Catherine de Medici

I finished reading about Catherine de Medici a few days ago, but just haven’t had time to blog about it. Now, however, it’s after 4 on a Friday at work and I’ve finished most of my work so rather than start on a new project for next week, I figure I’ll do this…..

Catherine de Medici was born in 1519 in Florence, and orphaned within 3 weeks. Catherine grew up in the household of her aunt, Clarice Strozzi. She was supposed to have gone to the French court, but the Pope Leo X (of the Medici) wanted her to marry his illegitimate nephew, so he kept her in Italy. In 1527 the Medici (who were the ruling family in Florence) were overthrown and Catherine was held as a hostage in a number of convents. The conditions were horrid, and had it not been for the influence of the new Pope Clement VII (also of the Medici) she would have been killed. She was liberated in 1531 when the Medici regained power. In 1533 she married Henry, Duke of Orleans, the second son of King Francis I of France. Even though she was a commoner, the French king was attracted by the promises of wealth her uncle, the Pope, promised, as well as the familial connection he would now have with the head of the Catholic church. Unfortunately for Francis, Clement died the next year, and the next Pope refused to pay the dowry.

Catherine was no beauty. She had inherited all the bad traits of her family—most noticeably large, bulging eyes and thin lips. She was as luckless in love as she was in looks. Henry rarely showed any interest in Catherine—neither as a wife nor a confidante. In fact, he openly took many mistresses, the last and longest lasting being Diane de Poitiers. She became his sole mistress when he was 19, and he adored her for the rest of his life. Catherine conceived no children during the first ten years of marriage, and the only reason she had any chance of conceiving at all was that Diane knew the Valois dynasty had to continue (since Henry’s older brother had died in 1536, leaving him heir to the throne), so she forced Henry to go to his wife’s bed regularly. He showed no interest in the task, leaving as soon as it was completed.

In 1544, Catherine gave birth to her first child, a son. In the next 12 years, she would give birth to ten children, seven of whom survived to adulthood. She outlived all but two.

Catherine was crowned Queen of France in 1549, but had little political sway. Henry appointed her regent a few times when he had to go abroad, but the title came with virtually no power. Instead it was Diane who stood in the center of power, dispensing patronage and accepting favors. Henry died in 1559 due to a fatal accident with a broken lance while taking part in a joust celebrating the marriage of the couple’s eldest daughter, Elisabeth, to King Phillip II of Spain (who had recently been widowed by Bloody Mary of England). From that day forward, Catherine took a broken lance as her emblem and wore black mourning for the rest of her life.

Francis II, married to Mary, Queen of Scots, became king at the age of 15, but for once Catherine had great say in what happened in her kingdom. One of her first acts was to order Diane de Poitiers to return the crown jewels of France, along with all properties of the crown which had been illegally gifted to her by Henry. Diane was then banished from court. Francis wore the crown for only a little over a year, dying from an infection in December 1560.

The next king was 9 year old Charles IX. While Catherine had shared her power with the Guise family under Francis II, she shared power with no one when it came to Charles. The child adored his mother and took everything she said as the truth. Even when he was declared of age to rule without a regent, he left government matters to his mother. The main trouble at the time were the many civil wars between the Catholics and the French Protestants (aka Huguenots). Catherine tried to adopt a moderate stance, but this just led to neither side really trusting her. The event for which Catherine is most widely well known is the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Tensions had been unusually high between the two religious sects, so Catherine arranged the marriage of her Catholic daughter Margot to Henry, the Protestant King of Navarre. As Protestants poured into Paris for the wedding, rumors of an impending attack by said Protestants led Catherine to arrange the assassination of Admiral Coligny, the main figurehead of the Huguenots. When the attempt failed, Catherine and members of Charles’ cabinet decided that a raid needed to be conducted during which all powerful Huguenots would be killed. What was originally supposed to be a controlled execution of a few hundred men lasting two hours snowballed into a week-long slaughter. Death tolls vary widely between 2,000 and 30,000, but whatever the number, this shattered any hope of peace between the two factions.

Two years later, Charles died and Henry III, Catherine’s favorite son, became king. Like Charles, he preferred to leave State business to his mother, though in public he tried to appear independent. One of his….quirks was his intense devotion to his religion which included frequent self-whipping. Many people (both then and now) believe that he was gay (as he kept a group of good looking young men near him at all times, wore perfume, jewelry, heels, and was way too interested in fashion) and that he got sexual pleasure from the whipping…..

There’s a lot more I could write about Catherine regarding her matchmaking, state policies, patronage and the political intrigue she both created and thwarted, but that would take forever, so this is good enough. She was an ugly woman who spent the first half of her life overshadowed by either her aunt or Diane de Poitiers, and the second half ruling a bankrupt France almost singlehandedly. Her moderate stance on religion made her almost universally distrusted, and she couldn’t find a way to get past that issue to make France thrive. She did try, though, and a lot of her policies were ahead of her time. And the mere fact that she was able to keep this broke country from falling into oblivion is a testament to her strength.  Yet, she’s remembered for her interest in the Occult and her role in the Massacre. It’s funny how history works like that. Just like we don’t remember Henry VIII for his policies, no one remembers Catherine de Medici for hers.


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