On this date in 1560 the second Baron de Castelnau, Jean Boileau, was beheaded as a Huguenot traitor. His was one of the opening casualties of France’s devastating Wars of Religion.
We find Castelnau’s end before war began, when the Huguenot party — although it had been pressed sorely enough for martyr–making in the years of the Reformation — was perhaps not yet quite steeled for the measure of purposeful violence it would require to conquer state power. After the events in this post, the great Huguenot leader Gaspard de Coligny would remonstrate at a royal Council of Notables protesting the loyalty of the realm’s Protestant subjects. Two years later, he was commanding rebels in the field; a decade later, he would be murdered in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
“Rashly designed and feebly executed,”* the plan of these 1560 pre-rebellion Huguenots was to tilt France’s religious policy by muscling out the top Catholic.
If it were possible to imagine such a gambit it was amidst the flux following King Henri II‘s sudden death at the jousts in 1559. his sickly 15-year-old heir Francis was dominated by the staunchly Catholic Duke of Guise; policy accordingly trended away from religious accommodation for the Calvinist Huguenot minority.
Considering the new king’s youth and Guise’s prestige, here was the potential to lock in for decades to come a situation intolerable to France’s Protestants. (In actual fact, Francis had not long to live himself and the country soon fell into civil war … but the characters in this post did not have the benefit of hindsight.)
So the muscling-out plan was born: the Amboise conspiracy. Named for the castle where the attempt was unsuccessfully executed, this plot aimed to seize the Duke of Guise by main force and begin forcing a more satisfactory policy direction on the malleable sovereign.
This scheme became very widely known among Protestant nobles and even bourgeois, who variously signed on or demurred; no surprise, someone in the ever-widening circle of confidantes eventually leaked it to the court. Guise quietly made ready the castle at Amboise to repel the putsch, and when the attempt was made in mid-March it was not the Catholics but the attacking Huguenots who were surprised and routed. Over 1,000 men involved in the attempt were slaughtered in the ensuing days — by the rope, the sword, or the waters of the Loire. Its chief architect, La Renaudie, was killed in the skirmishes but his corpse was still posthumously mutilated.
Castelnau’s beheading is foregrounded
The Lord Castelnau’s detail for the conspiracy was to seize the nearby Chateau Noizay. He did so only to discover himself in a most embarrassing position when his comrades were crushed. The Guise-allied young Duke of Nemours persuaded Castelnau to surrender under safe conduct:
“Lay down your arms then,” said Nemours, “and if you wish to address the king as becomes a faithful subject, I promise you, upon my faith, to enable you to speak to the king and to bring you back in safety.”
Castelnau, in consequence, surrendered the castle of Noizai to the Duke of Nemours, who took an oath and signed it, that no harm should happen to him or his followers. They went together to Amboise, where the unfortunate baron found that the promise which had been made him was not binding, for the Duke of Nemours had exceeded his orders.
Castelnau’s bravery did not forsake him on the scaffold, where he died a martyr to his religion; the Duke of Nemours felt very indignant at the circumstance, as he had given his signature, which tormented him probably much more than it would have done if his word alone had been passed. (Source)
This traitorous conspiracy — and the ferocity of its destruction — helped to initiate the ensuing years‘ tit-for-tat confessional violence that plunged France headlong into the Wars of Religion (and got Guise himself assassinated in 1563). “A morbid desire to witness the shedding of blood seized upon society,” one historian wrote. “D’Aubigne the eminent historian of the French Reformation, was an eye-witness of such incidents, and though but ten years of age, swore like young Hannibal before his father, to devote his life to vengeance of such atrocities.”
A century-plus after events in this post, when France revoked the Edict of Nantes and resumed official harassment of Huguenots, the Baron Castelnau of that time (our Jean Boileau’s great-grandson) was clapped in a dungeon. His son and heir Charles escaped to England where the family continues to this day — the Boileau Baronets.
* Cambridge Modern History, vol. 14.