But Charles considered the matter settled when he uttered those swelling words to Henry of Navarre the day after the massacre: “I mean in future to have one religion in my kingdom. It is the Mass or death.”
All the events leading up to that fateful night, August 24, 1572, may never be known. Near the Church of St. Germain d’Auxerrois, which rang out the signal and was mute witness of the horror, has just been erected the statue of the great Coligny, bearing the above date.
The miserable Charles was not quite base enough for the part he had played. Tormented with memories, haggard with remorse, he felt that he was dying. His suspicious eyes turned upon his mother, well versed in poisons, as he knew; and, as he also knew, capable of anything. Was this wasting away the result of a drug? Mind and body gave way under the strain. In 1574, less than two years from the hideous event, Charles IX. was dead.
Catharine’s third son now wore the crown of France. In Henry III. she had as pliant an instrument for her will as in the two brothers preceding him; and, like them, his reign was spent in alternating conflict with the Protestants and the Duke of Guise. At last, wearied and exasperated, this half-Italian and altogether conscienceless king quite naturally thought of the stiletto. The old duke, as he entered the king’s apartment by invitation, was stricken down by assassins hidden for that purpose.
Henry had not counted on the rebound from that blow. Catholic France was excited to such popular fury against him that he threw himself into the arms of the Protestants, imploring their aid in keeping his crown and his kingdom; and when himself assassinated, a year later, the Valois line had become extinct.
By the Salic Law, Henry of Navarre was King of France. The Bourbon branch had left the parent stem as long ago as the reign of Louis the Saint. But as all the other Capetian branches had disappeared, the right of the plumed knight to the crown was beyond a question. So a Protestant and a Huguenot was King of France.
After long wandering in strange seas, we come in view of familiar lights and headlands. With the advent of the house of Bourbon, we have grasped a thread which leads directly down to our own time.
The accession of a Protestant king was hailed with delirious joy by the Huguenots, and with corresponding rage by Catholic France. The one looked forward to redressing of wrongs and avenging of injuries; and the other flatly refused submission unless Henry should recant his heresy and become a convert to the true faith.
The new king saw there was no bed of roses preparing for him. After four years of effort to reconcile the irreconcilable, he decided upon his course. He was not called to the throne to rule over Protestant France, nor to be an instrument of vengeance for the Huguenots.