a superbright supernova

Historians have long debated the role that King Charles IX played in the great and terrible St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of French Protestants in 1572. It has been common to give the primary responsibility to his mother, Catherine de Medici, and to see the King as meekly complying with her wishes — but one old tradition says that Charles said “Kill them all,” thus warranting utter extermination of the Huguenots.

It was widely believed at the time that Charles had ordered the massacre. Theodore Beza, John Calvin’s successor in Geneva, who would end up taking in many refugees from the persecution, believed that Charles had openly confessed to this role — or so says Francis Bacon in his journals.

According to Bacon, Beza believed that God had sent a sign of judgment upon Charles: a stella nova, a surprising new star that appeared in the constellation of Cassiopeia soon after the massacre — a star so bright that it could even sometimes be seen in the daytime.

Theodor Beza wittily applied it to that star which shone at the birth of Christ, and to the murdering of the infants under Herod, and warned Charles the Ninth, King of France, who had confessed him self to be the author of the Massacre of Paris, to beware, in this verse: Tu vero Herodis sanguinolente, time — “And look thou bloody Herod to thy self”; and certainly he was not altogether deceived in his belief, for the fifth month after the vanishing of this star, the said Charles, after long and grievous pains, died of excessive bleeding.

We do not know whether Charles took Beza’s warning seriously — he may have been too busy dying — but the star was not visible only in France, and at least one other great prince of the age was concerned about what it might mean. England’s Queen Elizabeth I called in her great advisor on matters scientific, astronomical, astrological, and occult, John Dee, and Dee — again according to Bacon — was able to demonstrate “that it was in the celestial, not the Elementary Region; and they are of opinion that it vanished by little and little in ascending. Certainly after the eighth month all men perceived it to grow less and less.”

Dee’s discovery was more important than we can readily perceive now.

To be continued…