The French admiral and statesman Gaspard de Coligny (1519-1572) was the most prominent leader of the French Protestants, or Huguenots, during the first decade of the religious wars in France.
Gaspard de Coligny was born on Feb. 16, 1519, at his family's château of Châtillon-sur-Loing, the third of four sons of Gaspard de Coligny, Seigneur de Châtillon, and Louise de Montmorency. His mother came from an old and powerful noble house which was headed during Coligny's youth by his uncle, Anne de Montmorency, constable of France and one of the most influential figures in the courts of Francis I and Henry II.
Because of their kinship with Montmorency, Coligny and his brothers Odet and François came into important and lucrative offices and commands. Gaspard was named admiral of France and governor of two major French provinces. As admiral, he became France's first active exponent of colonial expansion in the New World. Between 1555 and 1571 he authorized and supported several colonizing expeditions in an effort to reduce the power of Spain, to find wealth for France, and to provide a haven for French Protestants.
Conversion to Protestantism
Because they belonged to the Montmorency clientage, the Coligny brothers became enmeshed in the bitter rivalry between the constable and the powerful Guise family. This rivalry, originally a political struggle for influence over Henry II, acquired ideological overtones when Gaspard and his brothers converted to Calvinism and the Guises emerged as the foremost defenders of Catholicism. Among the many French nobles to take up the Protestant faith, Coligny stood out because of the sincerity of his conversion and the depth of his attachment to the new faith.
Coligny assumed the role of spokesman for the French Protestants, and his initial hope was to ally with the queen mother, Catherine de Médicis, and work through her to secure toleration for his fellow Huguenots. But the massacre of a Protestant congregation at Vassy in 1562 by the Duke of Guise drove the Protestant nobility, Coligny with them, into armed opposition to the Crown. Three times (1562-1563, 1567, and 1568-1570) Coligny led the Protestants against the armies of the King. After 1562 Catherine de Médicis alternated reprisals against the admiral with attempts to reconcile him to the King and the Catholic party.
Advocate of War with Spain
In 1571 Coligny returned to the royal court armed with a policy that he was determined to have Charles IX adopt. He yearned for a war against Spain, France's traditional enemy, which would be precipitated by French intervention on behalf of the rebelling Spanish Netherlands. He believed that this war would unite Frenchmen in spite of their religious differences and would help the cause of international Protestantism (the leaders of the revolt in the Netherlands were Calvinists). War against Spain would also allow Coligny to abandon the unwanted role of leader of an opposition faction and would remove the accusation of his enemies that he had been a traitor. This last charge grew out of a treaty with Elizabeth I of England that he had signed in 1562 on behalf of the Protestants of France and which had led to English occupation of Le Havre on the Normandy coast.
Believing that a war with Spain would be disastrous, Catherine de Médicis fought desperately during the summer of 1572 to convince the royal council and her son Charles IX to reject the proposal of war, but Coligny persisted in discussing it with the young king. On August 22 Coligny was fired upon and wounded while walking in Paris. Catherine, the King's brother (later Henry III), and the Duke of Guise were involved in this assassination attempt, which they kept secret from the King.
St. Bartholomew's Night Massacre
When Charles IX initiated an investigation and announced that those involved would be punished severely, Catherine and the others fabricated a supposed Huguenot plot against his life. The overwrought Charles then authorized the assassination of Coligny and other Protestant leaders who had gathered in Paris to celebrate the marriage of the Protestant prince Henry of Navarre to Charles's sister. On the night of Aug. 24, 1572, Coligny was slain in his bed by the attendants of the Duke of Guise and thus became the first of countless victims of the St. Bartholomew's Night massacre.
Further Reading on Gaspard de Coligny
The best biography of Coligny, sympathetic in tone, is A. W. Whitehead, Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France (1904). Good for the early years is Eugène Bersier, Coligny: The Earlier Life of the Great Huguenot (1884). See also Sir Walter Besant, Gaspard de Coligny (2d ed. 1879). Background information is in James Westfall Thompson, The Wars of Religion in France, 1559-1576 (1909); Paul Van Dyke, Catherine de Médicis (2 vols., 1922); and Philippe Erlanger, St. Bartholomew's Night: The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew (trans. 1962).
Additional Biography Sources
Crete, Liliane, Coligny, Paris: Fayard, 1985.