Category Archives: Women in History

Empowered Women of the West – Dr. Nellie MacKnight (Part One)

Women studying medicine at the Women’s Medical College of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 1892.
Cowgirlmagazine.com

San Francisco 1891

“Subjects, bodies for dissection, were divided into five parts—the head, two uppers and two lowers. By some ironical twist of circumstance, the first dissection assigned to me was a lower. The dissection of the pelvic organs was to be done in company with the young man who was assigned to the other lower. It was a male subject.

 … It came time for the quiz section in anatomy. The quizmaster was a dapper young graduate, much impressed with himself and his authority. He was of the group who hated the incursion of women into what he considered the distinctly masculine territory of medicine…The quizmaster walked over to our dissecting table.

 “Why has nothing been done on your subject?” he questioned.

 The young man hesitated, glancing at me.

 The quizmaster turned on me. “Have you the other lower on this subject?” His words were like a steel file.

 “Yes,” I replied, the blood rushing to my face.

 “Do you expect to graduate in medicine, or are you just playing around with the idea?”

 “I hope to graduate.” I tried to make my voice sound firm, but instead, I realized it sounded ridiculously weak and feminine…

“If you have any feelings of delicacy in this matter, young woman, you had better leave college and take them with your, or fold them away in your work basket and be here, on your stool, tomorrow morning. We don’t put up with any hysterical feminine nonsense in men’s medical schools.”

This, from the autobiography of Dr. Nellie MacKnight, is an account of one of her earliest assignments at San Francisco’s Toland Hall Medical School. One of only three women in her class, this naïve, but bold young girl would go on to graduate with flying colors and become one of the West’s most beloved and respected doctors.

But, medicine was not the profession Nellie MacKnight ever thought she’d choose. In fact, it wasn’t her choice at all. . .at first.

Dr. Helen MacKnight Doyle
Rangeandriverbooks.com

In Petrolia, Pennsylvania in 1873, Nellie came into the world as one of three children born to Smith and Olive MacKnight. Her two siblings died shortly after their birth, leaving Nellie to grow up an only child to a stern father, and an over-protective mother who lavished her with attention. An expert seamstress, Olive loved to dress Nellie in beautiful dresses made with her own hands. Though he loved his wife and daughter, Smith, found his profession as a surveyor dull, and his life in Pennsylvania uninspired. He desired to move out West in search of gold and riches, and in 1878, did just that, leaving his wife and daughter in the care of his parents in New York. He promised once he’d made his riches, he would send for the two of them. He never did.

Nellie found life at her grandparent’s farm happy and fulfilling. From her grandfather, she learned about horses and how to care for animals. From her grandmother, she learned more domestic chores, and also how to make remedies for certain illnesses. Her mother, Olive, did not fare as well. News from her husband that he’d purchased a mine with great potential raised Olive’s spirits momentarily until he stated that he would not send for her and Nellie until the mine “paid off.”

Despondent over the news, Olive fell into a depression. Life became harder when typhoid took Nellie’s grandmother and her favorite uncle. Fearing for Nellie’s health, Olive made the decision to move the two of them to her father’s home in Madrid, Pennsylvania. In order to keep herself and Nellie clothed, and Nellie in school, she took a job at the Warner Brother’s Corset Factory as a seamstress. Nellie excelled at her studies, and took a particular interest in literature and hoped to, one day, become an author.

Long hours and tedious work at the corset factory took its toll on Olive. Letters from her husband telling her that the mine had still not yielded any gold further distressed her. To relieve her pain and the stress caused from supporting herself and her young daughter—and the continued absence of her husband—she turned to laudanum, a tincture of opium. One night, in her drug-induced euphoria, Olive decided to end it all and overdosed. She left a note for ten-year-old Nellie encouraging her to “be a brave girl. Do not cry for Mamma.”

(To be continued next week)

Sources:

Roses of the West, by Anne Seagrave

Enss, Chriss. “Wild Women Wednesday: Dr. Nellie Mattie MacKnight.” Cowgirl Magazine. October 19, 2016, https://cowgirlmagazine.com/wild-women-wednesday-dr-nellie-mattie-macknight/

 

Margaret (Molly) Brown – Unsinkable and Much More

Margaret Tobin Brown, a woman  immortalized in numerous movies, documentaries, and the Broadway musical “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” never considered herself anything more than a good citizen. Made famous by her heroic efforts during the sinking of the RMS Titanic, Mrs. Brown used her fame and fortune to better the world. But, even as a young woman, Margaret Brown did what she could to serve humanity. Here are some less known facts about one of America’s most memorable heroines.

SHE WAS NEVER KNOWN AS “MOLLY” DURING HER LIFETIME

Born  in 1867, Margaret Brown, known as “Maggie,” by friends and family, came into this world in 1867 to Irish Catholic immigrants John Tobin and Johanna Tobin. She became known as “Molly” with the success of the 1960 Broadway musical, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” decades after her death.

SHE CAME FROM MODEST ROOTS

Maggie spent her early years in a small cottage on Denkler Ally in Hannibal, Missouri. She never attended school but took lessons with her siblings in the home of her mother’s sister, Mary O’Leary. At 13, Maggie helped support her family by working at a tobacco factory for sometimes 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. At 19, she set out with her sister to Leadville, Colorado to visit their older brother Daniel, who had settled there. Maggie decided to stay and kept house for her brother. She also worked as a waitress and as a sales clerk in a dry-goods store.

Margaret Brown as a young womanTHOUGH SET ON MARRYING A RICH MAN, SHE MARRIED FOR LOVE

Maggie is quoted to say, “I wanted a rich man, but I loved Jim Brown…I decided that I’d be better off with a poor man whom I loved than with a wealthy one whose money attracted me.”

In church one Sunday, Maggie laid eyes on the tall and handsome mining engineer, James Joseph (also known as J.J.) Brown, and fell in love. At 19 years of age, she married the Irishman who was more than 10 years her senior, and the two set up house in a two-room cabin outside of Leadville.

SHE CAME INTO WEALTH OVER-NIGHT

Both Maggie and J.J. worked hard during their young married life. Intelligent and innovative, J.J. Brown rose to  manager, then superintendent for the Ibex Mining company and made a decent living. His innovation proved instrumental in developing a technique which allowed for mines to be built deeper into the earth. One such mine, Little Jonny, hit gold in 1893, producing tons of gold ore, and making the Browns and many others at the Ibex Mining company, instant millionaires.

 SHE ALWAYS SAW THE IMPORTANCE OF A CAUSE

Even before she lived a life of immense wealth, Maggie always did what she could to help others. As a young wife and mother, she organized soup kitchens and helped other mining families less fortunate than hers. She became involved in politics and spent her efforts in that arena working for better schools and health care for mining families. After her good fortune, she joined many political and charitable organizations and even made a run for Congress— though she had to drop out of the race. Women in Colorado did not even have the right to vote yet, and her chances of winning seemed impossible. Regardless, Maggie continued to work for causes concerning children, public health, food production, education and libraries, women’s suffrage, and animal rights.

She also worked to help establish a juvenile court system in Denver so that children and teens who committed crimes did not have to serve time in the adult population. She helped to establish the Denver Women’s Club, an organization devoted to providing art education in schools, and the development of school libraries.

Margaret Brown and Captain Rostron of the RMS Titanic
Maggie and Captain Rostron of the RMS Titanic

Having lived a lifetime of helping others, Maggie continued to do so even when her own life was at stake with the sinking of the Titanic. Once aboard Life Boat Six, Maggie, having put on several layers of clothing to shield herself from the frigid temperatures, shared her coat and more with those who had to escape with little to wear. Once they were safely aboard the Carpathia, the ship sent out to retrieve survivors, Maggie worked tirelessly to help her fellow passengers. She paid for telegrams to be sent to survivors’ friends and family, and she organized a ‘survivors fund’ for medical expenses and temporary lodging for those in need. She raised $10,000 before they reached the shores of New York.

FAME DID NOT CHANGE HER

Now famous for her magnanimous spirit and courage, Maggie continued to help with causes close to her heart. In 1913 coal miners in Ludlow, CO went on strike, resulting in a deadly skirmish between the National Guard and the miners. Nineteen people, including eleven children were killed in what became known as the Ludlow Massacre. Maggie sent first aid supplies, food, and clothing to the surviving miners. She sent funds to help settle the strike and investigate the massacre.

During the first world war, Maggie traveled to France with an American relief committee. There, she also worked with the Red Cross. When she returned to New York, Maggie devoted time and resources to help soldiers who’d been injured in the war. Her efforts resulted in France bestowing her with their most esteemed award, the French Legion of Honor.

SHE NEVER ATTENDED SCHOOL, BUT WAS AN ACCOMPLISHED STUDENT

As a young mother, Maggie saw to the education of her children, and herself. After completing her daily chores, she studied literature, piano, and took voice lessons. Later, she hired tutors to help her improve her grammar and writing skills. She traveled to New York to study literature, drama and foreign languages at the Carnegie Institute. She became proficient in five different languages which proved instrumental in helping the International survivors of the Titanic. More of Maggie’s interests included acting, yodeling, classical guitar and the Ukelele.

SHE NEVER CONSIDERED HERSELF A HEROINE

After the Titanic disaster, stories filled newspapers at home and abroad about the heroic efforts of Margaret Brown, but she did not want to be known as a heroine. “I did only the natural thing and not the heroic.” And that is how this amazing, strong and empowered woman, who set an example for everyone, lived her entire life.

Sources:

Wikipedia

Bold Women in Colorado History by Phyllis J. Perry

The Mysteries of Perle de Vere – Madam of the Southwest

What possessed a young girl in the mid-1800’s to leave her well-to-do, “good” family in the mid-west and move clear across the country to Denver, Colorado to take up a life of prostitution? Little is known about the early years of Perle de Vere—a woman who did just that–and later became Colorado’s most famous madam.

Supposed photo of Madam Perle de Vere
Photo thought to be of Perle de Vere – although reportedly no photos of her exist (WikiTree)

“Mrs. Martin,” as she was known in Denver, arrived there at the age of 14 or 15. There is no record of her being married at the time, so one has to wonder why she would leave a comfortable life in Illinois (or Indiana) to travel to the west and sell her body for survival. Perhaps she had family troubles. Maybe she took up with someone her family didn’t approve of, and hopped a train with him in the hopes of a life of wedded bliss. Or maybe she had a lust for adventure and wanted to pave her own way. The possibilities are endless and fun to think about.

Shortly after her arrival in Denver, “Miss Martin” became known as Perle de Vere, a beautiful woman with red-hair, a strong will, and good business sense. Her family believed she worked as a dress designer (or milliner), and catered to Denver’s wealthiest women. But, in fact, she catered to the wealthiest men, and began a life of business in prostitution. What could have happened to set off this chain of events? Did she intend to start her career as a dressmaker and then couldn’t find work? Did she anger her employer? Did she hate her job? Or did she see an opportunity to make some fast cash?

When business crashed in Denver due to the Silver Panic of 1893, Miss de Vere, then at 30 years of age, packed her bags and moved to a booming gold camp called Cripple Creek. She invested her savings and bought a house on Myers street. She hired several beautiful girls and started her own brothel. Her business proved to be an instant success, affording Perle fine clothing and an extravagant lifestyle. She also knew how to protect her investment and demanded her girls practice good hygiene, dress well, and have monthly medical examinations.

Perle, a discerning business woman and the most successful madam of the town, didn’t cater to just anyone. Patrons of her establishment had to apply for a visit. Once their application was approved and their wealth determined, Perle allowed them access to a viewing room where they could choose their girl. Evenings at Perle’s house often consisted of live entertainment, socializing, cards, and dancing before the girls and their clients retired upstairs. Perle often hosted lavish parties with imported foods and plenty of champagne and other spirits.

One of Madam Perle's girls
One of Perle’s girls
(Legends of America)

Ever popular with the men of Cripple Creek, Perle did not make many friends among the women. It didn’t help that she drove her beautiful black horses and carriage through the camp, dressed in expensive and showy clothing—flaunting her success. She and her girls shopped at the best shops on Bennett Avenue, further angering the “good” women of the town. To keep the peace, the town’s Marshal stipulated that the girls could only shop during off hours. They also paid a tax of $6 per month. Madams of the town paid $16 dollars per month, a fraction of what Perle brought in on a weekly basis.

In 1895 Perle married a wealthy mill owner named C.B. Flynn. Shortly after the nuptials, tragedy struck. A fire raged through Cripple Creek destroying many of the town’s businesses, including Flynn’s mill and Perle’s brothel. Unable to recover financially, Flynn had to leave in order to find work. He found a job in Monterrey, Mexico as a steel and iron smelter. Perle stayed behind to rebuild her business. Putting everything she had into her new venture, Perle paid for the construction a two-story brick building and decorated it with lavish, imported furnishings, electric chandeliers, and leather topped gaming tables. She named her new establishment “The Old Homestead.”

Just as the history of Perle’s early life is shrouded in mystery, so is her death. In the summer of 1897, Perle hosted an extravagant party sponsored by one of her wealthiest clients and ardent admirerers—a millionaire from either Poverty Gulch or Denver. Imported champagne, liquor, and caviar, as well as two orchestras from Denver graced The Old Homestead for the wildest party the town would ever see. Perle’s admirer even brought her a beaded and sequined gown imported from Paris to wear to the event.

Is this Madam Perle de Vere?
Another photo thought to be of Perle (Pinterest)

During the evening, after much drinking and revelry, Perle and the gentleman got into an argument. He stormed out of the house and Perle retired to her bedroom. Later that night, one of the girls checked in on Perle. She found her lying on the bed, still in her gown, her breathing labored. Unable to rouse the madam, the girl called for a doctor, but it was too late. In the early hours of the morning, Perle de Vere, at age 37, died. The coroner stated her death was due to an accidental overdose of morphine, a drug she sometimes used for insomnia. Most of the newspapers reported the same, but one reported the death as suicide. Historians dispute this claim because Perle was at the height of her success.

But, could it have been murder? And if so, who would do such a thing? The gentleman who sponsored the party? A jealous wife? One of the girls? Perhaps her husband who potentially grew envious of his wife’s success and numerous lovers? It is known that the admirer who purchased the gown and paid for the party also sent a $1000 check for Perle’s funeral expenses, an amount that today is valued at $36,000. But, does that make him innocent?

Most likely, Perle died of an accidental overdose, as the coroner stated. But, with a story as rich as hers, and with a cast of the intriguing characters she possibly entertained, it’s interesting to speculate on what might have happened to Colorado’s most famous “soiled dove.”

Feature photo found on Google from Bonanza Boomers

Empowered Women of Southwest History – Georgia O’Keeffe

O'Keeffe in headscarf
Photo by Alfred Stieglitz
(New York Times)

Georgia O’Keeffe—a name synonymous with the beauty and mystique of the Southwest.

O’Keeffe’s depiction of multicolored desert landscapes, sensuous enlarged flowers and animal skulls, white-washed from the harshness of the New Mexico sun, portray her passion for and enchantment of the American Southwest. Throughout her life in New Mexico, O’Keefe found solace, inspiration, and the empowerment to become the “mother of American modernism.”

Born in 1887 to dairy farmers in Wisconsin, Georgia showed a passion for art at a young age. Her parents supported her interest by enrolling her in art lessons with a local watercolorist. At 18 years old, Georgia studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. After a bout of illness, she returned to school at the Art Students League in New York City. There, she produced a still-life painting entitled Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot, and with the painting, won a scholarship to attend the League’s satellite school in Lake George, New York.

In 1908, her art and her passion took a turn. Unable to finance her studies due to her family’s bankruptcy, Georgia took a 4-year hiatus from her craft. She began teaching in 1911. In 1912 she took an art class that focused on the work of Arthur Wesley Dow, and started to experiment with abstract principals. This would prove pivotal in her future career. In 1915, while teaching at Columbia College, she created a series of charcoal drawings. The drawings, depicting shapes she found in nature fused with her own subconscious feelings, showed O’Keefe’s unique perspective of integrating art with emotion.

nude of Georgia O'Keeffe
Photo by Alfred Stieglitz (New York Times)

That same year, Alfred Stieglitz, a photographer and owner of 291, an esteemed art gallery in New York, received O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings from one of her colleagues at Columbia College. Stieglitz exhibited 10 of the drawings at his gallery in 1916 without the artist’s permission. When O’Keeffe heard this, she wrote to him and asked that he take them down. Stieglitz refused,  insisting that her art and her unique vision needed to been seen and shared with the world.

Unable to forget the work (and the woman) that moved him in such a profound way, Stieglitz arranged for O’Keeffe to come to New York to paint. A professional, and then later, a personal relationship developed. Already married to Emmeline Obermeyer, Stieglitz fell hard for O’Keefe, 23-years his junior—the muse he’d always longed for. While his wife was away, Stieglitz started photographing O’Keeffe at his family’s New York apartment. Emmeline feared an affair between the two, and demanded Stieglitz terminate his relationship with O’Keeffe. In turn, Stieglitz secured an apartment and he and O’Keefe moved in together. It took 7 years for Stieglitz to obtain a divorce, but finally, he and O’Keefe married in 1924.

Jimson Weed - O'Keeffe
Jimson Weed by Georgia O’Keeffe
(Wikipedia)

In New York, Georgia became influenced by the movement of Precisionism and began to create the floral paintings that catapulted her to fame. During her lifetime, O’Keeffe made over 200 large scale depictions of flowers such as Oriental Poppies and later, her famed Jimson Weed  that sold in 2014 for over $44,000.

In 1925, O’Keeffe buried herself in this new found precisionist style and began painting a series depicting the New York skyline and the skyscrapers that formed the urban city’s landscape.

Due for a respite from the bustling city, in 1926, O’Keeffe traveled to New Mexico with a friend. They stayed with Mabel Dodge Luhan, another east-coast transplant, at her home in Taos. There, O’Keeffe became enchanted with the colors and landscapes of the New Mexico desert. By 1929, she would spend part of every year in Taos and Abiquiú, much to Stieglitz’s disappointment. The relationship between Stieglitz and O’Keeffe was both passionate and tumultuous. O’Keeffe wanted to spend more time in New Mexico while her husband needed to stay in New York to manage his galleries. Another affair occurred. This time between Stieglitz and a young protégé, the photographer Dorothy Norman.

O’Keeffe found in New Mexico solace and inspiration. In 1940, she purchased a house at Ghost Ranch, in the northern part of the state, and five years later purchased a second home in Abiquiú. This home served as much of her subject matter through the 1950’s. In New Mexico, O’Keefe was prolific, creating series of paintings inspired from rock formations in the area surrounding Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu which she called “Black Place” and “White Place.”

Stieglitz & O’Keeffe
(Philadelphia Museum of Art)

In 1946, at the age of 82, Alfred Stieglitz died with O’Keeffe by his side. Three years after that, O’Keeffe made New Mexico her permanent home. In 1949, she was elected to the National Institute of Arts and letters, and began traveling the world, seeking further inspiration. She continued to expand her abstractionist style. Inspired by her sky side view in airplanes, she created a cloudscape series, including Sky Above Clouds IV.

In the early 1970’s, O’Keefe began to lose her eyesight from macular degeneration, but her passion for her art and her artistic vision never wavered. She continued to produce art with the help of assistants, and also wrote her autobiography, Georgia O’Keeffe, which became a best-seller.

O’Keeffe received many awards throughout her lifetime for her dedication and contribution to the world of abstract art. In 1977 she received the Medal of Freedom from President Gerald Ford, and the National Medal of Arts in 1985.

In the Spring of 1986, O’Keeffe died at her home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Eleven years later,  the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe was built in her honor. There, her memory lives on with 140 oil paintings, nearly 700 drawings and hundreds of additional works dating from 1901 to 1984.

Although O’Keeffe and her work broke ground for female artists around the world, she never identified herself as a “woman artist” or as a feminist. She wanted to be known only as “an artist”, an individual drawn to her craft by something within her that could not be held back or held down. She lived her life just as she wanted, with a unique passion, vision and boldness. Her work, like the woman herself, is empowered, unmistakable, and utterly unforgettable.

To learn more about the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, click here.

Queen Isabella of Castile, and the Mysterious Madness of Princess Juana

It is said, madness runs in families.

Isabella I of Castile
(wikipedia)

While Isabella of Castile became one of the most powerful female monarchs the world would ever know, her daughter, Juana, could not seem to find empowerment at any time in her life, even when she became Queen of Castile. Suffering from bouts of ill temper, melancholia, jealous rages and utter despair, Juana was proclaimed “mad” early into her marriage and she never successfully alluded the title.

Both never intended for the throne, Isabella and her daughter Juana came to their prospective reigns through the untimely death of siblings, and also through powerful alliances in marriage. Both raised at court, they received the finest education a princess could receive, but their lives, and any hope at happiness in their younger years, came at the mercy of their male superiors and overbearing mothers. Isabella’s mother, known as Isabella the Mad, often flew into paranoid rants about ghosts or people wanting to kill her or her beloved.

Raised under the reign of her half-brother Henry IV, Isabella endured several betrothals and refused one or two before she married the man she had first been intended for, Ferdinand of Aragon. Knowing her half-brother wanted an alliance with Alfonso of Portugal, Isabela fled from her brother’s court to Valladolid, and married her second cousin, Ferdinand.

From that point on, Isabella and Ferdinand embarked on a quest to make Castile and Leon (now Spain) a pure nation. With Isabella at the helm, they reorganized the government and saved the kingdom from the overwhelming debt her brother Henry left behind. Isabella and Ferdinand became known as the “Catholic Kings,” after they ruthlessly resurrected the Reconquista by taking Grenada from the Muslims, and exiled Jewish subjects in the Spanish Inquisition. Isabella established Spain as a world power that lasted for more than a century with her support of Christopher Columbus’ 1492 voyage to the “new world.”

Although having given birth to five children, Isabella had little time to raise them. Juana, the third child, an extremely beautiful, intelligent and sensitive girl, started exhibiting strange behaviors when her mother became ill, or traveled away from court. The young princess often locked herself away and refuse to eat or sleep.

Juana the Mad
Juana de Castile (pinterest)

In 1496, Isabella sent Juana, aged 16, accompanied by a fleet of over 100 ships, to Flanders to marry Phillip the Fair, or Phillip the Handsome, the heir to the Austrian empire. The alliance would strengthen Spain’s presence against the power of France, and align it with Flanders, the top producer of Iberian wool. After the setback of a tremendous storm delayed the arrival of the princess, the two teenagers finally met, and fell in love at first sight. With the wedding set for the next day, the two decided they could not wait, and had a priest marry them immediately.

But the passionate luster soon wore off for Phillip, known to love his wine and his women. When Phillip misbehaved, Juana flew into long, drawn-out jealous rages, or took to her rooms, refusing food or drink for days.

Despite their marital troubles while living in Flanders, Juana became pregnant. She first gave birth to a daughter, Eleanor, in 1498, and then Charles in 1500. During this span of time, Juana’s elder brother John and her sister Isabella both died, leaving Juana heir to the throne of Spain. In order to keep an eye on Juana, who’s public displays of ill-temper had become renown in Flanders, and Phillip who’d become too lenient with France, Isabella and Ferdinand encouraged the couple to move to Spain. If they were to inherit the realm, they needed to be schooled for their eventual accession to power.

Finally, in 1502, Juana and Phillip arrived in Spain where Juana was recognized as Isabella’s successor and Phillip her consort. Feeling like a fish out of water, Phillip soon returned to Flanders, but Isabella would not allow Juana to leave with him.

Desperate without her husband, Juana resorted to her melancholic state and refused to eat or drink. Phillip wanted Juana back in Flanders as badly as Juana wanted to be there, but for different reasons. He wanted his wife out of Spain’s control. Isabella feared that Spain would revolt should Juana try to rule from Flanders, so the tug of war continued until 1504, when fearing for her daughter’s mental stability, Isabella let Juana return to Flanders.

juana and phillip
(pinterest)

But love and life did not improve for Juana. Phillip continued his affairs and Juana continued her embarrassing public outbursts. These public displays of outrage and then overt affection toward Phillip only made Phillip despise his wife more. He had her locked away in her rooms.

More sad news would reach Juana a few months later when she learned that her mother, Isabella, had died. Her father, Ferdinand, in order to keep control from Phillip, claimed Juana incompetent to rule, and he intended to rule as regent until his grandson Charles became of age.

To thwart her father’s plan, Juana and Phillip sailed for Castile in the hopes that powerful nobles who opposed Ferdinand would side with Juana. They did. Ferdinand then remarried hoping to beget another son to take the throne from Juana’s control.

In 1506, perhaps tired of working around Juana, Ferdinand and Phillip made an alliance. Without Juana’s knowledge, the two men met and declared Juana unfit to rule. Ferdinand turned Castile over to Phillip and Juana in a monetary exchange, knowing that Phillip would wrest control from Juana, but also that Spain would likely not accept a foreign ruler.

To everyone’s surprise, in late 1506, Phillip fell ill with fever (some say poison.) Juana nursed him around the clock for six days until he finally succumbed. Bereft, Juana, according to chroniclers of the time, had her husband’s coffin reopened on several occasions so she could caress his face and look upon him.

These claims were probably exaggerated by Ferdinand and then later, Juana’s son Charles, to discredit her and thwart any hope of her rising to power, again. To Ferdinand’s relief, Juana had no interest in ruling, and in 1507 she turned the government over to him. In return, he had her imprisoned in Tordesillas castle, where she continued her bouts of refusing to eat or sleep.

When Charles finally came into power after the death of Ferdinand, he did not treat his mother much better than Phillip or Ferdinand had. But, the people loved her, and often rallied to her cause, but Charles clamped down even harder on his mother because of her popularity. She finally enjoyed about 8 months of freedom before she died.

Was Juana actually mad, or did she possess a tender heart and have a sensitive nature? Did she suffer from bi-polar disease, or did she pose too much of a threat to the men in her life who wanted power above all else? We may never know. I wonder if Isabella had lived longer, would she have come to the defense of her daughter, or would she have treated her as ruthlessly as she did the others she deemed weak? I would hope the former, but then, I’m an eternal optimist.

Mystery and Scandal – 3 Mysteries of Queen Victoria

When a female monarch rules for over 63 years, there is bound to be some scandal in association with her reign. Although Queen Victoria was known for her strict and stringent opinions on moral behavior, her reign, like many of those before and after, is tinged with mystery and social indiscretions.

Mystery #1) Eddy

Prince Eddy
(wikipedia)

Christened Albert Victor Christian Edward, “Eddy”, Queen Victoria’s grandson, had intrigue and scandal written all over him. His legacy is dubious at best.

The son of Albert Edward, the Prince of Wales, (who had his own share of mistresses and scandals) and the long suffering Alexandra of Denmark, Eddy was second in line to the throne of England. His education proved difficult as he seemed uninterested in intellectual pursuits. Some explained his lack of intellectual prowess due to possible deafness inherited from his mother, or undiagnosed learning disabilities.

At 21 years of age, Eddy attended Trinity College, where he continued to have little interest in the academic life, but made friends such as don Oscar Browning – a man known to favor attractive male undergraduates. Whether Eddy engaged in any sexual experiences at Cambridge is undocumented, but in 1889, Eddy’s became a person of interest in association with the Cleveland Street Scandal. When the police uncovered the all-male house of ill repute on Cleveland street, people associated with the House of Windsor came into question, including Eddy. His father intervened in the investigation and no evidence against Eddy could be found or proven.

The next year, Eddy became ill with what may have been venereal disease. Doctors in attendance referred to it as “fever” or “gout.” Rumors spread of Eddy’s intimate relations with a chorus girl of the Gaiety Theater, Lydia Manton and later with chorus girl, Maude Richardson. The royal family reportedly payed off Maude for her silence. Shortly after, Eddy proposed to Princess Mary of Teck, and she accepted to the great relief of the royal family. But, the wedding never happened.

Succumbing to the influenza pandemic in 1889-92, Eddy developed pneumonia and died shortly after his 28th birthday.

In 1962 the first written mention of Eddy as Jack the Ripper surfaced. The story goes that Eddy fathered a child with a prostitute named Annie Crook. Annie’s friends knew of the scandal, and the Prince, suffering from advanced syphilis and resulting psychosis, brutally murdered them to keep them quiet. However, records show that at the time of his reported affair with Annie, and the resulting murders, Eddy was at Balmoral, the royal retreat in Scotland, with his grandmother, Queen Victoria, and other family members.

Mystery #2) Louise

Princess Louise
(Pinterest)

Princess Louise, born during the revolution in 1848, seemed to rebel from the moment she came into the world. Talented, intelligent, artistic, and the most beautiful of Victoria’s four daughters, Louise’s vibrant nature endeared her to everyone, especially her father who gave her the pet name “Little Miss Why.”

Louise excelled in drawing, painting and dancing. Although an artistic career—or any career—was not appropriate for a princess, the queen allowed Louise to attend art school where she learned to sculpt. She later studied at the National Art Training School.

Historians assert that Louise had an affair with her brother Leopold’s tutor. Some accounts state she fell in love with the Reverend Robinson Duckworth between the years of 1866-1870. This same reverend, a friend of Lewis Carrol, was the inspiration for Carrol’s character the Duck in the Jury Box and the Duck in the Pool of Tears in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” Hearing of Louise’s infatuation with a man 14 years her senior, the Queen quickly dismissed him.

Lucinda Hawksley, in her biography “The Mystery of Princess Louise: Queen Victoria’s Rebellious Daughter,” claims Louise had an affair with the tutor Walter Stirling, and that she actually gave birth to his child—a boy named Henry. She asserts that as soon as Louise gave birth, the queen arranged for the boy’s adoption by the royal gynecologist, Frederick Locock. Hawksley cannot prove this assertion with documentation, but states she has seen photos of the child who bore a remarkable resemblance to the royal family.

Louise served as unofficial secretary to her mother from 1966-1871 and worked closely with the queen’s assistant private secretary, Arthur Bigge. Rumors spread that the two also had an affair. Yet, the most scandalous rumor about Louise surfaced at the death of the famed sculptor, Joseph Edgar Boehm. Tales spread about his dying in her arms as they made love.

In 1890 Louise married the dashing John Campbell, the Marquess of Lorne and heir to the Dukedom Argyll. The couple traveled extensively together, but throughout the years remained childless and grew apart. Unhappy in her marriage and living away from her husband, Louise became romantically linked with artist Edwin Lutyens, her equerry Colonel William Probert, and an unnamed music master.

Louise also supported the suffragist movement, something the queen did not support, and associated socially with Josephine Butler and Elizabeth Garrett. Other friends included the artists Rosetti, Millais, Whister, and Mary Ann Evans, who wrote as George Eliot, and lived with a man out of wedlock.

Mystery #3) John Brown

Victoria and John Brown with horse
(dailymail.co.uk)

The worst day of Queen Victoria’s life? The day her husband Albert died.

From that day forth, Victoria continued to have his clothes and shaving items laid out for him, and she slept with a plaster cast of his hand next to her bed. For the rest of her days, she wore widow’s weeds— modest dresses of solid black.

The second worst day for Victoria? When her loyal servant John Brown died.

Brown, a robust, handsome man of more than six feet tall doted upon the queen. He spent hours hand walking her horse as she rode throughout the beautiful grounds of Windsor, Osborn House, and Balmoral. After the death of Albert, Victoria relied on her devoted manservant from Scotland for everything.

Victoria’s children referred to him as “mama’s lover” probably due to the fact they slept in adjoining rooms. John Brown served as the queen’s constant companion and he pledged to be with her always. She gave him gifts, created two medals for him, commissioned a portrait of him and had statues and private memorials of him erected after his death. When  Victoria passed, her son Edward VII had the statuary destroyed or removed. He also had over 300 letters of his mother’s burned, many of them mentioning Mr. Brown.

Speculation that the two secretly wed came about when one of the Queen’s chaplains claimed on his deathbed that he performed the ceremony. There was also talk of three additional children.

Premarital relations between John Brown and Victoria, or their possible marriage, has never been proven. However, when Victoria died, she requested a photo of him be placed in her coffin, along with a lock of his hair, some of his letters, and his mother’s wedding ring that he had gifted to her years before. The ring was placed on the third finger of her left hand and was disguised under strategically positioned flowers. Victoria also requested to be buried in her wedding veil, along with Albert’s dressing gown, and the plaster cast of his hand.

Did Prince Eddy have a dark side? Did Princess Louise have a child out of wedlock? Did Victoria enjoy friendship, relations, or even marriage to her handsome Scotsman? We may never know. In the case of Victoria, however, I find it interesting that her beloved husband and her devoted servant should have equal status in her voyage to the hereafter. Don’t you?

Joan of Arc – Maid, Mystic, Heretic, Saint

joan of arc astride a horse in battle
(Encyclopedia Britanica)

What possessed, Joan of Arc, a normal, 15th century teenaged girl from a modest village, to travel for 11 days to tell the dauphin of France she needed to lead an an army to Orléans to save the country from English power?

What possessed the dauphin to grant her request, against the advice of his councilors and generals?

When I reacquainted myself with the story of Joan of Arc for this blog post, a thought kept popping into my mind: What would happen if a common girl today went to the leader of her country and claimed that God commanded only she could save her country from its enemies? The leader would probably laugh at her and then have her committed. She would not be taken seriously.

At all.

So what made the dauphin and military leaders of the time, follow the advice of this young, country peasant?

#1) Her piety.

Like other girls in the village of Domrémy, Joan helped her mother with spinning and sewing, and her father with watching the cattle and livestock. The daughter of a pious Catholic woman, Joan and her sister Catherine attended confession and mass regularly, helped to nurse the sick of her village, and often visited nearby oratories and chapels. But at age 12 or 13 Joan began to spend more time in church and in prayer. The other children took notice of this and sometimes ridiculed her for her pious ways. What they, nor her parents or sister didn’t know was that Joan had a secret. One she felt she couldn’t share with anyone else.

#2) Her visions and voices.

joan visted by Michael the Archangel
(fr.wikipedia.org)

Joan’s village suffered raids and burnings from the English and the neighboring Burgundians many times. Once, it burned to the ground and had to be re-established. When things calmed down after one of these raids, Joan, while working in her father’s garden experienced something that would change her life forever. The Archangel Michael appeared to her in blinding white light. He told her she would be visited by him again, and to prepare for visitations from St. Catherine and St. Margaret, who had an important message to deliver to her. When they appeared on several other occasions, they told her she must drive the English out of France, and bring the crown prince, the dauphin, to power as king in the city of Reims. Joan did not tell others of these visions and voices until well into her mission.

#3) Her devotion to her country.

Joan dropped everything in her life in Domrémy to save her country. She defied her father, who’d arranged a marriage for her, telling him she had a greater mission in life. She traveled to nearby Vaucouleurs to implore the local magistrate, Robert de Baudricort, to assist her in her mission to reach the dauphin, Charles. After Baudricort laughed at her, he told her to be a good girl, go back to her mother, and find a husband. Joan would not be dissuaded and 6 months later, returned to Vaucouleurs where she convinced a band of men  she was the prophesied virgin destined to save France. She cut her hair, donned men’s clothing, and traveled 11 miles with this band of men to Chinon to deliver her message to the dauphin.

#4) Her divine prophesies.

  • When Joan traveled to Vauclouleurs she immediately recognized Baudricourt without having seen him. She later claimed her guides’ voices told her,”there he is.” She explained to him her prediction of the deliverance of Orléans, the rise of the Dauphin at Reims, and of the defeat of the French at the battle of Harengs, as it took place.
  • Once she arrived at Chinon and entered into the chamber of the dauphin, she knew him in a moment, despite his concealment behind a group of 300 people. Amazed at her detection of him, he gave her a private audience where she promised he would be crowned at Reims if she could lead an army of soldiers to stop the siege at Orleans.
  • Still skeptical, the prince told her of a sword buried in the church of St. Catherine de Fierbois, and requested she bring it to him. With the assistance of her divine guides, she found the sword behind the altar of the church. It became her most beloved sword – although she refused to carry a sword into battle, but instead carried a white flag.
  • She predicted she would be wounded at Orléans, where she was pierced with an arrow between her neck and shoulder.
  • After the dauphin had been crowned as King Charles VII at Reims, Joan stated to him she “would last a year, and but little longer.” She also explained she would be captured by mid-summer. Fourteen months later near Compiègne, Joan was pulled from her horse by a Burgundian supporter and taken prisoner. She remained imprisoned until her death.

# 5) She never relented.

Joan at the stake
(Encyclopedia Britanica)

Imprisoned at Beaurevoir Castle by the Burgundians, Joan made several escape attempts, including jumping from her 70-foot tower. Unable to escape detection, her captors moved her to the town of Arras. The English paid 10,000 livres to claim her from the Burgundians and then moved her to the city of Rouen where she stood trial.

The English wanted to try Joan for heresy, but no evidence could be found. Hersey was only a capital crime if it had been committed twice, which did not stand up in Joan’s case. They initiated the trial anyway, despite the fact that no one stood to represent Joan—a requirement of the law.

When interrogated, Joan confessed her visions and her voices, stating that she acted according to God’s will. When a clergyman mocked her and asked what language her voices spoke, she claimed they spoke French—far better than he did.

Under inquisitorial guidelines, Joan should have been confined in an ecclesiastical prison under the supervision of nuns, not in a secular prison with only male guards. When captured, Joan wore her usual attire of men’s clothing. Unable to try her for heresy, the English changed the charge to “cross-dressing.” Joan then agreed to wear a dress, but after her a guard tried to rape her, she changed back to her masculine attire. After this abjuration, they claimed she relapsed into heresy by cross-dressing. The trial commenced and Joan was sentenced to death for the crime of heresy.

At the stake, she requested to wear a cross on her breast, and for someone to hold a cross before her. Her last words were, “Jesus, Jesus, Jesus.”

The Roman Catholic church recognized her as a saint in 1920.

Eleanor of Aquitaine – and the Mystery of Love and Incest

Eleanor of Aquitane
Eleanor of Aquitaine

Eleanor of Aquitaine, the most sought after daughter in medieval Europe, became the most wealthy and powerful woman during the 12th and 13th centuries. At 12-13 years of age, Eleanor inherited the Duchy of Aquitaine when her father, William X, died. Orphaned, Eleanor came under the guardianship of King Louis VI of France. Three months later, she married the King’s son, Louis VII. Shortly after the two teenagers wed, the King, known as Louis the Fat, died of dysentery leaving Louis the Younger and Eleanor the Kingdom.

As with most women of power, many of Eleanor’s critics claim she came by that power, and possibly held onto that power, through dubious and immoral methods–meaning, she used her feminine wiles and uncontrolled sexual passion to gain the upper hand. One of the most popular rumors about Eleanor is her alleged incestuous affair with her uncle, Raymond of Poitiers.

Historians agree that Eleanor, reputed to be beautiful, intelligent, and wise beyond her years, enchanted her husband Louis with her wit and charm. Despite his intense love for her, the couple’s 8-year relationship slowly disintegrated as they could produce no male heir. Of course, as with most infertile royal couples of the time, the fault lay with Eleanor, despite the fact she gave birth to a daughter, Marie in 1145.

When Pope Eugene III requested Louis lead a second crusade to the Middle East to rescue the Frankish Kingdoms from the Muslims, Eleanor encouraged her husband to rise to the occasion. She also requested to accompany him. It is debated whether Louis agreed to allow his beautiful, flirtatious bride to join him to keep her under close watch, or he simply desired her company. Eleanor, along with her royal ladies-in-waiting and 300 of her courtiers boarded the ships to Antioch for the campaign.

When the royal couple arrived, they accepted the hospitality of Eleanor’s handsome uncle Raymond, Prince of Antioch. Raymond and Eleanor spent constant time in each others company. It didn’t take long for rumors to spread that the two engaged in an incestuous affair. Louis, appalled and affronted with the rumors, pulled up stakes left after only two weeks in Antioch.

Louis VII
Louis VII
(Biography.com)

Eleanor implored her husband to let her stay under the protection of her uncle, but he refused her plea, and bade she accompany him on the rest of the crusade. When they returned to France, the rumors of Eleanor’s infidelity with her uncle further alienated her from Louis, and she asked Pope Eugene for an annulment. She claimed to want the annulment on the grounds of consanguinity—the close familial relation to her husband, her fourth cousin. The Pope refused and tried to reconcile the royal couple.

In 1150, Eleanor gave birth to another daughter—another disappointment that further alienated Eleanor from her husband. The Pope finally relented, and in 1152 gave Eleanor the annulment on grounds of consanguinity, but gave custody of her daughters to Louis.

The second famous rumor about Eleanor concerns the mystery of her Court of Love. After her annulment, noblemen and Kings lined up to win Eleanor’s hand. Still the most powerful woman in Europe, she again became a most sought-after bride. Even if it meant kidnapping her. Eleanor got wind of at least two of these plots, and sent word to Henry, her third cousin, the Duke of Normandy and future King of England, imploring him to marry her. He didn’t refuse.

Eight weeks after her annulment to Louis, Henry and Eleanor married. Although they had 8 children together over 15 years of marriage, the two often bickered and fought. Henry spent much time away from England, and also with other women. During this time, Eleanor returned to her castle in Poitiers, France, where she is said to have started the Court of Love.

Eleanor
Eleanor
(www.telegraph.co.uk)

Discouraged by her own two marriages, Eleanor set out to educate men in the areas of romance, love, and chivalry. Noblemen brought their relationship problems to a jury of nearly 60 women, (the Court of Love) including Eleanor and her daughter Marie, Countess of Champagne, in search of answers. The women directed the love-lorn men how to dress, speak, and act with their women, including writing poetry, playing music, and taking an interest in the arts–a far cry from manly behavior of the middle ages.

Many historians deny the existence of Eleanor’s Court of Love, but others say it contributed to the literature, music, and  arts of the time, and into the future. The art of courtly love also grew in popularity from this period on.

Henry and Eleanor’s marriage would see greater decline when their son, Henry the Younger, led a revolt against his father for the crown of England. Eleanor sided with her son, and for this, Henry imprisoned her for the next 16 years. At the death of her husband, her third son, Richard, became King. One of his first acts as King of England? To free his mother from prison.

Though her critics, and her husbands, tried to discredit her time and time again, Eleanor proved to be a woman empowered, and a woman who found a way to survive and prevail. She lived into her early eighties. The mere fact that she obtained an annulment from a King who still ruled, is unfathomable—considering that a woman in the 12th Century, even a ruling woman, only existed as a means to an end—to better the lives of men.

We may never solve the mystery of Eleanor’s relationship with her uncle, or her reported infidelities in the French court, or whether or not she developed a “Court of Love” in Poitiers. We can only go by the records that exist in history, and no one knows whether all the records are true or not. Sometimes, it is up to us to decide. Despite the claims of her critics, Eleanor still remains one of the most beloved, and most empowered women in history.

For more information on Raymond of Antioch, read this blog post by Elizabeth Chadwick.

Photo found in French Quarter Magazine

Mary Queen of Scots – The Mystery of the Casket Letters

Mary Queen of Scots
(Wikipedia)

Did Mary, Queen of Scots, play a role in the death of her second husband, Lord Darnley? The mystery may never be solved. What would prompt a Queen, carrying the child of her husband, to kill him? According to history, the reasons are varied and some even say, sound. The evidence that put her life on the line lies within the mysterious Casket Letters.

Mary, the only child of King James V of Scotland and Marie de Guise, ascended to the throne of Scotland at six days old. Marie de Guise sent her infant daughter, Mary, to France to be raised in the French court, while she ruled Scotland as Queen Regent until Mary became of age.

At 16, Mary wed Louis, the dauphin of France, aged 15, as arranged by her mother and Henri II, King of France. Months later, Henri died due to injuries from a lance wound to the eye. Louis, the eldest child of the King and Catherine de Medici, took the throne. An odd pair—Mary, vivacious, beautiful and tall, and Louis small, awkward, and fragile—the two had great affection for one another. At Louis’s death a year after their marriage, Mary went into deep mourning.

Widowed, the teenaged Mary left France, the only home she’d known, and returned to Scotland. Required by her status to produce an heir, Mary needed to wed, again. The obvious choice–her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Both the same age, the two got along well at first, but Darnley’s fondness for drinking and other women didn’t set well with Mary. Also, he craved power and demanded she grant him the Crown Matrimonial. Knowing that to meet his demands would make Darnley King of Scotland at her death, she refused.

Lord Darnley
Henry Stuart – Lord Darnley (Wikipedia)

During her unhappy marriage to Darnley, Mary befriended the Italian courtier, also her private secretary, David Ricco. Unhappy in her marriage, yet faithful to her duties, Mary became pregnant with Darnley’s child. Jealous of their relationship, Darnley accused Mary of an affair with Ricco, claiming she carried Ricco’s child and not his. At a small dinner party Mary hosted for her ladies-in-waiting and Ricco, Darnley had Ricco savagely stabbed over 50 times, while some of Darnley’s men held Mary at gunpoint. The incident made it impossible for Mary to continue with Darnley.

After the birth of her son, James, Mary sought help from James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, and other Scottish nobles to remove Darnley from power, and Mary’s life. Divorce not an option for Mary, a Catholic Queen, she had to come up with something else. Darnley got wind of Mary’s plans and fearing for his safety, fled to Glasgow to hide out at his family’s estate. He soon became ill, with what might have been small pox or syphilis. Poison could not be ruled out, either.

Mary pleaded with him to come back to Edinburgh. He agreed to stay at Kirk O’Field, a former abbey at the outskirts of the city. Mary visited him daily while he recuperated, and it looked as if there might be a reconciliation. However, on a February morning in 1567, Darnley was found dead in the gardens of the estate. An explosion devastated Kirk o’Field the night before. Mary, her half-brother James (Earl of Moray), and Bothwell were implicated in the murder. Bothwell stood trial. Acquitted in the absence of evidence, he declared his aim to marry the Queen of Scots, and received support from several lords and bishops.

Bothwell and Mary eventually married, 12 days after Bothwell’s divorce from his wife. Again, Mary suffered an unhappy union, and the marriage proved unpopular with both Catholics and Protestants. It is unclear whether Mary loved Bothwell or not, if he somehow coerced her to marry him, or if she came to the marriage as a willing partner. Some records indicate that Bothwell raped her after he abducted her from Stirling castle, some time before they wed.

The Peerage, twenty-six confederate lords, turned against Mary and Bothwell, and raised  an army against them. Mary and Bothwell attempted to confront the lords with force, but Mary’s troops deserted. The lords granted Bothwell safe passage from the battlefield, but they took Mary to Edinburgh, and forced her to abdicated to her one-year-old son, James.

casket
(Canadian Content Forums)

Mary’s half-brother, the Earl of Moray, assumed the role of Regent, and to keep his power, turned against Mary. He handed over over “the Casket letters” to Queen Elizabeth, who now had the upper hand in her quest for Scottish rule. The Casket letters consisted of 8 unsigned letters from Mary to Bothwell, two marriage contracts, and love sonnets, nestled in a foot long silver casket bearing the monogram of King Francis II, Mary’s first husband.

Elizabeth wrote to Mary, imploring her for the truth. Mary denied writing the documents, but the situation did not help Mary’s cause, and many thought the letters proof of her plotting with Bothwell to murder Darnley. Years later, on 11 August 1586, after being implicated in a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth, (the Babbington Plot) Elizabeth had no choice and had Mary arrested. With the controversy of the Casket letters, and then the possibility that Mary might have plotted against the Queen of England, Mary stood as a constant threat to Elizabeth’s power, her throne, and her very life. In February of 1587, Elizabeth order Mary’s execution—a gruesome beheading that took several strokes of the axe.

Did Mary have a hand in the death of Lord Darnley? If so, one could hardly blame her after the brutal murder of her friend and confidant, Ricco. Mary’s upbringing might lead people to believe she knew all to well the importance of maintaining royal power at any cost. She grew up in the court of Henry II, under the care of Catherine de Medici, France’s most famed wicked woman. Yet, no matter how fierce her desire to maintain control of her crown and her country, Mary never demonstrated the same ruthlessness of d’Medici, or even her own husband, Darnley.

Perhaps in his eagerness to wed the Queen, Bothwell used her to plot the death of her husband, and then take power himself. Did Mary love Bothwell, or did he serve as a means to an end? Did someone in Mary’s confidence betray her with the mysterious Casket letters? Historical data is never perfect. The mystery of the Casket letters and their implications in Mary’s guilt will, most likely, never be solved.

young catherine de medici

The Mystery of Catherine de Medici – Wicked or Empowered?

young catherine de medici
Young Catherine de Medici
(Themedicifamily.com)

Orphaned only weeks after her birth, and passed around to several relatives before her internment  in several convents, Catherine de Medici had a rough start in life.

Like most children of noble families, Catherine maintained little control over her destiny. Born into the powerful Italian Medici family, whose members included two Popes, Catherine, as an only child, bore the brunt of her family’s successes and failures. When Catherine’s family  lost control of power in Florence in 1527 by a rogue political faction, they took Catherine hostage. Parading her through the streets on a donkey, she served as a symbol of her family’s defeat. They then sent her to live in a convent until 1530 when Pope Clement, Catherine’s great uncle, took back Florence with the help of Charles V of Spain. Clement then set out to find Catherine a husband to help secure the family’s legacy.

At 14 years of age, Catherine married 15-year-old Henry, Duke of Orleans, heir to the French throne. Eager for a happy union, Catherine soon discovered something different. Her husband loved another–Diane de Pointers, his childhood governess. Henry and Diane did little to hide their affair from Catherine. Once crowned King, Henri needed an heir to secure the Valois dynasty. Perhaps Catherine thought this would put an end to her husband’s affair, but it did not. Having to share her husband, Catherine also had to provide an heir. A task that proved impossible for 10 years.

In her desperation, Catherine turned to methods that alarmed the French. Using the advice of known necromancer Cosimo Ruggeri, and the seer Nostradamus, Catherine went to great lengths to bear a child. It is said she drank the urine of pregnant mules, and wore a talisman made of goat’s blood, metals, and human blood. As a Catholic people, the French saw these strange practices as witchcraft, and Catherine as a practitioner of the Dark Arts.

Finally, a true diagnosis for the lack of pregnancy came to light, and it had little to do with the queen. Henri suffered from a penile deformity. After medical consult regarding sexual positions to accommodate the situation, the couple conceived 10 children, 7 who survived.

When Henri died from a brain infection caused by a lance wound to the eye, Catherine went into deep mourning. It is said her grief prevented her from attending the coronation of her eldest son, Francis II. But, it didn’t take long for Catherine to realize that she, as mother of the King, and several more heirs, finally had control of her court, her country, and her own destiny. As one of her first acts of power, Catherine had Diane de Pointers banished from court. She then turned her full attention to the management of her children’s lives and the Valois dynasty.

Charles IX
Charles IX
(Wikipedia)

Two years after his marriage to Mary Queen of Scots, and one year after his coronation, Francis II, aged 15, died from an ear infection. His younger brother Charles IX, aged 10, succeeded him, making Catherine Queen Regent of France. Catherine dominated her son and the French court. Never known for her love and affection toward her children, Catherine made it her life’s work to secure their power.

With the rise of Queen Elizabeth of England and the protestant reformation, Catholic popularity in France waned. French protestants, called Huguenots, fought to overtake France. Eager to create resolution, Catherine negotiated with protestant Jeanne d’Albret, Queen Regent of Navarre, to arrange a marriage between d’Albret’s son, Henri, to her  daughter Margaret. Jeanne d’Albret agreed, but only if her son could remain protestant. Margaret, in love with Henri de Guise, protested the marriage. Catherine and King Charles had Margaret dragged from her bedroom, and beaten into submission. The wedding would take place August of 1572.

In June, Catherine welcomed Jeanne d’Albret and her son to France. Catherine presented d’Albret with a pair of perfumed gloves. Known for her love of perfumes and potions, Catherine introduced France to the elegant, fragrant, and finely made gloves. When Jeanne d’Albret died soon after her arrival, the Huguenots claimed Catherine poisoned the gloves.

On August 18, 1572, Margaret and Henri of Navarre married, making Henri the King of Navarre and Margaret his queen. Thousands of Huguenots attended the wedding, including Admiral Coligny, their leader. Two days later, Coligny was attacked and killed. The Huguenots blamed Catherine and her Catholic followers, and the uprising resulted in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Charles, some say influenced by his mother, demanded that his soldiers “kill them all.” Hundreds of Huguenots died in the long battle, and Catherine’s name would forever be associated with their deaths. When her new son-in-law, the King of Navarre, converted to Catholicism to avoid being killed, Catherine is said to have laughed at him. From then on Huguenots branded Catherine as a scheming and evil Italian Queen who stopped at nothing to have her way.

The outcome of the massacre took a toll on Charles’ already weakened mental and physical condition. He alternately blamed his mother and himself for the deaths of so many. Catherine referred to him as her lunatic son. When Charles died at age 24, some said Catherine poisoned him to make way for her favorite son, Henri who became King Henri III upon Charles’ death.

Unhappy in her marriage to the King of Navarre, Margaret continued her affair with Henri de Guise, and many others. Embarrassed at her daughter’s behavior, Catherine, through her son, the King, ordered Margaret’s kidnapping and imprisonment in the south of France, where she remained for 17 years. With his mother’s whisper always in his ear, Henri withdrew Margaret’s inheritance and had Margaret’s lover, Henri de Guise, and his family murdered  at the Chateau de Blois. More of Margaret’s story can be found here.

Henri III of France
Henri III of France
(Wikipedia)

Under the rule of Henri III, France fell into a spiral of decline because of the religious war that continued to rage between the Catholics and the protestants. Unable to make peace between the two religious factions, the Catholic League forced Henri to acquiesce to their demands, including paying for their troops. Unable to deal with the pressure, Henri went into hiding, leaving his mother to sign the Treaty of Nemours, giving the Catholics power once again.

After Catherine died, Henri continued his mother’s legacy of ruthless rule which eventually led to his assassination.

Catherine de Medici will live on in history as a woman of controversy. Some see her as wicked, an evil ruler who thirsted for power. Others see her as empowered, an intelligent female leader fiercely determined to protect her family and their legacy. How do you see this unforgettable woman who influenced the history of the Medici dynasty, the Valois dynasty, France, and Europe’s religious war?