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Catherine de Médicis 1519–1589 French Queen and Regent

Catherine de Médicis
French queen and regent

Daughter of the powerful Lorenzo de' Medici of Italy, Catherine de Médicis was the wife of one French king and the mother of three others. She played a key role in the religious wars between Roman Catholics and Huguenots (French Protestants) that tore France apart in the late 1500s.

Catherine's uncle, Pope Clement VII, arranged for her to marry Henry, Duke of Orléans in 1533. Fourteen years later the duke became Henry II, king of France. Catherine did not become involved in politics until Henry's death in 1559. Her oldest son, then 15 years of age, inherited the throne as Francis II. He was strongly influenced by the Guise family, Roman Catholics dedicated to stamping out Protestant heresy*. Catherine attempted to restrict the Guise's power and steer France on a middle path between Catholics and Huguenots.

After the death of Francis in 1560, Catherine become regent* for her son Charles IX. She continued her efforts to resolve the growing religious conflict in France and issued an order, the Edict of January (1562), that allowed Protestants limited religious rights. Outright rejection of the edict by Catholics eventually led the country into a series of civil wars, often called the Wars of Religion (1562–1598).

In August 1572, between two of these conflicts, Catherine married her daughter Margaret of Valois to a Protestant leader, Henry of Navarre. He later ruled France as Henry IV. Tragically, this effort to bring the two sides together was followed by the worst atrocity of the religious wars. An attempt on the life of a Huguenot leader had raised fears of a Protestant counterattack. To avoid a renewal of violence, Catherine decided to have some key Huguenots killed. But the plan turned into a bloodbath as French Catholics slaughtered thousands of Huguenots. This grim episode, known as the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, gave Catherine a lasting reputation as a wicked queen.

After Charles's death in 1574, Catherine served as regent to her youngest son, Henry III. By then, however, her political power was in decline. Catherine's influence in politics was matched by her lasting impact on French culture. By commissioning architects to build several large palaces, Catherine launched the development of Paris as a city of grand monuments. She also brought a new Italian art form, the ballet, to France and collected rare manuscripts that eventually became part of France's national library.

(See alsoGuise-Lorraine Family; Valois Dynasty. )

* heresy

belief that is contrary to the doctrine of an established church

* regent

person who acts on behalf of a monarch who is too young or unable to rule

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