Serendipity in New York: stumbling Upon Old Coins commemorating the Huguenots

Today’s blog post is going to be on what I stumbled upon in New York last week on my research trip. The Huguenot Society of America has in its possession eight coins that are tangentially interesting to this project. They are duplicates of a set of coins held by the British museum in London, and were donated by Judge A. T. Clearwater to the society in 1899 after his visit there.

Half of the coins commemorate the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572.  For background, the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre started in August 1572, at the order of the catholic King Charles IX who wanted the targeted assassination of several Huguenot leaders in Paris after his sister married the Huguenot leader Henry III (Later King Henry IV of France). The assassinations turned into mob violence which lasted several weeks and spread from Paris to the countryside. It crippled the protestant movement in France, and became a rallying cry for Protestants elsewhere against Catholicism.

Reverse of Papal Coins

Reverse of Papal Coins

The first medal is perhaps the more famous of them: the Papal medal commemorating the massacre, which I’ve included a picture of below. The front has the bust of Pope Gregory XIII facing to the left, with GREGORIVS XIII. PONT. MAX. AN. I. [In the first year of Gregory XIII. Pontifex Maximus.]. The reverse has an angle with sword and cross in hand, with dead men and women, presumably Huguenots, around her. Around the edge is the print VGONOTTORUM STRAGES 1572, meaning “Massacre of the Huguenots, 1572”. There is a second copy of it in another dye, along with the two medals printed by the French monarchy to commemorate the same event. This time they have the bust of Charles IX of France or his coat of arms on one side, with in latin printed “Charles IX., by the grace of God invincible king of France, 1572” and “Piety called out justice, Aug, 24, 1572,” respectively. On the reverse both have the King seated on a canopied throne, holding sword, palm-branch, and scepter with, what is presumably, slaughtered Huguenots at his feet. Both have the text VIRTVS IN REBELLES [Valor against rebels.]

The second set is in memorial to the Revocation of Edict of Nantes. The Edict of Nantes was signed in 1598 by Henry IV and established limited freedom of religion in France. However, in 1685, his grandson Louis XIV, revoked it with the Edict of Fontainebleau in 1685, which continued the rolling back of religious liberties granted to the Huguenots and ramped up persecutions against them.

Front of Papal Coins

Front of Papal Coins

The second set of medals are mostly from Protestant countries, three of them coming from the Netherlands and one from the refugees in Holland. All three hold similar characteristics: on the front is usually the pope or some religious figure from the Catholic church with a less than flattering phrase, and on the back either Protestants being killed or rescued, with positive captions showing support to their brothers in faith, fore example  “God above, destruction behind”. The last one is the French medal, which is more celebratory towards the King.

According to the donor, the pieces are extremely rare because “attempts were made to collect and suppress them… and the only complete collections now extant are said to be those of the Bibliotheque Nationale at Paris, and that of the British Museum.” While the dates for the suppressions is unknown, I find it interesting and you have to wonder why they would be destroyed. Seperatly, It is telling how the donor directs blame away from the Pope, arguing that the Papal medal was struck under uncertain authority. I have heard previously that the medals were made by his order to celebrate what he thought was the defeat of a Huguenot Coup in Paris, but he ordered their destruction after he found out about the St. Bartholomew Massacre. Instead, the donor directs blame towards the French monarchy and “the wily Cardinal whose ambition it was that his name should go down the ages as one of the great statesmen of history,” presumably Cardinal Richelieu.

What is perhaps most interesting is that these were not the only copies made of the medals. Evidently, the New York Historical Society has in its position copies of the Papal medal made by James McCreery & Co., the famous department store. They were sold around 1872, the 300th Anniversary of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. I unfortunately could not see the medals as they were in an offsite storage during renovations, but research is still ongoing as to why it would be reproduced in presumably large numbers so late. Perhaps enough people in New York felt that it was an important enough date to remember to make it worthy of commercialization.

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