On this date in 1567, Huguenots in revolt in Nimes put to death dozens of Catholics in a courtyard butchery to climax a massacre remembered as La Michelade (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed French)
This name of sinister memory derives from one of the church calendar’s great autumnal feast, Michaelmas — and the sword-arm of its titular archangel would have been required to keep the peace between the rival religionists in the Languedoc.
Nimes went heavily for the Protestants, with the region’s royal governors unable to restrain the conquest of Catholic neighborhoods and churches by the predominant Huguenots through the 1560s: “the very wind which blew upon Nimes breathed heresy,” in the words of Dumas.
The years running up to our events of 1567 feature one of the numerous rancorous truces pocking France’s intractable Wars of Religion: this one is known as the “Armed Peace”, which gives you an idea where everyone’s heads were at. And in Nimes, the heresy in the wind was not such as to prevent the restoration of Catholic authorities to control of the civic institutions — to the undoubted irritation of the Huguenot grandees who endured the indignity of displacement alongside the sure knowledge of the popular weight that supported them.
This ripening conflict appropriately came to fruition via a vegetable market at a city fair on Michaelmas — September 29, 1567 — where an altercation turned into a sectarian riot and soon transformed into a municipal Protestant insurrection.
Huguenots still maintaining the preponderance of force in Nimes, they perpetrated the expected outrages during the excitement: sacking the cathedral, murdering some particularly hated Catholics. But the overall organization of the Huguenots and the organized participation of the city’s Huguenot elites suggests a good deal of advance orchestration, and perhaps coordination with the Huguenot attempt to kidnap the king just days before.
In the disturbance, Nimes’s first consul Guy Rochette — Catholic, naturally — sought refuge in the palace of Bishop Bernard d’Elbene; a Huguenot captain forced the door and arrested them, confiscating from Rochette the keys to the city. Though the bishop managed to escape, other prominent Catholics were systematically detained, too. According to Allan Tulchin’s That Men Would Praise the Lord: The Triumph of Protestantism in Nimes, 1530-1570, “[i]t seems clear that the Protestant leadership intended to conduct a general roundup of Catholic lay and clerical leadership. Protestant forces targeted at least half of the sixteen men who had served as consul between 1564 and 1567 … of the nine Catholic members of the presidial, only two did not appear among the victims.”
Captive Catholics were detained in several buildings around the city, notably in the city hall. It is not known to what extent the kill lists to cull from these unfortunates were preordained and to what extent they were improvised in the moment, but on the night of September 30, summons for specific victims went out, and Protestant squads complied by dragging them out of the city hall basement or wherever else they were held to the courtyard of the bishop’s palace. This would be the makeshift abattoir.
In the narration of Dumas,
when night came the large number of prisoners so imprudently taken began to be felt as an encumbrance by the insurgent chiefs, who therefore resolved to take advantage of the darkness to get rid of them without causing too much excitement in the city. They were therefore gathered together from the various houses in which they had been confined, and were brought to a large hall in the Hotel de Ville, capable of containing from four to five hundred persons, and which was soon full. An irregular tribunal arrogating to itself powers of life and death was formed, and a clerk was appointed to register its decrees. A list of all the prisoners was given him, a cross placed before a name indicating that its bearer was condemned to death, and, list in hand, he went from group to group calling out the names distinguished by the fatal sign. Those thus sorted out were then conducted to a spot which had been chosen beforehand as the place of execution.
This was the palace courtyard in the middle of which yawned a well twenty-four feet in circumference and fifty deep. The fanatics thus found a grave ready-digged as it were to their hand, and to save time, made use of it.
The unfortunate Catholics, led thither in groups, were either stabbed with daggers or mutilated with axes, and the bodies thrown down the well. Guy-Rochette was one of the first to be dragged up. For himself he asked neither mercy nor favour, but he begged that the life of his young brother might be spared, whose only crime was the bond of blood which united them; but the assassins, paying no heed to his prayers, struck down both man and boy and flung them into the well. The corpse of the vicar-general, who had been killed the day before, was in its turn dragged thither by a rope and added to the others. All night the massacre went on, the crimsoned water rising in the well as corpse after corpse was thrown in, till, at break of day, it overflowed, one hundred and twenty bodies being then hidden in its depths.
Dumas is indulging poetic exaggeration of the scene, and later estimations of the number of victims range well below 120 — but Tulchin quotes a leather worker who saw the courtyard on the following day and described it as “all covered with blood and the water of the well all red.” Even “merely” twenty or thirty victims slashed to death would have been a gory work.
In the days following, Huguenots would cement their control of Nimes with the systematic pillage of churches and (after a six-week siege) the capture of the city’s royal garrison. There was no general massacre after the Michelade; in the main, Catholics were forced into submission or exile instead of the grave.
But the effusion, combined with Huguenot attacks further north, helped to trigger the (very brief) “Second War” within the Wars of Religion which gave way after a short truce to the much bloodier “Third War” of 1568-1570 … whose peace would be broken by a Catholic sectarian massacre much better remembered to history than the Michelade.