Catherine De Medici was Queen Consort of France, and Countess of Auvergne.
Niccolo Machiavelli argued in his “Prince,” (I highly recommended reading by the way), that a ruler should pursue his objectives without worrying whether his methods were moral: he dedicated the book to Lorenzo de’ Medici, whose daughter Catherine followed this advice. She spent a lifetime using murder as a weapon in attempting to keep power, rule France, and put her children on thrones. A very dedicated mother indeed.
Catherine had a troubled childhood. Within a year of her birth in Florence, both her parents died of the ravages of syphilis. She survived several battles while growing up. In 1533 her uncle the Pope arranged her marriage to Henri, Duke of Orleans, son of the King of France, who became King Henri II in 1547. For the first ten years of their marriage, Catherine was unable to produce children. She was unimportant and powerless. But her position improved when she presented her husband with an heir in 1543- Francis. (Interesting that she miraculously started having children after a decade of marriage… one can ponder, and that is exactly how rumors start flying.) What is even more spectacular was that Francis was the first of ten children, of whom only two survived Catherine herself. Her children were sickly, suffering from the inheritable diseases transmitted by her parent’s and Henri’s. (Or was it something else?) Gradually Catherine won status and power, for before that the King’s mistress, the amazingly beautiful Diane de Poitiers, was the most powerful woman in the Kingdom. However, having legitimate royal babies changes everything. In 1559, Catherine briefly lost power when during a tournament, a sliver from a broken lance lodged into Henri’s eye, and killed him.
Her oldest son was now King Francis II at sixteen. Sickly and not terribly intelligent, Francis was easily dominated and influenced by his wife, young Mary Stuart, Queen of the Scots, and likewise, Mary was dominated by her powerful uncles who were apart of the Guise family of Lorraine. But their dominance and Catherine’s eclipse ended when Francis II died in 1560. The crown was passed onto Francis’s brother and Mary Queen of Scots was sent packing back to Scotland, after her mother, Marie de Guise, who was ruling as regent, was murdered.
The new King, Charles IX, was only ten, and although the French disliked being ruled by a woman, and often complained of “the Italian woman,” she became the ruler, taking the title of king’s governante, by which she signed herself for the rest of her life. She was at this time a short, very stout woman with bulgy eyes and a strong jaw, who always dressed in black, mourning her husband. Full of energy, she loved to work, and enjoyed being in power. She was always cheerful, which was as well: she needed optimism to deal with her situation, as she and her children were caught between two powerful families, each of which wanted to control the government, using religious controversy between Catholics and Protestants for its own purposes. At this point perhaps a third of the French adhered to the new religion, Protestantism. The Bourbon family, next heirs to the throne, after Catherine’s children, had become Huguenots, as the French Protestants were called, and had the backing of this party. The guise family, on the other hand, were extreme Catholics who favored persecuting all Protestants, and used the Catholic cause to gain the power they wanted. Catherine pursued a policy of peace between the religions, and balance between the rival families, trying to keep either from becoming powerful enough to dominate the country. She threaded her way through eight different religious wars of the reign, indifferent to which religion predominated so long as she held power and her children prospered. Protestants massacred Catholics, Catholics massacred Protestants. All good Christians demonstrated their love for their religion by their willingness to dedicate the blood of their neighbors to the glory of God. (It’s an age old story as old as time.)
Catherine alternately favored and persecuted each party. When the Guises became too powerful, the head of the family was killed by an assassin. Catherine may have had a hand in his death: her comment was, “Behold the work of God. Those who wished to destroy me are dead.” When the Huguenots became too powerful, she tried to kidnap their leaders.
Catherine, who believed all quarrels could be settled by a dynastic marriage, proposed a new truce with the Huguenots. Her daughter Marguerite would marry young Henri of Bourbon, King of Navarre, the titular King of the Huguenot cause, in the presence of Admiral de Coligny, their most respected leader. Although all good Catholics were scandalized and the Pope refused to consent to the marriage, Catherine promised the Huguenots would be safe, and they came to Paris for a royal wedding.
King Charles wanted to make himself independent of his mother’s dominance. He found a father figure in Coligny, who wanted to end the religious wars in France by uniting the two sides against a foreign enemy. He filled Charles with the idea of winning glory by defeating the Spanish in Flanders. Catherine opposed the idea: she always favored peace, and doubted the French could beat the Spanish. She and coligny battled for control of the King. Coligny would gain the advantage in her absence, but when she returned her poor son could never stand up to her. A tubercular youth, he used up his frustrated energy in violent exercise and violent hunting. Charles liked the sight of blood, and when too ill to go hunting, would kill domestic animals about the court.
Catherine decided that she could retain her control of the King and the country by letting the Guises assassinate Coligny, after which she expected that the Protestants, seeking revenge, would rid her of the Guises. Machiavelli would have approved the plot, but not its execution. The assassin whom Catherine loaned to the Guises only wounded the Admiral. The King ordered a royal investigation and swore revenge. The failure of Catherine’s plot endangered her. She decided to save herself. At a meeting in the Tuilleries Gardens, she planned the murder of the Protestant leaders. After sending out orders to the royal troops, and to the people of Paris, who hated the Huguenots, Catherine went to her son the King. She told him that he must either allow her plan to be carried out, or arrest her as one of the Admiral’s assassins. Charles fought his mother, wanting to save his Protestant friends and preserve his Royal promise to protect the guests at the wedding, but his strength was not great enough to defeat his mother. He yelled, “Kill them all, so that no one will be left to reproach me afterwards! Let them all be killed!”
On the morning of St. Bartholomew’s Day, the massacre began with the murder of Coligny, who was stabbed in his room, thrown out a window, and kicked in the face as he was dying. His body was carried through the streets of Paris, with everyone stabbing at it. Then murder broke out in the streets, and even in the Louvre, the Royal Palace, where many Protestant wedding guests had been offered hospitality and protection. Henri of Navarre, the royal bridegroom, was saved on Catherine’s orders, as a future counterbalance to the Guise power, but was forced to renounce his religion. His friends were slaughtered in the corridors, or massacred in the courtyard, where the King looked down as they were pleading for his mercy. Charles IX was even said to have shot from his window, hunting Protestants running through the streets.
The Paris mob took up the pursuit of Protestants, private enemies, and loot. The massacre continued in the streets until the 30th. In the provinces massacres continued some time longer. The final death toll was perhaps 3,000 in Paris, perhaps 10,000 in the rest of France. No one knows exactly. Catherine’s comment over the whole bloody episode was, “Better that it should happen to them than to us.” But the massacre did not solve France’s problems. Charles died at the age of twenty-four, in a bloody sweat, tortured by remorse. His last words were, “Ah, my mother.”
He was succeeded by his brother Henri, the last Valois King. Henri liked to dress in woman’s clothing. (You can see him depicted in Shekhar Kapur’s film “Elizabeth,” as one of the suitors of Queen Elizabeth I of England.) When he was not associating with his perfumed favorites, known as the “mignons”, he walked in religious processions in which he whipped the back of the courtier in front of him, while the one behind the king tore his back with his whip. The guises wanted Henri to call the Inquisition into France: Henri replied, “I prefer a heretic to a corpse. I won’t have religion become a butchery, and the alter of God’s sacrifice a shambles.” The Guises pressured him: Catherine negotiated on his behalf with them.
At this point Catherine betrayed Henri, her only remaining son. He had confirmed as his heir Henri of Bourbon. She wanted her grandson, a Guise, the son of her daughter Claude, named heir. Encouraged by her astrologers, she believed that she would live many more years, and she planned to run the country again while her grandson grew up. Henri refused the treaty she had negotiated on his behalf, and had to flee Paris. Most of France was controlled either by Huguenots, or by Guisards. To preserve his throne, Henri had the Duke of Guise killed while he watched. The country rose against the King, and Catherine, seeing that all her life’s work had resulted only in the death of a great many people, fell ill. She died thirteen days after the murder of Guise. No one had time to mourn. her last son, Henri III, was stabbed the same year.
Catherine’s youngest son, Henry the Duke of Anjou, depicted in Shekhar Kapur’s film Elizabeth.
Why did most of the Medici children Perish? This article may shed some light on the dangers of growing up in the Renaissance.