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Response to Review of The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre: The Mysteries of a Crime of State

I would like to thank Barbara Diefendorf for her scrupulously fair reading of my book. The questions that she raises at the end of her review are legitimate. They are evidence of the fact that because the sources are so biased, there can be no definitive certainty concerning the motivations and the events that triggered the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre; every interpretation, including the traditional one, is based only on hypotheses. Those which led me to impute the attempt to assassinate Coligny on 22 August 1572 to a small group of Catholic extremists are based on the enormity of the scandal which the influence gained over the king by the Admiral, a rebel and a heretic, represented from their perspective. Coligny symbolised to perfection the ignominious peace which had to be scuppered at all costs. As for the decision taken on the evening of 23 August 1572 by the royal council, it is difficult to determine the scale of the individual responsibility of each of its members. It is quite possible (see pp. 102–3) that they believed in the reality of a conspiracy to endanger the life of the royal family. One cannot over-stress how intense, on the part of the king and his entourage, was the memory of the ‘surprise of Meaux’ of September 1567, which forced the court to flee at full speed from the soldiers of the prince of Condé: that fear, which was kept under wraps by the king’s wish to preserve the pacification of the kingdom, was ready to resurface at the slightest alarm. The extent of the Catholics’ distrust of the Protestants gave their reactions an irrational dimension. But if the mysteries of 24 August remain partly hidden, as Barbara Diefendorf rightly says, they should not hide the importance of the declaration made by Charles IX on 26 August to the parlement of Paris, in which he publicly asserted his right to have recourse to extraordinary justice. By deliberately assuming the state’s violence, which affirmed the absolute and divine character of his authority, the king engaged in an act of sovereignty, thus revealing a political stature that the subsequent historiography has rarely attributed to him. And that is not the least significant of the many features of the tragedy of the summer of 1572.