Catherine de Medici: The fascinating and troubled life of France’s deadly ‘Queen Mother’
Catherine de Medici may be one of the most notorious queens in the history of France. Known as the “Queen Mother” by her many children, the fascinating ruler has hundreds of different reputations throughout France, from being an innocent peacemaker to a merciless witch to a careless mother to a dedicated ruler. Whether she found or inspired any happiness and peace in her role or not, she was a hands-on queen who was an active ruler during one of the most tumultuous times in France’s history. This is the incredible backstory of Queen Catherine de Medici, who impacted her country to its political and religious core.
The early life of Catherine Medici
Catherine de Medici may have birthed three kings of France, yet her early life was no picnic. She was born into royalty, as her father, Lorenzo de Medici, was the Duke of Urbino and ruled over Florence. Her mother was cousins with King Francis I, King of France. Sadly, her mother died two weeks following her birth and her father perished a short time after, forcing Catherine to adapt to life as an orphan. She was sent to live at nunneries in Florence and Rome, where she received an education and shelter. In 1530, at the tender age of 11, Catherine was embroiled in her first political battle, during which a group of anti-Medici soldiers stormed the nunnery she was staying at with the intentions of killing her so that her uncle, Pope Clement VII, couldn’t arrange a royal marriage for her. Fortunately, Catherine escaped in a nun’s attire, and, at 14, the Pope orchestrated a marriage between Catherine and Henry, the Duke of Orleans.
Unfortunately, Henry wasn’t loyal to Catherine. He began a twenty-year-long affair with his childhood babysitter, Diane de Poitiers, who was nearly twenty years older than him. For a decade after their marriage, Catherine struggled to conceive an heir to the throne, which began to worry Catherine, her husband, and the general public. She was the only one who could birth an heir to the throne, so the pressure on Catherine to get pregnant was high. For a while, she cried, begged, and prayed that she could give birth. She even went as far as to drill holes into the floor to spy on the chambers of Diane de Poitiers when she and her husband were getting it on to ensure that she was properly having sex. Fortunately, after ten years of trying, Catherine got pregnant with her first baby and delivered Francis in 1544…and she didn’t stop at one. All in all, she had ten children with Henry, seven of whom survived to live healthy, full lives. And while three of these would go on to become kings, Catherine would become a queen herself. When Henry’s father passed away in 1547, Catherine and Henry became the Queen and King of France. However, this role didn’t exactly come with luxury.
Finding her place as French royalty
Despite becoming a public figure, Henry continued to cheat on Catherine and frequently flaunted it, even getting clothing embroidered with symbols of his love for Diane de Poitiers. Catherine bit her tongue about her feelings towards her husband’s infidelity and dedicated her time to a number of fascinating architectural projects, overseeing construction on now-famous locations like the Louvre. She also used any negative energy as fuel to pour into the futures of her children. While she may not have always paid full attention to their happiness, she was intent on providing them with fruitful and politically-active futures, and she began to marry the eldest off to royals throughout Europe. She promised Francis to Mary Queen of Scots, Princess Claude to the Duke of Lorraine, and Princess Elisabeth to Philip II of Spain. While this certainly spread the political influence of France through different parts of Europe, catastrophe soon struck the royal family.
On June 30th, 1559, Henry was signed up to participate in a friendly jousting tournament…yet, thanks to a bloody nightmare that Catherine had several nights before, Catherine was certain that it would kill him. He eagerly participated anyway, and, sure enough, an accidental splintering of wood led to a stab through Henry’s eye, leading to an illness which killed him within two weeks. Suddenly, Catherine was left to rule a country alone, raise a number of young children, and deal with the unrest of the religious Reformation period in France. While it would be understandable for Catherine to have a total mental breakdown, she didn’t back down from the challenge of successfully and boldly ruling France. Instead, despite threats from a number of groups looking to dethrone Catherine, she vowed to make sure that she and her children would rule the country for as long as humanly possible.
Catherine’s efforts to restore peace
Catherine wasn’t known as the “Queen Mother” for nothing. Her sons rapidly began to take over the succession of the throne. At first, Francis was proclaimed king, yet he tragically passed away less than a year later. Fortunately, ten-year-old Charles, the next oldest son, was able to take on the role. Catherine, both older and wiser, oversaw his decisions throughout most of his ruling period. Additionally, Catherine made some bold political moves of her own, such as banning Diane de Poitiers from the court and forced her to surrender royal jewelry which Henry had given her. Not bad for revenge, huh? Catherine was also forced to deal with a number of tumultuous political issues that her husband had left behind for her to clean up, such as coping with French Protestants who successfully sparked a civil war in France in 1562. So, how did she keep up with all of these changes? Well, Catherine was rumored to have gotten into some pretty creepy stuff, such as the occult, fortune tellers, amulets, poison keeping, and more. She apparently used visions presented to her by occult leaders as fuel for her political stage, as she supposedly witnessed her three sons becoming kings in an enchanted mirror. However, rumors of this witch-like behavior may have simply been a way to discredit Catherine’s political authority.
As far as her interesting obsessions went, they didn’t stop her from becoming an incredible ruler. As she coped with the losses of her husband and children, Catherine remained observant of the Huguenot riots across France and attempted to orchestrate peace between the Protestants and the Catholics. The House of Guise, a noble family highly involved with the Reformation movement, stirred up trouble by arresting Louis of Condé, yet Catherine was able to restore peace by having her dying son, Francis, admit to orchestrating the whole thing. After Charles took over, she focused all of her energy on restoring religious peace, yet the conferences she attempted to organize to discuss such peace went very poorly. Louis of Condé continued to rise against the Guise, leading to religiously-motivated attacks and civil war in France. During this period, Catherine tried to make France seem like a blast; she threw parties, traipsed a well-dressed Charles around, and tried to spread joy throughout France. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t work, either.
Eventually, she made a fatal effort to restore peace: orchestrating the marriage between her daughter, Margaret, and King Henri, a leader of Protestant forces. Horrifyingly, the wedding in 1572 turned into a bloody massacre, and both the Huguenot leader and hundreds of celebrating Protestants died at the hands of retaliating Catholics. This became known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Many people believed Catherine was in on the bloodbath, and that she couldn’t be trusted as a ruler. Two short years later, Charles passed away, and her son Henry III took over as King. While he officially ruled France, Catherine still futility tried to produce peaceful communication between the two religious factions at war, though was terribly unsuccessful. In 1588, she fell ill with a lung infection, and, after several months of stress, she passed away in early 1589. While Catherine may not have ever accomplished her peaceful political goals, the super-mom was one of the more fascinating royal women in history, leaving a lasting political impact on the country for decades to come.