Catherine de Médicis

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Catherine de Médicis

Florence, Italy
Paris, France

Regent, queen

Catherine de Médicis was never able to rule France as its monarch because of the Salic Law, which restricted royal succession solely to men. Despite this law, she reigned as regent (one who rules in place of a young monarch) for nearly thirty years and did everything she could to strengthen the positions of her three weak sons. She presided over, and was partly responsible for, many of the horrors of the French Wars of Religion in the 1560s and 1570s. The worst of these was the massacre of Protestants gathered in Paris to witness the marriage of her daughter Margaret Valois to Duke Henry of Navarre in 1572. Catherine's calculating policies yielded short-term victories, but when she died in 1589 her hopes for her family's long-term future lay in ruins.

Marries at fourteen

Catherine was born in 1519, daughter of Lorenzo de' Medici (1449–1492; see entry), the powerful duke of Florence, Italy. Her mother died within a few days from puerperal fever (an infection that can follow childbirth) and her father succumbed to consumption (pulmonary tuberculosis) a week later. Catherine was thus an orphan after less than one month of life. Her father's relatives, among them popes Leo X (1475–1521; reigned 1513–21) and Clement VII (1478–1534; reigned 1523–34), took over her care, and she grew up in the midst of the stormy Italian Wars (1494–1559), a conflict between France and Spain over control of Italy. When a German army of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558; see entry) sacked (destroyed) Rome in 1527, the citizens of Florence took advantage of this eclipse of Medici power to restore their republic. They held Pope Clement prisoner in the papal castle in Rome. Eight-year-old Catherine was taken hostage in Florence. Clement managed to escape from Rome and hired a group of mercenaries (professional soldiers) to recapture Florence. They rescued Catherine, who had been hiding in a convent (house for women who are dedicated to religious life).

To assist her uncle Clement VII's political ambitions, fourteen-year-old Catherine was married in 1533 to fourteen-year-old Henry (later Henry II 1519–1559; ruled 1547–59), duke of Orléans, younger son of Francis I king of France (1494–1547; see entry). The elaborate wedding ceremony at Marseilles Cathedral was conducted by the pope himself. The death of her husband's older brother in 1536 made Henry and Catherine heirs to the throne, but the circumstances of his death made Catherine unpopular. One of the members of her court, Count Sebastian Montecuculi, was suspected of poisoning him to promote the interests of Catherine and, possibly, of France's enemy Charles V.

Catherine was unable to conceive a child for the first ten years of marriage, which made her even more unpopular in the French court. In her efforts to become pregnant Catherine consulted astrologers (those who predict future events according to the positions of celestial bodies)—among them the famous French physician and astronomer Nostradamus (1503–1566; see entry). When she finally gave birth to the first of ten children in 1543, she believed the astrologers had helped her overcome her infertility. Seven of Catherine's children survived, and she outlived all but one, the future King Henry III (1551–1589; ruled 1574–89), who would follow her to the grave in a matter of months. Throughout her life Catherine maintained a fierce belief in astrology, necromancy (contacting spirits of the dead to reveal the future or influence events), and astronomy (scientific study of heavenly bodies). She was also an active patron of Nostradamus.

Catherine, Henry, and Diane

When Catherine's husband, King Henry II, was a child he was held hostage with his father, King Francis I, at the Spanish court in Madrid. At that time France and Spain were in the midst of the Italian Wars over the control of Italy. On Henry's return, at age eleven, he had been cared for by Diane de Poitiers (1499–1566), who was twenty years his senior. Despite the age difference they became lovers, and throughout most of Henry's reign, which began in 1547, Diane completely eclipsed Catherine in influence over the king. Nevertheless, Catherine and Diane maintained friendly relations. The age difference and Diane's lack of beauty made Henry's attraction and loyalty to her something of a mystery at court. Diane was even given responsibility for raising the royal couple's children, and she and Henry arranged the betrothal of Henry and Catherine's oldest son, Francis, to Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots) in 1548. By 1557, however, Catherine's coolness in an emergency won her new respect from Henry. After he had lost the battle of Saint Quentin to Philip II king of Spain, Paris was placed in jeopardy. Catherine made a patriotic speech to the Parliament (ruling body of France), persuading it to raise more troops and money to continue the fight. Thus she put to rest the old suspicion that she was more an Italian schemer than a true queen of France.

Wars of Religion begin

At the time of Catherine's birth in 1519, the Protestant Reformation had been underway for two years. In 1517 the German monk Martin Luther (1483–1546; see entry) delivered charges of corruption against the Roman Catholic Church. The challenge to Rome's religious dominance quickly gained momentum in Germany and soon spread throughout Europe. The French theologian and Protestant reformer John Calvin (1509–1564; see entry), living and writing in Geneva, Switzerland, was particularly inspiring to many French men and women. They saw in his teachings a version of Christianity truer to their faith, one they believed was not as politicized and corrupt as the Catholic Church. French Protestants were known as Huguenots, and the rapid growth of their numbers among the nobility and upper classes as well as among ordinary people soon made them a politically significant force. The Huguenots held their first general French assembly in 1559.

During this era European monarchs were determined to rule their kingdoms under the authority of one church or faith. The religious division between the Huguenots and the Catholics in France was unusual. The Catholic monarchs of France and Spain made peace at Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559, partly because they were bankrupt but also so that they could unite their forces against Protestantism. The treaty was symbolically sealed by the marriage of Philip II of Spain (1527–1598) to Elisabeth of Valois (1545–1568), the teenaged daughter of Catherine and Henry. At the joust held to mark the wedding celebrations on June 28, 1559, Henry was injured by a lance wielded by a Calvinist nobleman, the Comte Gabriel de Montgomery (c. 1530–1574). The lance shattered the king's helmet, pierced his eye, and entered his brain. The blinded king died ten days later. Nostradamus had supposedly foreseen this event and had written about it in Quatrain 35 of his popular book Centuries I. The prophesy stated: "The young lion will overcome the older one/On the field of combat in single battle/He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage/Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death." Summoned to the royal court in 1556, Nostradamus told the king to avoid any ceremonial jousting during his forty-first year (1559). This warning had been given by Henry's own astrologer as well. While at court, Nostradamus had also drawn up astrology charts for four of the royal couple's sons and predicted that they all would become kings.

Henry's death brought his and Catherine's oldest son, sixteen-year-old Francis II (1544–1560; ruled 1559–60), to the throne. Francis had married Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots; 1542–1587) the previous year. He inherited a country full of demobilized soldiers, many of them unpaid for months. Tax burdens on the peasants were heavy, allowing Calvinist preachers spreading the message of an uncorrupted faith to find a receptive audience. Huguenot noblemen took action almost at once, organizing a conspiracy to overthrow or at least dominate the court of Francis. They won the active support of England's new Protestant queen, Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry). Then, at the city of Amboise, France, their military uprising failed and the royal army then arrested the leaders. In the presence of Catherine, her children, and Queen Mary, fifty-seven of the Huguenot leaders were hanged or beheaded. This retribution did not end the religious and political conflicts plaguing France, however. From that time forward the Huguenot Navarre family and the Catholic Guises led rival religious and court factions. The death of Francis II in December 1560 made Catherine regent for her second son Charles, who now became King Charles IX (1550–1574; ruled 1560–74) at the age of ten.

Leads political maneuvers

Charles IX was an unstable man, even as a young child. While he was growing up he came to dislike his mother and her favorite, younger son Henry. Catherine found it easy to dominate Charles despite his growing resentment. As the French monarchy continued to deal with the constant warfare, Catherine tried to carve some order out of the financial and administrative chaos of the kingdom. Her ultimate goal was to strengthen the country for her sons' reigns. In 1565 she joined in a meeting led by her son-in-law, Philip II of Spain, to discuss the continuing religious crisis. Philip disliked her apparent willingness to pit Catholics and Protestants against one another. In Philip's view she should have been doing more to advance the Catholic Reformation (also called the Counter Reformation), a reform movement within the church. He also knew that France's weakness was a strategic benefit for Spain. It made the possibility of French aid to Dutch rebels against Spain far less likely. When Philip's wife and Catherine's favorite daughter Elisabeth died in childbirth in 1568, Catherine hoped he might marry her younger daughter Margaret. Philip had no plans to wed Margaret, for he was determined to sever his connection with France. A further blow to Catherine's political maneuvering came the same year when her daughter-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots, was captured by her English enemies and imprisoned. This left Scotland open to Protestant domination and effectively ended a French-Scottish Catholic encirclement of England.

Although Catherine was a lifelong Catholic, she always had a degree of religious cynicism (doubt tinged with contempt). She never understood the passion that many of her contemporaries brought to their faith. For Catherine, religious differences were mainly bargaining chips that could be used in court politics. Her appointment of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny (1519–1572), an influential Huguenot, to act as Charles's chief advisor, is a perfect example of her desire to play both sides of the field. This appointment provoked members of the powerful Guise family—François of Lorraine, duke of Guise (1519–1563), and Charles of Guise, cardinal of Lorraine (c. 1525–1574)—to join the constable of France in a Catholic alliance against Coligny and the Protestants. In 1561 Catherine called the Colloquy, of Poissy, a conference of Roman Catholic prelates (cardinals and bishops) and Protestant ministers (heads of congregations). Once again she tried to broker peace between the Catholic faction, led by the cardinal of Lorraine, and the Huguenots, under the reform theologian and Calvin's friend, Theodore Beza (1519–1605). Far from coming to an understanding with one another, the two parties hardened their differences. Soon hostilities erupted in the poisoned atmosphere of broken negotiation.

Catherine issued the Edict (royal order) of January in 1562, which allowed a limited relationship between Huguenots and Catholics in France. Protestants welcomed the edict, but the Catholic rejection of it ultimately led the country into four decades of civil war, often called the French Wars of Religion. With the official outbreak of war, Catherine allied herself with François duke of Guise. The situation, both in the court and on the battlefield, was further complicated when Coligny ordered the assassination of the duke of Guise in 1563. Wanting to end the war, Catherine oversaw the negotiations that resulted in Edict of Amboise in March 1563. This new edict was essentially a reworking of the Edict of January, meant to satisfy all powers involved. Despite these efforts the Huguenots and the Catholics renewed their hostilities, resulting in second and third civil wars. Although Catherine was able to end the second war (September 1567–March 1568) with the Peace of Longjumeau (a reworking of the Edict of Amboise), the peace was short-lived. Fighting resumed in August 1568. As the fighting continued from 1568 to 1570, Huguenot armies attacked convents and monasteries, torturing and massacring their inhabitants. Catholic forces, equally merciless, murdered the Huguenots of several districts indiscriminately. After the conclusion of the third civil war in August 1570, the Peace of Saint Germain was signed.

Uneasy peace shattered

The treaty temporarily reconciled the two sides and led to Coligny's return to court. Among the treaty's provisions was the specification that Catherine's daughter Margaret of Valois (1553–1615) should marry Henry of Navarre, the Huguenot leader and later Henry IV (1553–1610; ruled 1572–1610), first Bourbon king of France (see accompanying box). The Huguenots were also to be given several strongholds throughout France, and Coligny was permitted to resume his position as a royal councilor. Catherine hoped that, as a moderate Huguenot, he might act to pacify his fellow Protestants while she played the same role among Catholics. Catherine's plan did not work, however. Coligny quickly and brutishly reasserted himself at court, becoming a friend and confidante of King Charles IX. Despite being friends with the king, Coligny aroused suspicions among Catholic courtiers and many thought he was planning another coup (violent overthrow of the government). When Coligny discovered that Charles and his mother were at odds, he sided with the king, an action that provoked Catherine's furious resentment.

Catherine decided to dispose of Coligny once and for all. She accepted an offer from the Guise party to assassinate him, hoping that the outcome would be revived power for her own party. The assassin shot Coligny but failed to kill him, and Charles IX rushed to his side, promising a full inquiry and retribution against the assassins. Catherine and Charles's younger brother Henry quickly interceded and convinced Charles that Coligny was manipulating him. They told him that Coligny planned to overthrow the whole Catholic court, and the only solution was to assassinate him and the other Huguenot leaders.

By careful prearrangement church bells began to ring at two in the morning of August 24, 1572, Saint Bartholomew's Day. The bells signaled Catholic troops to move in and kill the injured Coligny and other Huguenot leaders. While the original plan called for precise and specific assassinations, the attacks quickly became indiscriminate and all sense of order broke down. As widespread looting and fighting broke out across Paris, more than two thousand men, women, and children (including many people uninvolved in political and religious controversy) were shot or hacked to death. Similar massacres followed in the provinces as Catholics seized the initiative against their local Huguenot rivals. King Charles feared that he had unleashed a revolution. Catherine, however, was extremely pleased. A fourth civil war at once began, but a strange turn of events altered the course of the war. Leadership of the Huguenot party now fell to Catherine's youngest and most unscrupulous son, Francis, duke of Alençon and Anjou (1554–1584). Francis placed himself at the head of the Protestant forces. He had hopes of succeeding Charles as king

Like Mother, Like Daughter

After a decade of religious war, the city of Paris had remained friendly to the ultra-Catholic Guise party and most Parisians resented the concessions given to Huguenots at the Peace of Saint Germain. When a large Huguenot assembly entered the city in the summer of 1572 to celebrate the wedding of Margaret of Valois to Henry of Navarre, the population was restless and angry. Margaret took after her mother and was well known for her stormy personality and court intrigues. The relationship between mother and daughter was not always strong, however. Years earlier, when Catherine had discovered that Margaret was having an affair with Charles of Guise, she and King Charles IX beat the girl senseless. Catherine did almost everything for self-serving reasons, which included using members of her own family for political gain. The motive for this marriage alliance was that Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot, would have a strong claim to the French throne if neither Charles IX nor Catherine's younger son Henry had a living heir. A connection to the Valois family would strengthen Navarre's claim to the throne, and it would increase Catherine's prospects of continued influence. Margaret, however, was still in love with Guise and resisted the planned marriage. She and Henry of Navarre had known each other for many years and they realized there was no sexual attraction between them. Margaret was notoriously clean and Henry often refused to bathe for months at a time. To further complicate matters, Margaret refused to give up her Catholic faith for this marriage. When Henry's mother, Jeanne of Navarre, died suddenly during the negotiations for the wedding, many Huguenots were ready to believe that Catherine poisoned Jeanne. This suspicion was apparently unfounded, however.

because their brother Henry had just been elected king of Poland and was no longer in line for the French throne.

Henry asserts himself

Henry, Catherine's third son, was less easily dominated and manipulated than Charles. Henry had spent the 1560s garnering the laurels of a successful general in the wars against the Huguenots. His victories won him the envy of King Charles IX, whose physical frailty forbade fighting in wars. Catherine tried to marry Henry to Elizabeth I of England, but the "Virgin Queen" (as Elizabeth became known) tactfully declined the offer. She also refused a marriage proposal from Francis, the new leader of the Protestant forces, whom she referred to as the "frog."

Henry did not want to go to Poland, even though his mother had gone through great pains to secure him the throne. Finally, despite his objections, Henry set out for Poland. His departure prompted another Huguenot uprising, in which Alençon, Henry of Navarre, and Margaret of Valois were all implicated as conspirators. With her usual energy, Catherine coordinated forces to quell it, and with her decisiveness, she witnessed the executions of the ringleaders. Shortly thereafter King Charles died at age twenty-four. Catherine now recalled Henry to claim his hereditary kingdom without opposition.

Henry III was crowned in 1575 and married in the same year to Louise of Lorraine. They had no children to carry on the Valois line. From this time on, Catherine entrusted family fortunes more wholeheartedly to the Catholic Guise family. In 1576 she approved the formation of the Catholic League, which marched to triumph against the Huguenots. Henry's homosexual favorites predominated at court. When the Guises provoked a duel and killed two of them, Henry was filled with hatred against the Guises. Another round of feuding began despite Catherine's continued urging that Henry must settle his differences with the Guises for the sake of national and Catholic security.

Catherine's dreams are dashed

Catherine remained politically active until the end of her life, touring France on Henry's behalf and trying to assure the loyalty of its many fractured and war-torn provinces. She also amassed a huge collection of books and paintings, built or enlarged some of Paris's finest buildings, including the Tuileries Palace. An active patron of the arts, Catherine helped to bring a new Italian dance form, the ballet, to France. Called ballet de cour, it was a forerunner to modern ballet and mixed theater performances, voices, and instruments. The first example of the French ballet de cour was Ballet de Royne, which was performed in 1581. To the end, Catherine carried on her fascination with astrology. By 1589 she was overweight and suffering from gout (inflammation of the joints and excessive uric acid in the blood), and had taken ill from the exertions of dancing at the wedding of one of her granddaughters. Catherine lived just long enough to hear that Henry's bodyguards had murdered Charles of Guise. The news broke her spirits, causing her to regard herself as an absolute failure. Everything she had worked for was destroyed by the only son she trusted to continue the family line. Later that year, Henry III in turn died, assassinated by Dominican friar (member of the Catholic order founded by Saint Dominic), Jacques Clement (1564–1589). Clement had regarded Henry as a traitor to the faith for joining Henry of Navarre against the Catholic League. In this way, the Valois dynasty came to an end. Ironically it was the Huguenot prince Henry of Navarre who succeeded to the throne, though he was unable to take power until 1593, when he half-heartedly converted to Catholicism.

Researchers throughout the ages have benefited from Catherine's scholarly interests. Her personal library contained numerous rare manuscripts, which were eventually placed in a museum. Through her interest in politics and the arts, Catherine left a lasting mark on French history and culture. Though regarded by many as a cruel and calculating woman, Catherine made an undeniable contribution to her adopted country.

For More Information


Riley, Judith Merkle. The Master of All Desires. New York: Viking, 1999.

Roessner, Michaela. The Stars Dispose. New York: Tor, 1997.

Strage, Mark. Women of Power: The Life and Times of Catherine de Médici. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Web Sites

"Catherine De Médicis." [Online] Available, April 4, 2002.

"Nostradamus." MSN Encarta. [Online] Available, April 4, 2002.

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