- Estelle Paranque *
- The BBC HistoryExtra
Catherine de Medici was never destined to be queen.
The ‘orphan of Florence’ suffered more losses during her childhood than most people in a lifetime. However, fate intervened and the ‘duchessina‘, as the Florentines called her, she ended up marrying a member of the French royal family.
Little did she know that, one day, she would become Queen of France.
She was born in Florence on April 13, 1519, and was the daughter of Lorenzo de Medici, the ruler of the kingdom of Florence, and his wife Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne.
Three weeks after her birth, Madeleine died of a violent fever and Catherine was left without a mother. Soon after, his father, who was also the Duke of Urbino, had to defend the region after it was attacked by Francesco Maria, a former Duke of Urbino, who had plotted his revenge during a vulnerable moment for Lorenzo’s family.
Lorenzo was wounded in the defense of the city and died in May 1519.
Despite the relatives who stepped in to care for Catalina after her parents died, the little duchess was now alone in the world; nothing could replace the love and protection of their parents or, at least, next to nothing.
At first, Catherine was cared for by her paternal grandmother, Alfonsina Orsini, but when she died in 1520, she stayed with her aunt, Clarice de Medici.
In 1527, the Medici were overthrown by a faction opposed to Giulio de Medici, who had been elected as Pope Clement VII in 1523.
Catherine was raised in various convents until peace was achieved, at which point Clemente summoned her to come and live with him in Rome. He cared for her and also arranged her marriage to Henry, Duke of Orleans, the second son of King Francis I of France, in early 1533.
At just 14 years old, Catherine had entered the French royal family, a life-changing experience.
How did you come to rule France?
Catherine’s marriage to Henry II was not a happy one.
As queen consort after the death of Francis I in 1547, Catherine was totally devoted to her husband, but in reality, she was the third in contention in the relationship: Henry II was deeply in love with his favorite, Diana de Poitiers, who exercised an enormous influence on the life of the monarch.
Henry spent very little time with his wife, to the point where courtiers gossiped that the queen was infertile (the king had illegitimate children with other mistresses, after all).
But after almost a decade more of humiliations, Diana helped the royal couple conceive.
Worried about losing her position and influence at court if the king remarried a younger, more attractive wife to beget an heir, Diana made sure that Henry frequented the royal bedroom; Catherine was not a threat to her, not even with heirs, as she had secured the king’s affection and sexual attraction.
From 1544 onwards, Catherine and Enrique had a total of 10 children, seven of whom survived to adulthood.
When Henry II died from injuries sustained during a jousting tournament in 1559, Catherine’s situation at court changed in an instant.
At first, she acted as a political advisor to her eldest son, Francis II of France.
Although Henry had allowed her little influence as queen consort, he had made her regent in 1552 while she was absent at the site of Metz, and she used this brief political experience under Francis II.
Then when Francis died of illness on December 5, 1560, his 10-year-old son, Charles IX, became the new king of France. In an attempt to prevent Catherine from taking control, a regency was established, but she overcame it and was appointed “governor of France”, ruling alongside Antonio de Borbón, the King of Navarre.
It was through her children that Catherine built her own political power.
When Charles IX came of age to rule on his own, she took the title of ‘queen mother of France’, imposing himself in all government meetings and using the influence he had over his son to stay in power.
He continued this strategy, albeit with less success, with his next son, Henry III, who became king after Charles’s death in 1574.
The massacre of San Batolomé
Catherine’s long regency was marked by the French Wars of Religion, in which Catholics and Huguenots (Protestants) fought.
Some urban legends describe Catherine as a murderer who hated Protestants, but it is important to note that the reality was very different.
Was she a fervent Catholic? Yes. Would you have preferred your whole country to be Catholic? Of course. But he also knew the importance of preserving stability in one’s kingdom to secure the dynasty. So Catherine spent much of her time in power trying to find peace compromises between Catholics and Protestants.
It took him months to negotiate a possible marriage between his daughter, Margarita de Valois, with the Huguenot Enrique de Navarra, son of Antonio de Borbón and Juana de Albret. Once the marriage was agreed, the wedding was arranged for August 18, 1572.
But in the days after the union there was one of the bloodiest events in early modern French history.
With tensions already exacerbated in Paris, there was an assassination attempt on Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the military and political leader of the Huguenots, and the event sparked days of bloodshed, not only in Paris but throughout France: later These events were known as the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day.
How did Catalina react that night?
Catherine tried to save Coligny, the leader who had been targeted by the powerful Catholic Guise family, by sending for the royal physician, Ambroise Paré, to treat his wounds.
It also opened its doors to any Protestant who needed to find refuge, including the English ambassador at the time, Sir Francis Walsingham, when his apartments were no longer safe enough.
The bloodshed is believed to have been instigated by Catherine.
Did you suspect that the Guise family would seek revenge on the Huguenot leaders for the death of their father at the hands of a Huguenot nobleman in 1562? Probably. But she could not have known that it would lead to the thousands of deaths that occurred.
Did she push it? Hardly. Instability never benefited those in power.
Did you orchestrate it? No concrete evidence has ever been revealed.
How he died?
In September 1588, Catherine began to feel weak and eventually fell ill from a lung infection.
At that moment, the situation in France was at its worst. The authority of Henry III, his favorite son, had been questioned to the point that, in May 1588, he had to flee from Paris, as the city was under siege by the Catholic League led by the Guises. Catalina tried to advise her son, but he no longer wanted to listen to her.
His illness progressed and he continued to feel helpless as he watched his son’s power diminish.
When, in December 1588, Henry III ordered the assassination of his enemies, Henry, Duke of Guise and Louis, Cardinal of Guise, Catherine gasped at the horror she was witnessing. He knew that the French people would never forgive such treacherous behavior by a king; He knew that he would seal the fate of his son.
His lung infection spread even more and, on January 5, 1589, he breathed his last in his own bed at the Château de Blois. It is believed that he died of pleurisy.
Why was she called “the snake queen”?
A dark legend has tainted Catherine’s reign and that of her children, in large part because neither of them ended the religious civil wars that ravaged France between 1562 and 1598.
His Italian origins were also considered a problem by the courtiers, as well as the fact that he showed an interest in astrology and astronomy.
He believed in astronomers, like Nostradamus, and asked them for predictions of the future.
Some people saw this as an interest in the occult, which was not real, and – little by little – her detractors mistakenly portrayed her as a ‘serpent queen’ that she knew how to poison her enemies and that she was ruthless to the people of France.
Those attacks couldn’t be further from the truth.
Catherine, like any other ruler, conspired and lied when necessary to protect her authority, or that of her children, but she also showed how much she really cared about the preservation of France, and she always tried to find ways to promote peace and achieve the stability within the borders of his kingdom.
Catalina also liked art and was an enthusiastic collector; During his life he acquired a large number of tapestries, sculptures, rich fabrics, furniture and ceramics, as well as portraits that he commissioned from Jean Clouet and his son, Francis Clouet.
He also had a passion for architecture and commissioned the renovation of important buildings such as the castles of Montceaux-en-Brie and Chenonceau. She spent a great deal of money on the arts, but was never really recognized as a patron, in part due to the dark legend that still haunts her reign today.
In the end, Catalina had become a force impossible to ignore.
From orphan to queen consort and then queen mother, she dramatically influenced French history by producing three of the nation’s kings. Although the Valois dynasty did not prevail after Henry III, Catherine’s grandchildren from her other children went on to shape the politics of the late 16th and 17th centuries.
In many ways, she was the grandmother of early modern Europe.
* Estelle Paranque is a professor of early modern history at the New College of the Humanities. Their books include an upcoming joint biography of Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici (Ebury Press).
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.