Gaspard De Coligny, the son of a noble French family, was born in 1519 in Chatillon-sur-Loing. His father died when Coligny was five, leaving his mother to raise him and his two brothers. His mother had an interest for religious reform, and passed this on to her sons through their teachers. Coligny stayed with his mother at Chatillon-sur-Loing until he was eleven, when his mother became lady in waiting to the new Queen Eleanor of France. By age 15, Coligny was more interested in studying history and philosophy than joining the king’s hunting parties.
Coligny was the first army official to begin military reforms, called “ordinances.” This stopped the looting, dueling, swearing, and raping by armed men, and turned these men into a respectable group of soldiers.
In 1552 Coligny was made admiral of France. He became governor of Picardy in 1555, and began colonization in the New World for the persecuted Huguenots. In 1556, Coligny negotiated the truce of Vaucelles with Philip II of Spain. This temporarily stopped the fighting between France and Spain until Henry II broke the truce. Spain and England then joined forces against the French. Coligny was placed in charge of defending the city of Saint-Quentin in 1557. After 17 days, the enemy defeated him, but this 17 days allowed the French to focus on protecting Paris. Coligny was captured by the Spanish and was put into prison in the Netherlands. While in prison, Coligny read the Bible and other books that led him to better understand godliness, religion, and the issues of the Reformation.
After his release in 1559, Coligny found that his status had changed. King Henry II had died. His enemies, the Guises, now ruled the court under the new King Francis II. Coligny retreated to his beautiful home in Chatillon, which he had filled with art, and began a college.
Coligny knew the risks of professing his faith, as he saw the dangers the Huguenots faced. However, because his wife encouraged him, he joined a Huguenot church, and soon became their leader.
Coligny helped the Huguenots greatly with his diplomacy and political stature. In 1560, Coligny stood up for the Huguenots, saying that their persecution would be stopped. He was unsuccessful. He did this even though this could have meant death for him. That same year, a failed attempt to overthrow the king led to a massacre of the Huguenots.
Later that year, Coligny stood up for the Huguenots again, but this time he was successful. The persecution of the Huguenots was stopped until the massacre of Huguenots at Vassay the next year. Over the next years, Coligny continued to fight for the Huguenots and for a united Protestant France, and slowly worked his way into the favor of the king.
Catherine de Medici, the mother of the French king, noticed Coligny’s growing influence over her son, and grew jealous. She began to plan his assassination, with the aid of the Catholic Guises who were Coligny’s enemies.
On August 24, 1572, several men entered his room and brutally killed him. They then threw his body out of the window into the courtyard below. His body was dragged through the streets and hung by his heels from the gallows. This signalled the massacre of Huguenots to begin.
All across France, thousands of Huguenots were murdered. The death toll is estimated at between 20,000 and 100,000. Upon hearing this news, Pope Gregory XIII had the Te Deum sung and had cardinals and dignitaries visit the French Church of St. Louis. The painter Vasari was hired to paint frescoes of the massacre on the walls of the Vatican. This was a great tribute to the position the Huguenots had gained in France.
This article is adapted from Gideon and Hilda Hagstoz’ Heroes of the Reformation.