period: Catherine de Médicis

The Serpent Queen
Mary Queen of Scots

Period makeups: Catherine de Médicis

Catherine de Médicis (1519–1589) was born in Florence as Caterina Maria Romula di Lorenzo de’ Medici and was orphaned within weeks of her birth. In 1533, at the age of fourteen, she married the Dauphin Henry. She was Queen Consort of King Henry II of France from 1547 to 1559. All three of their sons became Kings of France, and their daughter, Marguerite de Valois, became Queen Consort as the wife of King Henri IV – although they had already separated before Henri succeeded to the throne in 1589.

Throughout his reign, Henry II excluded Catherine from participating in state affairs and instead showered favours on his chief mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who wielded much influence over him. However, Henry’s death in 1559 thrust Catherine into the political arena as mother of the frail fifteen-year-old King Francis II. When he died in 1560 she became regent on behalf of her ten-year-old son King Charles IX and was granted sweeping powers. After Charles died in 1574 Catherine played a key role in the reign of her third son, Henry III. He dispensed with her advice only in the last months of her life.

Catherine’s three sons reigned in a period of almost constant civil and religious war in France. The problems facing the monarchy were complex and daunting. At first, Catherine compromised and made concessions to the rebelling Protestants, or Huguenots as they became known. Later she resorted, in frustration and anger, to hard-line policies against them. In return she came to be blamed for the excessive persecutions carried out under her sons’ rule, and in particular for the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572 in which some 2000 Huguenots were killed in Paris and and which was followed by months of bloodletting throughout France in which possibly over 20,000 died.

Her only firm principle seems to have been the preservation of the Valois monarchy, making whatever agreements or taking whatever measures to achieve that goal. Although, in practice, her authority was always limited by the effects of the civil wars and factional power it is unlikely that her sons would have remained in power – or even survived – without her. The years in which they reigned have been called ‘the age of Catherine de Médicis’ and one of her biographers as described her as having been the most important woman in sixteenth-century Europe.

Eventually she was trusted by no one, including her sons. Phillip II of Spain, her son-in-law, referred to her as ‘Madame la Serpente’ and another contemporary said: ‘She lies even when she is telling the truth.’ Henri of Navarre’s later judgement was, perhaps surprisingly, more measured; after noting the difficulties she faced he said: ‘I wonder that she did not do worse.’

More recently some historians have excused Catherine from blame for the worst decisions of the crown.

Catherine de Medici (2003) by Leonie Frieda is a good recent biography of Catherine.