You wouldn’t think a woman would be a powerful leader during the 16th century, but there were many influential, important queens that have withstood the test of time. This includes the Italian-born French queen Catherine de’ Medici. She isn’t the most famous of the monarchs, but that’s mainly because of her tarnished reputation. Why was she hated by the French public? Was there more to the queen than what meets the eye?

Her early life

Catherine was destined to be a member of French royalty as the daughter of Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, Duca di Urbino, and Madeline de La Tour d’Auvergne, a Bourbon princess related to French nobility. However, within days of her birth, on April 13, 1519, she was orphaned and was raised by nuns in Florence and Rose. She lived with the nuns until her 1533 marriage to Henry II, who inherited the French crown from his father, Francis I.

Ever since her childhood, Catherine had a strong interest in art. She was energetic, courageous, and she knew how to dazzle a crowd. That didn’t change when she married the French king, but not everyone was happy with the marriage. She was disliked by the majority of the French population because she was a foreigner. They were suspicious of her motives. Catherine learned to navigate through this hostility but was eventually shocked at the news that Henry had a French mistress.

Preserving her power

It didn’t take long for Catherine to notice Henry’s attention had drifted away from her and to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Even though Catherine bore ten children, in which four boys and three girls survived, Henry began to ignore his wife for his “new love.” Catherine knew she had to think of a way to preserve her power as France’s only queen.


Catherine ultimately decided to arrange a band of beautiful women, who persuaded the French court in Catherine’s favor. She helped introduce ballet to the court and the women danced as though they were flying, earning them the term “flying squadron.” Ultimately, the men were defenseless against these women and Catherine knew that even though Henry wasn’t paying attention to her, the court bowed down to her.

Blamed for a massacre

In 1559, Henry was unexpectedly killed in a jousting accident. This left her son, Francois II, and his wife, the famous Mary Queen of Scots, in royal power. This change began Catherine’s lifelong struggle with Spanish extremists who wanted to dominate the French crown. No one wanted Catherine or her family to be in power. During this time, she witnessed three civil wars, a political battle against the Catholic extremists, and the inability to maintain peace within her own country.

But Catherine’s most catastrophic dilemma was the Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Day in Paris from August 23-24, 1572. During the French Wars of Religion, several thousand Huguenots (French Protestants) were assassinated in a mob of violence. Catherine has been blamed for this disastrous massacre, mostly because the Huguenots allegedly threatened her court. Catherine was among many who historians believe authorized the individual deaths of many followers who wished to overthrow the French power.

The Massacre of St. Bartholomew lasted for almost a week, spreading to other regions of France. Historian Jules Michelet commented, “St. Bartholomew was not a day, but a season.” Catherine’s reputation never recovered from the massacre, turning her into a legend of a wicked Italian queen.

When she passed away, on January 5, 1589, Catherine was treated with as much love as a dead goat. During her lifetime, she fought hard to preserve her throne and reputation—and to win the love of her adopted country—but unfortunately, she ruined her reputation towards the end of her life. Warren Buffett famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Do you think Catherine wished she had done things differently?