Catherine de Medici: Powerful French Queen During the Wars of Religion

Italian-Born Renaissance Figure

Catherine de Medici
Catherine de Medici. Stock Montage/Getty Images

Catherine de Medici, member of a powerful Italian Renaissance dynasty, became Queen of France, where she worked to consolidate royal power. She served as regent for each of her three sons who were kings of France, and exerted considerable influence in turn over each of them and over her daughter, Margaret, who also became Queen of France.  She was, in practice if not by title, the ruler of France for thirty years.


She is often recognized for her role in the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre, part of the Catholic-Huguenot conflict in France.

Her father was the patron of Machiavelli, and Catherine was credited with practicing some of the ruling strategies suggested by Machiavelli. 

Family Background and Connections 

Catherine’s father was Lorenzo II de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino and ruler of Florence. His uncle was Pope Leo X, and Lorenzo’s nephew became Pope Clement VII. Lorenzo's grandfather was Lorenzo de' Medici called Lorenzo the Magnificent.  

Catherine’s illegitimate half-brother, Allesandro de’ Medici, became Duke of Florence. He married Margaret of Austria, an illegitimate daughter of Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor.  (Allesandro's mother was likely a servant or slave of African descent, and Alessandro was called il Moro for his African features.) 

Catherine’s mother and Lorenzo’s wife was Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, whose father was the Count of Auvergne, part of the Bourbon family.

The marriage was arranged by Pope Leo X to strengthen an alliance between Francis I of France, her distant relative, and the Pope.  Madeleine’s elder sister, Anne, inherited Auvergne and married the Duke of Albany, but she died childless and her property was inherited by Catherine. 


Madeleine died shortly after Catherine was born on April 13, 1519, perhaps from puerperal fever, plague, or syphilis contracted from her husband.

  Lorenzo died shortly after, probably from syphilis, leaving Catherine an orphan. (His tomb includes a sculpture by Michelangelo.) 

She was educated by nuns under the direction of her uncle, Pope Leo X. She was taught to read and write and given a classical education by nuns under the pope’s direction. 

Marriage and Children 

In 1533, when Catherine was 14, she was married to Henry, second son of the king of France, Francis I, and his queen consort, Claude. Claude was the daughter of Louis XII and Anne of BrittanySalic law prohibited Claude from inheriting the throne herself. 

Henry was often absent during the first year of the marriage. When Pope Clement died, Catherine’s support vanished, and so did her dowry. The marriage was far from happy. Henry openly kept mistresses, and especially favored Diane de Poitiers after 1534. The couple had no children for ten years. 

In 1536, Henry’s older brother Francis died, and Catherine became the dauphine. There was suspicion at court that one of her attendants had poisoned Francis. Her failure to become pregnant meant that she could not fulfill her key role as mother of heirs to Henry and to the House of Valois that had been ruling France since the 14th century.

Henry considered putting Catherine aside after one of his mistresses bore him a daughter in 1537. Catherine finally consulted a physician who made some suggestions to the couple for adapting to some abnormalities. She also consulted with and followed the advice of astrologers (she was a patron of Nostradamus). In 1543, she finally conceived, and bore her first son, Francis, in 1544, named for Henry’s father and late brother. 

After the birth of Francis, Catherine bore nine more children to Henry, and six of them survived infancy. She had no more children after bearing twins, when the doctors saved her life by breaking the bones of one of the children, who was then stillborn, and the other twin died less than two months later. 

Henry maintained his relationship with mistresses and especially with Diane de Poitiers.

Catherine was shut out of any political influence in Henry’s rule, though Henry consulted Diane on matters of state. When Catherine made clear her preference for a particular house, Henry gave it to Catherine. 

Henry had his eldest son and dauphin, Francis, betrothed to Mary, Queen of Scots, whose mother was the sister of Henry’s friend, Francis, Duke of Guise. Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise, ruled Scotland as regent while Mary, Queen of Scots, came to France to be raised to be the dauphine. 

In 1559, Henry died after an accident in a jousting match. Catherine adopted a broken lance as an emblem in remembrance of him, and continued to wear black in mourning. 

The Power Behind the Throne: Francis II 

Catherine’s eldest son, 15, was now king. The Duke of Guise and Cardinal of Lorraine seized power, despite Catherine being named regent. Catherine exerted some power by ejecting Diane de Poitiers from the house Catherine had wanted, and seizing royal jewels from Diane. As the Guise family promoted Catholicism above Protestantism, Catherine positioned herself as a moderate. After a Guise attack on Protestants where many were killed, Catherine worked with the Chancellor of France to win a policy tolerating private Protestant worship. 

Francis died in December 1560, only 16 years old, with no children to succeed him. His widow was sent back to Scotland in August of the next year. 

The Power Behind the Throne: Charles IX 

Francis had been Catherine’s eldest son. Francis had been followed by two daughters, Elisabeth and Claude, and then a son, Louis, who died before he was two years old.

  Louis was followed in birth order by Charles, born in 1550. 

When Francis II died, his next eldest surviving brother became king as Charles IX.  He was only nine years old. This time, Catherine controlled much of the power and patronage. During Charles’ minority, Catherine tried to bring together the Catholics and Protestants, but the Massacre of Vassy, initiated by the Duke of Guise, killed 74 Protestants at worship, beginning the French Wars of Religion. 

When the Huguenots aligned with England, Catherine and the royal army struck back, and Catherine saw a negotiated end of the war, for a time. 

In 1563, Charles IX was declared of age to rule, but put most of the power into Catherine’s hands.  The war with the Huguenots continued. Catherine married Charles to a daughter of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian II, in 1570, and, in an attempt to make peace with the Huguenots, arranged a marriage between her daughter, Margaret of Valois, and Henry III of Navarre, son of Jeanne d’Albret, a Huguenot leader and niece of Francis I of France by his sister Marguerite of Navarre. Catherine was upset at her daughter when she discovered that Margaret had been having an affair with the Duke of Guise, and had her beaten. Henry of Navarre was in the succession to the French throne, and a better match, Catherine assessed, for her daughter. 

The attendance of many Huguenot leaders of the wedding of Henry and Margaret in June, 1572, was an opportunity for Catherine to take significant action against the Huguenot leaders a few days later, in what has been called the St.

Bartholomew Massacre, a week of killing in Paris begun with a signal of church bells ringing, that then spread through France. 

Charles distanced himself from his mother, probably jealous of her closeness to his younger brother, Henry, clearly Catherine’s favorite son. But Catherine found it easy to rule, as Charles had little interest in affairs of state. 

Charles died in May, 1574, of tuberculosis. He had no legitimate sons to succeed him.  His daughter, Marie Elisabeth, lived from 1572 to 1578.  His illegitimate son, Charles, born in 1573, became the count of Auvergne, inheriting land and title from Catherine de Medici, and duke of Angoulême. 

The Power Behind the Throne: Henry III 

When his brother, Charles, died without legitimate male heirs, Henry became King of France in 1575.  Catherine served as regent for some months while Henry returned from Poland. Catherine served many roles during Charles’ reign, especially as a traveling representative, though he was an adult at the time he became king, unlike Catherine’s two older sons. 

His mother had tried to arrange a marriage for him in 1570 with Queen Elizabeth I of England, and when that failed, tried to arrange a marriage with her youngest son, Francis, with Elizabeth. Elizabeth, as she had with other suitors, played along for a time, but eventually abandoned the plans for marriage with each in turn. 

In 1572, Henry had been elected as King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, but he returned to France when he found out his brother had died. His coronation was in February 1575, and the next day he married Louise of Lorraine.  They had no children and Henry was famously unfaithful to Louise. There were some rumors that he was gay and had male lovers in addition to the female ones, though these may have been spread strategically by his enemies.   

Catherine, though with less power than when her other sons were king, again served as an active advisor to this son, too, in the events of his reign. 

In 1584, Henry's only remaining brother, Francis, died of tuberculosis, making Henry of Navarre, married to his Henry's sister (and Catherine's daughter) Margaret, the next male heir under Salic law.  Catherine and Margaret fought, as Margaret returned to France and took lovers. Catherine and her son-in-law saw Margaret imprisoned and her latest lover executed in 1586. Catherine wrote Margaret out of her will. 

Before becoming king, Henry had been a French Army leader, and had been part of some of the battles with Huguenots. Catherine was quite overweight and afflicted with gout, and this diminished her ability to be actively influential at court. In 1588 Henry was responsible for inviting the Duke of Guise to a private meeting at which the duke and his brother, a cardinal, were murdered.  Catherine found this out after falling ill at the marriage of a granddaughter. She was devastated at the news of her son’s part in the murder of the Duke of Guise.   

She had been bedridden with a lung infection, and died on January 5, 1589, with many believing that her son’s action hastened her death. 

Catherine's son Henry III lived only eight more months, assassinated by a Dominican friar who opposed Henry’s alliance with Henry of Navarre.  Catherine's son-in-law Henry of Navarre succeeded as king of France, able to be crowned only after he converted to Catholicism in 1583. 

Art Patronage 

As the Medici Renaissance daughter that she was, and also inspired by her father-in-law, Francis I of France, Catherine sought to bring painting and art to France. For thirty years while she ruled in her sons' names, she spent proliferously on buildings and art work. She extended the Tuileries Palace in Paris, and collected many fine books. She collected china and tapestries. At first, she brought in Italian artists and architects, then supported the French artists who were inspired by the Italians.  François Clouet, for example, painted portraits of most of Catherine's family. Her court festivals were known for their majestic splendor.  Only the court festivals continued to influence French culture, as the end of the Valois dynasty also meant crises that led to the sale of much of the art Catherine had collected. 

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Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Catherine de Medici: Powerful French Queen During the Wars of Religion." ThoughtCo, Jan. 12, 2018, Lewis, Jone Johnson. (2018, January 12). Catherine de Medici: Powerful French Queen During the Wars of Religion. Retrieved from Lewis, Jone Johnson. "Catherine de Medici: Powerful French Queen During the Wars of Religion." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 20, 2018).