Home  »  A Library of American Literature  »  The Death of Coligny

Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Death of Coligny

By Henry Martyn Baird (1832–1906)

[Born in Philadelphia, Penn., 1832. Died, 1906. History of the Rise of the Huguenots of France. 1879.]

IT was a Sunday morning, the twenty-fourth of August—a day sacred in the Roman calendar to the memory of Saint Bartholomew. Torches and blazing lights had been burning all night in the streets, to render the task easy. The houses in which Protestants lodged had been distinctly marked with a white cross. The assassins themselves had agreed upon badges for mutual recognition—a white cross on the hat, and a handkerchief tied about the right arm. The signal for beginning was to be given by the great bell of the “Palais de Justice” on the island of the old “cité.”

The preparations had not been so cautiously made but that they attracted the notice of some of the Huguenots living near Coligny. Going out to inquire the meaning of the clash of arms, and the unusual light in the streets, they received the answer that there was to be a mock combat in the Louvre—a pleasure-castle was to be assaulted for the king’s diversion. But, as they went farther and approached the Louvre, their eyes were greeted by the sight of more torches and a great number of armed men. The guards, full of the contemplated plot, could not refrain from insults. It soon came to blows, and a Gascon soldier wounded a Protestant gentleman with his halberd. It may have been at this time that the shot was fired which Catherine and her sons heard from the open window of the Louvre. Declaring that the fury of the troops could no longer be restrained, the queen now gave orders to ring the bell of the neighboring church of St. Germain l’Auxerrois.

Meantime Henry of Guise, Henry of Valois, the Bastard of Angoulême, and their attendants, had reached the admiral’s house. The wounded man was almost alone. Could there be any clearer proof of the rectitude of his purpose, of the utter falsity of the charges of conspiracy with which his enemies afterward attempted to blacken his memory? Guerchy and other Protestant gentlemen had expressed the desire to spend the night with him; but his son-in-law, Téligny, full of confidence in Charles’s good intentions, had declined their offers, and had, indeed, himself gone to his own lodgings, not far off, in the Rue St. Honoré. With Coligny were Merlin, his chaplain, Paré, the king’s surgeon, his ensign Cornaton, La Bonne, Yolet, and four or five servants. In the court below there were five of Navarre’s Swiss guards on duty. Coligny, awakened by the growing noise in the streets, had at first felt no alarm, so implicitly did he rely upon the protestations of Charles, so confident was he that Cosseins and his guards would readily quell any rising of the Parisians. But now some one knocks at the outer door, and demands an entrance in the king’s name. Word is given to La Bonne, who at once descends and unlocks. It is Cosseins, followed by the soldiers whom he commands. No sooner does he pass the threshold than he stabs La Bonne with his dagger. Next he seeks the admiral’s room, but it is not easy to reach it, for the brave Swiss, even at the risk of their own lives, defend first the door leading to the stairs, and then the stairs themselves. And now Coligny could no longer doubt the meaning of the uproar. He rose from his bed, and, wrapping his dressing-gown about him, asked his chaplain to pray; and while Merlin endeavored to fulfil his request, he himself in audible petitions invoked Jesus Christ as his God and Saviour, and committed to His hands again the soul he had received from Him. It was then that the person to whom we are indebted for this account—and he can scarcely have been another than Cornaton—rushed into the room. When Paré asked him what the disturbance imported, he turned to the admiral and said: “My lord, it is God that is calling us to himself! The house has been forced, and we have no means of resistance!” To whom the admiral, unmoved by fear, and even, as all who saw him testified, without the least change of countenance, replied: “For a long time have I kept myself in readiness for death. As for you, save yourselves, if you can. It were in vain for you to attempt to save my life. I commend my soul to the mercy of God.” Obedient to his directions, all that were with him, save Nicholas Muss, or de la Mouche, his faithful German interpreter, fled to the roof, and escaped under cover of the darkness.

One of Coligny’s Swiss guards had been shot at the foot of the stairs. When Cosseins had removed the barricade of boxes that had been erected farther up, the Swiss in his own company, whose uniform of green, white, and black showed them to belong to the Duke of Anjou, found their countrymen on the other side, but did them no harm. Cosseins following them, however, no sooner saw these armed men than he ordered his arquebusiers to shoot, and one of them fell dead. It was a German follower of Guise, named Besme, who first reached and entered Coligny’s chamber, and who for the exploit was subsequently rewarded with the hand of a natural daughter of the Cardinal of Lorraine. Cosseins, Attin, Sarlaboux, and others, were behind him. “Is not this the admiral?” said Besme of the wounded man, whom he found quietly seated and awaiting his coming. “I am he,” Coligny calmly replied. “Young man, thou oughtest to have respect for my old age and my feebleness; but thou shalt not, nevertheless, shorten my life.” There were those who asserted that he added: “At least, would that some man, and not this blackguard, put me to death.” But most of the murderers—and among them Attin, who confessed that never had he seen any one more assured in the presence of death—affirmed that Coligny said nothing beyond the words first mentioned. No sooner had Besme heard the admiral’s reply, than, with a curse, he struck him with his sword, first in the breast, and then on the head. The rest took part, and quickly despatched him.

In the court below, Guise was impatiently waiting to hear that his mortal enemy was dead. “Besme,” he cried out at last, “have you finished?” “It is done,” the assassin replied. “Monsieur le Chevalier (the Bastard of Angoulême) will not believe it,” again said Guise, “unless he sees him with his own eyes. Throw him out of the window!” Besme and Sarlaboux promptly obeyed the command. When the lifeless remains lay upon the pavement of the court, Henry of Guise stooped down and with his handkerchief wiped away the blood from the admiral’s face. “I recognize him,” he said; “it is he himself!” Then, after ignobly kicking the face of his fallen antagonist, he went out gayly encouraging his followers: “Come, soldiers, take courage; we have begun well. Let us go on to the others, for so the king commands!” And often through the day Guise repeated the words, “The king commands; it is the king’s pleasure; it is his express command!” Just then a bell was heard, and the cry was raised that the Huguenots were in arms to kill the king.

As for Admiral Coligny’s body, after the head had been cut off by an Italian of the guard of the Duke de Nevers, the trunk was treated with every indignity. The hands were cut off, and it was otherwise mutilated in a shameless manner. Three days was it dragged about the streets by a band of inhuman boys. Meantime the head had been carried to the Louvre, where, after Catherine and Charles had sufficiently feasted their eyes on the spectacle, it was embalmed and sent to Rome, a grateful present to the Cardinal of Lorraine and Pope Gregory the Thirteenth. It has been questioned whether the ghastly trophy ever reached its destination. Indeed, the French court seems to have become ashamed of its inhumanity, and to have regretted that so startling a token of its barbarous hatred had been allowed to go abroad. Accordingly, soon after the departure of the courier, a second courier was despatched in great haste to Mandelot, governor of Lyons, bidding him stop the first and take away from him the admiral’s head. He arrived too late, however; four hours before Mandelot received the king’s letter, “a squire of the Duke of Guise, named Pauli,” had passed through the city, doubtless carrying the precious relic. That it was actually placed in the hands of the Cardinal of Lorraine at Rome need not be doubted.

Gaspard de Coligny was in his fifty-sixth year at the time of his death. For twelve years he had been the most prominent man in the Huguenot party, occupying a position secured to him not more by his resplendent abilities as a general than by the respect exacted by high moral principles. With the light and frivolous side of French character he had little in common. It was to a sterner and more severe class that he belonged—a class of which Michel de l’Hospital might be regarded as the type. Men who had little affinity with them, and bore them still less resemblance, but who could not fail to admire their excellence, were wont to liken both the great Huguenot warrior and the chancellor to that Cato whose grave demeanor and imposing dignity were a perpetual censure upon the flippancy and lax morality of his countrymen. Although not above the ordinary height of men, his appearance was dignified and commanding. In speech he was slow and deliberate. His prudence, never carried to the extreme of over-caution, was signalized on many occasions. Success did not elate him; reverses did not dishearten him. The siege of the city of St. Quentin, into which he threw himself with a handful of troops, and which he long defended against the best soldiers of Spain, displayed on a conspicuous stage his military sagacity, his indomitable determination, and the marvellous control he maintained over his followers. It did much to prevent Philip from reaping more substantial fruits from the brilliant victory gained by Count Egmont on the feast-day of St. Lawrence. It was, however, above all in the civil wars that his abilities shone forth resplendent. Equally averse to beginning war without absolute necessity, and to ending it without securing the objects for which it had been undertaken, he was the good genius whose wholesome advice was frequently disregarded, but never without subsequent regret on the part of those who had slighted it. We have seen, in a former chapter, the touching account given by Agrippa d’Aubigné of the appeal of the admiral’s wife, which alone was successful in moving him to overcome his almost invincible repugnance to taking up arms, even in behalf of a cause which he knew to be most holy. I find a striking confirmation of the accuracy of the report in a passage of his will, wherein he defends himself from the calumnies of his enemies. “And forasmuch as I have learned that the attempt has been made to impute to me a purpose to attack the persons of the king, the queen, and the king’s brothers, I protest before God that I never had any such will or desire, and that I never was present at any place where such plans were ever proposed or discussed. And as I have also been accused of ambition in taking up arms with those of the reformed religion, I make the same protestation, that only zeal for religion, together with fear for my own life, compelled me to assume them. And, indeed, I must confess my weakness, and that the greatest fault which I have always committed in this respect has been that I have not been sufficiently alive to the acts of injustice and the slaughter to which my brethren were subjected, and that the dangers and the traps that were laid for myself were necessary to move me to do what I have done. But I also declare before God, that I tried every means in my power, in order so long as possible to maintain peace, fearing nothing so much as civil disturbances and wars, and clearly foreseeing that these would bring after them the ruin of this kingdom, whose preservation I have always desired and labored for to the utmost of my ability.”

To Coligny’s strategy too much praise could scarcely be accorded. The Venetian ambassador, Contarini, in the report of his mission to the senate, in the early part of the year 1572, expressed his amazement that the admiral, a simple gentleman with slender resources, had waged war against his own powerful sovereign, who was assisted by the King of Spain and by a few German and several Italian princes; and that, in spite of many battles lost, he preserved so great a reputation that the reiters and lansquenets never rebelled, although their wages were much in arrears, and their booty was often lost in adverse combats. He was, in fact, said the enthusiastic Italian, entitled to be held in higher esteem than Hannibal, inasmuch as the Carthaginian general retained the respect of foreign nations by being uniformly victorious; but the admiral retained it, although his cause was almost always unsuccessful.

But all Coligny’s military achievements pale in the light of his manly and unaffected piety. It is as a type of the best class among the Huguenot nobility that he deserves everlasting remembrance. From his youth he had been plunged in the engrossing pursuits of a soldier’s life; but he was not ashamed, so soon as he embraced the views of the reformers, to acknowledge the superior claims of religion upon his time and his allegiance. He gloried in being a Christian. The influence of his faith was felt in every action of his life. In the busiest part of an active life, he yet found time for the recognition of God; and, whether in the camp or in his castle of Châtillon-sur Loing, he consecrated no insignificant portion of the day to devotion.