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The Blessed House of Coligny


And they overcame him by the blood of the Lamb, and by the word of their testimony; and they loved not their lives unto the death. (Re 12:11 AV)


“After his body had been treated to all sorts of insults, they threw it into a neighboring stable, and finally cut off his head, which they sent to Rome.[1] They also shamefully mutilated him, and dragged his body through the streets to the bank of the Seine….


“As some children were in the act of throwing the body into the river, it was dragged out and placed upon the gibbet of Montfaucon, where it hung by the feet in chains of iron; and then they built a fire beneath, by which he was burned without being consumed; so that he was, so to speak, tortured with all the elements, since he was killed upon the earth, thrown into the water, placed upon the fire, and finally put to hang in the air.”[2]


Thus ended the life of Gaspard de Coligny,[3] the great French Admiral and hero of the French Reformation on August 24, 1572, the date of the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.


There was a day when almost the whole of evangelical Christianity knew the stories of great heroes like Coligny.  Their stories were taught in American public schools and recited from pulpits.  But a new day has arrived, a day when all must pretend that every religious opinion is of equal value to every other--a day when doubt masquerades as humility and skepticism wears the face of tolerance.  “I would not die for what I believe, for I might be wrong,” one fainting youth wrote on his blog, thinking he was very wise and humble, but knowing that he was very politically correct.  Coligny was made of much sterner stuff.


How had France come to a day such as this?  What had fanned the fires of religious hatred so that in one day, August 24, 1572, the brightest and best of her citizens could be slaughtered?  What was Coligny’s great crime? 


He was a Bible believer who read the Bible and the teachings of an expatriated Frenchman in Geneva and was a leader of French Calvinists known as Huguenots.  It is a pity that there are so few Christians today who even know his name.


God, however, does not forget the blood of his martyrs.  Revenge is forbidden to the people of God, and that not because vengeance is wrong in itself, but because God has reserved it for Himself.  “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.” (Ro 12:19 AV)  There is nothing more certain in the Bible than that the Lord hates the “proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood.” (Pr 6:17 AV)  The Lord warns us to  “be clothed with humility: for God resisteth the proud, and giveth grace to the humble.” (1Pe 5:5 AV)


It is not for us to know the secret things of God; it is enough to know that we may truly know His character from Scripture.  Knowing this we may discern His footprints in history and with some certainty predict something of the future.  As Beza said of Calvin, who predicted the awful events that would overtake France,


Do you ask, whence came that prediction?  Certainly not from that most deceptive and profane divination of Astrology, which he of all others used to condemn from GOD’s Word, but from those very Prophetic Books which he was then interpreting.  Since, therefore he saw the same evils prevalent in France, on account of which God was accustomed to chastise His people most severely, and to take vengeance on his enemies with just penalties, why should he not pronounce that the same inflictions hung over the impenitent?[4]


D. Gaspard de Coligny was born in 1519 to one of France’s most illustrious families, one that had served the government for more than three hundred years.   One brother became a cardinal in the church and another a Colonel.  All three brothers at length declared for the Reformation and suffered for their faith.  Gaspard rose to become Grand Admiral of France, one of her most distinguished military heroes.  His reputation was gained at the expense of the followers of the Reformation, for his family was most Catholic and he grew up in that faith.  His military genius attracted the attention of King Henry II and he was very close to that monarch.  Under the orders of Henry II, Gaspard launched voyages to the New World, to Brazil and Florida.


Gaspard at length took possession of the family estate and the title Seigneur of Chatillon.  He married Charlotte De La Val and they began to read the writings of the Reformation, particularly those of John Calvin from Geneva.  They became convinced of the evangelical truth and the Admiral became one of Europe’s staunchest defenders of the Reformation.    His children by Charlotte were the only ones who survived St. Bartholomew Day.


Coligny joined with Calvin in 1555 to bring missionaries to newly- attempted French colonies in Brazil and Florida.   Peter Richer and William Chartier were the first Protestant missionaries there.[5]  Coligny, like Peter Minuit who had compassion for those persecuted in the Palatinate, hoped to secure a refuge for French Protestants being persecuted in France.  His name appears again and again in the history of that era and the eras that followed, for in his descendants and influence Coligny would continue to affect the events of Europe. [Among others, Calvin’s introductions to his commentaries written during this time and his letters to contemporaries provide a rich source.]   Persecution would snuff out Coligny’s family in France, but his descendants would live on and contribute to the Reformed faith in other countries for many years.  The spiritual poverty of France would be the enrichment of Holland, Germany, England, and America.


The tragedy of St. Bartholomew’s Day must be seen against the larger background of the rivalry and struggle for power between two powerful families of France, Montmorency and Guise.  It was said that the Guise’s would have no equals, and that the Montmorencys would have no superiors.[6]  Between them stood the house of Bourbon and Diana of Poitiers, the mistress of Henry II.


One of the great mysteries of history is the friendship of Gaspard Coligny to King Henry II.   Before he became king the Dauphin showed a marked attachment to the young future Lord of Chatillon.  The favor of the king never left Coligny, even as the leader of the Protestant opposition.  This friendship for a time tipped the balance in favor of the Montmorencys.  Anne of Montmorency, the uncle of Coligny, was Grand Marshall and Constable of France.  The success of the Montmorencys in a number of military adventures was the despair of the Guises who hoped and plotted for the defeat of France in order to advance their own political agenda.


The Guises were led by two fanatical Roman Catholic brothers, the Duke of Guise [Francis] and the Cardinal Lorraine [Charles], who had gathered influence to themselves in the court of Henry II [1519-1559] and his wife Catherine of the infamous Medicis of Italy.   Henry inconveniently died before the plans of the brothers and Catherine had come to fruition, but they tried to make the best of a bad situation by arranging the marriage of the fifteen- year old heir, Francis, to their niece, Mary Queen of Scots.  Francis II was crowned, but did not live long, and while he did was completely under the control of Mary, who in turn was the pawn of the Guises.  Upon his death, instead of a life of ease in France, Mary chose to return to Scotland to be bested by John Knox and would find death at the mercies of Queen Elizabeth in England, and bequeath her son James I to the Stuart line of English Protestant monarchs.


The House of Guise was primarily an international and ecclesiastical house, their power centered in three cardinalates and the two Queen Marys, of England and Scotland.[7]


The French defeat that the Guise’s hoped for finally came at the hands of the Spanish and Philip II in 1557 at the battle of San Quentin.  Anne of Montmorency and Coligny were both captured and imprisoned, Coligny in Savoy, the ally of the Spanish.  Many have wondered if this was the spiritual turning point in Coligny, opening his soul to the teachings of the Reformation.


The Guise brothers, stirred by the Queen Mother Catherine, who served as regent for Charles IX, determined to stamp out the Reformed faith from France.  But Charles was not easy to convince.  Coligny gained influence at the court of Charles who hoped to gain a workable compromise to the religious quarrels in France.  The French Protestants, known as Huguenots, contended on every level.  They used diplomacy, armed conflict, theology and philosophy, influence of high noblemen like L’Hopital and Coligny.  There were hundreds of thousands of Huguenots in France and their influence was increasing by leaps and bounds.  On one occasion Coligny said he would be able to get fifty thousand signatures in one day in Normandy alone.  Beza had numerous followers near Paris and L’Hopital gave Catherine a list of 2150 Reformed Congregations, each under a separate pastor.  He claimed that the number of the Reformed was at least one-third the number of Romanists.


Catherine and the brothers knew that something had to be done and what was done was bloody.  She well knew the arts of winning by compromise and sought to do so with a great conference at Paris in 1560 attended by leading Protestants, but this was sabotaged by the Guises and persecution and wars broke out.  Beza said that more than three thousand Protestants were “stabbed, stoned, beheaded, strangled, burned, buried alive, starved, drowned, suffocated.”  The Duke of Guise blamed the Calvinists for the failure of the council and turned to war, winning city after city from the Huguenots, until he met his death at Orleans in 1663, the same year that saw the death of Calvin and the retirement of Coligny to his estates at Chatillon. 


The flashpoint came with the sudden death of the Duke of Guise.  His family suspected poison, a not uncommon way of dying in those days.  The innocence of Coligny in the death of the Duke has been thoroughly established by history, but the Catholics unjustly blamed Coligny and the Huguenots.  Catherine and the Cardinal persuaded the king [Charles IX] to a final solution.  The Spanish Duke of Alva gained influence over the Queen and her Council and persecution and civil war broke out.  Coligny came out of retirement to conduct the battle of Moncontour, which was lost October 1, 1569, and Coligny was severely wounded.  An attempt was made on his life under the orders of Catherine, resulting in injuries at the very palace of the king.  Coligny was now a marked man, although the King and Queen visited him with condolences and smiles.


And so the determined deed was done.  Coligny’s corpse was given up to public desecration and blood ran in the street of Paris for seven long days.  The king attended public prayers with his family to give thanks to God for the success of their policy.  The blood of the Huguenots not only stained the streets of Paris but defiled the land throughout France.   Merle d’Aubigne recorded it years later:


When the day of St. Bartholomew saw the streets of the capital of the Valois run with blood, — when ruffians glutted their savage passions on the corpse of that best and greatest of Frenchmen, Coligny — immense was the enthusiasm at Rome, and a fierce shout of exultation rang through the pontifical city.   Wishing to perpetuate the glory of the massacre of the Huguenots, the pope ordered a medal to be struck, representing that massacre and bearing the device: Hugonotorum strages. The officers of the Roman court still sell (as we know personally) this medal to all who desire to carry away some remembrance of their city. Those times are remote; milder manners prevail, but it is the duty of Protestantism to remind the world of the use made by the court of Rome, on emerging from the middle ages, of that preeminence in catholic countries, which she contends belongs to her always, and which she is still ready to claim ‘with the greatest vigor.’ Resistance to this cruel preeminence cost the Reformation torrents of the purest blood; and it is this blood which gives us the right to protest against it.[8]


It is well beyond the scope of this work to explore the intricacies of the clash of interests in Coligny’s France or to describe the brutality of Bartholomew’s Day.  That has been done in a previous issue of Leben.   Emotions and hatred ran high.  Enemies were demonized and the voices of moderation were few.  The sudden death of Henry II gave the catholic Guise’s what appeared to be the opportunity to “save” France for the Pope.   The blood of the Protestants would be of small value in that cruel age and the Guises sowed the seeds that brought Huguenot resistance, led by Coligny, the Prince of Condé, and many of the most distinguished French noblemen.  The resistance and the service of these great and good men to France came to an end.  The blood of the martyrs is not always the seed of the church; sometimes other bitter fruit grows.


One thing seems certain.  Illustrious service was rendered to other nations—some the enemies of France—by the descendents of that one family alone, the family of Gaspard de Coligny.    Good reports that one descendant, the wife of Duke George of Monteliard, actively supported her husband’s efforts to bring peace between the Lutherans and the Reformed in the Palatinate.  Coligny’s granddaughter, Louisa Henrietta, wife of the Great Elector,


is the saint and songstress of the German Reformed Church.  What Miriam was among the Israelites, she was to the Reformed—the sweet singer of Israel. She was a Dutch Princess descended from the great families of Coligny and Orange. Her father, Count Frederick Henry of Orange-Nassau, was governor of the Netherlands from 1625 to 1647. Her mother was a German Princess, Countess Amalie of Solms [immortalized by Rembrandt in 1632 cwp]. She was thus of noble blood, but made nobler by grace. She was born at The Hague, November 27, 1627. Both of her parents were of the Reformed faith. Her mother, a woman of unusual intelligence, piety and beauty, educated her with great care. Although French fashions were popular at the court, she did not think it beneath her to train her daughter in the mysteries of housekeeping. Louisa grew up tall, fair-haired and graceful. Her religious training she received from Rivet, a Reformed theologian. She loved her Bible, and it became her constant companion.  Many passages, especially from Isaiah, remained in her memory as the result of her early training.[9]


She was descended from both Coligny and William of Orange.  Good also notes that Emperor William I, descended from Coligny through the Palatinate and the House of Orange, was crowned at Versailles after his defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War.  William’s staff included 80 descendants of the Huguenots that had been exiled.   The bitterness between these two nations has been the cause of much unrest in Europe over the centuries.


The influence of the exiled descendants of Coligny goes far beyond Germany.  Coligny’s daughter Louisa was married to a Huguenot leader, Charles de Teligny.  She and her husband went to Paris that fateful St. Bartholomew’s Day to attend the wedding of  Henry of Navarre.   Both Coligny and Teligny were slain, but Louisa somehow managed to escape.  She made her way alone and on foot to her home at Chatillon and was able to warn her step-mother and brothers, even before the news of the massacre had arrived.   She was nineteen.


After some time at Bern and Geneva, where many Huguenots found shelter, she went to the refuge for Huguenots at Heidelberg, refusing the offer of safety and treasure from the French.  Good recounts a touching incident: 


Some time after, the Duke of Anjou, who was the leader of the band that put her father and her husband to death, passed through Heidelberg on his way to take the throne of Poland. Elector Frederick was conducting him through the picture gallery of kings, queens and princes in the castle, when the Elector pointed to Coligny’s portrait and asked the Duke if he knew whose it was. “Yes,” he replied, “the Admiral.” Frederick could no longer control himself, but said, “It is he, the best of men, the wisest and greatest captain of Europe, whose children I have under my protection, lest the dogs of France should tear them to pieces, as they have done their father.” The Duke became very much confused under these words, as well he might be. But the Elector continued, “Of all the lords of France whom I have known, that is the one I have found most zealous for the glory of the French name, and I am not afraid to affirm that the King and all France have suffered in him a loss that can never be repaired.” The Duke tried to apologize for the assassination of Coligny by suggesting that the Huguenots were forming a conspiracy at the time. But the Elector cut him short by saying, “We know all about that, sir.”


After the death of his wife, Charlotte de Bourbon, William the Silent proposed marriage to Louisa.  She was poor and without dowry, but she was the daughter of Coligny, and the blood of Coligny mingled with the blood of Orange to produce Emperors of Germany, Rulers of the Netherlands, and through William and Mary, the Kings and Queens of Britain.  


The blood of Huss made it necessary for Charles V to honor the safe conduct given to Luther.  In somewhat the same way the sacrifices of the Huguenots in France watered the political soil of Western Europe so that the flowers of religious liberty could grow.  The influence and power of these rulers were a major spur to what has become known as Western Civilization for they gave protection to the Reformation and to her preachers and churches.


Except the LORD build the house, they labor in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waked but in vain.  (Ps 127:1 AV)

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[1] The head never got to Rome.  The grisly present was intercepted by the mayor of Lyons.  Like the head of Cromwell in England, it seems that only God knows the final destination of the head of the great Coligny.


[3] Coligny is pronounced cul-in-YEE.

[4] Calvin’s unfinished commentary on Ezekiel was dedicated to Admiral Coligny and published in 1565 after the death of Calvin.  This dedication was written by Theodore Beza.  Meyers, Thomas.  Translation of John Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel.    Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Vol. I, p. xliii-xliv. 1948

[5] Good, J.I.  Famous Missionaries of the Reformed Church.  Electronic Version Edited by Eric D. Bristley, Th.M for The Synod Of The Reformed Church In The United States, 2004.

[6] Whitehead, A. W.  Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France.  Methune & Co., London, 1904. p.33.  This is perhaps the best book on Coligny It is out of print, as are the works cited by Whitehead, and expensive

[7] Whitehead, op. cit. p. 32.

[8] D’Aubigne, J. H. Merle.  History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin.  London.  Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts, & Green, 1864.  Vol. III, Chaper 1, page 3.

[9]Good, J.I.  Famous Women of the Reformed Church.  Electronic Version Edited by Eric D. Bristley, Th.M for The Synod Of The Reformed Church In The United States, 2004.  Page 139