Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Consort Profile: Queen Catherine de' Medici

The popular image of Catherine de Medici is one of the quintessential ‘wicked woman’. At a time when the French monarchy was in grave danger and France itself was violently divided between opposing religious forces, Queen Catherine is one figure both sides today seem to be mostly in agreement on with Protestants viewing her as the very embodiment of evil itself while most Catholics disavow her completely and even believe her to have been a witch and a Satanist. Those unfamiliar with her story and how history has treated her may be shocked by what is written about her. Her defenders are, unsurprisingly, few and most of those who do speak up on her behalf do so very guardedly and only up to a certain point, arguing that she may have had good intentions for doing terrible things or was being forced by events beyond her control to make difficult choices, though hardly anyway would deny that those choices included the unspeakably cruel. There is also no denying that she had little to no choice in the general direction that her life would take. The course of her life was set at a fairly young age by the political maneuverings of two powers.

Caterina Maria Romula di Lorenzo de’ Medici was born on April 13, 1519 in Florence, Italy to Lorenzo II who had been made Duke of Urbino by HH Pope Leo X (his uncle) and his wife Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne who was from a well placed French noble family. She was adored by her parents but within weeks her mother died of puerperal fever and a few days later Lorenzo II died of syphilis. Pope Leo X had arranged the match of her parents to secure a Franco-Italian alliance against the Hapsburg Emperor Maximilian I and intended little Catherine to marry within the Medici family, when the time came, to secure the family hold on Florence (in those days, stability was a precious commodity). Catherine was raised by her grandmother and later by an aunt. The family fortunes struggled a bit when Pope Leo X died but rose again with the election of another Medici to the Throne of St Peter; Pope Clement VII. She learned the rough world of Italian politics at a very young age when she was taken hostage by a rival family bent on ending Medici rule over Florence. It says a great deal that Catherine, held in a convent, found this the most calm, peaceful and happy period of her life. After Italy was invaded and Rome itself devastated by imperial troops, Pope Clement VII was obliged to formally crown the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to enlist his help in securing Florence for the House of Medici as well as the liberty of young Catherine.

During the siege Catherine was under the greatest threat imaginable but survived unhurt to be delivered to Pope Clement VII in Rome who wept with joy upon seeing her, so great was his relief that she had been safely rescued. Immediately, the Pope determined to arrange a lofty marriage for the girl and, as usual, there were political considerations to be made as well. To counter the German domination in Italy of Emperor Charles V, the Pope turned to his erstwhile ally King Francis I of France who was also looking to shore up his position on the Italian peninsula. A marriage agreement was soon made between Catherine de Medici and the younger son of King Francis; Henri, Duke of Orleans. Both were only 14-years old and were married at Marseille on October 28, 1533. At first everything went well. Catherine was well treated at court, said to be bright and friendly but it all came crashing down when Pope Clement VII died and was succeeded by Pope Paul III who immediately broke off the French alliance in favor of closer ties with the Germans and refused to pay the dowry for Catherine agreed to by his predecessor. For Catherine, her warm welcome quickly turned to a cold shoulder. Prince Henri gave her little notice and enjoyed a string of mistresses while the childless Catherine was shamed for not producing a son for the House of France (which really required the cooperation of Henri).

Things became more intense when her brother-in-law Francis, Dauphin of France, died in 1536 making her husband Henri heir to the throne. As Dauphine of France, the pressure was greater than ever for Catherine to have a son. Nothing seemed to work and many advised the King to have his son divorce Catherine and find another wife. This drove Catherine to desperate measures, everything from prayers, fasting and pilgrimages to some truly disgusting home remedies said to increase fertility. For quite a while, nothing seemed to work but then, it all changed. Most attribute this to the inexplicable ways of nature, others to the advice of her doctor who told her and the Dauphin how to ’do things’ properly but still others say that Catherine turned to witchcraft and became a Devil-worshiper and it was after that point that she finally became pregnant in 1544 and had roughly a child every year thereafter. Be it the doc or the devil, Catherine was finally a mother, her position was secured and the means by which she would frequently be the effective ruler of France established. In 1547 she was crowned Queen consort alongside her husband who became King Henri II. However, he still lived mostly apart from her and generally treated his favorite mistress better than Queen Catherine.

Queen Catherine had a less than happy time as consort. The King rarely paid any attention to her other than to father more children and even this ended in disaster when the Queen suffered a terribly traumatic incident giving birth to twin girls. Catherine nearly died, one of the babies died in the womb and the other died short afterward and the Queen was never able to have children again. The only high point was finally ending the Italian Wars with the Holy Roman Empire when one of Catherine’s daughters was married to King Philip II of Spain. However, during the festivities, which included jousting, King Henri II was mortally wounded and died on July 10, 1559 nursed to the end by the wife he had always neglected. Catherine’s 15-year old son then became King Francis II of France but there was immediately a coup of sorts which saw real power go to the House of Guise. France was quickly becoming divided during this time by a 3-way struggle for power between the Protestants (led by the Bourbon family) on one side, the Catholics (led by the Guise family) on the other and the royal court in between. The Guise faction were quick to move against the Protestants but Queen Catherine (and many in the Catholic Church) promoted tolerance and reconciliation. King Francis II, however, did not live long enough to ever become a force of his own and Queen Catherine struck a deal with the Protestants to ensure that she would hold power in the name of her younger son who became King Charles IX in 1560 at age nine.

The Queen first tried to bring the Protestant and Catholic leaders together to work out a peace but was unsuccessful and soon the infamous Wars of Religion were raging across France. The Queen tried to appease the Protestants by enacting religious toleration and ‘toning down’ Catholic practices they found most objectionable (with the approval of the Pope) but it was not enough to stop each side from attacking the other. She also pressed the Church for more money to keep the Protestants in check and even tried to make a deal with the Ottoman Sultan to relocate French and German Protestants to Eastern Europe but the Sultan declined the offer. More powers became engulfed in the conflict. When the Protestant brought in German mercenaries to continue the fight, Queen Catherine brought in the Swiss but no side seemed strong enough to totally defeat the other two. Queen Catherine was, officially, on the Catholic side but stuck to trying to make peace and even allowed Protestants to hold high places at court and marry into the Royal Family. Gaspard de Coligny, a Protestant, soon became the top advisor to King Charles IX and he wanted to invade The Netherlands to fight the Spanish. The Catholics, naturally, opposed this and Catherine saw Coligny replacing her as the primary influence on the King. Coligny had to go. An assassination plot was arranged but Coligny survived and the Protestants were infuriated.

The King was outraged at the near murder of his friend and believed that the Guise family were responsible. But, the Queen assured him that if the Protestants took Paris it would not be only the Guise men who died but the Royal Family and the King himself as well. It was then that the plot was hatched to strike first and suddenly by killing Coligny themselves, a terrible blow to the Protestant leadership. When she threatened to leave France for the safety of Italy the King finally gave in and agreed but, in a parting comment, said that if Coligny was to die they would have to kill every other Protestant as well for if any were left alive they would surely want their revenge on him. So, on August 23, 1572, St Bartholomew’s Day, the massacre of Protestants began. For a week in Paris and other areas across France Protestants were killed though the actual number of victims in unknown, ranging from thousands to tens of thousands. Queen Catherine was undoubtedly involved as she made sure that those Protestants she favored were spared. It was not the only massacre of the religious wars of course, and there had been Protestant massacres of Catholics, but it was the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre that would become the most infamous episode of the Wars of Religion in France and the blackest mark against Catherine.

Prior to this, some Protestants had viewed Catherine de Medici as the reasonable member of the Royal Family, the voice of peace and moderation. After St Bartholomew’s Day she was portrayed by the Protestants as the “wicked Italian Queen” who conducted her affairs in the style of Machiavelli, callous, cruel and unprincipled. Less than two years later King Charles IX died and his brother became King Henri III (a rather odd fellow if ever there was one) with the Queen mother Catherine again named as regent. This was only because he was, at the time, serving as King of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth but he was soon back in France. Henri was Catherine’s favorite son but he did little right in her eyes. Still, he followed her course of reconciliation and made numerous concessions to the Protestants but the wars continued. This is what is sometimes known as the war of the three Henrys; King Henri III, Henri of Guise for the Catholics and Henri Navarre of the Protestants. King Henri III had Hanri of Guise killed and Queen Catherine was horrified and died on January 5, 1589 sorrowful and asking for prayers for her misguided son. She could not have a traditional royal burial as Paris was in the hands of her enemies and later, during the French Revolution, her remains were tossed in a mass grave with other royals. She had been called the most powerful woman in the world of her time and her time in power has been called the ‘Age of Catherine de’ Medici’ yet few, then or now, have a kind word for her.


This was a rather difficult profile to do. No matter the subject, I generally try to find something positive to say about the person in question, partly out of habit and partly because there is no shortage of those quick to condemn any royal figure, good or bad, and that library of work does not need added to. However, in the case of Catherine de’ Medici, this was a difficult task and, perhaps surprisingly, Catholic sources tended to be more critical of her than Protestant ones. The Protestant historians were no less condemnatory, castigating her as the author of their misfortunes and the butcher of St Bartholomew’s Day but it was the Catholic sources which accused her of extorting protection money from the Church and being a devil worshiper -not an everyday accusation. Her entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia, for example, describes her as, “Dictatorial, unscrupulous, calculating, and crafty” as well as being superstitious, egotistical and who even when serving the interests of the Church and malicious motives, putting the survival of the Crown before the cause of the Catholic forces. However, if she truly was as terrible as virtually everyone says she was, Catherine certainly paid considerably for her misdeeds even before what awaited her in the afterlife.

Forced into a loveless marriage she did not want, she was constantly being ridiculed, pushed aside and truly treated as nothing more than a ‘baby machine’ and not a terribly reliable one at that. She was faced with a divided country and a 3-way division which is the worst kind as no faction is hardly ever strong enough to defeat the other two. She also grew up in a time and place where political survival was a cut-throat business. Her earliest years were spent in a ‘kill or be killed’ environment where you got the other guy before the other guy got you. She had a husband who never loved her, traumatic pregnancies and children which were a constant source of sorrow and seemed all to have been ill-fated. Francis was dead at 16, Isabel (consort to Philip II of Spain) died in her early 20’s, Claude who was born crippled and died at 27, Louis, Jean and Victor all dead within a year of their birth, Charles, mentally unwell and dead at 24, Hercule who was deformed at died at 30, Marguerite who was said to have been the most beautiful woman in the world but who lived a rather immoral life and was never able to have children and finally Henri who caused such grief who was assassinated at age 38.

Certainly then, Catherine endured a great deal of anguish herself. There is no doubt, based on the evidence of her own hand, that she was capable of dealing mercilessly with any enemies, real or perceived. Yet, she was also thrust into a situation not of her own making, at least initially, and few doubt that without her, the House of Valois would have come to an earlier end. Especially today it seems odd to find so many who are critical of a queen whose overriding policy was always one of negotiating a peace, yet it is hard to dispute that those efforts prolonged the conflict by granting concessions in return for bad behavior and never hesitating to resort to underhanded measures when negotiating proved fruitless. Given her patronage of the arts, to glorify the monarchy and solidify the shaky House of Valois, she may have had good intentions and there should be no doubt that she was obsessed with securing the position and future success of her children, even if they often disappointed her. However, if she was only self-serving and utterly malicious through and through, it seems that God saw to her punishment and her children with her. Usually I feel almost compelled to sympathize with anyone who is disliked by everyone else, but in this case …

1 comment:

  1. There is actually no evidence of any kind that she was involved in the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre.


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