The Life and Reign of Catherine de Medici, Renaissance Queen

Portrait of Catherine de Medici
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Catherine de Medici (born Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de Medici; April 13, 1519 – January 5, 1589) was a member of the powerful Italian Medici family who became queen consort of France through her marriage to King Henry II. As queen consort and, later, queen mother, Catherine was highly influential during a period of intense religious and civil conflict.

Early Life

Catherine was born in 1519 in Florence to Lorenzo de Medici, duke of Urbino and ruler of Florence, and his French wife, Madeleine.

Only weeks later, however, Madeleine fell ill and died. Her husband followed a week later.

The newborn Catherine was cared for by her paternal grandmother, Alfonsina Orsini, and her cousin Giulio de Medici, who inherited the rule of Florence after Lorenzo’s death. The French King Francis I attempted to bring Catherine to the French court as his kinswoman, but the pope blocked this, looking to an alliance with Spain.

Giulio was elected Pope Clement VII in 1523. By 1527, the Medici were overthrown, and Catherine became a target in the ensuing violence. She was placed in a series of convents for protection. In 1530, Pope Clement VII summoned his niece to Rome. Her education at this time was not documented, although it’s possible she had access to the scholarly pope’s extensive Vatican library. She did, however, have a governess when she returned to Florence in 1532, and went on to have a passion for literature and science all her life.

Marriage and Family

Pope Clement VII saw Catherine’s marriage as a useful tool in the tangled alliances of Europe. Several suitors were considered, including James V of Scotland; Henry, Duke of Richmond (Henry VIII’s illegitimate son); and Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan. Ultimately, Francis I suggested his younger son: Henry, Duke of Orleans.

Catherine and Henry were married on October 28, 1533, both age fourteen. The newlyweds were often apart in their first year of marriage due to the court’s travels, and in any case, Henry demonstrated little interest in his bride. Within a year, he began taking mistresses, including his lifelong mistress Diane de Poitiers. By 1537, Henry had his first acknowledged child with another mistress, but he and Catherine failed to produce any children until 1544, when their first son Francis was born. The couple had a total of ten children, six of whom survived infancy.

Despite their many children, Catherine and Henry’s marriage never improved. While Catherine was his official consort, he bestowed most favors and influence upon Diane de Poitiers.

Queen of France and Queen Mother

In 1536, Henry's older brother died, making Henry the Dauphin (a term meaning the eldest son of the ruling king of France). When King Francis died on March 31, 1547, Henry became the king, with Catherine crowned as his queen consort—though he allowed her little influence. Henry was killed in a jousting accident on July 10, 1559, leaving his fifteen-year-old son Francis II as the king.

Although Francis II was deemed old enough to rule without a regent, Catherine was a crucial force in all his policies.

In 1560, the young king fell ill and died, and his brother Charles became King Charles IX at just nine years old. Catherine became regent, taking on all responsibilities of state. Her influence remained long after the regency ended, ranging from arranging dynastic marriages for her other children to being party to major policy decisions. This continued when Charles’s brother, Henry III, succeeded him in 1574.

As queen mother, Catherine’s regencies and her influence over her children put her at the forefront of most decisions made by the monarchy. Her era was a period of intense civil disputes, and while Catherine was rumored to be responsible for several acts of violence, she also made several attempts at brokering peace.

Religious Disputes

The foundation of the civil wars in France was religion–more specifically, the question of how a Catholic country would handle a growing number of Hugenots (Protestants).

In 1561, Catherine summoned leaders of both factions to the Colloquy of Poissy in hopes of reconciliation, but it failed. She issued an edict of tolerance in 1562, but only months later a faction led by the Duke of Guise massacred worshipping Huguenots and sparked the French Wars of Religion.

The factions were able to make peace for brief periods of time, but never brokered a lasting deal. Catherine attempted to unite the monarchy’s interests with those of the powerful Huguenot Bourbons by proposing a marriage between her daughter Marguerite to Henry of Navarre. Henry’s mother Jeanne d’Albret died mysteriously following the engagement, a death for which Huguenots blamed Catherine. The worst, though, was still to come.

Following the wedding celebrations in August 1572, Huguenot leader Admiral Coligny was murdered. Expecting a vengeful Huguenot uprising, Charles IX ordered his forces to strike first, resulting in the bloody St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Catherine was, in all likelihood, involved in this decision, which colored her reputation thereafter, though historians differ as to her level of responsibility.

Patron of the Arts

A true Medici, Catherine embraced Renaissance ideals and the value of culture. She maintained a large personal collection at her residence, while also encouraging innovative artists and supporting the creation of elaborately staged spectacles with music, dance, and stagecraft. Her cultivation of the arts was at once a personal preference and a belief that such displays enhanced the royal image and prestige at home and abroad.

The entertainments also had the intention of keeping French nobles from in-fighting by providing amusement and diversion.

Catherine’s great passion was for architecture; in fact, architects dedicated treatises to her with the knowledge that she would probably read them personally. She was directly involved in several grand building projects, as well as the creation of memorials to her late husband. Her dedication to architecture earned her a contemporary parallel to Artemesia, an ancient Carian (Greek) queen who built the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus as a tribute after her husband’s death.

Death 

By the late 1580s, Catherine’s influence over her son Henry III was waning, and she became ill, her condition exacerbated by her despair over her son’s violence (including the murder of the Duke of Guise). On January 5, 1589, Catherine died, probably of a lung infection. Because Paris was not held by the monarchy at the time, she was buried at Blois, where she remained until Henry II’s illegitimate daughter Diane had her remains re-interred alongside Henry in the basilica of Saint Denis in Paris.

Legacy

Catherine lived in an era of constantly shifting alliances, both political and religious, and fought to keep a stable future for her children. She was one of the most powerful forces of the time, driving the decisions of three successive kings. The Protestant historians who wrote after her death tended to portray Catherine as a wicked, decadent Italian who deserved blame for the bloodshed of the era, even going as far as calling her a witch.

Modern historians tend towards a more moderate view of Catherine as a powerful woman in a dangerous time. Her patronage of the arts lived on in the reputation for culture and elegance that the French court maintained until the Revolution.

Famous Quotes

Catherine’s own words are mostly found in her surviving letters. She wrote extensively, especially to her children and to other powerful European leaders.

  • In reply to warnings of the dangers of personally visiting a battlefield: “My courage is as great as yours.” 
  • Following the death of her youngest son, Francis: “I am so wretched to live long enough to see so many people die before me, although I realize that God's will must be obeyed, that He owns everything, and that he lends us only for as long as He likes the children whom He gives us.” 
  • Advising Henry III regarding the need for war: “Peace is carried on a stick.” 

Catherine de Medici Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de Medici
  • Occupation: Queen of France, Queen Mother 
  • Born: April 13, 1519 in Florence, Italy
  • Died: January 5, 1589 in Blois, France
  • Key Accomplishments: A powerful force during the reigns of three successive kings, Catherine played a major role in 16th century politics. She was also an influential patron of the arts.

Sources

  • “Catherine de Medici.” BBC, www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/de_medici_catherine.shtml.
  • Knecht, R. J. Catherine de Medici. Routledge, 1998.
  • Michahelles, Kerri-Rue. “Catherine De Medici’s 1589 Inventory at the Hotel de la Reine in Paris.” Furniture History, vol. 38, 2002, pp. 1-39.
  • Sutherland, N. M. “Catherine de Medici: The Legend of the Wicked Italian Queen.” The Sixteenth-Century Journal, vol. 9, no. 2, 1978, pp. 45-56.