Catherine de Medici as Queen Consort of France
A rare miniature of Catherine depicting her before her widowhood
Catherine's cousin Pope Clement VII (Giulio de Medici), whom she was very devoted to
Pope Clement marries Catherine to Henri, Marseilles 1533
Catherine de Medici in her widow's garb
Queen Jeanne d'Albret of Navarre, leader of the Protestant Faction
Royal effigies of King Henri II de Valois and Queen Catherine de Medici
It’s a legend that most of us history buffs are at least somewhat familiar with - a scheming, older woman shrouded in black, plotting a massacre of thousands of innocent souls. But what is so often lost in the telling of the life of Queen Catherine de Medici of France is her numerous attempts at conciliation with France’s Protestant population, despite their blatant treasons.
Born Caterina Maria Romula de Medici in Florence, 1519, Catherine had quite the unusual childhood: for starters, her uncle was Pope Leo X. Shortly after her birth, her parents, Duke Lorenzo of Urbino and Countess Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, a French noblewoman with royal ancestry, who doted on their beloved daughter, died a few days apart from one another. Their marriage had been part of an alliance between Lorenzo’s uncle Pope Leo X and King Francois I of France, the former forced to play both France and the Holy Roman Empire off one another to satiate their expansionist appetites long enough to keep them out of Italy altogether. It involved allying with both parties at different times in order to secure the independence and rights of the Papacy and the security of the various Italian city-states that dotted the peninsula.
Following the death of her parents, she was raised by Lorenzo’s mother Alfonsina Orsini, a member of an ancient Roman princely family that could trace its lineage back to Julius Caesar himself. Following the death of Alfonsina, she was sent to the home of her paternal Aunt Clarissa (alternately, Clarice) de Strozzi, where she was raised alongside some cousins. She was beloved by the Florentine people, who affectionately called her Duchessina (the Little Duchess), in recognition of her otherwise unrecognized claim to the Duchy of Urbino. Pope Leo X died in 1521, interrupting Medici fortunes; however, this was soon rectified in 1523 with the election of Pope Clement VII, born Giulio de Medici, son of the assassinated Giuliano de Medici. Clement and Catherine had an unbreakable bond. Referring to her as “my Little Pearl”, Clement delighted in having visits with his young cousin, and she grew very close to him, seeing in him the father figure that she had lacked in her younger years.
In 1527, a revolt in favor of Republicanism overthrew the Medici and forced them from the city, with the exception of only a few. Clarissa de Medici died the following year, and young Catherine was taken hostage and placed in a series of convents throughout Florence. She seemed fairly happy in these convents; she was removed from those who sought to do her harm. Clement VII was left with little choice but to request the aid of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V von Habsburg in retaking the city, and never ceased to campaign for the release of his Little Pearl. As the siege of Florence dragged on, those advocating for the destruction of the Medici even went so far as to suggest that she be killed, and her young corpse be exposed naked, chained to the city walls. Some even called for the ten year old girl to be handed over to Imperial troops to be gang-raped. When the Florentine Senate surrendered in 1530, Clement VII summoned her to Rome, where he cried out joyously, tears in his eyes, and welcomed her into his open arms. Shortly afterwards, he began to seek out a good husband for the orphaned young girl.
She wasn’t regarded as particularly beautiful, nor was she regarded as ugly. The best word to describe her appearance would have been “common”. The Venetian envoy, present during her entrance into Rome, stated that she was, “small of stature, and thin, and without delicate features, but having the protruding eyes peculiar to the Medici family". Historians have debated what was actually meant by “protruding eyes”. Most likely it was a reference to the immediate visibility and uniqueness of the eyes of the Medici family - dark, even black at times, and quite noticeable. Many suitors vied for her hand, including King James V Stuart of Scotland; when King Francois I of France offered his second son, Prince Henri II de Valois, Clement seized the opportunity and consented. This match would provide a secure and stable future for Catherine, something which Clement agonized about as he grew older. The pair were wed by Clement himself in Marseilles on October 28th, 1533.
Although Catherine deeply loved Henri, he did not return her devotion. He took a string of mistresses, including the widowed noblewoman Diane de Poitiers, twenty years his senior, and a distant relation to Catherine through the de la Tour family. Diane, despite her complicity in adultery and even active attempts to usurp Catherine’s rights as the heiress presumptive of the Queenship of France (Henri’s older brother Francois had died during a particularly strenuous tennis match, making Henri the heir to France), encouraged her husband to visit his wife’s bed in the hopes of producing an heir. Despite repeated attempts at pregnancy, Catherine remained without child until 1544. Although it was generally believed at the time that Catherine was infertile, modern science and contemporary sources tell us that the issue lied not with her, but with Henri. Henri suffered from a painful penile deformity that made insemination nearly impossible. Historians are unsure of what enabled the couple to overcome this impediment - some have suggested that doctors aided the pair, that Catherine was coached in sex by Diane as she watched the pair copulate and, even, as is alleged by some Liberal historians but particularly by French Protestants, that Catherine resorted to dark magic and Satanism, a common accusation made by the French against Italians. This last charge is ridiculous and nonsensical, especially considering that Catherine was only truly at peace in Catholic religious settings and attended Mass thrice daily, but whatever the case, she was impregnated and bore Henri children roughly once a year from 1544 to 1556. In fact, she proved remarkably fertile, producing no less than five sons, a dream for Henri as the Valois monarchy was anything but secure at the time. Francois I of France died three years after Catherine’s eldest was born, and Catherine soon become the Queen of France.
Diane’s service was not to Catherine, but rather to the preservation of the French monarchy. In fact, the only reason why she had supported the marriage of Henri and Catherine was because she felt that Catherine would stand idly by as she usurped the proper power of the French Queen Consort. While this may have been the case while Henri was alive, she was in for a surprise following his death in a jousting match in 1559. One of Catherine’s first official actions as Queen Regent was to order Diane to return the Crown Jewels of the Queen of France to her keeping. Banished from court by Catherine, Diane was even stripped of the Chateau of Chenonceau, which she used as a tool to antagonize Catherine as Diane knew that she had been expecting to receive the lodge as a gift from Henri.Where Diane had added the letters “D” and “H”, in the same manner as royal couples furnished their dwellings, Catherine effaced Diane’s work and added a “C” in the place of all the “D”s. Despite her husband’s infidelity, Catherine was a loyal and devoted Catholic wife to the bitter end, taking the image of a broken lance and the motto of "lacrymae hinc, hinc dolor" ("from this come my tears and my pain"), a reference to her husband’s accident and death, and donned the black garb of mourning from that day until her death. Thus begins the Dark Legend of the Black Widow.
Her eldest son, Francois II, was crowned King of France at age fifteen. In what has been described as a coup d’etat, the Guise Family, who would soon become Catherine’s political enemies, at least in the Catholic Faction of the religious wars that raged across France, seized control and moved themselves into the Louvre Palace. Despite this, all of Francois’s II official documents issued as King began with "This being the good pleasure of the Queen, my lady-mother, and I also approving of every opinion that she holdeth, am content and command that ..."
Despite Catherine’s loathing for the Huguenot cause and the Calvinist religion they espoused, she did not advocate for the wholesale slaughter of Huguenot men, women and child, as had been recommended by the Guises. She even made certain limited concessions to them, which kept them content and calmed down rebellion for a time. As one of the leaders of the Catholic Faction, she was seen by many as a reasonable voice advocating for diplomacy first, then violence, and violence only when all other means had been exhausted.
The Protestant Faction, meanwhile, looked for leadership in the Bourbon Family, which had held the title of the Kings of Navarre for a time, and who were distantly related to the Valois via Jeanne d’Albret, the Queen of Navarre and wife of King Antoine de Bourbon, the daughter of Marguerite de Valois. Jeanne was a devout Calvinist and was noted for her severe austerity, and forbade even singing in her realm. She would be a leader and champion of the Calvinist cause, and would be locked in a bitter struggle until her death with Catherine. Her son, King Henri III de Bourbon of Navarre, also held the title of First Prince of the Blood, and was in line for the Throne of France following Catherine’s sons. Antoine’s brother Louis de Bourbon, the Prince of Conde, advocated for the overthrow and murder of the Guise Family in whole, and organized a plot against them. This placed the Royal Family in harm’s way. Soon after it had been set in motion, the plot was discovered, and the Guises moved the Valois and their court to the fortified Chateau d’Amboise. The Guises plotted a surprise counterattack, which was startlingly effective, and the rebel forces were eviscerated. Those that survived were drowned in the river or strung up around the castle as Catherine and the court watched.
Once it became clear King Francois II would die, Catherine struck a deal with King Antoine de Bourbon, who, despite his wife’s tastes, had remained loyal to the Catholic Faction: Antoine would renounce his right to the regency of the Dauphin Charles IX de Valois, and Catherine would spare the life of the traitorous Protestant rebel-prince Louis I de Bourbon. Antoine agreed, and Louis was released. When Francois II of France died in 1560, the Privy Council appointed Catherine the governor of France, with sweeping powers. Writing to her eldest child Empress Elisabeth of Spain, the wife of Emperor Philip II von Habsburg, "My principal aim is to have the honour of God before my eyes in all things and to preserve my authority, not for myself, but for the conservation of this kingdom and for the good of all your brothers".
As governor, she tried many times to bring Huguenots back to the Catholic Faith and shielded them from the more bloodthirsty forces in the Kingdom, provided they worshipped privately and did not take up arms against the Monarchy; she even sponsored a national Church Council which attempted to reconcile the Huguenots to Catholic doctrine. This, however, was to no avail. In 1562, she issued another edict allowing them more generous privileges. However, her fragile religious peace was shattered when Huguenot worshippers in Vassy trespassed on the property of the Duke of Guise and refused to leave, appropriating a barn and using it as a place for Protestant worship. Invoking a landowner’s rights, the Duke killed many of those on his property and wounded even more. He called the incident “a regrettable accident”, and was cheered as a hero by Parisian Catholics, whose only firsthand experience of Protestants at that point had been occasional massacres of Catholics, especially priests and nuns, as well as the destruction and desecration of Catholic Cathedrals, Churches, Monasteries and Shrines, including blasphemy and sacrilege against the Most Blessed Sacrament. The Massacre of Vassy, as it is known, sparked the French Wars of Religion, which embroiled France in bitter infighting for the next thirty years.
Gaspard de Coligny, Admiral of France, along with Louis de Bourbon, the Prince of Conde, contracted an alliance with France’s traditional enemy, England, which had gone over to the Protestant side roughly twenty-five years prior, and began to seize town after town across in France, resulting in horrific massacres of Catholics across the country. Catherine met with Coligny, ordering to stand down. He refused. Infuriated, she shouted at him, "Since you rely on your forces, we will show you ours!” Laying siege to the Huguenot-held city of Rouen, she was informed of the dangers of battle when she insisted upon visiting the troops. Laughing, she replied, "My courage is as great as yours". The city was liberated by Catholic forces, but the victory was short lived; unable to meet Catholic force on the field of battle, the Huguenot leadership resorted to trickery. An assassin shot the Duke of Guise in the back as he preparing for the Siege of Orleans, who bled to death days later. Later on, the murderer would testify that both Coligny and even the Protestant pastor Theodore Beza (a disciple of the Calvinist “Reformer” John Calvin and a leader in the Calvinist theological movement of Geneva) were involved with the assassination. This dirty murder led to a blood-feud between the House of Guise and Gaspard de Coligny, which would later culminate in the infamous St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Following the decimation of the Huguenot rebels, Catherine then rallied both Huguenot and Catholic forces to expel the British from the city of Le Havre, where they had been refusing to leave.
Despite the fact that King Charles IX was declared of age to rule in 1563, he showed little interest in governing, and left the affairs of state to Catherine. Seeking to pacify a Kingdom which had been devastated by civil war and desperately needed time to rebuild, she held talks with Queen Jeanne d’Albret of Navarre, and inaugurated lavish court festivities as she toured France in what has become known as her Grand Tour. Some of history’s most celebrated artistic achievements were sponsored by Catherine, including the first known performance of a ballet outside of Italy. Fearing yet another outbreak of religious violence against Catholics and the threat of another civil war, Catherine offered to the Sultan of the Ottomans the resettlement of both French Huguenots and German Lutherans in Moldavia, offering them a buffer against France’s long-time rival the Holy Roman Empire; however, the plan failed to interest the Turks.
Despite Catherine’s efforts yet again to save the Huguenots, the Protestant leadership plotted to ambush and potentially kill the King and the Royal Family in what has become known as the Surprise of Meaux; luckily, the court was informed in time, and returned hurriedly to Paris. Enraged at their failure, the Protestants massacred Catholics at le Michelade (St. Michael’s Day) in Nimes, slaughtering twenty-four priests and monks and an unknown number of laymen, screaming, “Kill, kill, kill the Papists!” From this point onward, Catherine refused to protect the Huguenots any longer. Sick and tired of deceit and attempts to murder her, her family, seize the government of France and violently convert the country to Calvinism, she abandoned the Protestants to the consequences of their actions. When she removed her protection from them, massive numbers of Protestants, even women and children, were slaughtered.What more could she have done? The fact that she had tolerated their duplicity as long as she had was a testament to her sense of justice and mercy. As far as she was concerned, the Protestants no longer deserved her time, effort, and labor on their behalf. They would get what they deserved. Writing to the Venetian ambassador in 1568, she explained that all she could expect from them was deceit and treachery, and she praised Philip II’s brutal suppression of Protestant riots and attacks on Catholics in the Spanish Netherlands. The Huguenots retreated to the city of La Rochelle on the west coast, badly bruised and disheartened, determined to rebel even to the point of death. Jeanne d’Albret refused to heed Catherine’s demands to cease revolting and practice her faith in private, and Catherine, deeply hurt by her many attempts to be merciful to Jeanne and her party, called her “the most shameless woman in the world.” Later on, seeking to bind her enemies to her and align both Bourbon and Valois interests, she secured a marriage between her daughter Marguerite de Valois and Jeanne’s son Henri III, King of Navarre. Writing her in a civil, and even kind tone, Catherine stated that she wished to see Jeanne and her children, who, after all, were distant relatives on Catherine’s mother’s side, and invited them to attend court where they would be comfortable housed and accommodated, and assured them that none would harm them. Jeanne’s reply was to vacillate between going and not going, stating, in a passive-aggressive manner, "Pardon me if, reading that, I want to laugh, because you want to relieve me of a fear that I've never had. I've never thought that, as they say, you eat little children”. Finally consenting to both the match and the visit provided that Henri would remain a Huguenot, Jeanne and Henri III arrived Paris in June 1572. Catherine treated Jeanne to a shopping spree with her personal money, even gifting her a pair of silk gloves. As was a common accusation levelled against Italians in France, Catherine was accused by Protestants of lacing the inside of the gloves with poison. There is no evidence to suggest this; furthermore, once Jeanne had signed the marriage contract, she would have been a valuable asset to Catherine, who needed more than ever a lasting peace in France between Huguenot and Catholic.
The death of one of the Protestant cause’s most tireless benefactors brought great tension to the city. Given their reputation to riot, pillage, rapine and murder when something did not go their way, the Huguenot retinue of Henri III de Bourbon, as well as the Huguenot population of Paris, were immediately suspected of plotting an uprising.
And then, the proverbial excrement hit the fan.
In August, Gaspard de Coligny, forgiven by the Monarchy for his treason years before and in Paris for the wedding, was shot in the back in a manner eerily similar to his assassination of Duke Francois I de Guise. Some historians believe it was Catherine; others, the Spanish. Most likely, it was Duke Henri de Guise, the son of the murdered Francois I. Despite Catherine’s deep mistrust of Coligny, she had promised safe passage to the Huguenots while they were in her care in Paris. She made a tearful visit to Coligny, and promised to find and punish his attacker. But the massacre that ensued two days later was entirely out of control.
Following the attack on Coligny, the Catholic population of Paris was soon gripped with paralyzing fear that soon, their sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, spouses and other loved ones would be subject to the same fate that countless Catholics throughout Gascony, Aquitaine, Navarre, Bearn, and elsewhere had been subject to. Catherine and the royal court were not exempt from this wave of terror. Receiving credible intelligence that the Huguenots were indeed plotting against the Catholics, as well as planning to kill King Charles IX and his entire family unless they converted, the King cried out in anger, "Then kill them all! Kill them all!” Choosing to strike first, the Catholic Faction led a massacre that forever wounded the Protestant population of France and demolished their war effort. The wholesale massacre of Protestants continued for weeks throughout France. Too worn out by treachery and ingratitude, Catherine did nothing to stop the slaughter of thousands. And even if she tried, it most likely would have fallen on deaf ears. The pure emotion of decades of pent-up fears, anxiety, and rage over massacres of thousands of their coreligionists and the desecration of countless religious structures and shrines surged forth uncontrolled as if a dam had broken, and only when the threat had been removed did the Catholic population permit Protestant survivors to either rebuild somewhat or leave the country. The violence even claimed the life of Coligny. Henri III, petrified, converted to Catholicism (or, more properly, reverted, as he had been baptized in his infancy); however, Catherine knew that he would eventually revert to his Calvinism (and she was proven right a few times later in her life), and laughed out loud at the site of the boy-king reciting the Creed.
Catherine would have yet another reason to grieve; at the young age of twenty-three, her son King Charles IX breathed his last, caressing his mother’s face and saying, “"oh, my mother ...". Her favorite son, Henri III de Valois, succeeded his older brother as King. Although Henri loved his mother very much, he listened to little of her advice, although he allowed her to aid him in an unofficial capacity. Consequently, without Catherine’s seasoned political mind steering the country through the tumult, the Valois Monarchy entered its final decline. He did little of the work of governing the country himself, despite his making all the decisions. His inability to produce an heir was troubling to Catherine, particularly when her young son Francois died in 1576, the third son to do so without children. She wrote, "I am so wretched to live long enough to see so many people die before me, although I realize that God's will must be obeyed, that He owns everything, and that he lends us only for as long as He likes the children whom He gives us."
Although Catherine’s role in the French government was somewhat diminished, she still had a great deal of legitimacy, as her political genius was recognized worldwide during what has become known as “the Age of Catherine de Medici”. Indeed, she was viewed as such a capable politician that Queen Elizabeth I Tudor of England claimed that Catherine was the only person she truly feared, and admitted to waking up in cold sweats in the middle of the night after dreaming of her. Henri, recognizing that his mother’s name still carried weight, sent Catherine on a diplomatic mission to the south of France, where she spent roughly eighteen months gaining the support and love of the French people. Gerolamo Lipomanno, the Venetian ambassador, wrote back to the Doge, “She is an indefatigable princess, born to tame and govern a people as unruly as the French: they now recognize her merits, her concern for unity and are sorry not to have appreciated her sooner." However, despite the great outpouring of love that the south showed her, she was not fooled. Writing back to her son, she stated, "You are on the eve of a general revolt. Anyone who tells you differently is a liar."
In 1584, when it became clear that Henri III de Bourbon, who had since returned to both Navarre and Calvinism, would succeed Henri III de Valois as King of France, Henri de Guise formed the Catholic League and signed a treaty with Spain against Protestant forces across Europe. In 1587, Queen Mary Stuart, better known as Mary, Queen of Scots, and the widow of Catherine’s son, King Francois II de Valois, was beheaded by her Protestant cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England. Shocked and outraged, the Catholic world struck back with a ferocity the likes of which had not been seen before. All the actions of the League would have been fine if they had not seized conducted an illegal treaty with a foreign power, seized the city of Paris, and held the royal family hostage in their own home. Ironically, they even barred Catherine from attending Mass. Enraged at the treachery, Henri went to war with the two factions that opposed him in a conflict known as the War of the Three Henrys - Henri III de Bourbon, who headed the Protestant Faction, Duke Henri de Guise, who headed the Catholic League, and King Henri III de Valois of France. Unable to fight both Protestants and Catholics, both supported by mighty foreign powers, Henri III de Valois concluded the Treaty of Nemours, where he caved to all of the League’s demands.
Still uneasy at the continued threat posed by his old family enemy Duke Henri de Guise, he hatched a plot to alleviate himself of the burden. Calling a meeting of the Estates-General, he thanked his mother the Queen and called her not only the mother of the King but the Mother of the Nation. Not telling his mother of his plan, he asked the Duke to call upon him at court, and when he did, the King and his guards stabbed him to death. Other male members of the Guise Family were hacked to death as well, including a Cardinal. Entering his mother’s chambers, he announced, "Please forgive me. Monsieur de Guise is dead. He will not be spoken of again. I have had him killed. I have done to him what he was going to do to me." Catherine was horrified that her son could commit such a horrid act. Two days later, she visited a friar for spiritual counsel, and told him, "Oh, wretched man! What has he done? ... Pray for him ... I see him rushing towards his ruin."
Five days into the new year, 1589, Catherine, who was blessed by God with sixty-nine long years, breathed her last at le Château de Blois, France. Those who were close to her believed that her life was shortened over concern for the soul of her son and grief over his actions. Despite her years of tireless service to a Kingdom that only mocked, ridiculed and blamed her for all manner of ills, her body was treated with less dignity than that of a dead goat. Buried on the cuff at Blois, and without royal honors, she was only given a proper burial when Henri II’s illegitimate daughter, Diane de Valois, whom he had fathered with his mistress Philippa Duci, had the body of her stepmother reinterred at St. Denis Cathedral in Paris with the other royals of France. In 1793, in yet another ungrateful action by the very people who inherited the Kingdom she managed to salvage, her body was dug up again by a revolutionary mob and thrown into a Mass grave with other French Royals from St. Denis.
It is appalling that despite the fact that no queen has done more for the preservation of France than Catherine she is remembered only as a cruel, scheming woman who ordered the deaths of thousands of Protestants. Nothing could be further from the truth. Seeking reconciliation at every turn, and not doing so only when impossible, very few people would have been as merciful to a group trying to kill her and her family as she had been. And yet, in perhaps one of the greatest smear campaigns of history, Catherine’s story has been told only through the lens of the Huguenots, who leave out a solid few decades of Huguenot violence against Catholics, whitewashing their actions and depicting themselves as the persecuted saviors of a wicked, pagan nation. If there ever was a woman who should not be smeared by Protestants, it is Catherine. And yet, despite all her efforts to prevent undue and unjust slaughter and shelter them from the excesses of the Guises and others, she still remains the scheming, bloodthirsty, Italian anti-Christ whom Protestants string up and bludgeon as a scapegoat due to their own inability to come to terms that the violence perpetrated against them was only in reaction to the violence perpetrated by them.But in the end, as any student of history knows, it tends to be primary sources, actions, documents, and words of those who witnessed the events and lives in question, who tend to carry the day in terms of what should be believed. And Henri III de Bourbon, King of Navarre, later King Henri IV of France, who, according to the Protestant narrative, should’ve had every reason to loathe Catherine, had some pretty interesting things to say about her. Responding to a criticism of Catherine, he raged, “I ask you, what could a woman do, left by the death of her husband with five little children on her arms, and two families of France who were thinking of grasping the crown—our own [the Bourbons] and the Guises? Was she not compelled to play strange parts to deceive first one and then the other, in order to guard, as she did, her sons, who successively reigned through the wise conduct of that shrewd woman? I am surprised that she never did worse.”