Catherine de Medici (Gallicized from the Italian “Catrina”) has gotten a bad rap from historians, due in part from her de Medici family ties and in part from her own ruthlessness in keeping the Valois (a distaff branch of the Capetian bloodline) on the throne at all costs. Despite what may be said about her however, without Catherine it is unlikely that the House of Valois would have survived its challenges, nor France weathered its trials and tribulations of the time.
Catherine was borne into the nigh unbelievably wealthy and powerful de Medici family, de facto rulers of Florence, bankers to kings, and pope-makers (her great-uncle was at the time Pope Leo X). By all accounts, her father Lorenzo, made Duke of Urbino by Leo, was “as pleased as if it had been a boy” by her birth. Besides being bright and gifted (“for a girl”), the dukedom meant she could claim noble birth, opening all sorts of opportunities for her. Not the least a number of royal suitors; having spurned James V of Scotland and others, in October 1533 AD – at the tender age of 14 – she wed the second son of the king of France in an arranged marriage engineered by the de Medici pope Clement VII.
The young bride saw little of her husband, Prince Henri, as he was busy with his many mistresses. But in 1536, Henri’s older brother Francis caught a chill and died, making Henri the Dauphin... and Catherine the Dauphine of France. Not only that, but suddenly Catherine proved to be extraordinarily fertile – and resilient. After eight years bearing no children despite trying mightily, she gave birth to a son in 1544. Following the advice of the famed physician Jean Fernel, who had noticed some anatomical “irregularities” in the couple, the next year she bore a daughter for Henri. Whatever Fernel’s advice had been, it surely worked, for Catherine gave Henri a further eight children (an amazing feat given the incidence of death in childbirth at the time).
When Henri’s father died in March 1547, Catherine became Queen of France. Although Henri, much enamored of his mistress Diane de Poitiers, treated Catherine with stiff respect, he allowed her no political influence – even giving a château she had sorely wanted to Diane. In 1556, Catherine nearly died giving birth to twins; she was to endure no more pregnancies. She was devoted to her brood, and used the wealth of her family as well as her status as Queen Consort to insure that they had the best education, wanted for nothing, and were sheltered from their father, who took little interest in his children, save his eldest son. Catherine, who had a bit of a reputation as a dabbler in the “black arts” herself, even sent for the famed Nostradamus in August 1556 to come to court and cast the horoscopes of her seven children.
In June 1559, as part of the proxy wedding of his 13-year-old daughter Elizabeth to King Philip II of Spain, Henri insisted in joining the jousting tournament. Not the best of decisions, since he was badly injured and died a fortnight later. Francis II, already king of Scotland by his marriage to Mary (Queen of Scots), became king of France at the age of 15. In what amounted to a coup, the Guise brothers and the Cardinal of Lorraine moved into the Louvre Palace and effectively seized power. Catherine, using all the political acumen and guile she had inherited as a de Medici, elected to work with the Guise faction.
As de facto regent, although Catherine had no claim to that position, she set about consolidating her own power and influence. Using her “new-found authority,” she forced Diane de Poitiers to return the crown jewels (which besmitten Henri had given her) along with the château Catherine had once desired; Catherine effectively put the ex-king’s mistress out to pasture. The Queen Mother managed to keep herself out of the Guise’s bloody persecution of the Protestants, as well as the failed plot to overthrow them by the Bourbons. She also made common cause with the new chancellor Michel de l’Hopital in defending the law against attempts to circumvent it by the Guises, notably with regard to their dead-Protestant fixation. But she could also be ruthless in defending her son’s position as king; when the Prince of Condé raised an army and attacked Catholic towns, she ordered him to court and then imprisoned him as soon as he arrived. He was only saved from execution by the sudden death of Francis.
But it wasn’t all fun and games for Catherine; she also hosted lavish court festivals – the so-called joyeuse magnificences – at the slightest provocation: weddings, anniversaries, christenings, feast days, and just about any other occasion imaginable. It was at such fetes that Catherine’s notorious L’Escadron Volant (“Flying Squadron”) plied their wiles, ladies such as Lady Isabelle de la Tour and Baroness Charlotte de Beaune Semblancay. The “squadron” was a group of fetching young noblewomen Catherine used for the purpose of forming relationships with powerful men of the court, thereby extracting “insider” information of use to Catherine in her schemes. Along with the assassinations and blackmail, such insights helped her fend off threats to both France and her position within it.
Catherine barely missed a step as she became regent to her ten-year-old, Charles IX. If anything, she grew even more powerful. The boy, moody and sickly, cried at his coronation; Catherine kept close tabs on him, and even went so far as to sleep in his bedchamber. In effect, Catherine ruled France, but the nation faced some serious problems. She set about to take care of these in typical de Medici fashion. She called the religious leaders of France, both Catholic and Huguenot, to settle doctrinal differences; when that failed she issued the Edict of Saint-Germain to promote religious tolerance. (Unfortunately, the Duke of Guise attacked and massacred a Huguenot service, thus setting off the 30-year French Wars of Religion.)
When Protestant nobles raised an army in response to the massacre in 1562, after failed negotiations Catherine threw the royal army at them. When Protestant Antoine de Bourbon died from wounds, and the volatile Catholic Duke of Guise was assassinated, she issued the Edict of Amboise (the “Edict of Pacification”) in 1563 to end the unrest. Then she rallied both Huguenot and Catholics lords to retake Le Havre from the English, who were meddling again in French affairs. Except for the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, ordered by King Charles IX, things were fairly stable for the “Italian queen.” Then Charles died at the age of 23. Another son, her favorite, was crowned King of Poland in 1573 (which didn't last long) and then King Henri III of France in 1574 AD.
But Henri, already an adult and in good health both mental and physical, proved not as pliable as his brothers. Although he depended on Catherine to oversee much of the minutia of ruling for a decade, in 1588 at Blois he suddenly dismissed all her appointed ministers to the crown, effectively ending her influence over the government. Henry also moved against the still powerful Guise family, allies of his mother, having the Duke assassinated and eight other members murdered. Catherine, bedridden at the age of 69, was stoic at the news. Within the month, in January 1589, she died.