Catherine de Medici was one of the most powerful women of the 16th century, ruling over the royal French court for 17 years in varying degrees of influence and strength.
Devoted to her children and the success of the Valois line, Catherine supported 3 sons as Kings of France through some of the country’s most violent religious turmoil. So wide-reaching was her influence during this period that it has often been dubbed ‘the age of Catherine de’ Medici’, and she has gone down as one of the most infamous women in history.
Here are 10 facts about the formidable Catherine de’ Medici:
1. She was born into the powerful Medici family of Florence
Catherine was born on 13 April 1519 to Lorenzo de’ Medici and his wife Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, who were said to have been ‘as pleased as if it had been a boy’.
The Medicis were a powerful banking family who ruled over Florence, transforming it into a glorious Renaissance city in previous centuries. Within a month of her birth however, Catherine found herself an orphan when her mother died of the plague and her father of syphilis. She was then cared for by her grandmother and later her aunt in Florence, where the Florentines called her duchessina: ‘the little duchess’.
2. At age 14 she married Prince Henry, second son of King Francis I and Queen Claude
When King Francis I of France offered his second son Prince Henry, Duke of Orleans as a husband to Catherine de’ Medici her uncle Pope Clement VII jumped at the opportunity, calling it “the greatest match in the world”.
Though the Medici were immensely powerful, they were not of royal stock, and this marriage manoeuvred her offspring directly into the royal bloodline of France. In 1536, her lot once again improved when Henry’s older brother Francis died of suspected poisoning. Catherine was now in line to be Queen of France.
3. She was accused of being a witch due to her lack of fertility
The marriage was not a happy one however. For 10 years the couple produced no children, and soon discussions of divorce were on the table. In desperation, Catherine tried every trick in the book to promote her fertility, including drinking mule’s urine and placing cow dung and ground stags’ antlers on her “source of life”.
Because of her perceived infertility, many began to suspect Catherine of witchcraft. Traditionally, virtuous women had the power to create life, whereas witches only knew how to destroy it.
Thankfully, on 19 January 1544 she gave birth to a son named Francis, and soon after 9 more children followed.
4. She had virtually no power as Queen of France
On 31 March 1547, King Francis I died and Henry and Catherine became King and Queen of France. Despite her modern-day reputation as a powerful player at the French court, Catherine was given little to no political power during the reign of her husband.
Instead, Henry’s mistress Diane de Poiters enjoyed the life of a queen, exerting influence over him and the court. He trusted her to write many of his official letters, which were signed jointly ‘HenriDiane’, and at one point even entrusted her with the crown jewels. A constant thorn in Catherine’s side, the King’s favouritism of Diane was all-encompassing, and while he was alive there was little she could do about it.
5. Mary, Queen of Scots was raised alongside her children
A year after her ascension as Queen of France, Catherine’s eldest son Francis was betrothed to Mary, Queen of Scots. At 5 years old, the Scottish princess was sent to live at the French court and would spend the next 13 years there, being raised alongside the French royal children.
Beautiful, charming, and talented, Mary was a favourite to all at court – except Catherine de’ Medici. Catherine viewed Mary as a threat to the Valois line, her being the niece of the powerful Guise brothers. When the ailing Francis II died aged 16, Catherine ensured Mary was on the first boat back to Scotland.
6. Nostradamus was employed as a seer at Catherine’s court
Nostradamus was a French astrologer, physician, and reputed seer whose published works hinting at threats to the royal family caught the attention of Catherine in around 1555. She swiftly summoned him to explain himself and read her children’s horoscopes, later making him Counsellor and Physician-in-Ordinary to her son, the young King Charles IX.
In an eerie twist of fate, legend tells that Nostradamus predicted the death of Catherine’s husband Henry II, stating:
The young lion will overcome the older one,
On the field of combat in a single battle;
He will pierce his eyes through a golden cage,
Two wounds made one, then he dies a cruel death.
In 1559, Henry II suffered a mortal wound in a joust against the young Comte de Montgomery, whose lance pierced through his helmet and into his eye. He died 11 days later in agony, as was predicted.
7. Three of her sons were kings of France
With King Henry II dead, Catherine’s sons would now bear the burden of the Crown. First was Francis II, during whose short reign the Guise brothers found prominence, disseminating their extreme Catholicism through the government of France.
Francis was king for less than a year however before dying prematurely, following which his brother Charles IX became king at 10 years old. The child wept through his coronation, and Catherine was so worried for his safety that she slept in his chambers during his early rule.
At 23, Charles IX too passed away, and the throne moved to his younger brother Henry III. Writing to Henry on his brother’s death, Catherine lamented:
My only consolation is to see you here soon, as your kingdom requires, and in good health, for if I were to lose you, I would have myself buried alive with you.
Throughout each of her sons’ reigns she played a large role in government, from acting as Queen Regent for Francis and Charles to being a roving diplomat under Henry. One thing in common in each rule however, was her commitment to her reconciling France’s warring religious factions.
8. She ruled over a period of intense religious conflict
Throughout the reigns of her sons, the religious landscape of France was wrought with conflict between the Catholics and Huguenots. Between 1560 and 1570, three civil wars took place in which Catherine desperately tried to broker peace, in the conflict now known as the French Wars of Religion.
In attempts to reconcile France with its Protestant neighbours, she tried to marry off 2 of her sons to Elizabeth I of England (who affectionately called her youngest son Francis ‘her frog’), and succeeded in marrying off her daughter Margaret to the Protestant leader Henry of Navarre.
What happened in the wake of their wedding only worsened the religious strife however…
9. She is traditionally blamed for the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre
With thousands of notable Huguenots in Paris for Margaret and Henry’s wedding, pandemonium broke out on the night of 23-24 August 1572. Thousands of Huguenots were killed as the violence spread out of Paris and into the surrounding areas, with many believing Catherine to have been behind the plot to remove their leader.
Branded a scheming Italian by Huguenot writers, many saw the massacre as an attempt to wipe out all her enemies in one blow, a principle revered by Machiavelli.
10. She was delivered one final blow 2 weeks before her death
The religious situation continued to worsen, until on 23 December 1588 Henry III had the Duke of Guise violently assassinated. He immediately went to his mother to deliver the news, telling her:
Please forgive me. Monsieur de Guise is dead. He will not be spoken of again. I have had him killed. I have done to him what he was going to do to me.
Distraught by this news, on Christmas Day Catherine lamented:
Oh, wretched man! What has he done? … Pray for him … I see him rushing towards his ruin.
13 days later she died, with those close to her believing this final trauma sent her to her grave. 8 months later, Henry III himself was assassinated, ending almost 3 centuries of Valois rule.