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Catherine de’ Medici Queen consort of France 1519–1589

Catherine de Medici, French- Catherine de Médicis, pronounced [katrin de medisis] 13 April 1519 – 5 January 1589), daughter of Lorenzo II de’ Medici and Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, was an Italian noblewoman who was queen of France from 1547 until 1559, by marriage to King Henry II. As the mother of kings Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III, she had extensive, if at times varying, influence in the political life of France. From 1560 to 1563, she ruled France as regent for her son Charles IX, King of France.

Catherine de’ Medici
Queen consort of France


13 April 1519


5 January 1589 (aged 69)
Château de Blois,



Saint-Denis in 1610.

Henry II of France

.1 Francis II, King of France
(19 January 1544 – 5 December 1560).
Married Mary, Queen of Scots, in 1558.

.2 Elisabeth of Valois
(2 April 1545 – 3 October 1568).
Married Philip II, King of Spain, in 1559.

.3 Claude of Valois
(12 November 1547 – 21 February 1575).
Married Charles III, Duke of Lorraine, in 1559.

.4 Louis, Duke of Orléans
(3 February 1549 – 24 October 1550). Died in infancy.

.5 Charles IX, King of France
(27 June 1550 – 30 May 1574).
Married Elizabeth of Austria in 1570.

.6 Henry III, King of France
(19 September 1551 – 2 August 1589).
Married Louise of Lorraine in 1575.

.7 Margaret of Valois
(14 May 1553 – 27 March 1615).
Married Henry, King of Navarre, the future Henry IV of France, in 1572.

.8 Hercules, Francis, Duke of Anjou
(18 March 1555 – 19 June 1584),
renamed Francis when he was confirmed. suitor of Elizabeth I

.9 Victoria (24 June 1556 – August 1556). Twin of Joan. Died in infancy.

.10 Joan (24 June 1556 – 24 June 1556). Twin of Victoria. Stillborn.

Full name
Caterina Maria Romula di Lorenzo de Medici

House of Medici

Lorenzo de’ Medici,
Duke of Urbino

Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne

Catherine was born on 13 April 1519 in Florence, Republic of Florence, the only child of Lorenzo de’ Medici, duke of Urbino, and his wife, Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, the countess of Boulogne. The young couple had been married the year before. Within a month of Catherine’s birth, both her parents were dead. Madeleine died on 28 April of puerperal fever or plague, and Lorenzo died on 4 May during battle.

Catherine was first cared for by her paternal grandmother, Alfonsina Orsini. After Alfonsina’s death in 1520, Catherine joined her cousins and was raised by her aunt, Clarice de’ Medici. Pope Clement housed Catherine in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, where she lived in state. The Florentine people called her duchessina (“the little duchess”).

In 1527, the Medici were overthrown in Florence by a faction opposed to the regime of Clement’s representative, Cardinal Silvio Passerini, and Catherine was taken hostage and placed in a series of convents. These years were “the happiest of her entire life”.In October 1529, Charles’s troops laid siege to Florence. As the siege dragged on, voices called for Catherine to be killed and exposed naked and chained to the city walls. Some even suggested that she be handed over to the troops to be used for their gratification. The city finally surrendered on 12 August 1530.

Clement summoned Catherine from her beloved convent to join him in Rome where he greeted her with open arms and tears in his eyes. Then he set about the business of finding her a husband.

On her visit to Rome, the Venetian envoy described Catherine as “small of stature, and thin, and without delicate features, but having the protruding eyes peculiar to the Medici family”. Suitors, however, lined up for her hand, including James V of Scotland who wanted to conclude a marriage in April and November 1530. When Francis I of France proposed his second son, Henry, Duke of Orléans, in early 1533, Clement jumped at the offer. Henry was a prize catch for Catherine, who despite her wealth was of common origin.

The wedding, a grand affair marked by extravagant display and gift-giving, took place in the Église Saint-Ferréol les Augustins in Marseille on 28 October 1533. Prince Henry danced and jousted for Catherine. The fourteen-year-old couple left their wedding ball at midnight to perform their nuptial duties. Henry arrived in the bedroom with King Francis, who is said to have stayed until the marriage was consummated. He noted that “each had shown valour in the joust”. Clement visited the newlyweds in bed the next morning and added his blessings to the night’s proceedings.

Catherine saw little of her husband in their first year of marriage, but the ladies of the court treated her well. The death of Pope Clement VII on 25 September 1534, however, undermined Catherine’s standing in the French court. The next pope, Paul III, broke the alliance with France and refused to pay her huge dowry. King Francis lamented, “The girl has come to me stark naked.” In 1534, at the age of 15, Henry had taken as his mistress the 38 year old Diane de Poitiers, whom he adored for the rest of his life. Prince Henry showed no interest in Catherine as a wife instead, he openly took mistresses. For the first ten years of the marriage, Catherine failed to produce any children. In 1537, Philippa Duci, one of Henry’s mistresses, gave birth to a daughter whom he publicly acknowledged. This proved that Henry was fertile and added to the pressure on Catherine to produce a child.

In 1536, Henry’s older brother, Francis, caught a chill after a game of tennis, contracted a fever and died shortly after, leaving Henry the heir.

Catherine was twenty-seven years old when she became Queen of France on 31 March 1547. Her Coronation took place on 10 June 1549.As dauphine, Catherine was expected to provide a future heir to the throne. “many people advised the king and the Dauphin to repudiate her, since it was necessary to continue the line of France”. Divorce was discussed. In desperation, Catherine tried every known trick for getting pregnant, such as placing cow dung and ground stags’ antlers on her “source of life”, and drinking mule’s urine.

On 19 January 1544, she at last gave birth to a son. Born eleven years after his parents’ wedding, Francis was named for his grandfather, King Francis I and uncle. He was baptized on 10 February 1544.

After becoming pregnant once, Catherine had no trouble doing so again. She may have owed her change of fortune to the physician Jean Fernel, who had noticed slight abnormalities in the couple’s sexual organs and advised them how to solve the problem

Catherine quickly conceived again Elisabeth was born in the Château de Fontainebleau on 2 April 1545. She went on to bear Henry and further eight children, six of whom survived infancy. The long term future of the Valois dynasty, which had ruled France since the 14th century, seemed assured.

Catherine’s ability to bear children, however, failed to improve her marriage. Henry allowed Catherine almost no political influence as queen. Although she sometimes acted as regent during his absences from France, her powers were strictly nominal.

Henry gave the Château of Chenonceau, which Catherine had wanted for herself, to his mistress Diane de Poitiers, who took her place at the centre of power, dispensing patronage and accepting favours.

The imperial ambassador reported that in the presence of guests, Henry would sit on Diane’s lap and play the guitar, chat about politics, or fondle her breasts. Diane never regarded Catherine as a threat. She even encouraged the king to spend more time with Catherine and sire more children.

In 1556, Catherine nearly died giving birth to twin daughters, Joan and Victoria. Surgeons saved her life by breaking the legs of Joan, who died in her womb. The surviving daughter, Victoria, died seven weeks later. Catherine had no more children.

At the age of five and a half Mary Queen of Scots was brought to the French court, where she was promised to the Dauphin, Francis. Catherine brought her up with her own children at the French court, while Mary of Guise governed Scotland as her daughter’s regent. On 24 April 1558, the 14-year-old Dauphin married the 16-year- old Queen of Scots in Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.

On 3–4 April 1559, Henry signed the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis with the Holy Roman Empire and England, ending a long period of Italian wars. The treaty was sealed by the betrothal of Catherine’s thirteen year old daughter Elisabeth to Philip II of Spain. Their wedding, in Paris on 22 June 1559, was celebrated with festivities, balls, masques, and five days of jousting.

King Henry took part in the jousting, wearing his mistress’ Diane de Poitiers’s black-and-white colours. He defeated the dukes of Guise and Nemours, but the young Gabriel, comte de Montgomery, knocked him half out of the saddle. Henry insisted on riding against Montgomery again, and this time, Montgomery’s lance shattered in the king’s face. Henry reeled out of the clash, his face pouring blood, with splinters “of a good bigness” sticking out of his eye and head. Catherine, Diane, and Prince Francis all fainted.Henry was carried to the Château de Tournelles, where five splinters of wood were extracted from his head one of which had pierced his eye and brain.

Catherine stayed by his bedside, but Diane kept away, “for fear”, in the words of a chronicler, “of being expelled by the Queen”. For the next ten days, his state fluctuated. At times he even felt well enough to dictate letters and listen to music. Slowly, however, he lost his sight, speech, and reason, and on 10 July 1559 he died, aged 40.From that day, Catherine took a broken lance as her emblem, inscribed with the words “lacrymae hinc, hinc dolor” (“from this come my tears and my pain”), and wore black mourning in memory of Henry.

Francis II became king at the age of fifteen. In what has been called a coup d’état, the Cardinal of Lorraine and the Duke of Guise, seized power the day after Henry II’s death and quickly moved themselves into the Louvre Palace with the young couple.

For the moment, Catherine worked with the Guises out of necessity. She was not strictly entitled to a role in Francis’s government, because he was deemed old enough to rule for himself. Nevertheless all his official acts began with the words: “This being the good pleasure of the Queen, my lady-mother, and I also approving of every opinion that she holdeth, am content and command that …”

Catherine did not hesitate to exploit her new authority. One of her first acts was to force Diane de Poitiers to hand over the crown jewels and return the Château de Chenonceau to the crown. She later did her best to efface or outdo Diane’s building work there

Catherine adopted a moderate stance and spoke against the Guise persecutions, though she had no particular sympathy for the Huguenots, whose beliefs she never shared. The Protestants looked for leadership first to Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre, the First Prince of the Blood, and then, with more success, to his brother, Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, who backed a plot to overthrow the Guises by force.

When the Guises heard of the plot, they moved the court to the fortified Château of Amboise. The Duke of Guise launched an attack into the woods around the château. His troops surprised the rebels and killed many of them on the spot, including the commander, La Renaudie. Others they drowned in the river or strung up around the battlements while Catherine and the court watched

The health of the king deteriorated in November 1560. On 16 November he collapsed having suffered a syncopal episode. After only 17 months on the throne, Francis II died on 5 December 1560 in Orléans, Loiret, from an ear condition.

At first Catherine kept the 9-year- old king Charles IX, who cried at his coronation, close to her, and slept in his chamber. She presided over his council, decided policy, and controlled state business and patronage. However, she was never in a position to control the country as a whole, which was on the brink of civil war.

She summoned church leaders from both sides to attempt to solve their doctrinal differences. Despite her optimism, the resulting Colloquy of Poissy ended in failure on 13 October 1561, dissolving itself without her permission. Catherine failed because she saw the religious divide only in political terms.

In January 1562, Catherine issued the tolerant Edict of Saint-Germain in a further attempt to build bridges with the Protestants. On 1 March 1562, however, in an incident known as the Massacre of Vassy, the Duke of Guise and his men attacked worshipping Huguenots in a barn at Vassy (Wassy), killing 74 and wounding 104.

On 17 August 1563, Charles IX was declared of age at the Parlement of Rouen, but he was never able to rule on his own and showed little interest in government. Catherine decided to launch a drive to enforce the Edict of Amboise and revive loyalty to the crown. To this end, she set out with Charles and the court on a progress around France that lasted from January 1564 until May 1565.

Catherine held talks with Jeanne d’Albret, the Protestant queen regnant of Navarre at Mâcon and Nérac. She also met her daughter Elisabeth at Bayonne near the Spanish border, amidst lavish court festivities. Philip II excused himself from the occasion. He sent the Duke of Alba to tell Catherine to scrap the Edict of Amboise and to find punitive solutions to the problem of heresy.

On 27 September 1567, in a swoop known as the Surprise of Meaux, Huguenot forces attempted to ambush the king, triggering renewed civil war. Taken unawares, the court fled to Paris in disarray. The war was ended by the Peace of Longjumeau of 22–23 March 1568, but civil unrest and bloodshed continued. The Surprise of Meaux marked a turning point in Catherine’s policy towards the Huguenots. From that moment, she abandoned compromise for a policy of repression. She told the Venetian ambassador in June 1568 that all one could expect from Huguenots was deceit, and she praised the Duke of Alba’s reign of terror in the Netherlands, where Calvinists and rebels were put to death in the thousands.

In 1570, Charles IX married Elisabeth of Austria, daughter of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor. Catherine was also eager for a match between one of her two youngest sons and Elizabeth I of England.

Catherine sought a marriage between Margaret and Henry III of Navarre, with the aim of uniting Valois and Bourbon interests. Margaret, however, was secretly involved with Henry of Guise. When Catherine found this out, she had her daughter brought from her bed. Catherine and the king then beat her, ripping her nightclothes and pulling out handfuls of her hair.

Catherine pressed Jeanne d’Albret to attend court. Writing that she wanted to see Jeanne’s children, she promised not to harm them. Jeanne replied: “Pardon me if, reading that, I want to laugh, because you want to relieve me of a fear that I’ve never had. I’ve never thought that, as they say, you eat little children”. When Jeanne did come to court, Catherine pressured her hard, playing on Jeanne’s hopes for her beloved son. Jeanne finally agreed to the marriage between her son and Margaret, so long as Henry could remain a Huguenot. When Jeanne arrived in Paris to buy clothes for the wedding, she was taken ill and died on 9 June 1572, aged 43. Catherine was accused of murdering her with poisoned gloves.

The wedding of Margaret of Valois and Henry took place on 18 August 1572 at Notre-Dame, Paris. Three days later, Admiral Coligny was walking back to his rooms from the Louvre when a shot rang out from and wounded him in the hand and arm. A smoking arquebus was discovered in a window, but the culprit had made his escape from the rear of the building on a waiting horse.

Coligny was carried to his lodgings, a bullet was removed from his elbow and a finger amputated with a pair of scissors. Catherine, received the news without emotion, then made a tearful visit to Coligny and promised to punish his attacker. Many historians have blamed Catherine for the attack on Coligny. Whatever the truth, the bloodbath that followed was soon beyond the control of Catherine or any other leader. The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which began two days later, has stained Catherine’s reputation ever since. There is reason to believe she was party to the decision when on 23 August Charles IX is said to have ordered, “Then kill them all! Kill them all!” Catherine expected an uprising. She chose therefore to strike first and wipe out the Huguenot leaders while they were still in Paris after the wedding The slaughter in Paris lasted for almost a week. It spread to many parts of France, where it persisted into the autumn. On 29 September, when Navarre knelt before the altar as a Roman Catholic, having converted to avoid being killed, Catherine turned to the ambassadors and laughed. From this time dates the legend of the wicked Italian queen.

Two years later, Catherine faced a new crisis with the death of Charles IX at the age of twenty-three. His dying words were “oh, my mother …”. The day before he died, he named Catherine regent, since his brother and heir, Henry the Duke of Anjou, was in the Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth, where he had been elected king the year before.

However, three months after his coronation at Wawel Cathedral, Henry abandoned that throne and returned to France in order to become king of France. Catherine wrote to Henry of Charles IX’s death: “I am grief stricken to have witnessed such a scene and the love which he showed me at the end … 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.”

Henry was Catherine’s favourite son. Unlike his brothers, he came to the throne as a grown man. He was also healthier, though he suffered from weak lungs and constant fatigue. His interest in the tasks of government, however, proved fitful. He depended on Catherine and her team of secretaries until the last few weeks of her life. He often hid from state affairs, immersing himself in acts of piety

Henry married Louise de Lorraine Vaudémont in February 1575, two days after his coronation. His choice thwarted Catherine’s plans for a political marriage to a foreign princess. Rumours of Henry’s inability to produce children were by that time in wide circulation. The papal nuncio Salviati observed, “it is only with difficulty that we can imagine there will be offspring … physicians and those who know him well say that he has an extremely weak constitution and will not live long.”

As time passed and the likelihood of children from the marriage receded, Catherine’s youngest son, Francis, Duke of Alençon, known as “Monsieur”, played upon his role as heir to the throne, repeatedly exploiting the anarchy of the civil wars, which were by now as much about noble power struggles as religion. Catherine did all in her power to bring Francis back into the fold. On one occasion, in March 1578, she lectured him for six hours about his dangerously subversive behaviour. On 6 May 1576, Catherine gave in to almost all Huguenot demands in the Edict of Beaulieu. The treaty became known as the Peace of Monsieur because Francis had forced it on the crown. Francis died of consumption in June 1584, after a disastrous intervention in the Low Countries during which his army had been massacred.

The death of her youngest son was a calamity for Catherine’s dynastic dreams. Under Salic law, by which only males could ascend the throne, the Huguenot Henry of Navarre now became heir presumptive to the French crown.

Catherine wrote, the next day…

Margaret became almost as much of a thorn in Catherine’s side as Francis, and in 1582, she returned to the French court without her husband. Catherine was heard yelling at her for taking lovers. Catherine sent Pomponne de Bellièvre to Navarre to arrange Margaret’s return. In 1585, Margaret fled Navarre again. She retreated to her property at Agen and begged her mother for money. Catherine sent her only enough “to put food on her table”

Moving on to the fortress of Carlat, Margaret took a lover called d’Aubiac. Catherine asked Henry to act before Margaret brought shame on them again. In October 1586, therefore, he had Margaret locked up in the Château d’Usson. D’Aubiac was executed, though not, despite Catherine’s wish, in front of Margaret. Catherine cut Margaret out of her will and never saw her again. Catherine was unable to control Henry in the way she had Francis and Charles. Her role in his government became that of chief executive and roving diplomat. She travelled widely across the kingdom, enforcing his authority and trying to head off war. In 1578, she took on the task of pacifying the south. At the age of fifty-nine, she embarked on an eighteen-month journey around the south of France to meet Huguenot leaders face to face. Her efforts won Catherine new respect from the French people. On her return to Paris in 1579, she was greeted outside the city by the Parlement and crowds. She was under no illusions, however. On 25 November 1579, she wrote to the king, “You are on the eve of a general revolt. Anyone who tells you differently is a liar.” The Venetian ambassador, Gerolamo Lipomanno, wrote… “She is an indefatigable princess, born to tame and govern a people as unruly as the French: they now recognize her merits, her concern for unity and are sorry not to have appreciated her sooner.”

Henry was unable to fight the Catholics and the Protestants at once, both of whom had stronger armies than his own. In the Treaty of Nemours, signed on 7 July 1585 he was forced to give in to all the League’s demands, even that he pay its troops. He went into hiding to fast and pray, surrounded by a bodyguard known as “the Forty-five”, and left Catherine to sort out the mess.

By 1587, the Catholic backlash against the Protestants had become a campaign across Europe. Elizabeth I of England’s execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, on 8 February 1587 outraged the Catholic world. Philip II of Spain prepared for an invasion of England. The League took control of much of northern France to secure French ports for his armada. Henry hired Swiss troops to help him defend himself in Paris. The Parisians, however, claimed the right to defend the city themselves. On 12 May 1588, they set up barricades in the streets and refused to take orders from anyone except the Duke of Guise. When Catherine tried to go to Mass, she found her way barred, though she was allowed through the barricades. The chronicler L’Estoile reported that she cried all through her lunch that day. As usual, Catherine advised the king, who had fled the city in the nick of time, to compromise and live to fight another day. On 15 June 1588, Henry duly signed the Act of Union, which gave in to all the League’s latest demands. On 8 September 1588 at Blois, where the court had assembled for a meeting of the Estates, Henry dismissed all his ministers without warning. Catherine, in bed with a lung infection had been kept in the dark. The king’s actions effectively ended her days of power.

At the meeting of the Estates, Henry thanked Catherine for all she had done. He called her not only the mother of the king but the mother of the state. Henry did not tell Catherine of his plan for a solution to his problems.

On 23 December 1588, he asked the Duke of Guise to call on him at the Château de Blois. As Guise entered the king’s chamber, the Forty-five plunged their blades into his body, and he died at the foot of the king’s bed. At the same moment, eight members of the Guise family were rounded up, including the Duke of Guise’s brother, Louis II, Cardinal of Guise, whom Henry’s men hacked to death the next day in the palace dungeons

Immediately after the murder of Guise, Henry entered Catherine’s bedroom and announced, “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.” On Christmas Day, she told a friar, “Oh, wretched man! What has he done? … Pray for him .. I see him rushing towards his ruin.” She visited her friend Cardinal de Bourbon on 1 January 1589 to tell him she was sure he would soon be freed. He shouted at her, “Your words, Madam have led us all to this butchery.” She left in tears. On 5 January 1589, Catherine died at the age of sixty-nine, probably from pleurisy. L’Estoile wrote: “those close to her believed that her life had been shortened by displeasure over her son’s deed.” He added that she had no sooner died than she was treated with as much consideration as a dead goat.

Because Paris was held by enemies of the crown, Catherine had to be buried provisionally at Blois. Eight months later, Jacques Clément stabbed Henry III to death. Years later, Diane, daughter of Henry II and Philippa Duci, had Catherine’s remains reinterred in the Saint-Denis basilica in Paris. In 1793, a revolutionary mob tossed her bones into a mass grave with those of the other kings and queens.

Items whose introduction to France have been attributed to Catherine include the dinner fork, parsley, the artichoke, lettuce, broccoli, the garden pea, pasta, Parmesan, as well as the turkey and tomato of the New World. She has also received credit for introducing sauces and a variety of dishes such as duck à l’orange and deviled eggs.

Catherine has been labelled a “sinister Queen… noted for her interest in the occult arts” Suspicion was fuelled to some degree by her entertainment of questionable characters at court—for example, the seer Nostradamus, who was rumoured to have created a talisman for Catherine, made from a mixture of metals, goat blood and human blood.

Catherine also gave patronage to the Ruggeri brothers, who were renowned astrologers, but were also known for their involvement in necromancy and the black arts.

An inventory drawn up at the Hôtel de la Reine after Catherine’s death shows her to have been a keen collector. Listed works of art included tapestries, hand-drawn maps, sculptures, rich fabrics, ebony furniture inlaid with ivory, sets of china, and Limoges pottery.

Catherine de’ Medici’s court festivals were a series of lavish and spectacular entertainments, laid on by Catherine from 1547 until her death in 1589. These entertainments served a political purpose that made them worth their colossal expense. She revelled in them as a vehicle for her creative gifts.

Cultural depictions of Catherine de’ Medici
.Marisa Pavan in Diane (1956)
.Hannelore Hoger in Henri 4 (2010)
.Josephine Crowell in Intolerance (1916)

.Katherine Kath in Mary, Queen of Scots (1971)
.Amanda Plummer in Nostradamus (1994)
.Lea Padovani La Princesse de Clèves (1961)

.Megan Follows in Reign
.Françoise in Rosay La Reine Margot (1954)
.Virna Lisi La Reine Margot (1994)

.La Reine Margot by Alexandre Dumas, père
.Queen Jezebel by Jean Plaidy
.Catherine de Medici by Leonie Frieda

.Catherine De Medici by Honore
de Balzac
.The Confessions of Catherine de Medici
by C W Gortner
.The Rival Queens
by Nancy Goldstone

Catherine de’ Medici Queen consort of France 1519–1589

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