His father, Gaspard de Coligny, known as the maréchal de Châtillon (d. 1522), served in the Italian wars from 1495 to 1515, and was created marshal of France in 1516. By his wife, Louise de Montmorency, sister of the future constable, he had three sons: Odet, cardinal de Chàtillon; Gaspard, the admiral; and Francis, seigneur d'Andelot; all of whom played an important part in the first period of the wars of religion.. At twenty-two young Gaspard came to court, and there contracted a friendship with Francis of Guise.
In the campaign of 1543 Coligny distinguished himself greatly, and was wounded at the sieges of Montmédy and Bains. In 1544 he served in the Italian campaign under the duke of Enghien, and was knighted on the field of Ceresole. Returning to France, he took part in different military operations; and having been made colonel-general of the infantry (April 1547), exhibited great capacity and intelligence as a military reformer. He was made admiral on the death of d'Annebaut (1552). In 1557 he was entrusted with the defence of Saint Quentin. In the siege he displayed great courage, resolution, and strength of character; but the place was taken, and he was imprisoned in the stronghold of L'Ecluse. On payment of a ransom of 50,000 crowns he recovered his liberty. But he had by this time become a Huguenot, through the influence of his brother, d'Andelot--the first letter which Calvin addressed to him is dated September 4, 1558--and he busied himself secretly with protecting his co-religionists, a colony of whom he sent to Brazil, whence they were afterwards expelled by the Portuguese.
On the death of Henry II he placed himself, with Louis, prince of Condé, in the front of his sect, and demanded religious toleration and certain other reforms. In 1560, at the Assembly of Notables at Fontainebleau, the hostility between Coligny and Francis of Guise broke forth violently. When the civil wars began in 1562, Coligny decided to take arms only after long hesitation, and he was always ready to negotiate. In none of these wars did he show superior genius, but he acted throughout with great prudence and extraordinary tenacity; he was "le héros de la mauvaise fortune."
In 1569 the defeat and death of the prince of Condé at Jarnac left him sole leader of the Protestant armies. Victorious at Arnay-le-Duc, he obtained in 1570 the pacification of St Germain. Returning to the court in 1571, he grew rapidly in favour with Charles XI. As a means of emancipating the king from the tutelage of his mother and the faction of the Guises, the admiral proposed to him a descent on Spanish Flanders, with an army drawn from both sects and commanded by Charles in person. The king's regard for the admiral, and the bold front of the Huguenots, alarmed the queen-mother; and the massacre of St Bartholomew was the consequence.
On August 22, 1572 Coligny was shot in the street by Maurevel, a bravo in the pay of the queen-mother and Guise; the bullets, however, only tore a finger from his right hand and shattered his left elbow. The king visited him, but the queen-mother prevented all private intercourse between them. On the 24th of August, the night of the massacre, he was attacked in his house, and a servant of the duke of Guise, generally known as Besme, slew him and cast him from a window into the courtyard at his master's feet. His papers were seized and burned by the queen-mother; among them, according to Brantôme, was a history of the civil war, "très beau et très bien fais, et digne d'estre imprimé."
By his wife, Charlotte de Laval, Coligny had several children, among them being Louise, who married first Charles de Téligny and afterwards William the Silent, prince of Orange, and Francis, admiral of Guienne, who was one of the devoted servants of Henry IV. Gaspard de Coligny (1584-1646), son of Francis, was marshal of France during the reign of Louis XIII.
See Jean du Bouchet, Preuves de l'histoire généalogique de l'illustre maison de Coligny (Paris, 1661); biography by François Hotman, 1578 (French translation, 1665); LJ Delaborde, Gaspard de Coligny (1879-1882); Erich Marcks, Gaspard von Coligny, sien Leben und das Frankreich seiner Zeit (Stuttgart, 1892); H Patry, "Coligny et la Papauté," in the Bulletin du protestantisme français (1902); AW Whitehead, Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France (1904); and C Merki, L'Amiral de Coligny (1909).