On August 18, 1572, Henry of Navarre married Margaret of Valois. After the celebrations, the elite Huguenots stayed in Paris for a meeting with the king to renegotiate the terms of the Edict of St. Germain. Four days after the wedding, there was an assassination attempt on the Admiral de Coligny. As the King’s valued adviser walked home, an assassin shot him, gravely injuring him. Coligny’s servants and witnesses carried him to his rooms, where the King’s physicians stabilized him. The Admiral had been lucky: he only sustained injuries to his hand and arm.
Hours after the assassination attempt, Coligny’s allies stormed into the palace, interrupting Catherine de Medici at dinner. As tempers flared, the Protestants promised to avenge the attack if the royal family did not investigate. Catherine and the Catholic nobles did not take the threat lightly, calling the king’s council for an emergency meeting. The Catholic elite pushed for violence, focusing on the reality of their situation. When the Admiral’s brother-in-law arrived for the wedding, he stationed his army outside of Paris, with no apparent explanation. Severely outnumbered, Catholics feared reprisal, and they supported a surprise attack against the Protestants.
To prevent a rebellion against the royal family, King Charles IX and his advisers agreed to the planned executions of the highest-ranking Huguenots left in the city. These men were military leaders, veterans of the French Wars of Religion capable of organizing an effective resistance. As the council prepared a list of selected assassinations, they placed the Admiral de Coligny at the top of the list. The Admiral’s bitter enemy, Henry, Duke of Guise, relished the opportunity to eliminate his rival, volunteering to lead his men to Coligny’s home himself.
As the city guards closed off the city, groups of Catholic nobles marched through Paris in the early hours of August 24, 1572, leading the targeted Huguenots out of their homes and executing them on the street. Guise and his men stormed Coligny’s house, killing his servants before they stabbed the Admiral, throwing his body out of his bedroom window. Guise’s men mutilated Coligny’s body, displaying it to the public. King Henry of Navarre knew the mobs were coming for him, and he fled to his wife’s rooms. Margaret barred the door from the Catholic assassins, saving her husband’s life.
Within hours, the violence incited the people of Paris. Joining the elite, the Catholics prowled the streets. Destroying businesses and homes, the mob murdered Protestants of all ranks, even women and children. As the dead bodies piled up, the people tossed them into the Seine River. On August 25, King Charles IX issued a statement to end the violence, insisting that the targeted assassinations meant to thwart an uprising against the royal family. Despite the effort, the murders continued in Paris for the next three days, and similar outbreaks of violence spread throughout the country until the end of the year.