Catherine de’ Medici

gigatos | February 1, 2022


Catherine de Medici (Florence, April 13, 1519 – Blois Castle, January 5, 1589) was an Italian noblewoman, daughter of Lorenzo II de Medici and Madeleine de la Tour d”Auvergne. As the wife of Henry II of France, she was queen consort of France from 1547 to 1559. In that country she is best known for the francophonization of her name, Catherine de Médicis.

In 1533, at the age of fourteen, Catherine married Henri, second son of King Francis I and Queen Claude of France. During his reign, Henry removed Catherine from affairs of state in favor of his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who exercised great influence over the monarch. However, Henry”s death thrust Catherine into the political arena as mother of the frail fifteen-year-old king, Francis II. Upon his death in 1560 Catherine became regent for the new king, her ten-year-old son Charles IX, which granted her extensive powers. After Charles” death in 1574, Catherine again played a key role in the reign of her third son, Henry III, to whom she was advisor almost until the last months of his life.

Catherine”s three sons reigned in a period of constant civil and religious wars in France. The problems facing the monarchy were complex and daunting. At first Catherine made concessions to the French Protestant rebels, the Huguenots. However, she never understood the theological issues that drove their movement, so later anger and frustration led her to apply harder lines in her policy against them. As a result, she came to be blamed for the relentless persecutions against the Huguenots that developed during the reigns of her sons, in particular the St. Bartholomew”s Massacre in 1572, in which thousands of Huguenots were killed in Paris and throughout France.

Some historians have exculpated Catherine for the worst decisions of the French crown, although evidence of her ruthlessness is to be found in her letters.In practice, her authority was always limited by civil wars, so her political decisions can be seen as desperate attempts to keep the Valois dynasty on the throne of France. In this line, her patronage of the arts was also an attempt to glorify a monarchy whose prestige was in frank decline. It is unlikely that without Catherine her children would have remained in power, and not in vain the years of her regencies are also known as “the era of Catherine de Medici”, since according to one of her biographers, Mark Strage, Catherine was the most powerful woman of the sixteenth century in Europe.

Catherine was born Caterina Maria Romula di Lorenzo de” Medici in Florence into the Medici family, the de facto rulers of the prosperous Tuscan city, where they began as bankers and became rich and powerful by financing numerous European monarchies. Catherine”s father, Lorenzo II de” Medici, was made Duke of Urbino by his uncle, Pope Leo X, but the title was inherited by Francesco Maria della Rovere upon Lorenzo”s death. Thus, although Catherine was the daughter of a duke, she was not of high birth. However, her mother Madeleine de la Tour d”Auvergne, Countess of Boulogne, belonged to one of the most prominent and ancient families of the French nobility, a prestigious maternal ancestry that would benefit Catherine”s subsequent marriage as Princess Royal of France.

According to a contemporary chronicler, when Catherine was born, her parents were as happy “as if she had been a child”. Magdalena died on April 28 of that year due to puerperal sepsis and Lorenzo on May 4 due to syphilis. The young couple had married the previous year in Amboise as part of an alliance between King Francis I of France and Pope Leo X against Emperor Maximilian I of the Holy Roman Empire. The French king wanted Catherine to be raised at the French court, but Pope Leo had other plans for her: to marry her to his brother”s illegitimate son, Hippolytus de Medici, and set them to rule Florence.

Catherine was first cared for by her paternal grandmother, Alfonsina Orsini, wife of Piero de” Medici, but upon her death in 1520 the child joined her cousins and was raised by her aunt, Clarice Strozzi. The death of Pope Leo X in 1521 briefly interrupted the Medici power, but only until the pontifical election of Cardinal Giulio de” Medici as Pope Clement VII in 1523. The new pope lodged Catherine in the Medici Riccardi Palace in Florence and the people of the city began to call her duchessina in deference to her unsuccessful claim to the duchy of Urbino.

In 1527 the Medici were overthrown in Florence by a faction opposed to the regime led by Clement VII”s representative, Cardinal Silvio Passerini, and Catherine was interned in a series of convents until she finally ended up in the Santissima Annunziata delle Murate, where she lived for three years. Mark Strage described these years as “the happiest of her entire life.” Clement VII had no choice but to crown Charles I of Spain as Holy Roman Emperor in exchange for his help in retaking the city. In October 1529 the emperor”s troops laid siege to Florence. As the siege dragged on, some demanded that Catherine be killed and her body exposed naked and chained on the city walls; others went so far as to say that she be given to the troops as sexual gratification. The city finally capitulated on August 12, 1530 and Clement VII asked Catherine to leave her beloved convent to join him in Rome, where he received her with open arms and tears in his eyes. He then set about looking for a husband for her.

On his visit to Rome, a Venetian envoy described Catherine as “small in stature and slender, without delicate features, but with bulging eyes peculiar to the Medici family.” Nevertheless, several suitors sought her hand, among them James V of Scotland, who sent the Duke of Albany to try to arrange a marriage in April or November 1530. When Francis I of France proposed his second son, Henry, Duke of Orleans, in early 1533, Clement was enthusiastic about the offer because the French king”s son was an extraordinarily advantageous marriage for Catherine, who, despite her family”s money, was of plebeian origin.

The wedding, which took place in Marseilles on October 28, 1533, was a grand affair marked by extravagant display and gift-giving. Prince Henry danced and jousted for Catherine. The couple, only fourteen years old, left their wedding ball at midnight to consummate their marital duties. Henry arrived in the bedroom accompanied by his father, King Francis, who is said to have remained there until the marriage had been consummated and went so far as to say that “they both showed their courage in the joust.” Pope Clement VII visited the newlyweds in their bed the next day and gave his blessing to the evening”s proceedings.

Catherine saw very little of her husband in her first year of marriage, but the ladies of the court treated her very well, impressed by her intelligence and enthusiasm. However, the death of Pope Clement VII on September 25, 1534 undermined Catherine”s position at the French court, and the next pope, Paul III, broke the alliance with France and refused to pay her enormous dowry, leading Francis I to lament that “the girl has come to us naked.”

Prince Henry showed no interest in his wife Catherine and shamelessly took several mistresses. The couple had no children in their first ten years of marriage but, in 1537, Henry”s mistress, Filippa Duci, gave birth to a daughter who was publicly acknowledged by the prince himself. This fact proved the fertility of the French heir and added pressure on Catherine to have a descendant.


In 1536 Henry”s older brother, Francis, suffered a chill after a tennis match, contracted a fever and died, leaving his younger brother as heir to the throne. As dauphin, Catherine was now expected to give birth to the future heir to the throne. According to the court chronicler, Pierre de Brantôme, “many recommended to the king and the dauphin to repudiate her, as it was necessary to continue the line of succession of the French monarchy.” There was talk of divorce, and in desperation Catherine tried every means known at the time to get pregnant, such as putting cow dung and deer antlers in her “fountain of life” or drinking mule urine. On January 19, 1544 she finally gave birth to a son, baptized Francis, in honor of his grandfather, King Francis I.

After becoming pregnant once, Catherine had no problem getting pregnant again, in which she was able to receive help from the physician Jean François Fernel, who noticed certain abnormalities in the couple”s sexual organs and advised them to fix the problem. Catherine soon conceived again and on April 2, 1545 her daughter, Isabella, was born. She had eight other children by Henry, six of whom survived infancy, including the future Charles IX (born June 27, 1550), the future Henry III (September 19, 1551) and Francis, Duke of Anjou (March 18, 1555). The long-term future of the Valois dynasty, which had ruled France since the 14th century, was thus assured. Nevertheless, Catherine”s new ability to conceive children was not enough to improve her marriage. In 1538, aged nineteen, Henry had taken as his mistress Diana of Poitiers, aged thirty-eight, whom he loved for the rest of his life. Despite this, he respected Catherine”s position as his consort and when King Francis I died in 1547 she became queen consort of France. Catherine was crowned in the basilica of Saint-Denis on June 10, 1549.

Queen of France

Henry did not allow Queen Catherine to intervene in politics, and although she sometimes acted as regent during her husband”s absences, her powers were strictly nominal. Henry gave the castle of Chenonceau, which Catherine wanted for herself, to his mistress Diana of Poitiers, who also placed herself at the center of power, acting as patroness and accepting favors. The Holy Roman ambassador to France recounted that in the presence of guests Henry would sit on Diana”s lap to play the guitar, chat about politics or fondle her breasts. Diana never saw Catherine as a threat, and even encouraged the king to spend the night with her and father more children. In 1556, Catherine nearly died giving birth to twin girls. Surgeons saved one of them by breaking the legs of the other, who died in the womb. The surviving daughter died seven months later. Catalina had no more children.

Henry”s reign saw the rise of the Guise brothers, Charles, who became a cardinal, and Francis, Henry”s childhood friend who was named Duke of Guise. His sister, Mary of Guise, had married James V of Scotland in 1538 and was the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots. At the age of five and a half Mary was taken to the French court, where she was betrothed to the dauphin, Francis. Catherine raised her and her own children at the Parisian court while Mary of Guise ruled Scotland as regent for her daughter.

Between April 3 and 4, 1559, Henry signed the Peace of Cateau-Cambresis with the Holy Roman Empire and England that ended the Italian War of 1551-1559. The treaty was sealed with the betrothal of Catherine”s thirteen-year-old daughter, Isabella, to the most powerful monarch in the world, Philip II of Spain. Their marriage by proxy (without the spouses present) was celebrated in Paris on June 22, 1559 with great pomp, balls, masques and five days of jousting.

King Henry took part in the jousts wearing the black and white colors of Diana. He defeated the Dukes of Guise and Nemours, but the young Gabriel, Count of Montgomery, beat him and dismounted. The king insisted on jousting again against the count, and this time the Count of Montgomery broke his lance across the monarch”s face, who staggered away with his face bleeding and with splinters “of great size” stuck in one eye and his head. Catherine, Diana and Prince Francis fainted. The king was transported to the castle of Tournelles, where five splinters were removed from his head, one of which had pierced an eye and the brain. Catherine stayed by the monarch”s bedside, but Diana stayed away, “for fear,” in the words of one chronicler, “of being expelled by the queen.” Over the next ten days the king”s condition fluctuated, and he became well enough to dictate letters and listen to music. However, he slowly lost his sight, speech, and reason, and on July 10, 1559, he died. From that day on, Catherine put a broken lance on her emblem and the Latin words “lacrymae hinc, hinc dolor” (“from this come my tears and my sorrow”), as well as wearing black as a sign of mourning for Henry.

Reign of Francis II

Francis II became king at the age of fifteen. In what has been called a coup d”état, the Cardinal of Lorraine and the Duke of Guise – whose niece, Mary, Queen of Scots, had married Francis the previous year – seized power the day after Henry II”s death and quickly moved to the Louvre with the young couple. The English ambassador said a few days later that “the House of Guise controls everything concerning the French king. The English ambassador said a few days later that “the house of Guise controls everything concerning the French king.” For the time being, Catherine worked with the Guises out of necessity, for she was not entitled to a role in Francis”s government because Francis was considered old enough to rule by himself. However, all the king”s official acts began with these words: “It is the good will of the Queen, my lady mother, and I approve of every opinion she expresses, to command that…” Catherine did not hesitate to exploit her new authority and one of her first decisions was to force Diane de Poitiers to hand over the crown jewels and return the castle of Chenonceau to the monarchy. She then set about undoing all the reforms carried out there by Diane.

The Guisa brothers began to zealously persecute Protestants. Catherine adopted a moderate stance and spoke out against the Guisa persecutions, although she had no sympathy for the Huguenots, whose beliefs she never shared. The Protestants first sought the leadership of Anthony of Bourbon, King of Navarre, the First Prince of Blood, and then, more successfully, that of his brother Louis, Prince of Condé, who supported a conspiracy to overthrow the Guises by force. they moved the court to the fortified castle of Amboise. The Duke of Guise launched a surprise attack in the woods surrounding the fortress and caught the rebels off guard, many of whom were killed, including their commander, La Renaudie. Others were drowned in the river or hung from the battlements in full view of Catherine and the rest of the court.

In June 1560, Michel de L”Hospital was appointed Chancellor of France. He sought the support of the constitutional bodies of France and worked with Catherine to defend the law in the face of growing lawlessness. He saw no need to punish Protestants who prayed in private and did not take up arms against them. On August 20, 1560, Catherine and the chancellor defended this policy before an assembly of notables at Fontainebleau, an occasion that historians recall as an early example of Catherine”s sense of statecraft. Meanwhile, Condé raised an army and began attacking southern cities in the fall of 1560. Catherine ordered him to appear in court and imprisoned him as soon as he appeared. He was tried in November, found guilty of crimes against the crown and sentenced to death. However, his life was saved by the illness and death of King Francis II, caused by an infection or abscess in his ear.

When Catherine was aware that Francis was going to die she made a pact with Anthony of Bourbon, according to which he would renounce his right to the regency of the future king, Charles IX, in exchange for the release of his brother Condé. Thus, when King Francis died on December 5, 1560, the Privy Council appointed Catherine governor of France with broad powers. She wrote to her daughter Isabella: “My main purpose is to honor God in all things and to preserve my authority, not for myself, but to preserve this kingdom and for the good of all your brothers.”

Reign of Charles IX

At first Catherine kept the king – nine years old and weeping at his coronation – close to her, and slept in his room. She presided over his council, decided policy, and controlled the business of state and patronage. However, Catherine was never in a position to rule the entire kingdom as a whole, for it was on the brink of civil war and in many parts of France the power of the nobles was greater than that of the crown. The challenges that Catherine had to face were complex and in many ways difficult for a foreigner like her to comprehend.

The queen summoned church leaders from both sides in an attempt to resolve their doctrinal differences, but despite her optimism the resulting Conference of Poissy ended on October 13, 1561 in complete failure, and was dissolved without her permission. Catherine”s failure was because she saw the religious division in political terms and, in the words of historian R. J. Knecht, “underestimated the strength of religious conviction, thinking that everything would be settled by her reaching agreement with the leaders alone. J. Knecht, “underestimated the strength of religious conviction thinking that all would be settled by her coming to terms with the leaders alone.” In January 1562 Catherine promulgated the tolerant Edict of Saint-Germain, in a further attempt to build bridges with the Protestants. However, on March 1, 1562, in an incident known as the Wassy Massacre, the Duke of Guise and his men attacked Huguenots celebrating Mass in a barn in Wassy, killing 74 and wounding more than 100. The duke, who called the massacre “a regrettable incident,” was cheered as a hero in the streets of Paris as the Huguenots clamored for revenge. This massacre lit the fuse that ignited France”s Wars of Religion, thirteen years during which the kingdom was in a state of both civil war and armed truce.

Only a month later Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, and Admiral Gaspar de Coligny, had assembled an army of 1800 men and signed an alliance with England, and began to seize one city after another in France. Catherine met with Coligny, but he refused to back down and told the queen: “since you have confidence in your forces, we will show you ours”. The royal army responded quickly and laid siege to the Huguenot-held city of Rouen. The queen visited on her deathbed Anthony of Bourbon, king of Navarre, who had been fatally wounded by an arquebus shot. Catherine also insisted on visiting the battlefield and, when warned of the danger of doing so, she laughed and said “my courage is as great as yours”. The Catholics took Rouen, but their triumph was short-lived, for on February 18, 1563 a spy named Poltrot de Méré shot Claudius, Duke of Guise, in the back with an arquebus during the siege of Orleans. The assassination sparked an aristocratic feud that greatly complicated the French religious wars in the following years. Catherine, however, was delighted with the death of her ally: “If the Duke of Guise had died earlier,” she told a Venetian ambassador, “peace would have been reached sooner.” On March 19, 1563 the Edict of Amboise, also known as the Edict of Pacification, ended the war. Catherine then rallied Catholic and Huguenot forces to recapture Le Havre from English hands.

On August 17, 1563 Charles IX was declared of age at the Parliament of Rouen, but he was never able to rule on his own and showed little interest in government. Catherine decided to launch a campaign to enforce the edict of Amboise and revive loyalty to the crown. To this end she set out with King Charles and the court on a tour throughout France that lasted from January 1564 to May 1565, a long journey during which Catherine held talks with the Protestant queen Joan III of Navarre at Mâcon and Nérac. She also met with her daughter Isabella at Bayonne, near the Spanish border, amid lavish court festivities. The Spanish monarch Philip II excused his presence and on his behalf sent the Duke of Alba to tell Catherine to discard the edict of Amboise and find punitive solutions to the problem of heretics.

In 1566, through the ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Guillaume de Grandchamp de Grantrie, and on the basis of the long-standing Franco-Ottoman alliance, Charles IX and Catherine proposed to the Sublime Porte a plan to relocate the Huguenots and the French and German Lutherans to Moldavia, a principality under Ottoman control. The aim was to create a military colony and a protective barrier against the Habsburgs. This plan also had the added advantage of eliminating the Huguenots from France, but it failed to interest the Ottomans.

On September 27, 1567, in a raid known as the Ambush of Meaux, Huguenot forces attempted to seize the king, which reignited a new civil war. The court, taken by surprise, fled in disorder to Paris. The war ended with the Peace of Longjumeau signed on March 22-23, 1568, but the civil unrest and bloodshed continued. Likewise, the Ambush of Meaux marked a turning point in Catherine”s policy towards the Huguenots, and from that moment the queen abandoned the commitment to a policy of repression. In June 1568 she told the Venetian ambassador that all that could be expected from the Huguenots was deception, and praised the policy of terror imposed by the Duke of Alba in the Low Countries, where thousands of Calvinists and rebels were condemned to death.

The Huguenots retreated to the fortified city of La Rochelle on the French Atlantic coast, where they were joined by Jeanne d”Albret and her fifteen-year-old son, Henri de Bourbon. “We have come to the determination to die, all of us,” Jeanne wrote to Catherine, “rather than abandon our God and our religion.” Catherine called Jeanne, whose rebellion threatened the Valois dynasty, “the most impudent woman in the world.” Nevertheless, the Peace of Saint-Germain, signed on August 8, 1570 because the royal army had run out of pay, granted greater tolerance to the Huguenots than ever before.

Catherine looked after the interests of the Valois dynasty by arranging important dynastic marriages. In 1570 Charles IX married Elizabeth of Austria, daughter of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor, and also sought to marry one of his two younger sons to Queen Elizabeth I of England. After the death of his daughter Elizabeth in 1568, wife of Philip II, he proposed that the Spanish king marry his other daughter, Margaret. He then sought to marry her to Henry III of Navarre, hoping to unite the interests of the Valois and the Bourbons. However, Marguerite was secretly having an affair with Henry, son of the last Duke of Guise. When Catherine found out about it, she went to look for her in her bed with the king and between them they assaulted her, tearing her nightclothes and pulling out strands of her hair.

Queen Catherine pressured Jeanne d”Albret to come to court, telling her in writing that she wanted to see her children and promising that she would not harm them. Joan replied, “Forgive me if, reading this, it makes me want to laugh, because you want me not to suffer a fear that I have never felt. I have never believed that, as some say, you eat children.” When Joan finally went to court, Catherine pressed her hard and convinced her to marry her beloved son to Marguerite, while Henry could remain a Huguenot. However, while in Paris buying clothes for the wedding, Jeanne fell ill and died at the age of 44. Huguenot writers later accused Catherine of having murdered her with poisoned gloves. The wedding took place on August 18, 1572 in the cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris.

Three days later Admiral Coligny was walking back to his quarters from the Louvre when a shot rang out in a house and he was wounded in the hand and arm. A smoking arquebus was discovered in a window, but the culprit had already escaped out the back of the building and fled on a waiting horse. Coligny was taken to his lodgings at the Hôtel de Béthisy, where surgeon Ambroise Paré removed a bullet from his elbow and amputated his wounded finger with a pair of scissors. Catherine, who is said to have received the news without emotion, paid a tearful visit to Coligny and promised to punish her attacker. Many historians have blamed the queen for the attack on Coligny, while others point to the Guisa family or to a plot between the pope and the Spanish to end Coligny”s influence over the king of France. Whatever the truth, the bloodbath that ensued very shortly thereafter was beyond the control of Catherine or any other leader.

The St. Bartholomew”s Massacre, which began two days later, has stained Catherine”s reputation forever. There is no reason to think that she had nothing to do with King Charles IX”s decision on August 23: “Then kill them, kill them all!” The idea was clear: Catherine and her advisors expected the Huguenot uprising to avenge the attack on Coligny, so they chose to strike first and eliminate all the Huguenot leaders who were still in Paris after the wedding.

The massacre in the French capital lasted at least a week, and spread to other parts of the kingdom, where it persisted into the autumn. In the words of historian Jules Michelet, “St. Bartholomew was not a day, it was a season.” On September 29, when Henry III of Navarre knelt before the altar as a Catholic after having converted to prevent his assassination, Catherine turned to the ambassadors and burst out laughing. From this time dates the legend of the wicked Italian queen. Huguenot writers described her as an Italian schemer who had acted on Machiavelli”s principles to wipe out all her enemies in one fell swoop.

Reign of Henry III

Two years later, Catherine faced a new crisis when Charles IX died of pleurisy at the age of 23. The day before his death he appointed his mother regent because his brother and heir, Henry, Duke of Anjou, was in the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, of which he had been king since the previous year. However, three months after his coronation in the cathedral of Wawel, Henry abandoned that throne to become king of France. Catherine wrote to her son: “I am devastated by the scene and by the love he showed me to the end… My only consolation is to see you here soon, as your kingdom needs, and in good health, for if I should lose you, I myself would bury myself alive with you”.

Henry was Catherine”s favorite son. Unlike his brothers, he came to the throne in adulthood, and was also healthier, although he suffered from weak lungs and constant fatigue. His interest in the affairs of government, however, proved irregular, and he was dependent on Catherine and her team of secretaries until the last weeks of his mother”s life. He often disengaged himself from government to devote his time to acts of piety, such as pilgrimages and flagellations. On the other hand, he was famous for his circle of favorites called Les Mignons, a group of frivolous young men who, according to the contemporary chronicler Pierre de L”Estoile, made themselves “absolutely odious, as much by their stupid and arrogant behavior as by their scandalous and effeminate clothes, but above all by the enormous gifts the king gave them.”

Henry married Louise de Lorraine-Vaudémont in February 1575, two days after his coronation. His choice thwarted Catherine”s plans to pair him with a foreign princess. Rumors of Henry”s inability to conceive children were then widespread, and the papal nuncio Salviati observed that “only with difficulty do we imagine that there will be offspring…the doctors and all who know him well say that he has a very weak constitution and will not live long.” As time passed and the chances of the royal couple having children diminished, Catherine”s youngest son, Francis, Duke of Alençon and known as “Monsieur,” played his role as heir to the throne and repeatedly exploited the lawlessness of the civil wars, which even then were motivated more by the power of the nobles than by religion. Catherine did everything in her power to entice Francis and on one occasion, in March 1578, read to him for six hours about his dangerously subversive behavior.

In 1576, in a move that endangered Henry”s throne, Francis allied himself with the Protestant princes against the crown, and on May 6 of that year Catherine had to accede to almost all the demands of the Huguenots with the Edict of Beaulieu. The treaty came to be known as the Peace of Monsieur because it was thought that Francis had imposed it on the Crown. The Duke of Alençon died of tuberculosis in June 1584 after a disastrous intervention in the Low Countries in which his army was massacred. The next day Catherine wrote: “I am so miserable that I am living long enough to see many people die before me, although I realize that the will of the Lord must be fulfilled, that He is master of all, and that He lends us children only the time He wants”. The death of her youngest son was a calamity for Catherine”s dynastic dreams, because according to the Salic law only males could accede to the throne and now only the Huguenot Henry of Navarre was the heir presumptive heir to the throne of France.

The queen mother had at least taken the precaution of marrying the Navarrese to her daughter, Marguerite. However, her youngest daughter became another headache, as did Francis, and in 1582 Marguerite returned to the French court without her husband. Catherine heard her cry out that her husband had mistresses, so she decided to send Pomponne de Bellièvre to Navarre to try to arrange for Marguerite”s return. In 1585 Catherine”s daughter returned to her husband”s kingdom, but retired to her estate in Agén and asked her mother for money. The queen regent sent her only enough to “keep food on her table.” After moving to the fortress of Carlat, the wayward Marguerite took a lover named d”Aubiac, so her mother contacted Henry to consult with him before acting to avoid further family embarrassment. As a result, Marguerite was confined in the castle d”Usson and her lover d”Aubiac executed, although not in front of her, as Catherine wished. The queen regent took Marguerite away from her and never saw her again.

The Italian queen was not able to control Henry in the same way she had done with Francis and Charles, and his role in government was as an itinerant diplomat. She traveled widely throughout the kingdom, asserting her authority and trying to end the war. In 1578 she began the task of pacifying the south, and at 59 embarked on a year-and-a-half journey throughout southern France to deal face to face with all the Huguenot leaders. These efforts earned Catherine a new respect from the French people, so that on her return to Paris in 1579 she was greeted outside the city by the parliament and crowds of people. Gerolamo Lipomanno, Venetian ambassador, wrote: “She is an indefatigable princess, born to dominate and govern a people as rebellious as the French: they now recognize her merits, her concern for unity, and are sorry they did not appreciate it before”. However, Catherine had no illusions and on November 25, 1579 she wrote to the king: “A general revolt is on the doorstep. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar”.

Many leaders of Catholicism were scandalized by Catherine”s attempts to appease the Huguenots. After the edict of Beaulieu the Protestants had begun to form local leagues to protect their religion. The death of the heir to the throne in 1584 led the Duke of Guise to assume leadership of the Catholic League, after which he planned to block the succession to the throne of Henry of Navarre and put in his place his uncle, Cardinal Charles of Bourbon. To this end he recruited the great Catholic princes, nobles and prelates, signed the treaty of Joinville with the king of Spain and prepared to wage war on the “heretics.” In 1585, Henry III had no choice but to go to war against the League. As Catherine said, “peace carries a stick” (bâton porte paix). “Be careful,” she wrote to the king, “especially your person. There is so much treachery that I am scared to death.”

Henry was unable to fight the Catholics and the Protestants at the same time, as both had armies more powerful than his own. The Treaty of Nemours, signed on July 7, 1585, forced him to satisfy all the League”s demands, including paying his troops. He left the court for a fasting and prayer retreat, surrounded by bodyguards known as “The Forty-five” and left Catherine to sort out the problems. The monarchy had lost control of the country and was in no position to help England defend itself against the impending Spanish attack. The Spanish ambassador told King Philip II that the abscess was about to burst.

By 1587, the Catholic reaction against the Protestants had spread throughout Europe. The execution of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, by order of Elizabeth I of England on February 18, 1587 enraged the entire Catholic world. Philip II of Spain prepared to invade England as the League took control of many of the northern ports of France to secure them for its navy.

Henry hired Swiss troops to help him defend Paris, but the Parisians demanded the right to defend their city themselves. On May 12, 1588 they formed barricades in the streets and refused to take orders from anyone but the Duke of Guise. When Catherine tried to go to Mass she found her way blocked, but was allowed through the barricades. The chronicler L”Estoile reported that she wept all through lunch that day. The queen mother wrote to Bellièvre: “I have never seen myself in such straits and with so little escape.” As was usual, Catherine warned the king, who had left the city at the last moment, to pledge to live to fight another day. On June 15, 1588 Henry signed the Act of Union, in which he agreed to all the requests of the League.

On September 8, 1588 at Blois, where the court had gathered to hold the Estates General, Henry dismissed all his ministers without warning. Catherine, bedridden with a lung infection, had been kept in the shadows. The king”s actions put an end to her days of power.

At the meeting of the States, Henry thanked Catherine for all she had done, and called her not only mother of the king, but also mother of the State. Henry did not tell his mother the solution to his problems. On December 23, 1588 he called the Duke of Guise to meet him at the castle of Blois, where as soon as he entered the king”s chamber he was stabbed by Henry”s forty-five guards. He died at the foot of the monarch”s bed. At the same time, eight members of the Guisa family were arrested, including the duke”s brother, Cardinal Louis, who was killed the next day by Henry III”s men in the dungeons of the palace. Immediately after Guisa”s death, Henry entered his mother”s room and said, “Please forgive me. Monsieur de Guise is dead. He will not speak again. I had to kill him. I have done what he intended to do to me.” We do not know Catherine”s immediate reaction, but on Christmas Day, she said to a friar: “Oh, poor man, what has he done…? Pray for him…. I see him walking to his ruin.” The queen mother visited her old friend, Cardinal de Bourbon, on January 1, 1589, to tell him that he would soon be released, but he cried out to her “Your words, madam, have brought us all to this carnage.” She left in tears.

Just four days later, on January 5, 1589, Catherine died at the age of 69, probably of pleurisy. L”Estoile wrote: “Those close to her believed that her life had been shortened by discomfort with her son”s actions.” He added that she had died as soon as she was treated with a dead goat. Since Paris had been taken by the enemies of the crown, Catherine had to be buried in Blois. Diana, daughter of Henry II and Filippa Duci, moved her body years later to the basilica of Saint-Denis.

In 1789, a revolutionary mob desecrated her remains and threw them into a common grave along with those of other kings and queens. Eight months after Catherine”s burial, a friar named Jacques Clément stabbed her son Henri III to death. The king was then besieging Paris with the troops of the king of Navarre, who would succeed him as Henry IV of France and put an end to almost three centuries of Valois dynasty to give way to the Bourbon dynasty.

Later it was claimed that Henry IV said of Catherine:

I ask you, what could a woman, left with five small children in her hands after the death of her husband, and two families of France coveting the crown, ourselves and the Guises, do? Was she not obliged to play strange pieces to deceive first the one and then the other, to safeguard, as she did, her children, who reigned successively thanks to the conduct of this cunning woman? I am surprised that she never did worse.

Catherine believed in the humanist ideal of the wise Renaissance prince whose authority depended as much on letters as on arms. Her father-in-law Francis I of France was one example, having gathered at his court some of the finest artists in Europe; another was her ancestors the Medici, the most famous patrons of the arts of the Italian Renaissance. At a time of civil wars and monarchical decline, Catherine sought to bolster royal prestige through a splendid cultural display. Once she gained control of the Royal Treasury, she established a program of artistic patronage that lasted three decades, during which time the queen exercised patronage over the finest of late French Renaissance culture in all branches of the arts.

The inventory of the Hôtel de la Reine conducted after Catherine”s death revealed that the queen had been a great collector. Among her possessions were tapestries, maps, sculptures, fine fabrics, ebony furniture inlaid with ivory, Chinese porcelain sets, and Limoges ceramics, as well as hundreds of portraits, a fashion that had developed during Catherine”s lifetime. Many of the portraits in her collection were the work of Jean Clouet (1480-1541) and his son François Clouet (c. 1510-1572), the latter the author of portraits of all members of Catherine”s family and other court personages. After the queen”s death a marked decline in the quality of French portraiture can be observed and by 1610 the school patronized by the Valois and brought to its peak by François Clouet had all but disappeared.

Beyond portraits, we know little about painting at the court of Catherine de Medici. In the last two decades of her life, only two painters stood out: Jean Cousin the Younger (c. 1522-c. 1594), of whom very few works survive, and Antoine Caron (c. 1521-1599), who became Catherine”s official painter after working with Francesco Primaticcio at Fontainebleau. Caron”s vivid mannerism, with its love of the ceremonial and preoccupation with massacres, reflects the neurotic atmosphere of the French court during the Wars of Religion. Many of Caron”s paintings, such as the Triumph of the Seasons, deal with allegorical subjects that echo the great festivals for which Catherine”s court was famous. His designs for the Valois tapestries celebrate feasts, picnics, and mock battles from the “magnificent” shows organized by Catherine. Thus, Caron reflects events such as the one at Fontainebleau in 1564, the one at Bayonne in 1565 for the summit with the Spanish court, and the one held at the Tuileries in 1573 during the visit of the Polish ambassadors who offered the crown of Poland to Catherine”s son, Henry of Anjou. Biographer Leonie Frieda suggests that “Catherine, more than anyone else, inaugurated the fantastic spectacles for which later French courts would also become famous.”

Musical performances, in particular, allowed Catherine to express her creative gifts. These were generally dedicated to the ideal of peace in the kingdom and based on mythological themes. To create the necessary dramas, music and scenic effects the queen called on the best artists and architects of the time, and historian Frances Yates has not hesitated to describe her as “a great festival-creating artist.” Not for nothing did the Franco-Italian monarch introduce gradual changes to the traditional spectacles: for example, she increased the importance of dances in the numbers that constituted the high points of the festivities. From these creative advances emerged a new art form, the courtly ballet. The Queen”s comic Ballet of 1581, a fusion of dance, music, poetry and scenography, is recognized by scholars as the first authentic ballet.

Of all the arts, Catherine de Medici”s great love was architecture. “As the daughter of the Medici,” says French art historian Jean-Pierre Babelon, “she was driven by a passion for building and a desire to bequeath great achievements after her death.” Thus, after the death of her husband Henry II, Catherine set about immortalizing her husband”s memory and aggrandizing the Valois dynasty through a series of costly architectural projects, including interventions on the châteaux of Montceaux-en-Brie, Saint-Maur-des-Fossés and Chenonceau. He also ordered the construction of two new palaces in Paris: the Tuileries and the Hôtel de la Reine. He was involved in the planning and supervision of all these architectural projects.

Catherine had emblems of her love and grief carved into the stone ashlars of all her buildings. Poets extolled her as the new Artemisia, in comparison to Artemisia II of Caria, who built the famous Mausoleum of Halicarnassus as a tomb for her husband. As the centerpiece of an ambitious new chapel, she commissioned the creation of a magnificent tomb for Henry II in the basilica of Saint-Denis that would be designed by Francesco Primaticcio (1504-1570) and have sculptures by Germain Pilon (1528-1590). The art historian Henri Zerner has highlighted this monument as “the last and most brilliant of the royal tombs of the Renaissance.” The queen also commissioned Germain Pilon to create the marble sculpture containing the heart of Henri II. Engraved on the base of this sculpture is a poem by Pierre de Ronsard that tells the reader not to marvel that such a small vessel contains such a large heart, because Henry”s real heart resides in Catherine”s chest.

Although Catherine de Medici spent enormous sums of money on the arts, much of her patronage left no permanent legacy. The end of the Valois dynasty very shortly after her death brought a shift in priorities.

The figure of Catherine de Medici has been portrayed many times in cinema and television:



  1. Catalina de Médici
  2. Catherine de” Medici
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