Canterbury's Huguenot Cardinal
Canterbury Cathedral boasts a whole array of cardinalatial bones in its vaults: Langton, Kemp, Bourchier, Morton and Pole. However, Pole was not the last cardinal to be buried in the Cathedral. At the southeast end of the Trinity Chapel is a plaque marking the tomb of Odet de Coligny, an apostate prelate who was known as the ‘Cardinal de Châtillon.’ He died mysteriously in a guesthouse at Canterbury in 1571, as he was returning to France. Most historians agree that he was poisoned by his valet de chambre, who may have been in the pay of Catherine de’Medici, well known for her opposition to the Huguenots. He was buried in a temporary tomb in the Cathedral awaiting translation to France.
Some claim that he was eventually buried in his homeland and that the incumbent of his tomb at Canterbury is someone much more worthy: St Thomas Becket himself, whose magnificent shrine once stood nearby. It is certainly unusual that a visiting Frenchman should have been buried in such an important position, surrounded by the likes of Henry IV and the Black Prince. However, the theory is made unlikely by the fact that Coligny died over thirty years after the destruction of Becket’s shrine.
Who was this poisoned Frenchman? The member of one of the most influential French families of the time, Odet de Coligny was born on 10 July 1517 at Châtillon-sur-Loing, the second son of Gaspard de Coligny, maréchal de France. He received the red hat from Clement VII on 10 November 1533 at the request of the King of France, Francis I. He was aged just sixteen. The following year he became Administrator of the Archdiocese of Toulouse, even though he was not yet in Major Orders, and participated in the Conclave that elected Paul III. As well as holding a number of Abbacies in commendam, which guaranteed him a stable income, he became in 1535 Administrator of the diocese of Beauvais. In 1560 Pius IV appointed him Grand Inquisitor of France, but was prevented from taking up the position because of the opposition of the powerful Parlement of Paris.
In 1561, encouraged by his family, he rejected his Catholic Faith and became a Calvinist. His volte face caused great scandal, especially coming one year after his papal appointment as a Grand Inquisitor. In 1563 he was deprived of his cardinalate and other benefices, and excommunicated. However he continued to wear his scarlet robes, most famously on the occasion of his marriage, in 1564, to Isabelle de Hauteville, who was presented to fashionable society as Madame la Cardinale. In 1567 he fought with the Huguenots at the Battle of St Denis and travelled to England in 1568, disguised as a sailor, partly to flee persecution and partly to secure negotiations with Queen Elizabeth. He was never to return to his homeland and he still lies awaiting judgement day at the Cathedral of Canterbury.