De Medici, Catherine
BORN: 1519 • Florence, Italy
DIED: 1589 • Blois, Department Loir-et-Cher, France
French queen; regent
As the Queen of France from 1547 to 1559 and then as the mother of three French kings, Catherine de Medici played a significant role in the complex struggles for power among European kingdoms during the Elizabethan Era, the period associated with the reign of Queen Elizabeth I (1558–1603) that is often considered to be a golden age in English history. She exerted great influence on her sons' rule of France during a period of bitter religious conflict. Her efforts to maintain control despite the intense rivalries between Roman Catholic and Protestant factions resulted in years of civil war that deepened religious hatreds in France and helped to destabilize other kingdoms in western Europe. Violence against French Protestants played a major role in England's determination to suppress Catholic dissent at home and to guard against foreign conspiracies to overthrow Elizabeth I (1533–1603; see entry) and replace her with a Catholic monarch.
"God has taken [my husband] from me and still, not content with that, He has taken [my son] … now I am left with three small children and a kingdom divided into factions."
Early life and education
Catherine de Medici was born into a rich and powerful family that had ruled the Italian city state of Florence since the early 1400s. Under her great-great-grandfather, Cosimo (1389–1464), Florence had become a wealthy and cultured city famous throughout the world for its art and learning. The city flourished even more dazzlingly during the rule of his son, Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449–1492), though Lorenzo's brutal political policies contributed to growing resentment of Medici wealth and power. Catherine's father, Lorenzo (1492–1519), ruled from only 1516 to his death in 1519. Other prominent members of the Medici family included Giovanni (1475–1521), who became Pope Leo X; and Giulio (1478–1534), who became Pope Clement VII.
Catherine's mother, Madeleine de la Tour (c. 1500–1519), was a princess of French Bourbon ancestry. Madeleine died a few days after Catherine was born and Lorenzo died a week later, leaving the orphaned infant in the care of her father's relatives. Catherine's uncles, including Pope Clement VII, saw to her education and brought her up with the expectation that she would marry royalty. But religious conflict broke out in Italy during Catherine's childhood. An army hired by Charles V (1500–1558), Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, attacked Rome in 1527 and forced the pope to flee. The people of Florence, who resented the power and alleged corruption of the Medici family, captured Catherine and held her hostage. The pope hired an army to rescue her and drive Charles's army out of Florence.
Realizing that Italy remained vulnerable to Charles V's armies, Pope Clement VII arranged a marriage between Catherine and Henry (Duke of Orleans; later Henry II; 1519–1559) the younger son of King Francis I (1494–1547) of the Valois dynasty in France. This marriage, he hoped, would make France a strong military ally of Italy. The wedding took place in 1533, when Catherine and Henry were only fourteen. The pope himself conducted the ceremony at Marseilles Cathedral. Legend has it that Catherine, who was very short and plain, asked her fashion designers to create special heels for her to wear at the wedding—the first reference in European history to women's high-heeled shoes.
Becomes Queen of France
For several years Catherine was forced to play a secondary role with her husband, who remained in love with his mistress, Diane de Poitiers (1499–1566). He met Diane when he was sixteen, and remained her lover until his death. Henry gave Diane much power and influence, while Catherine played the role of quiet observer. For the first ten years of her marriage, Catherine remained childless—a condition that did little to reduce the suspicion with which the French regarded her as a foreigner. Greatly worried by her infertility, she consulted astrologers who, she believed, could help her conceive. In time, Catherine gave birth to ten children, seven of whom survived.
In 1536 Henry's older brother, heir to the French throne, died. Rumors quickly circulated that one of Catherine's servants, acting on her behalf, had poisoned him in order to clear the way for Henry to become king. When Francis I died in 1547, Henry was crowned king and Catherine became queen. As before, however, Catherine lived quietly while Diane de Poitiers influenced the king in matters of governance. Henry even allowed Diane to oversee the education of his and Catherine's children. Diane and the king made arrangements in 1548 for Henry's and Catherine's oldest son, the future Francis II (1544–1560), to become engaged to marry Mary Stuart (Queen of Scots; 1542–1587; see entry), thus strengthening a French Catholic alliance with Scotland. The marriage, which took place in 1558, caused great concern to England during the reign of Elizabeth I. Because her rule was not considered legitimate according to Catholic law, Elizabeth was vulnerable to plots by Catholic leaders to remove her from power and replace her with a Catholic monarch. France's ties with Scotland, therefore, caused considerable worry, especially since many Catholics believed that Mary Stuart, great-granddaughter of King Henry VII (1457–1509) of England, had a more legitimate claim to the English throne than did Elizabeth.
Rise of Huguenot minority
Though France was a strongly Catholic country, it experienced a rise in religious conflict in the 1500s. As in other parts of Europe and in England, dissenters were beginning to reject Catholic leadership and policies that they considered corrupt. These Protestants, known in France as Huguenots, wished to worship in reformed churches under Protestant clergy. But in traditionally Catholic countries, Protestants were considered heretics, or holders of false religious beliefs. They risked losing their jobs, lands, and other political rights, and in many cases even risked execution for treason.
The number of Huguenots in France increased dramatically in the early 1500s, and their influence spread. The noble Navarre family became allied with the Huguenot cause, while the powerful Guise family, to whom Mary Stuart was related, led the Catholic struggle against them. Rulers in other parts of Europe and in England, which had become a Protestant country under Elizabeth, watched the situation in France with caution. They feared that violence against Protestants there could rapidly spread to their own countries.
Patron of Arts and Architecture
Like her Florentine relatives, Catherine de Medici was an avid supporter of the arts. She often invited Italian musicians to her court, and she introduced the ballet to France. She also brought Italian master chefs with her to France, and their rich dishes and exotic ingredients influenced fine French cuisine. In addition to fine arts, Catherine was curious about the occult. She regularly consulted astrologers, who claimed to be able to predict the future according to the position of the stars. She became an admirer of Nostradamus (1503–1566), who wrote several works of prophecy that, he claimed, predicted events such as assassinations and revolutions.
Particularly interested in architecture, Catherine built or extended many royal palaces. Among these was the Chateau of Fontainebleau, the largest of the royal palaces, which dated from the late twelfth century. Catherine and Henry II ordered extensive additions to this palace and its grounds. But Catherine's favorite chateau was Chenonceau, which her husband had given to Diane de Poitiers as a gift. This chateau, built along the River Cher, included beautiful views and gardens that Diane de Poitiers had designed. Catherine wanted Chenonceau for herself, and after Henry H's death, forced Diane de Poitiers to move out. Catherine then made Chenonceau her favorite residence, redecorating, adding her own gardens, and hosting lavish parties. The first fireworks display in France occurred there in 1560 to celebrate Catherine's son, Francis H's, inheritance of the throne.
Another of Catherine's major building projects was the Tuileries palace in Paris, which she began planning after Henry H's death in 1559. This huge palace now adjoins the Louvre Museum. Catherine died at the Chateau de Blois, where the cabinets in which she allegedly kept her poisons can still be seen.
In July 1559 Henry II was killed in a jousting accident when his helmet was shattered by the lance of a Huguenot nobleman. The lance pierced Henry through the eye and entered his brain, killing him a few days later. His and Catherine's son, Francis II, became king at age sixteen. With a teenager now ruling the kingdom, the Huguenots decided to launch a rebellion. They hoped to overthrow the king or at least force him to let them control his royal court, which was dominated by the Guise family. But the uprising failed, and the Huguenot leaders, associated with the Navarre family, were arrested. Fifty-seven of them were executed for treason. This incident worsened the longstanding political rivalry between the Navarre and the Guise families.
Wars of religion
When Francis II died in 1560 after only about one year on the throne, his younger brother, Charles IX (1550–1574), became king at age ten. Since the boy was too young to govern on his own, Catherine was appointed regent for him, meaning that she would rule in his name until he became an adult. For most of Charles's reign, France was plagued by civil war between Huguenots and Catholic extremists. The Guise family, which had dominated at Francis II's court, hoped to retain control of the government, but influential Huguenots challenged them. Catherine, who remembered the trauma of the civil war that she had lived through as a child, struggled to find a way toward peace while keeping the crown independent of either faction. She made alliances with both Protestants and Catholics, hoping to keep either faction from seizing too much power. As was customary in the Medici family, she wielded power with ruthlessness and skill. She was particularly talented at manipulating her enemies against each other, and she became famous for her alleged knowledge of poisons as a weapon of assassination.
In 1562, during the first of several civil wars known as the French Wars of Religion, the Huguenots appealed to Elizabeth, a Protestant, for help. She agreed to support their cause, but only in exchange for the cities of Dieppe and Le Havre in northern France, which she demanded as pledges for the eventual return of Calais, which the English had lost to France during the reign of Mary I (1516–1558; see entry). Alarmed that England was gaining a foothold into French territory, Catherine made a deal with the Huguenot leader, promising to give basic rights to French Protestants if they would drive the English out of the country. By the terms of the Peace of Amboise (March 1563), French Catholics and Protestants agreed to work together to recover Dieppe and Le Havre. Because of England's failure to gain control of French territory, Elizabeth was reluctant to consider supporting the Huguenots in their further struggles against the Catholic majority. At the same time, she remained wary of Catholic power in France, where support for Mary Stuart remained strong.
In 1563 Catherine declared that Charles was of age to rule. Continued plotting by the Guises, however, led to a second civil war from 1567 to 1568 and a third from 1568 to 1570. Catherine did her best to keep the kingdom intact and was able to put down the second rebellion fairly quickly, but she could not prevent the third war from escalating into a major conflict. During this war the cardinal of Lorraine, Mary Stuart's uncle and brother of the Duke of Guise, began promoting Mary's cause. She had been forced out of power in Scotland and had taken refuge in England, where Elizabeth allowed her to live under guard. But the cardinal's schemes went well beyond a plan to return Mary to the Scottish throne. Alarmed that French Catholics might be plotting to overthrow Elizabeth and replace her with the Queen of Scots, Elizabeth's ambassador to France at that time, Sir Henry Norris, strongly urged her to send aid to the Huguenots. Though she had refused to become involved during the second war, the circumstances were now more threatening. Elizabeth agreed to send aid to the French Protestants, who also received support from Germany. With this foreign support the Huguenots were able to hold out against the Catholic majority for two years. As the war dragged on, both sides committed atrocities, burning towns and killing the inhabitants.
To help put an end to these devastating wars of religion, Catherine arranged for her daughter, Marguerite de Valois (1553–1615), to marry Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV of France; 1553–1610), a Huguenot noble of the Bourbon dynasty. Catherine also tried to persuade Elizabeth, a Protestant, to agree to marry her son Henry (Due d'Anjou; later Henry III; 1551–1589). When Elizabeth rejected this proposal, Catherine suggested her youngest son, François (Duke of Alençon; 1555–1584), instead. Though Elizabeth demonstrated what some thought was real affection for the young man, she had no intention of marrying.
St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre
The civil wars came to an end in 1570 with the Peace of St. Germain, which allowed Admiral Coligny, the Huguenot leader, to return to the royal court. At first Catherine believed Coligny would be a moderate influence, but he soon exerted so much power over the king that Catherine considered him dangerous. With the help of the Guise family, Catherine arranged to have Coligny assassinated in Paris in 1572 when the city would be filled with Huguenots attending the wedding of her daughter to Henry of Navarre. But the assassin only wounded the admiral, and the king—who had had no prior knowledge of Catherine's scheme—vowed to punish the attempted murderers. Determined to prevent this, Catherine was able to persuade Charles that Coligny had been plotting to overthrow the Catholic court. Many historians believe that Catherine exerted relentless pressure on her son to order Coligny's death, but her exact role in these events remains in some dispute. Charles finally relented, exclaiming that all the Huguenots would have to be killed so that none of Coligny's supporters would remain alive to reproach him.
What followed was a massacre. Before dawn on St. Bartholomew's Day, August 24,1572, Catholic troops began their attack. Soon all order broke down, and Catholics ransacked Protestant areas of the city, destroying property and slaughtering thousands of Huguenot men, women, and children. The violence spread to other regions of France and took several days to be subdued. In Paris alone, according to one estimate, almost three thousand people were killed. Thousands more were slaughtered in outlying areas.
After some hesitation, Charles assumed responsibility for ordering the massacre. But many people assumed that Catherine had been behind it. Civil war broke out again immediately, and the massacre dramatically increased tensions between France and England, where many Huguenot survivors had fled for safety. Indeed, Elizabeth's newly appointed Protestant ambassador to France, Francis Walsingham (1530–1590; see entry), was in Paris during the massacre and believed his own life to be in danger during the riots. The savagery of the anti-Protestant attacks contributed to his intense distrust of France and his resolve to defeat the Catholic cause in England. He made this a central theme of his later career as Elizabeth's secretary of state.
End of Valois dynasty
When Charles IX died in 1574 Catherine's favorite son, Henry, who had been elected king of Poland in 1573, became King Henry III of France. As Catherine waited for him to return to France to assume his royal duties, she worried about continuing civil strife. Her son, François, she had discovered, had joined a moderate Catholic faction intent on destroying the power of the Guise family, and this faction had promised to put him on the throne after Charles died. Alarmed by this plot, Catherine threw Francois in prison. After Henry III returned to France, escaped and joined a revolt against the king. He continued to oppose Henry III for many years until finally begging his forgiveness in 1583. Though Henry did pardon his brother and promise that the crown would go to him on Henry's death, François himself died soon afterward. Catherine now had only one son, Henry, who remained childless.
Unlike Charles, Henry did not allow his mother to exert much influence over him. In 1567 he signed the Edict of Beaulieu, which gave minor concessions to French Protestants. In response the Duke of Guise formed the Catholic League, which pressured Henry to invalidate many of the edict's terms. Once in favor of tolerating some basic Huguenot demands, Catherine now supported the Catholic extremist Guise. Religious conflict continued; King Henry III joined Henry of Navarre against the Catholic League. In 1589 Henry Ill's bodyguards murdered Guise, causing Catherine to despair that the balances she had worked so hard to promote between the religious factions in France had no hope of success. She died that year, only eight months before Henry III was assassinated by a Catholic friar. Since he died without an heir, the Valois dynasty came to an end and the French throne went to Henry of Navarre.
Catherine had failed to make France the strong and unified kingdom that she had envisioned, but she did succeed in keeping neither the Guise family nor the Huguenot faction from completely usurping the power of the throne. France was a seriously weakened country by the time of her death. Once one of the most formidable kingdoms in Europe, France now played a lesser role in world affairs as Spain emerged to become England's primary rival for power.
For More Information
Fridea, Leonie. Catherine de Medici. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2003; Harper Perennial, 2006.
Somerville, Barbara. Catherine De Medici: The Power Behind the French Throne. Minneapolis, MN: Compass Point Books, 2006.
Whitelaw, Nancy. Catherine De'Medici: And the Protestant Reformation. Greensboro, NC: Morgan Reynolds Publishing, 2004.
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