A military life at the service of the crown
Gaspard II de Châtillon, Lord, then Count de Coligny was the third son of Gaspard I de Coligny, Marshall of France, and of Louise de Montmorency, the sister of Constable Anne de Montmorency. Pierre, his elder brother Lord of Châtillon died in 1528 ; his second brother Odet de Châtillon, Cardinal in 1533, Archbishop of Toulouse, converted to Protestantism, and got married leaving several children when he died in England ; his younger brother, François, Lord of Andelot was his comrade in the struggle for the Protestant cause.
In 1522, when his father died, the constable took the Coligny children under his wing. As Louise de Montmorency was appointed lady in waiting to the queen, the Châtillon brothers befriended the Guise. Coligny’s whole life was marked by his relationship with the Guise.
Gaspard had a humanist education at the Court. He had a studious youth and intended to have a military career with his brother François d’Andelot, while his other brother Odet de Châtillon received his Cardinal hat at16 years of age.
As early as 1542 Coligny entered into arms and relentlessly fought for Francis I, and then for Henri II, on one hand against the Spaniards and their allies, and on the other hand against the English. He proved very brave and was wounded several times. He took part in winning Boulogne back from the English and negotiated with them the return of the city, thus proving to be a great diplomat.
In 1547, Coligny married Charlotte de Laval and they had eight children.
The Italian wars opposed France to the Habsburg from 1494 to 1559, the battle fields were in Italy but also in Northern France and in the United Provinces – The Valois and the Habsburg duelled over the leadership of Europe.
In 1552, Henri II seized three bishoprics, namely Metz, Toul and Verdun. Charles V’s troops besieged Metz. Coligny commanded over 10,000 men on foot and won the victory at Renty against the Spaniards. Charles V lifted the siege ; François de Guise in charge of the defence in Merz got all the glory, but Coligny was rewarded for his actions with the office and title of Admiral of France.
The conflict against the Habsburg went on, the Vaucelles truce was broken by the King of France, so that Coligny kept fighting. He was ordered to defend the city of Saint-Quentin. He locked himself in the city but had to capitulate a few months later. He and his brother d’Andelot were made prisoners. The military campaign was a disaster and the French forces were roughed up despite the Duke of Guise winning Calais back. The combatants were tired and the war ended with the Treaty of Gateau-Cambrésis in 1559, by which Calais was given back to the English, and the French claims on Italy were put an end to, France was also made to give back the places it occupied in Flanders.
Conversion to the Reformed faith
Gaspard de Coligny’s personality predisposed him to Calvinism. Serious and very pious, he exercised a very austere discipline on himself. He was sensitive to the word of Calvin and felt the spiritual deficiencies of Catholicism.
He was imprisoned in Charles V’s prison from 1557 to 1559. The Bible as unique book to read, and the despair of solitude and illness led him to a mystical crisis. His d’Andelot brother’s exhortations and his correspondence with Calvin convinced him to convert to Protestantism. He only took a public stand for Protestantism later. He was freed after the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis was signed and a ransom paid. He took refuge in his Châtillon-sur-Loing castle.
The leader of the Protestants
In 1559, upon Henri II’s death, the Guise clan seized power and imposed more radical measures against Protestantism. There were numerous martyrs, Anne de Bourg’s fate particularly impressed and shocked Coligny. The bloody repression after the Conspiracy of Amboise in 1560 prompted Coligny to display his commitment to the Reformation. In July 1560, he submitted the demands of the Protestants to Catherine de Medici and king Francis I, particularly the opening of worship places. He expressed his growing hostility towards the initiatives of the Guise, as well as his opposition to their religious policy and to their government.
Coligny was soon known as one of the leaders of the Reformed party. He played an important role at the Colloquium of Poissy in 1562 where he had Théodore de Bèze invited. Unfortunately Catherine de Medici’s bold idea to reconcile Catholics and Protestants and to have both religions coexist within the kingdom was dropped.
As the attempt to coexist had failed, the wars of religion began.
The wars of religions
In 1562 the Protestants feared a severe repression by the extremist Catholics influenced by the Guise. The massacre in Wassy was the first excess, which was all the more serious as it was the work of François de Guise. The Protestants no longer felt secure after the first war of religion in 1562 and 1653.
Louis de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, was the soul and leader of the Protestant army. Coligny, an eminent legalist, took up arms against the King’s troops after deeply reflecting on his duties as a subject, and on his religious convictions. He was at the head of the Protestant cavalry. To finance the troops he commanded, he signed the Treaty of Hampton Court with Elizabeth I, which gave her part of Le Havre harbour and guaranteed the return of Calais, in exchange for financial assistance.
After a number of fights, the death of Antoine de Bourbon and the murder of the Duc de Guise, the first war of religion ended with the Edict of Amboise, in 1563, to no one’s satisfaction.
During the relatively calm years that followed, Coligny went back and forth from Châtillon to the Court. He launched naval expeditions to the New-World, Villegagnon (1510-1571) set up a Protestant colony in the Rio Bay in 1555. He built a fortress called Fort-Coligny. The colony disapppeared a few years later.
In 1562 Coligny encouraged the setting up an establishment in Florida by a force under the rule of two Protestants, Jean Ribault and René de Laudonnière. Under the blows of the Spaniards and the English, that effort to colonise was to no avail.
In 1567, the second war of religion broke out. Coligny took part in it, commanding the fore-posts of the army of Condé. Anne de Montmorency, a former protector of the Châtillon brothers was killed in Saint Denis during the siege of Paris. In 1568, the Treaty of Longjumeau mentioned that the Protestants would lose all their strongholds except for La Rochelle.
Disarming the Protestants seemed a manoeuvre of Catherine de Medici as the Edict of Longjumeau was revoked, and the hunt for Protestants was launched that very same year. There was killing and looting everywhere. It was a dark period for the Admiral who lost his wife Charlotte de Laval (1530-1568) in an outbreak of typhoid that affected Orléans where she had taken refuge, and then he had to leave Châtillon. The main Protestant leaders fled to La Rochelle except for the Cardinal, his brother, who went to England to find the necessary funds to keep fighting.
The third war of religion (1568-1570) saw a Protestant defeat in Jarnac in March 1569, where Louis de Condé was killed. The Protestant troops, now under Coligny, won at Roche d’Abeille, but lost at Moncontour. The war went on with a lot of local fights that caused horrible massacres and looting. Coligny justified them by the need for retaliation for the King’s troops abuses. The Protestant armies managed to reach as far as the Charité-sur-Loire and to threaten Paris from there. The King eventually suggested a peace be signed in Saint Germain in August 1570. It was a victory for the Protestant side and particularly for Coligny.
The admiral’s death
From then on Coligny’s life was more peaceful. He remarried in 1571 with Jacqueline de Montbel d’Entremont, the widow of Count du Bouchage and returned to the king’s good graces.
He kept supporting the Protestant cause. He notably stood up for the Netherlands subjected to Spanish Catholics repression, and advocated a French intervention against the Habsburg. Catherine de Medici saw it as an attempt to reinforce Protestantism and was violently opposed to it. Coligny recruiting troops to fight in the Netherlands was a fatal act of disobedience. It resulted in the king’s Council wishing to eliminate Coligny.
On 22 August 1572 at the end of a real tennis game, the king had dragged him in, Coligny was shot at and wounded by Sir de Maurevert. He was brought home on the rue de Béthisy – now rue de Rivoli – where the king sympathetically visited him. He opposed his confidence in the king’s word to his friends who urged him to leave Paris. He also did not wish to offend the king and refused to risk starting a new civil war.
In the evening of 23 August, the king’s Council launched the massacre of Protestant leaders. They were assembled in Paris for the marriage of Marguerite de Valois with de Henri de Navarre, and they were murdered.
Coligny was thrown out of a window, finished off, cut into pieces displayed in various places in Paris.
The story of Coligny’s murder according to Agrippa d’Aubigné in the Universal History: ‘Besme entered his room, and found the admiral in his night dress and asked him: “Are you the admiral?” The answer was “Young man respect my old age”…Besme drove his sword through his body and having drawn it out, cut his face in two. The Duc de Guise asked if he had done the job and as Besme answered yes, he was ordered to throw the body out of the window, which he did.’
Among the main Protestant leaders present in Paris, only Henri de Navarre and Henri de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, escaped the Saint Bartholomew massacres.
Elizabeth of England mourned for the admiral, Protestant German Princes were indignant, while Pope Gregory XIII and Philip II of Spain openly rejoiced. Indeed with the death of the admiral the Protestant camp lost a character who, thanks to his birth and to his diplomatic and warrior talents, flew the flag of the Reformation in Europe.
It should be said that the beautiful memorial at the temple Oratoire du Louvre in Paris, featuring the admiral and carved by Gustave Crauk (1827-1905), bears the wrong date of birth. It never was corrected…
The reigning dynasty in the Netherlands, the Orange-Nassau, are descendants of Coligny through his daughter Louise who married William I the Silent, stadtholder of Holland (1544-1584).
- BOURGEON Jean-Louis, L’assassinat de Coligny, Droz, Genève, 1992
- Collectif, L’Amiral de Coligny et son temps, actes du Colloque de Paris (octobre 1972), SHPF, Paris, 1974, p. 795
- CRÉTÉ Liliane, Coligny, Fayard, Paris, 1985
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