Forget about fictional bloody weddings like the ones in Game of Thrones or even Monty Python’s Holy Grail. Nothing compares to the very real wedding that set the stage for one of the bloodiest massacres in French history on August 24th, 1572: St-Bartholomew’s Day.
If you have never heard of it, here’s the short version: in order to try and put an end to the ongoing French Wars of Religion between the Catholics and the Protestants (also known as the Huguenots), Queen Mother Catherine de Medici arranged for the head of the Protestants, Henry de Bourbon, King of Navarre (future Henri IV) to be married to her daughter, the sister of King Charles IX, Princess Marguerite de Valois (the future Reine Margot).
Thousands of Protestant nobles attended the wedding at Notre Dame Cathedral on August 18th, and festivities lasted for over a week to celebrate what many thought would be the beginning of peace.
But they grew agitated after an assassination attempt on one of their leaders, Admiral de Coligny (who was also a trusted confidante to the young king). Supposedly panicked by the angry calls for justice (and revenge), the Catholics led by the powerful Guise family convinced the king to allow a pre-emptive strike to kill all of the Protestant leaders while they were conveniently in the city. Unfortunately, it got out of hand and turned into a three-week-long massacre that spread from town to town until an estimated 30,000 Huguenots were killed before the king could regain order.
This famous painting of the event by François Dubois, a Huguenot painter who fled France after the massacre, depicts Admiral Coligny’s body hanging out of a window on the right (the Catholics finished him off at the start of the massacre). If you look closer, you’ll see Catherine de Medici just outside the Louvre Palace in her black widow’s dress inspecting a heap of naked bodies:
Henri’s life was spared since he was now “part of the family”, but when each of Catherine de Medici’s four sons died one by one, Henri of Navarre would eventually — after many years in exile and finally laying siege to Paris — convert to Catholicism to become one of France’s most powerful kings, Henri IV. He signed the Edict of Nantes in 1598 to allow the Protestants freedom of religion (which his grandson, the Sun King Louis XIV, would rescind less than a century later, tsk tsk).
If you’re into slightly fictionalized historical dramas, you can watch the 1994 film about the massacre, “Reine Margot” (based on Alexandre Dumas’ novel) starring Isabelle Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, and Vincent Perez (NSFW or children):
Bizarre fact: Pope Gregory XIII at the Vatican celebrated the massacre of the Huguenots by minting a commemorative medal!