Catherine de Medici
1519 - 1589
Regent of Franceby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
Much mystery and intrigue surround Catherine de Medici, also known as Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de' Medici.1 Some people attribute the start of the French Wars of Religion to Catherine's influence. Yet is that true? Is it even possible for one person to start a war? What really happened with Catherine de Medici? Did she truly ruin her elder sons lives in order for her favorite son-the youngest-to become the ruler of France?
Catherine de Medici was born on April 13, 1519 in Florence, Italy to Lorenzo II de Medici, the Duke of Urbino, and Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne, a French Bourbon princess.2 Catherine's parents died of a disease3 when she was only a few weeks old, leaving her an orphan and the sole heir to all of the possessions and holdings of the Medici family.4 Because there were no close relatives to care for the infant, her father's distant cousin, Cardinal Guilio de'Medici-the future Pope Clement VII-became her guardian and the head of the government of Florence.
When Catherine was eight years old, in 1527, the Medici palace in Florence was attacked by an angry mob of Florentines. Her relatives who lived in the palace with her, decided to flee the palace but they left Catherine behind. They had been ordered by the rebel leaders to leave Catherine behind, so that the rebels would have a valuable hostage in the future. Her relatives obeyed in order to save themselves. Once Catherine was taken hostage, she was placed in numerous convents all around, in both Florence and Rome. Yet some good did come of this, for while dwelling within these convents, Catherine received an education that allowed her to become one of the best-educated women of her time.
Finally the Florentine rebellion was crushed by the now Pope Clement VII. Once this occurred, Catherine was sent to Rome to live with him. When Catherine had only just reached the age of 13, she was betrothed to Prince Henri II of France, second son of Francis I, yet who would later become king.5 When the time came to marry Prince Henri II, Catherine was 14 and people described her as, "small and slender, with fair hair, thin and not pretty in face, but with the eyes peculiar to all the Medici." Catherine's arrival at the French palace for the wedding ceremonies was supposed to be a time of great celebration. Catherine was small in stature, but she wanted to make a grand impression on the Royal Court of France and so she consulted a Florentine artisan for help, who presented her with the first example of modern high-heeled shoes. Her arrival in France, while wearing these shows, did indeed cause quite a stir.
Despite who wealth and sizable dowry, the city-state of Florence, the French court look down at her as merely a merchant's daughter and ignored her.6 Yet King Francis I realized what a wonderful traveling companion his new daughter-in-law was and soon he became Catherine's one and only ally and friend. Catherine traveled all over and saw much of France after her wedding. However, for the first ten years of her marriage to Henri II, Catherine lived a very lonely life. Even before they married, Henri II already had a well-established relationship with his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, a woman 20 years older than the prince, and who stayed faithful to him until his death. Henri II was so devoted to Diane that he always wore her colors of black and white and presented her with crown jewels, all the while ignoring his homely wife. Diane had a lot of power as Henri II's favorite and in fact it was her who convinced him that he needed to sire heirs through Catherine.
King Francis I's oldest son, the Dauphin Francis, died in 1536, leaving Henri of Orleans as the heir to the French throne. This caused great turmoil throughout France, for the French did not want an Italian woman to become their queen. Many of them hoped Catherine would do something wrong and so prevent her from ever reaching the throne. Others thought Catherine would never have children and so her time would be short; however, between 1543 and 1555 Catherine had ten children, three of whom died in infancy. In the midst of all this strive and commotion, in 1547 Francis I died, Catherine's beloved father-in-law and only true friend. After being married for 14 years, Henri and Catherine became king and queen of France, making Catherine's severe unpopularity with the French people even worse. Catherine was not of royal blood and she was an Italian-a terrible combination in French opinion. The French did not consider-or simply ignored-the fact that Catherine's mother had been both French and a princess, so Catherine did come from some royal, French blood.
Added to all the hostility at court and in the country of France, Catherine's marriage was not even close to a happy one. Although Catherine loved Henri deeply, he was more in love with Diane de Poitiers, his mistress, and he spent a great deal of time with her. Even worse-in Catherine's mind-Diane had almost complete control over the weak-minded Henri. Diane gained a good amount of influence in the governing of France through Henri. All this severely bothered Catherine; however, she did not cause problems or create turmoil. She simply locked her feelings inside herself and kept her attitudes to herself.
It is no surprise, then, that Catherine longed for a taste of home after living in such an antagonistic atmosphere. Catherine had brought with her a retinue of capi cuochi (cooks) with her. They comforted the lonely princess with the delicacies of Italy. They even introduced vegetables never before seen in France-broccoli, green beans, peas, truffles, artichokes, and melons. Most importantly, however, these Italian chefs taught the French how to move past the medieval preferences for meats prepared with dry rubs of strong spices, but instead how to employ delicate sauces. Catherine brought manners to the table as well-she brought the fork and table etiquette. In this area, though, the French were a bit slower to adopt this fashion. In fact, it would take another hundred years for the fork to take hold and table manners would be laughed at and ridiculed until the reign of Louis XIV (the Sun King.)
Catherine was also a patron of the arts.7 She had an interest in architecture and demonstrated this by building a new wing in the Louvre Museum, by initiating construction of the Tuileries gardens, and by building the château of Monceau. Catherine's personal library, containing numerous rare manuscripts, was renowned in Renaissance France. She is also attributed to and praised for the bringing of ballet to France in 1581 with her sponsored production of Ballet Comique de la Reine. Through all this, Catherine brought great progress to the French.
Regent of France
In 1559 Henri II died in a tournament accidence and fifteen-year-old Francis II, Catherine's eldest son, came to the throne. However, much like his father, Francis II was weak-minded, as well as sickly. Therefore, Francis was under the influence of his wife, Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots) and her uncles, the Cardinal of Lorraine and the Duc de Guise, managed her, for she did not like to meddle with politics on her own account. Catherine became unhappy that once again she had no power and instead the power was given to her enemies-Mary's uncles. She soon grew weary of their domination and entered upon a course of secret opposition.
During this period came Catherine's biggest problem to deal with: the continuing disputes between the Catholics and the French Huguenots, who later were known as protestants. Despite being raised as a devout catholic and her uncle being a pope, Catherine was more than willing to try to compromise between the Catholics and Huguenots, as long as it meant keeping her power as regent. During the year of 1574, Catherine, with the help of the new Duc de Guise (son of the elder one) played an influential role in the assassination of Admiral Coligney, the Huguenot leader, and the Huguenot slaughter that followed, Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, and where some 6,000 Huguenots were murdered.
Much like many Italians at that time, Catherine looked upon statesmanship in particular as a career in which finesse, lying, and assassination were the most admirable, because they were the most effective weapons. By habit a Catholic, but above all things a lover of power, Catherine was determined to prevent the Protestants from obtaining the upper hand from her; however, she was equally resolved not to allow them to be utterly crushed, for she desired to use them as a counterpoise to the Guise brothers. Catherine would gain infamy for being known as Madame Snake, because she had secret hideaways for poison rings and daggers. Despite her power hungry nature, Catherine's first concern was keeping the French monarchy intact.
On December 5, 1560 King Francis II unexpectedly died of infection after ruling France for only 17 months and his younger brother, ten-year-old Charles IX, became king.8 However, Catherine swiftly moved to oust the Guise family and established herself as regent, and the sole power of the monarchy, until her son could come of age. Even though she was now 41 years old, and she was the mother of nine children, she was still very dynamic and lively. She was able to maintain her influence for more than 20 years even during the troubled period of the wars of religion. Catherine had few true goals and one was her interests for her children, especially of her favorite third son, Henri III, the Duc de Anjou. However, Catherine soon realized that Henri III would never sire heirs and so married her daughter Marguerite to Henri of Navarre, who was next in line for the throne after her sons-he was also a protestant leader-and Catherine realized that he would do the right thing for France-by converting to Catholicism. He would also be a strong ruler, unlike any of her sons, and by securing Henri of Navarre in the French succession, Catherine helped save the French monarchy, as well as laying the foundation for the age of Absolutism in the seventeenth century. In order to do this Catherine had to allow the banished Coligny back in the court and council. This act, however, Catherine quickly rued for Charles IX developed a great affection for the admiral and began to show signs of taking up an independent attitude. This threatened Catherine's power and she sought to regain firm footing by first the murder of Coligny and, when that failed, by the massacre of St. Bartholomew. Therefore the whole, or most, of the responsibility for this crime lies with Catherine, for unlike the populace, she did not have the excuse of fanaticism. However, this responsibility did not weigh on her at all, for while her son was devastated with remorse, she calmly enjoyed her short-lived victory.
Catherine made 23-year-old Henri III king of Poland but when King Charles IX died on May 30, 1574 of tuberculosis, Henri became king of France as well. In his youth he was warmly attached to the Huguenot opinions, but his unstable character soon started to give way before his mother's dominating will.9 However, Catherine was never able to completely control Henri III, and perhaps it was his ability to make his own decisions and not be ruled by others that made Catherine love and respect him most. Catherine urged Henri III to organize his court and then moved away from politics because she expected her son to cope easily with problems. 10 Soon, however, problems arose in the form of Henri of Navarre and Alencon escaping from prison and a fifth war starting. Both Henri III and Catherine realized that the crown would need to come to some king of terms with the Huguenots. Alencon, now the Duc de Anjou, negotiated the Peace of Monsieur in May, 1579. This angered many Catholics, however, and so lead to the creation of the Catholic League, or Holy Christian Union, lead by Henry of Guise.
Catherine continued to pursue her policy of compromise and concessions, but because she did not have as much influence and control over Henri III she did not do as much as she had done during the reigns of her previous sons. An era of tenuous and fragile peace, which could have been broken at any time, occurred during the years of 1577-1584. In 1588 Henri III dismissed the ministers who had been appointed by himself on the advice of Catherine. After the "Day of Barricades" (May 12, 1588) Henri, believing that he had lost all influence decided to fix this problem by murdering Henry of Guise; on 23 December, 1588 Henri's bodyguards assassinated Henry of Guise. This caused a magnificent uproar and even Catherine, who had previously condoned being rid of an enemy by any means, was surprised and she knew that was the beginning of the end for her favorite son. She told him, "You have cut out, my son, but you must sew together," and only 13 days later Catherine died of pneumonia, in despair at leaving her son in this terrible situation. Henri III was later assassinated, and having no heirs, named Henri of Navarre his successor, and the House of Valois was no more.
Catherine de Medici
History portrays Catherine as dictatorial, unscrupulous, calculating, and crafty; the subtlety of her rule harassed everyone and most likely contributed to the discord in the court, although Catherine herself was peaceably inclined. Also, being deeply superstitious, she surrounded herself with astrologers. Sadly she did not have a strong faith in Jesus Christ and only acted in favor of Catholicism because she gained an advantage to her crown in doing so. Never once had there been a joint interest between the Catholic Church and Catherine's religious policy. Rather her systems were so essentially arrogant as to border on skepticism. It was because the interests of France and of royalty were the same that Catherine, while working for her children, incidentally caused direct political service to France and, for thirty years, prevented foreigners from interfering with or exploiting its religious discords. Despite her many cares, duties, and responsibilities, Catherine found time to enrich the Bibliothegue Royale, to have Philibert Delorme erect the Tuileries, and to have Pierre Lescot build the Hotel de Soissons. Catherine was a woman of the Renaissance, a disciple of the unscrupulous Machiavelli, and the objective point of her rule may be seen when one remembers that she was a mother, crowned.
The Bible says in Proverbs 22:6, "Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it." A person's childhood shapes one's future, what he or she does and who he or she becomes. We see clearly how Catherine de Medici's childhood was anything but happy and easy. Used as a hostage, knowing all the while that her relatives loved themselves more because they were willing to allow her to be taken captive so that they themselves could live. Even from a young age Catherine's heart most likely started to harden and become bitter and with no one ever loving her in her lifetime, except perhaps Francis I and some of her children, Catherine's heart simply became harder in order to keep herself from getting hurt. If she had been taught as a child about God, if she had been told that someone did love her and always would, perhaps history would be different. As a child, people tended to her physical needs but not to her spiritual needs. If she had been trained up in the way she should go, when she got older she would have had something to grasp to, she would have had something to follow, instead of coming up with her own policies. She would have been taught good and right morals instead of being left to fend for herself. Train a child in the way he or she should go, and when he or she is older, while they may have a hard life, they will not depart from the one way and will end up the happy for it.
up2http://weuropeanhistory.suite101.com/.Catherine de Medici: One of the most powerful female rulers of the Renaisasance." World History. <http://weuropeanhistory.suite101.com/article.cfm/catherine_de_medici> 16 May, 2008