Translation Canon Tony Dickinson
Born in 1519, two years after Luther posted his ninety-five thesis on the doors of the Church in Wittenberg, Gaspard de Coligny converted to Protestantism in 1560.
Everyone knows Gaspard II de Coligny as the emblematic victim of the St. Bartholomew massacre, this period of extreme violence in the wars of religion of the 16th century. His life is, for its part, less well known.
The first forty years of his life coincided with the development in France of the ideas of the Reformation. It was also a time which historians have described as “the beautiful 16th century”, since it corresponds to a period of economic and cultural development in France when the Renaissance developed its most beautiful creations.
Gaspard II de Coligny was born in 1519 into a noble family: his father, Gaspard I de Coligny was Marshall of France, his mother, Louise de Montmorency was the sister of one of the chief advisers of king François I, the Constable Anne de Montmorency; an uncle who would know how to guide his nephew towards the peaks of honour and assure him of the greatest influence with the King.
Gaspard II spent part of his childhood at Châtillon-sur-Loing, where he had as his tutor Nicolas Bérault, a humanist close to the “evangelicals” of the groupe de Meaux. From 1530 onwards, he pursued his education at court with the King’s children, including the future Henri II. It was in his service that he completed the great part of his military career, as colonel general of the French Infantry at the age of 28, then as Admiral of France at the age of 34. He was at the same time Governor of the Ile-de-France and of Picardie.
Like the nobility of his era, he was present on the battlefield against Spain or England. Gaspard de Coligny was equally present at the table where peace negotiations took place This gave him the opportunity to meet in 1550 the young King Edward VI of England and in 1556 the old Emperor, Charles V. They were two very different personalities, the first at the dawn of his reign, the second in the twilight of his life, but both made an impression on him.
If he knew victory on the battlefield he also knew defeats; the one with the most serious consequences was the one at St. Quentin in August 1557. At the end of a particularly testing siege of several days, he could only surrender to the enemy. Taken prisoner, he remained a captive of the Spaniards for two years.
It was in the course of those two years that Gaspard de Coligny would have discovered “the true faith”, in other words that he would have drawn closer to Protestantism, to which his mother was very close and to which his brother François d’Andelot and his sister Madeleine Roye already belonged.
When Gaspard de Coligny converted and took part in an act of public worship in 1560, the Reformed numbered 2 million and represented 10% of the population of France. They were seen either as “seditious and disturbers of the public peace” or as heretics. In either case they had to be eliminated.
After the repressive policies carried out by Henry II and Francis II, the failure of attempts at reconciliation like the colloquy of Poissy in 1561, and the massacre at Wassy in March 1562, the Reformed party took up arms. There followed a period of wars of religion. Gaspard de Coligny undertook three campaigns, in the course of which he led the troops of the Protestant Army.
To seal the reconciliation of Catholics and Protestants after the signing of the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye in 1570, which put an end to the third war, the marriage of Marguerite de Valois, daughter of Catherine de Medicis, with Henri of Navarre, the future Henri IV, was arranged.
It was after the celebration of this marriage in Paris, on the 18th August, 1572, that Gaspard de Coligny was wounded for a first time in the hand on 22nd August, and then assassinated during the massacre of St. Bartholomew, in the night of the 23rd-24th August, 1572.
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