Curiosities of Literature, by Isaac Disraeli

Apology for the Parisian Massacre.

An original document now lying before me, the autograph letter of Charles the Ninth, will prove, that the unparalleled massacre, called by the world religious, was, in the French cabinet, considered merely as political; one of those revolting state expedients which a pretended instant necessity has too often inflicted on that part of a nation which, like the undercurrent, subterraneously works its way, and runs counter to the great stream, till the critical moment arrives when one or the other must cease.

The massacre began on St. Bartholomew day, in August, 1572, lasted in France during seven days: that awful event interrupted the correspondence of our court with that of France. A long silence ensued; the one did not dare to tell the tale which the other could not listen to. But sovereigns know how to convert a mere domestic event into a political expedient. Charles the Ninth, on the birth of a daughter, sent over an ambassador extraordinary to request Elizabeth to stand as sponsor: by this the French monarch obtained a double purpose; it served to renew his interrupted intercourse with the silent queen, and alarmed the French protestants by abating their hopes, which long rested on the aid of the English queen.

The following letter, dated 8th February, 1573, is addressed by the king to La Motte Fénélon, his resident ambassador at London. The king in this letter minutely details a confidential intercourse with his mother, Catharine of Medicis, who, perhaps, may have dictated this letter to the secretary, although signed by the king with his own hand.1 Such minute particulars could only have been known to herself. The Earl of Wolchester (Worcester) was now taking his departure, having come to Paris on the baptism of the princess; and accompanied by Walsingham, our resident ambassador, after taking leave of Charles, had the following interview with Catharine de Medicis. An interview with the young monarch was usually concluded by a separate audience with his mother, who probably was still the directress of his councils.

The French court now renewed their favourite project of marrying the Duke d’Alençon with Elizabeth. They had long wished to settle this turbulent spirit, and the negotiation with Elizabeth had been broken off in consequence of the massacre at Paris. They were somewhat uneasy lest he should share the fate of his brother, the Duke of Anjou, who had not long before been expedited on the same fruitless errand; and Elizabeth had already objected to the disparity of their ages, the Duke of Alençon, being only seventeen, and the maiden queen six-and-thirty; but Catharine observed that Alençon was only one year younger than his brother, against whom this objection had not occurred to Elizabeth, for he had been sent back upon another pretext — some difficulty which the queen had contrived about his performing mass in his own house.

After Catharine de Medicis had assured the Earl of Worcester of her great affection for the Queen of England, and her and the king’s strict intention to preserve it, and that they were therefore desirous of this proposed marriage taking place, she took this opportunity of inquiring of the Earl of Worcester the cause of the queen his mistress’s marked coolness toward them. The narrative becomes now dramatic.

“On this Walsingham, who kept always close by the side of the count, here took on himself to answer, acknowledging that the said count had indeed been charged to speak on this head; and he then addressed some words in English to Worcester. And afterwards the count gave to my lady and mother to understand, that the queen his mistress had been waiting for an answer on two articles; the one concerning religion, and the other for an interview. My lady and mother instantly replied, that she had never heard any articles mentioned, on which she would not have immediately satisfied the Sieur Walsingham, who then took up the word; first observing that the count was not accustomed to business of this nature, but that he himself knew for certain that the cause of this negotiation for marriage not being more advanced, was really these two unsettled points: that his mistress still wished that the point of religion should be cleared up; for that they concluded in England that this business was designed only to amuse and never to be completed (as happened in that of my brother the Duke of Anjou); and the other point concerned the interview between my brother the Duke of Alençon; because some letters which may have been written between the parties2 in such sort of matters, could not have the same force which the sight and presence of both the persons would undoubtedly have. But, he added, another thing, which had also greatly retarded this business, was what had happened lately in this kingdom; and during such troubles, proceeding from religion, it could not have been well timed to have spoken with them concerning the said marriage; and that himself and those of his nation had been in great fear in this kingdom, thinking that we intended to extirpate all those of the said religion. On this, my lady and mother answered him instantly and in order: That she was certain that the queen his mistress could never like nor value a prince who had not his religion at heart; and whoever would desire to have this otherwise, would be depriving him of what we hold dearest in this world; That he might recollect that my brother had always insisted on the freedom of religion, and that it was from the difficulty of its public exercise, which he always insisted on, which had broken off this negotiation: the Duke d’Alençon will be satisfied when this point is agreed on, and will hasten over to the queen, persuaded that she will not occasion him the pain and the shame of passing over the seas without happily terminating this affair. In regard to what has occurred these latter days, that he must have seen how it happened by the fault of the chiefs of those who remained here; for when the late admiral was treacherously wounded at Nôtre Dame, he knew the affliction it threw us into (fearful that it might have occasioned great troubles in this kingdom), and the diligence we used to verify judicially whence it proceeded; and the verification was nearly finished, when they were so forgetful, as to raise a conspiracy, to attempt the lives of myself, my lady and mother, and my brothers, and endanger the whole state; which was the cause, that to avoid this, I was compelled, to my very great regret, to permit what had happened in this city; but as he had witnessed, I gave orders to stop, as soon as possible, this fury of the people, and place every one in repose. On this, the Sieur Walsingham replied to my lady and mother, that the exercise of the said religion had been interdicted in this kingdom. To which she also answered, that this had not been done but for a good and holy purpose; namely, that the fury of the catholic people might the sooner be allayed, who else had been reminded of the past calamities, and would again have been let loose against those of the said religion, had they continued to preach in this kingdom. Also should these once more fix on any chiefs, which I will prevent as much as possible, giving him clearly and pointedly to understand, that what is done here is much the same as what has been done, and is now practised by the queen his mistress in her kingdom. For she permits the exercise but of one religion, although there are many of her people who are of another; and having also, during her reign, punished those of her subjects whom she found seditious and rebellious. It is true this has been done by the laws, but I indeed could not act in the same manner; for finding myself in such imminent peril, and the conspiracy raised against me and mine, and my kingdom, ready to be executed, I had no time to arraign and try in open justice as much as I wished, but was constrained, to my very great regret, to strike the blow (lascher le main) in what has been done in this city.”

This letter of Charles the Ninth, however, does not here conclude. “My lady and mother” plainly acquaints the Earl of Worcester and Sir Francis Walsingham, that her son had never interfered between their mistress and her subjects, and in return expects the same favour; although, by accounts they had received from England, many ships were arming to assist their rebels at Rochelle. “My lady and mother” advances another step, and declares that Elizabeth by treaty is bound to assist her son against his rebellious subjects; and they expect, at least, that Elizabeth will not only stop these armaments in all her ports, but exemplarily punish the offenders. I resume the letter.

“And on hearing this, the said Walsingham changed colour, and appeared somewhat astonished, as my lady and mother well perceived by his face; and on this he requested the Count of Worcester to mention the order which he knew the queen his mistress had issued to prevent these people from assisting those of La Rochelle; but that in England, so numerous were the seamen and others who gained their livelihood by maritime affairs, and who would starve without the entire freedom of the seas, that it was impossible to interdict them.”

Charles the Ninth encloses the copy of a letter he had received from London, in part agreeing with an account the ambassador had sent to the king, of an English expedition nearly ready to sail for La Rochelle, to assist his rebellious subjects. He is still further alarmed, that Elizabeth foments the wartegeux, and assists underhand the discontented. He urges the ambassador to hasten to the queen, to impart these complaints in the most friendly way, as he knows the ambassador can well do, and as, no doubt, Walsingham will have already prepared her to receive. Charles entreats Elizabeth to prove her good faith by deeds and not by words; to act openly on a point which admits of no dissimulation. The best proof of her friendship will be the marriage; and the ambassador, after opening this business to her chief ministers, who the king thinks are desirous of this projected marriage, is then “to acquaint the queen with what has passed between her ambassadors and myself.”

Such is the first letter on English affairs which Charles the Ninth despatched to his ambassador, after an awful silence of six months, during which time La Motte Fénélon was not admitted into the presence of Elizabeth. The apology for the massacre of St. Bartholomew comes from the king himself, and contains several remarkable expressions, which are at least divested of that style of bigotry and exultation we might have expected: on the contrary, this sanguinary and inconsiderate young monarch, as he is represented, writes in a subdued and sorrowing tone, lamenting his hard necessity, regretting he could not have recourse to the laws, and appealing to others for his efforts to check the fury of the people, which he himself had let loose. Catharine de Medicis, who had governed him from the tender age of eleven years, when he ascended the throne, might unquestionably have persuaded him that a conspiracy was on the point of explosion. Charles the Ninth died young, and his character is unfavourably viewed by the historians. In the voluminous correspondence which I have examined, could we judge by state letters of the character of him who subscribes them, we must form a very different notion; they are so prolix, and so earnest, that one might conceive they were dictated by the young monarch himself!

1 All the numerous letters which I have seen of Charles the Ninth, now in the possession of Mr. Murray, are carefully signed by himself, and I have also observed postscripts written with his own hand: they are always countersigned by his secretary. I mention this circumstance, because, in the Dictionnaire Historique, it is said that Charles, who died young, was so given up to the amusements of his age, that he would not even sign his despatches, and introduced the custom of secretaries subscribing for the king. This voluminous correspondence shows the falsity of this statement. History is too often composed of popular tales of this stamp.

2 These love-letters of Alençon to our Elizabeth are noticed by Camden, who observes, that the queen became wearied by receiving so many; and to put an end to this trouble, she consented that the young duke should come over, conditionally, that he should not be offended if her suitor should return home suitless.

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:53