Henry IV - John S. C. Abbott

Preparations for Massacre


As the Admiral Coligni was quietly passing through the streets from his interview with Charles at the Louvre to his residence, in preparation for his departure, accompanied by twelve or fifteen of his personal friends, a letter was placed in his hands. He opened it, and began to read as he walked slowly along. Just as he was turning a corner of the street, a musket was discharged from the window of an adjoining house, and two balls struck him. One cut off a finger of his right hand, and the other entered his left arm. The admiral, inured to scenes of danger, manifested not the slightest agitation or alarm. He calmly pointed out to his friends the house from which the gun had been discharged, and his attendants rushed forward and broke open the door. The assassin, however, escaped through a back window, and, mounting a fleet horse stationed there, and which was subsequently proved to have belonged to a nephew of the king, avoided arrest. It was clearly proved in the investigations which immediately ensued that the assassin was in connivance with some of the most prominent Catholics of the realm. The Duke of Guise and Catharine were clearly implicated.

Messengers were immediately dispatched to inform the king of the crime which had been perpetrated. Charles was still playing in the tennis-court. Casting away his racket, he exclaimed, with every appearance of indignation, "Shall I never be at peace?"

The wounded admiral was conveyed to his lodgings. The surgeons of the court, the ministers of the Protestant Church, and the most illustrious princes and nobles of the admiral's party hastened to the couch of the sufferer. Henry of Navarre was one of the first that arrived, and he was deeply moved as he bent over his revered and much-loved friend. The intrepid and noble old man seemed perfectly calm and composed, reposing unfailing trust in God.

"My friends," said he, "why do you weep? For myself, I deem it an honor to have received these wounds for the name of God. Pray him to strengthen me."

Henry proceeded from the bedside of the admiral to the Louvre. He found Charles and Catharine there, surrounded by many of the nobles of their court. In indignant terms Henry reproached both mother and son with the atrocity of the crime which had been committed, and demanded immediate permission to retire from Paris, asserting that neither he nor his friends could any longer remain in the capital in safety. The king and his mother vied with each other in noisy, voluble, and even blasphemous declarations of their utter abhorrence of the deed; but all the oaths of Charles and all the vociferations of Catharine did but strengthen the conviction of the Protestants that they both were implicated in this plot of assassination. Catharine and Charles, feigning the deepest interest in the fate of their wounded guest, hastened to his sick-chamber with every possible assurance of their distress and sympathy. Charles expressed the utmost indignation at the murderous attempt, and declared, with those oaths which are common to vulgar minds, that he would take the most terrible vengeance upon the perpetrators as soon as he could discover them.

"To discover them can not be difficult," coolly replied the admiral.

Henry of Navarre, overwhelmed with indignation and sorrow, was greatly alarmed in view of the toils in which he found himself and his friends hopelessly involved. The Protestants, who had been thus lured to Paris, unarmed and helpless, were panic-stricken by these indications of relentless perfidy. They immediately made preparations to escape from the city. Henry, bewildered by rumors of plots and perils, hesitated whether to retire from the capital with his friends in a body, taking the admiral with them, or more secretly to endeavor to effect an escape.

But Catharine and Charles, the moment for action having not quite arrived, were unwearied in their exertions to allay this excitement and soothe these alarms. They became renewedly clamorous in their expressions of grief and indignation in view of the assault upon the admiral. The king placed a strong guard around the house where the wounded nobleman lay, ostensibly for the purpose of protecting him from any popular outbreak, but in reality, as it subsequently appeared, to guard against his escape through the intervention of his friends. He also, with consummate perfidy, urged the Protestants in the city to occupy quarters near together, that, in case of trouble, they might more easily be protected by him, and might more effectually aid one another. His real object, however, was to assemble them in more convenient proximity for the slaughter to which they were doomed. The Protestants were in the deepest perplexity. They were not sure but that all their apprehensions were groundless; and yet they knew not but that in the next hour some fearful battery would be unmasked for their destruction. They were unarmed, unorganized, and unable to make any preparation to meet an unknown danger. Catharine, whose depraved yet imperious spirit was guiding with such consummate duplicity all this enginery of intrigue, hourly administered the stimulus of her own stern will to sustain the faltering purpose of her equally depraved but fickle-minded and imbecile son.

Some circumstances seem to indicate that Charles was not an accomplice with his mother in the attempt upon the life of the admiral. She said to her son, "Notwithstanding all your protestations, the deed will certainly be laid to your charge. Civil war will again be enkindled. The chiefs of the Protestants are now all in Paris. You had better gain the victory at once here than incur the hazard of a new campaign."

"Well, then," said Charles, petulantly, "since you approve the murder of the admiral, I am content. But let all the Huguenots also fall, that there may not be one left to reproach me."

It was on Friday, the 22d of August, that the bullets of the assassin wounded Coligni. The next day Henry called again, with his bride, to visit his friend, whose finger had been amputated, and who was suffering extreme pain from the wound in his arm. Marguerite had but few sympathies with the scenes which are to be witnessed in the chamber of sickness. She did not conceal her impatience, but, after a few commonplace phrases of condolence with her husband's bosom friend, she hastened away, leaving Henry to perform alone the offices of friendly sympathy.

While the young King of Navarre was thus sitting at the bedside of the admiral, recounting to him the assurances of faith and honor given by Catharine and her son, the question was then under discussion, in secret council, at the palace, by this very Catharine and Charles, whether Henry, the husband of the daughter of the one and of the sister of the other, should be included with the rest of the Protestants in the massacre which they were plotting. Charles manifested some reluctance thus treacherously to take the life of his early playmate and friend, his brother-in-law, and his invited guest. It was, after much deliberation, decided to protect him from the general slaughter to which his friends were destined.

The king sent for some of the leading officers of his troops, and commanded them immediately, but secretly, to send his agents through every section of the city, to arm the Roman Catholic citizens, and assemble them, at midnight, in front of the Hotel de Ville.

The energetic Duke of Guise, who had acquired much notoriety by the sanguinary spirit with which he had persecuted the Protestants, was to take the lead of the carnage. To prevent mistakes in the confusion of the night, he had issued secret orders for all the Catholics "to wear a white cross on the hat, and to bind a piece of white cloth around the arm." In the darkest hour of the night, when all the sentinels of vigilance and all the powers of resistance should be most effectually disarmed by sleep, the alarm-bell, from the tower of the Palace of Justice, was to toll the signal for the indiscriminate massacre of the Protestants. The bullet and the dagger were to be every where employed, and men, women, and children were to be cut down without mercy. With a very few individual exceptions, none were to be left to avenge the deed. Large bodies of troops, who hated the Protestants with that implacable bitterness which the most sanguinary wars of many years had engendered, had been called into the city, and they, familiar with deeds of blood, were to commence the slaughter. All good citizens were enjoined, as they loved their Savior, to aid in the extermination of the enemies of the Church of Rome. Thus, it was declared, God would be glorified and the best interests of man promoted. The spirit of the age was in harmony with the act, and it can not be doubted that there were those who had been so instructed by their spiritual guides that they truly believed that by this sacrifice they were doing God service.

The conspiracy extended throughout all the provinces of France. The storm was to burst, at the same moment, upon the unsuspecting victims in every city and village of the kingdom. Beacon-fires, with their lurid midnight glare, were to flash the tidings from mountain to mountain. The peal of alarm was to ring along from steeple to steeple, from city to hamlet, from valley to hill-side, till the whole Catholic population should be aroused to obliterate every vestige of Protestantism from the land.

While Catharine and Charles were arranging all the details of this deed of infamy, even to the very last moment they maintained with the Protestants the appearance of the most cordial friendship. They lavished caresses upon the Protestant generals and nobles. The very day preceding the night when the massacre commenced, the king entertained, at a sumptuous feast in the Louvre, many of the most illustrious of the doomed guests. Many of the Protestant nobles were that night, by the most pressing invitations, detained in the palace to sleep. Charles appeared in a glow of amiable spirits, and amused them, till a late hour, with his pleasantries.

Henry of Navarre, however, had his suspicions very strongly aroused. Though he did not and could not imagine any thing so dreadful as a general massacre, he clearly foresaw that preparations were making for some very extraordinary event. The entire depravity of both Catharine and Charles he fully understood. But he knew not where the blow would fall, and he was extremely perplexed in deciding as to the course he ought to pursue. The apartments assigned to him and his bride were in the palace of the Louvre. It would be so manifestly for his worldly interest for him to unite with the Catholic party, especially when he should see the Protestant cause hopelessly ruined, that the mother and the brother of his wife had hesitatingly concluded that it would be safe to spare his life. Many of the most conspicuous members of the court of Navarre lodged also in the capacious palace, in chambers contiguous to those which were occupied by their sovereign.

Marguerite's oldest sister had married the Duke of Lorraine, and her son, the Duke of Guise, an energetic, ambitious, unprincipled profligate, was one of the most active agents in this conspiracy. His illustrious rank, his near relationship with the king—rendering it not improbable that he might yet inherit the throne—his restless activity, and his implacable hatred of the Protestants, gave him the most prominent position as the leader of the Catholic party. He had often encountered the Admiral Coligni upon fields of battle, where all the malignity of the human heart had been aroused, and he had often been compelled to fly before the strong arm of his powerful adversary. He felt that now the hour of revenge had come, and with an assassin's despicable heart he thirsted for the blood of his noble foe. It was one of his paid agents who fired upon the admiral from the window, and, mounted upon one of the fleetest chargers of the Duke of Guise, the wretch made his escape.

The conspiracy had been kept a profound secret from Marguerite, lest she should divulge it to her husband. The Duchess of Lorraine, however, was in all their deliberations, and, fully aware of the dreadful carnage which the night was to witness, she began to feel, as the hour of midnight approached, very considerable anxiety in reference to the safety of her sister. Conscious guilt magnified her fears; and she was apprehensive lest the Protestants, when they should first awake to the treachery which surrounded them, would rush to the chamber of their king to protect him, and would wreak their vengeance upon his Catholic spouse. She did not dare to communicate to her sister the cause of her alarm; and yet, when Marguerite, about 11 o'clock, arose to retire, she importuned her sister, even with tears, not to occupy the same apartment with her husband that night, but to sleep in her own private chamber. Catharine sharply reproved the Duchess of Lorraine for her imprudent remonstrances, and bidding the Queen of Navarre good-night, with maternal authority directed her to repair to the room of her husband. She departed to the nuptial chamber, wondering what could be the cause of such an unwonted display of sisterly solicitude and affection.

When she entered her room, to her great surprise she found thirty or forty gentlemen assembled there. They were the friends and the supporters of Henry, who had become alarmed by the mysterious rumors which were floating from ear to ear, and by the signs of agitation, and secrecy, and strange preparation which every where met the eye. No one could imagine what danger was impending. No one knew from what quarter the storm would burst. But that some very extraordinary event was about to transpire was evident to all. It was too late to adopt any precautions for safety. The Protestants, unarmed, unorganized, and widely dispersed, could now only practice the virtue of heroic fortitude in meeting their doom, whatever that doom might be. The gentlemen in Henry's chamber did not venture to separate, and not an eye was closed in sleep. They sat together in the deepest perplexity and consternation, as the hours of the night lingered slowly along, anxiously awaiting the developments with which the moments seemed to be fraught.

In the mean time, aided by the gloom of a starless night, in every street of Paris preparations were going on for the enormous perpetration. Soldiers were assembling in different places of rendezvous. Guards were stationed at important points in the city, that their victims might not escape. Armed citizens, with loaded muskets and sabres gleaming in the lamplight, began to emerge, through the darkness, from their dwellings, and to gather, in motley and interminable assemblage, around the Hotel de Ville. A regiment of guards were stationed at the gates of the royal palace to protect Charles and Catharine from any possibility of danger. Many of the houses were illuminated, that by the light blazing from the windows, the bullet might be thrown with precision, and that the dagger might strike an unerring blow. Agitation and alarm pervaded the vast metropolis. The Catholics were rejoicing that the hour of vengeance had arrived. The Protestants gazed upon the portentous gatherings of this storm in utter bewilderment.

All the arrangements of the enterprise were left to the Duke of Guise, and a more efficient and fitting agent could not have been found. He had ordered that the tocsin, the signal for the massacre, should be tolled at two o'clock in the morning. Catharine and Charles, in one of the apartments of the palace of the Louvre, were impatiently awaiting the lingering flight of the hours till the alarm-bell should toll forth the death-warrant of their Protestant subjects. Catharine, inured to treachery and hardened in vice, was apparently a stranger to all compunctious visitings. A life of crime had steeled her soul against every merciful impression. But she was very apprehensive lest her son, less obdurate in purpose, might relent. Though impotent in character, he was, at times, petulant and self-willed, and in paroxysms of stubbornness spurned his mother's counsels and exerted his own despotic power.

Charles was now in a state of the most feverish excitement. He hastily paced the room, peering out at the window, and almost every moment looking at his watch, wishing that the hour would come, and again half regretting that the plot had been formed. The companions and the friends of his childhood, the invited guests who, for many weeks, had been his associates in gay festivities, and in the interchange of all kindly words and deeds, were, at his command, before the morning should dawn, to fall before the bullet and the poniard of the midnight murderer. His mother witnessed with intense anxiety this wavering of his mind. She therefore urged him no longer to delay, but to anticipate the hour, and to send a servant immediately to sound the alarm.

Charles hesitated, while a cold sweat ran from his forehead. "Are you a coward?" tauntingly inquired the fiendlike mother. This is the charge which will always make the poltroon squirm. The young king nervously exclaimed, "Well, then, begin."

There were in the chamber at the time only the king, his mother, and his brother the Duke of Anjou. A messenger was immediately dispatched to strike the bell. It was two hours after midnight. A few moments of terrible suspense ensued. There was a dead silence, neither of the three uttering a word. They all stood at the windows looking out into the rayless night. Suddenly, through the still air, the ponderous tones of the alarm-bell fell upon the ear, and rolled, the knell of death, over the city. Its vibrations awakened the demon in ten thousand hearts. It was the morning of the Sabbath, August 24th, 1572. It was the anniversary of a festival in honor of St. Bartholomew, which had long been celebrated. At the sound of the tocsin, the signal for the massacre, armed men rushed from every door into the streets, shouting, "Vive Dieu et le roi!"Live God and the king!