Among any kind of historical event, it's rare to find any more lavish, more anticipated, or more enjoyed than a royal wedding. Although such events were rarely arranged for romantic reasons, these spectacles of grandiose affection usually symbolized the union of nations rather than lovers. Such was the arranged marriage between Prince Henri de Bourbon and Marguerite de Valois, the daughter of King Henri II and the infamous Catherine de’ Medici in the year 1572.
A marriage designed to unite two royal French houses while easing religious tensions between the Huguenots and the Catholics, the marriage was intended to bring joy and stability to a tenuously peaceful France. Instead, the posh ceremony was among the most violent episodes in the history of Paris. The event kicked off a two-month spree of death where the Catholics massacred the Huguenots and caused mass destruction and civil unrest not unlike the violence of the French Revolution. This season of blood - known as the Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre - put an end to any hope for religious harmony and left a scar on history as one of the most horrifying episodes of the Protestant Reformation.
Of the many brutal historical massacres recorded, this one holds the distinction of having been intended as a marriage meant to ease the religious tension and instead acted as a round-up of lambs to be slaughtered. The horrifying story of the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre paint a picture of just how dark the religious politics of the time were. And how deadly the French religious wars would get.
The St. Bartholomew Massacre was not just a random moment of bloodshed - it stemmed from Europe's ongoing religious hatred and fear. The Protestant Reformation came to 16th-century Europe and changed the religious, political, and intellectual landscape of the French people. Until that point, the Catholic Church was the top dog in town, ruling the populace and asserting considerable influence through its papal authority. When reformers like John Calvin and Henry VIII argued for a redistribution of power and the freedom to embrace Christianity on their own terms, people began to question the authority of the church in northern and central Europe.
Of course, the Catholics found this notion appalling, leading to subsequent wars and persecutions on both sides. The Protestants intended to colonize the New World and had begun to flourish in many ways, establishing wealth and a fresh outlook on the autonomy of religion. This made the Catholics jealous, resentful, and frightened that their way of life may soon be consumed by this growing religious sentiment. And everyone in France would soon discover not even a lavish royal wedding could persuade these opposing groups to raise their glasses in peace.
Considering the religious tension, it came as quite a shock to the nation when the mother of the king, Catherine de' Medici, agreed to marry her daughter, Margaret de Valois, into a prominent Huguenot (or Protestant) family. Not only were Catherine and most of Paris Catholic at the time, the mother of the groom, Queen Jeanne d'Albret acted as an outspoken leader of the Huguenot movement, making the women enemies by design. Most of France detested the existence of Protestants in the royal court, and while the union of Margaret and Prince Henry of Navarre intended to unify the nation, it created only unrest amongst the people. As a result, considerable drama surrounded the planned marriage of these two influential and conflicting royal houses.
Despite the disapproval, Catherine and her son the king were supposedly tired of the ongoing religious strife and wanted to cement the peace, so Catherine chose pragmatism over bitterness. She and her son the king, Charles IX, were determined to keep war from breaking out again and knew a liaison with the powerful Huguenots would secure their reign. But there were problems - even though the royal marriage was arranged for August 18, 1572, the Catholics of Paris were horrified at the decision, and the Pope and King Phillip II of Spain publicly condemned Catherine's decision to unify the two young royals.
Even though Catherine de' Medici had agreed to the marriage, she may not have been particularly happy about it. Her daughter was marrying a Protestant to bring about accord between Catholics and Huguenots, but that didn't appear to be happening. The wedding went forward as planned, but Catherine started to see the influence the Huguenot leaders were having on her son the king.
Six days later, it may have been Catherine who gave the initial go-ahead for an assassination attempt on prominent Huguenot leader, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, while he was in town for the festivities.
Admiral Coligny was the first would-be victim in the campaign to take down the Huguenots. As he was leaving the Louvre one day, surrounded by his bodyguards, a shot was fired from a nearby window. He lost his index finger and shattered his left elbow but was not ultimately killed by the murder attempt. The king sent his own doctor to attend to the man's wounds. If Catherine was behind the assassination, clearly her son had no idea. Catherine may have believed Coligny was trying to manipulate her son, the young king in favor of the Huguenots rather than placate the fervor of the protestants. She may have considered him too much of a risk.