To be fair to said Pope, all the information he received was that there had been a vicious Huguenot plot to kill the king, which the massacre had averted. He would later refuse to receive Coligny’s assassain, as the facts began to be clearer.
Other reaction was less delighted. Emperor Maximillian II was horrified, even Ivan the Terrible wrote to express how terrible it was. For the English, the response was complicated. For many, the problem was how to explain this – why had God allowed such a thing? It must be divine retribution, God’s scourge for their sins. Leicester told Walsingham that God had visited his people with
The scourge of correction but our sins deserve this and more
In Scotland the response was the same; and the general assemble of the Kirk ordered a ‘Public humiliation of them that fear God’ to mitigate God’s wrath.
The impact was at once cultural and political. The massacre once and for all confirmed in the minds of English protestants that the Catholic church was tyrannical, treacherous and murderous. A mass of publications circulated; Marlowe produced his play The Massacre at Paris, playing out murder in the most graphical way possible. Everyone assumed that the Catholic powers had planned this and were in cahoots – Pope, French, Spanish – and now they would be coming for them. There was another panic about Mary Queen of Scots, that her presence would prompt further plots and invasion – and pleas for her execution multiplied. And there were indeed consequences for the protestant cause; in the Netherlands, the promised aid from Coligny would now no longer come. The towns that had declared for Orange were sacked by the Duke of Alva and the inhabitants put to the sword. The prince of Orange, the protestant leader fled in defeat to the provinces of Holland vowing ‘to make that province my tomb’. For Catholics in England, another stone was laid on the wall of distrust and fear, and for the moderates the job of carrying on their faith in plain sight once more made harder.
There were odd positives for the English though in this French religious chaos. A traditional enemy was weakened, and while this might strengthen the hand of the Spanish, they were occupied in the Netherlands. And meanwhile the English found they had new partners in the Huguenots, especially at sea; the Huguenots had already tried to establish colonies in Brazil, and from La Rochelle often worked together with the English to carry out acts of piracy; there forms what the historian N A M Rodgers called a Calvinist International of pirates from the Huguenots, English, Scottish and Dutch, and meanwhile French friendship at sea would be very useful to Drake in the Caribbean.
Talking of French friendship, what about the Treaty of Blois, surely that was blown out of the water. Well actually not, and it’s a nice example of how realpolitik and religion competed. England simply could not afford to dump the treaty with France; they feared Flanders would be overwhelmed by a Catholic league, and that England was in mortal danger. Walsingham was desperate to leave after the horrors of St Bartholomew, and to his joy the queen gave him permission to do so. But in the event the French insisted he stay, worried his departure would be seen as a breach, so soon after the events of St Bartholomew’s Day. So it was not until April 1573 that Walsingham returned to blighty, and the treaty of Blois survived. But Walsingham was not convinced, writing
I leave it to your honours now to judge what account you may make of this amity with this crown. If I may without presumption or offence say my opinion, considering how things currently stand, I think less peril to live with them as enemies, than as friends
We’ll leave the last word with Francis then.