Coligny: The earlier life of the great Huguenot

Coligny: The earlier life of the great Huguenot

by Eugene Bersier, translated by Annie Harwood Holmden

The Coligny brothers of Châtillon — Odet, the cardinal, Gaspard, the Admiral, and François, seigneur d'Andelot —  were key figures in sixteenth century France.

Gaspard, the subject of this biography, early distinguished himself as a soldier and military leader. Whilst he was at the siege of Boulogne he produced a set of military regulations which three years later was adopted throughout the kingdom. These regulations were very wide-ranging. As well as forbidding rape and pillage under pain of death, they also included such matters as:

"If a soldier, without due cause, shall give the lie to another, he shall be made to stand in the public square, and with ensigns unfurled and uncovered head, shall ask pardon of his colonel, and of the man to whom he gave the lie."

The Coligny brothers were nephews of the Constable of France, Anne de Montmorency, a man beloved of the king (Henry II). Doubtless this helped to promote their advancement. Amongst other things, Gaspard became Governor of Paris and of the Île-de-France, and Admiral of France. This last did not mean that he spent much time at sea — the French fleet at this time was insignificant. In fact, before being offered to Coligny, the post was offered to St. André who was advised by Marshal Vielleville:

"In truth, the sea does not suit us Frenchmen. If we were in Spain, Portugal, or England, you should by all means accept the post of Admiral, for there it is the highest of all, inasmuch as their great strength is their navy. But being a Frenchman, I pray you, sir, change not your lance, your war-horse, and your gilt spurs for the sail, the wheel, or the mast."

Nevertheless, Coligny accepted the post and one use he made of it was to promote a plan by Nicholas Durand de Villegagnon to found a colony in America:

"which he could fortify as a place of retreat for those of the Protestant religion who were willing to repair to it, so that the country might be gradually peopled, the Church of God extended, and the inhabitants brought to a knowledge of the truth."

At this time Coligny was not himself a Protestant. The first of the brothers to convert was the youngest, Andelot. He was followed some time later by Gaspard, and finally by Odet, the Cardinal, and it is as a leader of the Huguenots that Gaspard is best remembered. He was an honourable and humane man at a time and place when these qualities were rare.

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The Dunnett connection:

Henry II and his court form the background to the second book in the Lymond series, Queen’s Play, and a substantial part of the final volume, Checkmate.

Nicholas Durand de Villegagnon, Knight of St John, whose later career is described in Coligny, was the commander of the fleet which conveyed the child Mary Queen of Scots to France, and is a participator in the events of Disorderly Knights.

François de Coligny, Sieur d’Andelot, also makes an appearance or two in Checkmate in connection with the persecution of the protestants.