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.
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.
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?