Medici, Catherine de (1519–1589)

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Medici, Catherine de (1519–1589)

Influential queen mother who tried to put an end to the French Wars of Religion, alternating between attempts at encouraging peaceful coexistence between Catholics and Protestants and attempts to eliminate the Protestant minority . Name variations: Catherine or Katherine de Médicis or Medicis; Catherine de' Médici or de' Medici; Caterina Maria Romola; Caterina de Medici or Caterina de Médicis. Pronunciation: (Italian) MEH-dechee or MED-ee-chee; (French) MAY-dee-sees. Born in Florence, then an independent city-state in Italy, on April 13, 1519; died in Blois, Anjou, France, on January 5, 1589; daughter of Lorenzo de Medici (1492–1519), duke of Urbino (and grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent) and French noblewoman Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne (1501–1519); trained by private tutors in skills requisite of a Renaissance lady: languages, writing, rhetoric, dancing, riding; married Henry, duke of Orléans, the future Henry II, king of France (r. 1547–1559), on October 28, 1533; children: Francis II (January 19, 1543–1560), king of France (r. 1559–1560); Elizabeth of Valois (1545–1568, queen of Spain); Claude de France (1547–1575); Louis (February 3, 1549–1550); Charles IX (June 27, 1550–1574), king of France (r. 1560–1574); Henry III (September 20, 1551–1589), king of France (r. 1574–1589); Margaret of Valois (May 14, 1553–1615); Hercule, later confirmed as Francis (b. March 18, 1555, later pronounced duke of Anjou but died in 1584 before he had an opportunity to ascend the throne of France); twins Jeanne and Victoire (b. June 24, 1556, died at birth, almost costing their mother's life).

Was a prisoner of the Florentine republic (1527–30); served as regent of France for the first time (1552); made regent for her son Charles IX (1560); called the Colloquy of Poissy (1561); issued edicts favoring the toleration of French Protestantism (1562 and 1563); start of the French Wars of Religion (1562); the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre (1572); entered into peace negotiations with Henry of Bourbon, the Protestant king of Navarre (1578 and 1586).

The future Catherine de Medici, queen of France, was born on April 13, 1519. Three days later, she was baptized Caterina Maria Romola; by early May, she was an orphan. Her mother Madeleine de La Tour d'Auvergne died of puerperal fever on April 28, and her father Lorenzo de Medici died within five days, more the victim of his life's dissipations than of grief. Still less than a year old, Catherine was taken to Rome to live under the guardianship of her great-uncle Pope Leo X, who, with tears in his eyes, was reported to have called her a "child of sorrow."

Though Catherine's father bore the impressive title of duke of Urbino, the Medici family's roots were mercantile rather than noble. Her great-grandfather was Lorenzo the Magnificent (1449–1492), head of Europe's most powerful banking firm and political power-broker in the Italian city-state of Florence. It was he who used the Catholic Church's reliance on Medici credit and financial support to have both a son and nephew made cardinals in the church hierarchy. Each would go on to be pope, and it was Catherine's great-uncle Leo X who had made her father duke of Urbino, an Italian city controlled by the papacy.

When Pope Leo X died in 1521, Catherine became the ward of Cardinal Giulio de Medici, who, in turn, became Pope Clement VII in 1523. Having little desire to supervise the girl's upbringing directly, Clement returned her and her illegitimate half-brother Alessandro (duke of Florence) to Florence in June 1525. There, they lived in the Medici mansion under the guardianship of the pope's representative, Cardinal Silvio Passerini. On April 26, 1527, a Florentine republican opposition to Medici dominance forced Cardinal Passerini and Alessandro to flee Florence. Young Catherine was not part of the escape, and she would be held hostage by the rebel republic until August 1530, when the Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain, Charles V, restored Medici rule on behalf of Pope Clement VII. Alessandro would return in triumph as the duke of Florence, having missed all the threats and dangers faced by Catherine.

In 1527, Catherine de Medici had been placed in one of Florence's convents by the republican government. When Clement VII and Charles V commenced the siege of the city-state in 1529, members of the city's leadership suggested that the little girl be placed in a brothel or raped by the common soldiers so that the pope would never then be able to use her to arrange an advantageous marriage for the Medici clan. Though it was finally determined that she was too valuable a hostage to be treated in such a fashion, these brutal suggestions demonstrate the extent to which male political actors viewed her as a mere pawn. This was even more apparent when the pope finally used her to attain a marriage alliance to the benefit of the Medici family.

On October 28, 1533, Catherine married the duke of Orléans (the future Henry II), second son of Francis I, the king of France, with Pope Clement VII officiating at the ceremony. Catherine was 14 years old, and her husband Henry was only 13 days older. In many ways, the union, like so many in past ages, was much more an alliance between two powers than a matter of romance. In fact, when Henry, the duke of Orléans, turned 17, the very same year that he became the heir to the French throne through the death of his elder brother, he also took as his lover the 37-year-old Diane de Poitiers , who was to remain his mistress until his own death in 1559. In old age, Catherine would admit in a letter that she was only publicly polite to Diane in order to maintain royal dignity, "for never did woman who loved her husband succeed in loving his whore."

In an age when political stability was tied to the succession of legitimate monarchs, when governments were literally identified with individual kings, and when the term "Crown" was used interchangeably for both the monarch and the state, the chief responsibility of any princess or queen was the production of heirs. For nearly ten years, Catherine de Medici failed to produce an heir, though Henry had at least three illegitimate children by three different mothers, including Diane de France . Catherine, in her attempt to do her duty, submitted herself to the "cures" of her day: she wore magical amulets and drank elixirs of rabbit's blood and sheep's urine. Though some at court spread rumors that the king intended to find another wife for his heir, Catherine had an ally in Francis I, who admired her as an embodiment of the multifaceted talent he so revered in Italian Renaissance culture. As a young princess, she demonstrated skill with a pen and a crossbow. Fond of hunting, she was an accomplished rider who introduced a style of riding sidesaddle which, for the first time, allowed women to trot and gallop alongside men on the hunt.

Finally, on January 19, 1543, her father-in-law's patience was rewarded with the birth of a grandson who would bear his name and eventually become King Francis II of France. His birth was followed by that of nine other children, but Francis I only witnessed this one and that of Princess Elizabeth of Valois . In March 1547, at 53, Francis I died, and 28-year-old Catherine became queen of France, as her husband ascended to the throne as King Henry II. They inherited a problem which had first reared its head on October 17, 1534, when a number of placards appeared in Paris denouncing the Catholic faith as idolatrous. Protestantism, an early 16th-century development, was making inroads in France, and much of Catherine's political career would be dedicated to issues surrounding religious strife.

In 1552, when Henry II went to war in an alliance which bound Catholic France to German Protestants rebelling against Charles V, Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain, he left the regency of France in the hands of his wife. Catherine took her position quite seriously, silencing Catholic sermons which denounced the king's alliance with Protestants against fellow Catholics. She also threw herself into her role as commissary general, providing the army with its supplies. However, with taxes already high, cannon and mercenary troops costly, and inflationary spirals dominating 16th-century economic life, the French Crown could not afford the war for long, and a truce was signed in February 1556. Animosities with the Habsburgs, the royal family of Spain and Austria, were such, however, that war soon broke out again in 1557. On April 3, 1559, yet another temporary peace was achieved when the Treaty of Câteau-Cambrésis was signed. In an attempt to make the treaty more than a temporary reprieve, Catherine's daughter Elizabeth of Valois was to be married to the new Habsburg king of Spain, Philip II, in June. As part of the celebrations, a joust was held on June 30. During the joust, Henry II was mortally wounded by accident. He lingered until July 10, 1559, when he died.

Francis II was the first of Catherine's incompetent sons to reign in France. He had no desire to govern, and he almost immediately handed over most fiscal, military, and diplomatic responsibilities to Francis, duke of Guise, and Charles, cardinal of Lorraine, the maternal uncles of his wife Mary Stuart , queen of Scots (1542–1587). Above all else, this clearly identified the royal household with a very Catholic faction in the midst of growing tensions between French Catholics and Protestant followers of John Calvin, who had become the spiritual leader of an expanding Protestant movement centered in French-speaking Geneva, Switzerland. In France, Calvin's followers were called Huguenots, and they were a substantial minority, represented among nobles, merchants, artisans, and peasants alike. In addition to religious tensions, the French national public debt stood at 40 million livres in 1559, an enormous sum for the day. The Guise family responded to this by cutting royal pensions and other expenditures aimed at pacifying the nobility. This only exacerbated problems, creating enemies who turned to Protestantism as a rallying point for the anti-Guise opposition. When a plot involving the stockpiling of arms by French Protestant nobles was uncovered, the House of Guise responded by executing the Sieur de La Renaudie and many of his co-conspirators.

Diane de France (1538–1619)

French duchess of Montmorency and Angoulême . Name variations: Madame d'Angoulême; Diana of France or Diane of France. Born in Piedmont, Italy, in 1538; died on January 3, 1619; legitimized daughter of Henry II (1519–1559), king of France (r. 1547–1559), and Filippa Duci ; married Orazio Farnese, duke of Castro (son of the duke of Parma), in 1553; married François de Montmorency (d. 1579), governor of Ilede-France, on May 3, 1559.

Though fathered by Henry II out of wedlock, Diane de France was acknowledged by the king, legitimized in 1547, and fully accepted as a daughter of France. She was also accepted by her half-brothers and half-sisters. Known as a beauty and fine equestrian, Diane was given the duchy of Chastellerault, until she took over the title and estate of Angoulême. After her first husband Orazio Farnese, duke of Castro, was killed in battle at the siege of Hesdin, she married François de Montmorency, though he was betrothed to Mademoiselle de Piennes . Diane de France was close to her half-brother Henry III. When Henry was in danger and in need of financial assistance during his conflict with the duke of Guise, it was Diane who, at great risk, brought him 50,000 crowns which she had saved. She was also politically astute and influential at the court of her brother-in-law Henry IV, who married her half-sister Margaret of Valois (1553–1615).

In the midst of all this, Catherine de Medici was quietly and efficiently maneuvering for influence herself. In March 1560, the post of chancellor to the king was vacant, and Catherine proposed Michel de L'Hospital, a man who had been trained in law at the University of Padua in Italy, wrote poetry, and favored the development of a compromise where Catholics and Huguenots were concerned. The Guise household accepted Catherine's choice, for, aside from his reputation as a Renaissance scholar, he had dedicated a number of his poems to the House of Guise. Catherine now had a man who reflected her own politics as one of the king's senior advisors, but before any of this could bear fruit, the ever-sickly Francis II died on December 5,1560. Catherine's second son, suddenly Charles IX of France, was only ten years old and in need of a regent to rule on his behalf. To the royal council, the young king's mother and guardian became the natural choice, and Catherine supplanted the Guise family and Mary Stuart, queen of Scots, as regent. The Italian republic of Venice quickly received word from its representative that "the Queen Mother is considered the one whose will is supreme in all matters."

Vive la France! That was what Catherine wanted to hear, and not Long Live the Pope! or Long Live Calvin!

—Jean Héritier

To counterbalance the disgruntled Guise faction, Catherine turned to the Huguenot nobility. Above all others, she targeted Antoine, duke of Bourbon and king of Navarre, a small subordinate protectorate of the French monarchy just north of the Pyrenees. Antoine was the closest male relative to King Charles IX, aside from his two brothers. Catherine readily told the royal council that he would thus occupy first place in the council, advising the queen regent and her son in all matters. She also noted that Antoine was, as Calvin himself noted, "entirely given to Venus," and she selected one of her most intelligent and beautiful maids of honor to become Antoine's lover and her spy, thereby initiating the practice of consistently employing her attendants in sexual adventures which provided her with influence and information. Once in possession of that information, she would try to neutralize dangerous factions by maintaining a balance of power. In fact, in a letter she told her inflexibly Catholic son-in-law, Philip II of Spain, that attempts at "cutting out the contagion" of Protestantism had only increased its spread. She said that it was her intention to eliminate Protestantism by means of persuasion rather than violence. She also wrote that she intended to call a general council to that effect.

In 1561, she held her council at the Dominican monastery of Poissy, near Paris. Though the pope disapproved and refused to recognize the meeting as an official church council, all five of France's cardinals attended the "Colloquy" of Poissy, and Calvin himself sent a Genevan delegation which included his protégé Theodore Beza. Catherine truly hoped for compromises, but these religious leaders spent their time preaching at each other from irreconcilable positions. In fact, Beza's opening remarks started with an attack on the Catholic mass. Catherine was able to ease over the initial tension which thereby resulted, but the colloquy only demonstrated the extent to which many Catholics and Calvinists viewed each other as heretical and morally reprehensible. Despite the lack of real unity at the colloquy, Catherine, on January 17, 1562, issued an edict which effectively allowed Huguenots to worship in peace "until such time as God will do us the grace to be able to reunite them in one fold." In short, as long as Huguenots were peaceful and loyal subjects of France, she was willing to leave their conversion to Catholicism in God's hands, effectively meaning that no political force would be used to bring about that conversion.

The noble House of Guise was furious. When the duke stopped in the small village of Vassy to hear mass on March 1, 1562, he first demanded that the local Huguenot population not hold its service, and then had his retainers slaughter 30 of the Protestants and wound another 130 when they threw stones in response to his demands. Throughout the rest of the country, Huguenots attacked Catholic churches and Catholics set upon Protestant congregations. Though Catherine and her chancellor Michel de L'Hospital attempted toleration, the age was not tolerant. By July 1562, the French Wars of Religion truly commenced.

The Huguenots actually aimed at seizing the king and controlling him through one of their leaders, the noble Prince of Condé, whom they wished to have appointed chief advisor to the Crown. Meanwhile, the House of Guise wished to extirpate all Protestantism. Catherine was caught in the middle of hostile forces, both international as well as domestic, for Catholic and Protestant powers abroad took an interest in the events in France. The Huguenots received 100,000 crowns and 6,000 men from Elizabeth I 's Protestant England, and Spain, in turn, favored the arch-Catholic cause.

In the midst of this chaos, Catherine de Medici proved that she was quite capable of taking to the battlefield to inspire troops and protect her son from capture by the Huguenots. Casualties

mounted, and Antoine of Bourbon, king of Navarre, died in 1562, while Francis, duke of Guise, died early in 1563. Throughout all this, Catherine continued to issue edicts of toleration, even as she made war. In March 1563, for example, the Edict of Amboise called for French unity and allowed for Huguenot worship in towns held by Huguenot garrisons. Quite literally, religious conflict was too costly for France, and Catherine desired its end. In addition, to pay for the wars with rebellious Protestants, Catherine issued bonds, called rentes, which only increased the government's debt in a period of price inflation and bad harvests. While Henry II had issued rentes totalling 6.8 million livres, Charles IX and Catherine sold 25.9 million livres in bonds. New rentes were used to pay old debts as the wars consumed revenues as well as lives.

Increasingly, Catherine thought in terms of a bold stroke to eliminate the conflict. Though arch-Catholics, following the Guise cardinal of Lorraine, ignored edicts of toleration and fueled the flames of conflict, they naturally fought against rebellious Huguenots who had attempted to seize the person of the king. Most important, while the Huguenots numbered approximately 1 million, French Catholics numbered about 15 million, and more and more of them cried for Huguenot blood as the atrocities continued on both sides. Given the numbers and general sentiment, Catherine gravitated toward the Catholic side. In 1568, she dismissed the chancellor L'Hospital, who had increasingly come to be identified with a policy of toleration and coexistence. Then, as the year 1572 opened, Charles IX, now in his early 20s and no longer in need of an official regent, apparently intended to strike out on his own and initiate a policy which blatantly favored the Huguenot minority in their foreign policy aims. The Huguenot leaders of the day, including the supreme leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, even began to attend the king's court, and to convince Charles of the need for new alliances with England and Dutch Calvinists against Philip II's attempts to build Spanish hegemony (influence) in Europe. By August, Catherine was trying to regain influence with her son and thereby prevent heavily indebted France from going to war with Spain, then the most powerful country in Western Europe. This proved to be a precipitous time for Catherine to strike, since that very month, as part of an old policy of forming alliances with moderate Huguenot leaders, she had arranged for her daughter Margaret of Valois to marry Henry of Bourbon (the future Henry IV), the new Huguenot king of Navarre.

The wedding of Henry and Margaret of Valois took place on August 18, 1572. Eight days earlier, on August 10, the Huguenot faction had been outvoted in the royal council by Catherine and her allies: war with Spain was avoided. Then, four days after the wedding, on August 22, an assassination attempt, most likely masterminded by Henry, the new duke of Guise, was made on the life of Coligny, the Huguenot aristocrat and leader. To the present day, it is not clear whether Catherine was part of the plot to eliminate Coligny, though it is quite clear that she opposed his growing influence over her son and that she planned to capitalize on the assassination attempt. On August 23, Catherine and her supporters deliberated with Charles IX, somehow convincing him that the Huguenots were not only threatening to take justice into their own hands where the duke of Guise was concerned, but that they also intended to overthrow Charles himself. Charles IX then sanctioned the slaughter of the Huguenot nobility. This was the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, August 24, 1572, and it cannot be doubted that Catherine played a major role in its implementation. Three thousand Huguenots, including the wounded Coligny, were killed in Paris alone, where they had assembled to celebrate the wedding of Margaret of Valois and Henry of Bourbon. Henry of Bourbon and some others were spared by converting to Catholicism, but throughout the rest of France some 10,000 Huguenots were slaughtered in the next few days. To the present day, many still see the massacre as a premeditated plot concocted by Catherine, Guise, Charles IX and a few others—the wedding celebration merely being a lure to draw the Huguenot leadership out into the open. Some historians, like J.E. Neale, have speculated that Catherine wished to see the Huguenot leadership decimated, but that the mass slaughter was more a function of hatreds and prejudices long festering in the mostly Catholic mobs of France. On August 25, the Crown even issued an edict calling for the massacre to stop, but the genie had been let out of the bottle. Huguenot tracts and pamphlets would often now place the blame for Protestant misfortunes on a manipulative Catherine, who was wildly accused of being the poisoner of numerous individuals who stood between her and power.

The Wars of Religion were renewed with a vengeance after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Then, in 1574, Charles IX died of consumption, leaving the kingdom to his brother Henry III, an unpredictable man given to the pursuit of male favorites. Catherine had reached the twilight of her political career. All her efforts turned to an attempt to maintain a balance of power regulated by the Crown.

In the autumn of 1578, at the height of the wars, Catherine decided to meet with her son-in-law, Henry of Bourbon, the king of Navarre. This was clearly a case of putting France's interests before the interests of family since Henry had abandoned Paris, his wife, and his Catholicism in 1576. Rather than his Protestantism and abandonment of her daughter, Catherine determined to focus on Henry of Bourbon's desire for

peace and order. At this time, Catherine was hated and distrusted by both Catholics and Protestants, but Henry of Navarre saw merit in her renewed call for compromise, agreeing to the opening of negotiations for peace in 1579. In February, Catherine and Henry came to terms at Nérac—terms which once again promised religious toleration and Huguenot loyalty—but Henry of Navarre did not control all Huguenot forces. In the north, the Huguenot noble Condé continued hostilities, and the dream of peace once again disintegrated.

By 1585, the Guise family's Catholic League had the upper hand in the religious struggle. In an attempt to save Henry III's crown, Catherine encouraged capitulation to the League in the Treaty of Nemours, which recognized a Guise successor to Henry III. Then, in 1586, in yet another attempt to restore balance, she again negotiated for peace with her son-in-law Henry of Navarre, but the Catholic League pressured Henry III to take the offensive against the Huguenots. This proved to be disastrous, as the royal army was defeated by Henry of Navarre in October of 1587. Finally despairing over Guise power, Henry III independently ordered the assassination of Henry, duke of Guise, and his brother Louis, Cardinal of Guise. Other prominent Catholic League members were arrested, leading to an open revolt of the League in January of 1589.

That same month, on January 5, 1589, Catherine de Medici died. However, one of her last gambles finally bore fruition. In April of that year, Henry III drew up an alliance with Henry of Bourbon, the Huguenot king of Navarre. This alliance and the Guise assassinations eventually cost Henry III his life at the hands of a Catholic assassin, but it provided Henry of Bourbon with the legitimacy he needed to ascend to the throne of France that same year. As the most closely related male relative of the deceased king, he became Henry IV on the condition that he return to Catholicism, which he did, using his newfound power to eventually put an end to the Wars of Religion. Then, secure in his position, in 1598, he issued the Edict of Nantes, granting religious toleration to his former Huguenot brethren—an edict which would remain in effect until 1685 and its revocation by the absolutist Louis XIV.

In her last years, Catherine found in Henry of Bourbon an unexpected ally who could understand her policy and goals. For Catherine, the task of government was not to promote eternal salvation, but to provide as much order and peace as possible on earth, even if that meant the use of deception and violence to defeat those who would kill others in order to promote their religions. In 16th-century Europe, when so many believed that there could only be "one true faith" in any well-ordered society, Catherine de Medici experimented with both religious pluralism and balance of power politics.


Héritier, Jean. Catherine de Medici. Translated by Charlotte Haldane. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1963.

Kingdon, Robert M. Myths about the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacres, 1572–1576. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Neale, J.E. The Age of Catherine de Medici. NY: Harper and Row, 1962.

Salmon, J.H.M. Society in Crisis: France in the Sixteenth Century. London: Methuen, 1979.

Strage, Mark. Women of Power: The Life and Times of Catherine de' Medici. NY: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.

Van Dyke, Paul. Catherine de Médicis. 2 vols. NY: Scribner, 1924.

suggested reading:

Salmon, J.H.M., ed. The French Wars of Religion: How Important Were Religious Factors? Boston: D.C. Heath, 1967.

Abel A. Alves , Associate Professor of History, Ball State University, Muncie, Indiana, and author of Brutality and Benevolence: Human Ethology, Culture, and the Birth of Mexico (Greenwood Press, 1996)

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Medici, Catherine de (1519–1589)

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