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Sunday, 3 July 2011

Giving You The Black Widow of Europe - Catherine de Medici


Catherine de Medici (AKA The Black Widow) viewing the St Bartholomew Day carnage.


Catherine de Medici was born in Florence in the year of 1519. She was an Italian noble woman who would rise to power in France. Her legacy would echo throughout French and European history. I think historians regard her as a double edged sword - some say, 'The Black Widow.' If one was Protestant and alive in her day, it might be understandable, but she was also a lady that was guided by circumstance and was badly tempered for the trials and tribulations that destiny laid before her.




At the age of fourteen she was married to Prince Henry Duke of Orleans and second son of King Francis I of France. There had been other suitors including the King of Scotland, but Prince Henry was regarded as a very good catch for Catherine de Medici. The fourteen year old couple had to consummate their marriage with a witness, so history would have us believe.




After one year of marriage, Pope Clement VII died and Pope Paul III broke Rome’s alliance with France and refused to pay Catherine de Medici’s dowry. To make matters worse, Prince Henry, her husband of one year, showed no further interest in Catherine. He took mistresses and would not visit her. This went on for ten years and Catherine, as young woman, must have felt isolated in the French court. She had little opportunity to produce an heir for France and was being publicly humiliated. Her husband, Prince Henry did have a child by one of his mistresses and publicly recognised his daughter. It was a way of displaying that he was fertile and perhaps Catherine was not. There was even talk of divorce.



In 1536, Prince Henry’s elder brother, named Francis, was heir to the throne of France. He was taken ill and died, leaving Prince Henry as the new heir to France and Catherine de Medici as Dauphine. It was essential for her to produce heirs for France.



Catherine tried many methods to have a child. Finally in 1543, ten years after her marriage, she fell pregnant at the age of twenty four. She gave birth to a son in early 1544. The boy infant was named Francis after his delighted grandfather, King Francis I. From this moment on, Catherine de Medici went on to have nine children with her husband Henry and seven of these survived infancy.


Sadly for Catherine de Medici, Prince Henry, had taken a mistress in the year of 1539 when he was nineteen years of age. The mistress was twice his age at thirty eight. Her name was Diane de Poitiers and Henry would remain devoted to her even when he became King in 1547. His wife Catherine de Medici was no more than a baby making convenience, while Diane de Poitiers enjoyed the young King’s constant attention. The mistress was given great wealth and power in the form of a Chateau and was able to dispense favours to the king’s subjects while Catherine de Medici was forced into the shadows, even though her position and title as Queen consort was recognised.


The mistress did not regard Catherine de Medici as a threat. She played the devoted concubine and encouraged Henry to visit his wife and produce heirs. This circumstance went on for twenty years and Catherine de Medici bore the humiliation.


In June of 1559, Catherine’s young daughter Elizabeth was married to King Phillip of Spain at the age of just thirteen. The occasion was celebrated in France with five days of festive ball and jousting. King Henry II took part in the jousting tournament wearing the colours of his mistress Diane de Poitiers. This was done in front of his wife Catherine who was in attendance with her children and the mistress before all other royal guests.



The King had taken on a few opponents and won during the jousting competition. Then he came up against a young nobleman called Gabriel, Comte de Montgomery. As King Henry II and Gabriel clashed, the king was almost unhorsed in the conflict. It was a joust and no hard feelings, the king wanted no favouritism, though he did insist on another joust with Gabriel – no doubt wanting to restore his pride and emphasis he had no hard feelings. It was a terrible decision because in the second joust the King took a lance full in the head. He would have been wearing a metal helmet but the tip broke off in the eye slit of his metal guard leaving a terrible injury to his face.



Catherine de Medici and everyone else were all witness to the terrible accident, including the young heir, Prince Francis, who was just fifteen years of age and married to Mary Queen of Scots just seventeen years of age.



King Henry II lingered for ten days. One of the lance’s many splinters had pierced his eye and gone into his brain. Then he finally died from his dreadful wound. His second born son of fifteen years became King Francis II of France. In one swift moment, the tables of power had changed.



Catherine de Medici had to rule as regent, and it is worth mentioning that now, in this year of 1559, France, England and Scotland was ruled by formidable women. Catherine de Medici as regent in France – Mary de Guise (Mother of Mary Queen of Scots) ruled as regent in Scotland. Both these women were allied in their support of young Mary Queen of Scots inheriting the English thrown that was ruled by Protestant Queen Elizabeth.


Catherine de Medici was forced by circumstance to be guided by the Guise family, and for some time was forced along a path that she might not have elected to take in different conditions. It is generally believed that Catherine was influenced more then she desired to be by the Guise family, but their support of her son was very important to her.


One of Catherine’s first acts was to confiscate the grand Chateau from the old mistress Diane de Poitiers. The mistress was also forced to hand back the crown jewels. The old mistress had had her day and now it was her turn to vanish into the shadows. She was not even allowed to attend the late King Henry II funeral. She was allowed to live out her life in comfortable obscurity until her death in 1566.


Catherine de Medici was caught up in a turbulent time with the Guise family – her influential supporters. The Guise brothers began to persecute the French nation’s Huguenot Protestants. This caused a great deal of religious unrest that Catherine de Medici was pulled into.
Further tragedy struck in 1560, just one year after King Henry II death. Catherine’s second born, now King Francis II, died from an ear infection at the tender age of sixteen years. His ailment had caused an abscess on the brain. It is very hard to speculate how Catherine had to keep her sense of right under such stressful circumstances, but try she must. The regent Queen was forced to make new alliances with more unscrupulous men to secure the position of her next son. Nine year old Charles was now King Charles IX of France.


She was also trying to reach the Protestant Huguenots and bring them into a conference with the ruling Catholics of her court. Catherine wanted to try and thrash out a settlement between the two religious fractions, even though she did not care too much for the beliefs of the Huguenots – the Protestants were every bit as convinced of their religious vanity as were the Catholics.


Catherine de Medici was now trying to walk a tightrope of political and religious bigotry – making pacts with people and organisations that she may well not have liked. All this, she did to secure the safety of her offspring and rule France. From her mind’s eye and the world she was tutored to live in, Catherine was trying to do very demanding things. She tried desperately to build a bridge and reach the zealot Huguenots and her own Roman Catholic court. Her brave efforts were doomed to failure. The powerful Guise family ally caused more mayhem by massacring Huguenots again and it was becoming difficult to contain her own supporters embroiling France in deeper religious strife.


The Huguenots raised an army and allied with Protestant England. This Protestant force began to take various French towns and Catherine was forced to come to quarters with the Huguenot uprising. She confronted the Protestant rebels with Royalist forces of her own and defeated them. Into the victorious bargain, one of her more troublesome allies was killed – the Duke of Guise fell at the siege of Orleans. Catherine de Medici was believed to have voiced views to an ambassador along lines that the Duke of Guise’s death was a convenience and it was a pity it had not happened sooner. After this she had to rally the two forces to expel an enemy from the port of Le Havre, which had been captured by forces loyal to Queen Elizabeth I of England.


When King Charles IX became of age, his mother (Catherine de Medici) still ruled as regent. He seemed uninterested in government and fine with his mother’s policies. There was an uneasy rule for a few years but the Huguenots would not be silenced. Their zeal to control France with their own religious views remained. They attempted to cause further civil strife again. This finally exasperated Catherine de Medici to such an extent, that she decided to abandon all attempts at reconciliation and confront the Huguenots.


In 1567 Huguenot forces launched an attack known as the surprise of Meaux. It was an attempt to ambush King Charles IX. During this next conflict of religious beliefs, the Huguenots were pushed back to a strong hold of La Rochelle. Here the Huguenot Queen of Navarre (Jeanne d’Albret) and her fifteen year old son Henry of Bourbon joined the besieged Huguenot forces. The Huguenots held out and Catherine de Medici’s Royal army was forced to bring a truce because they ran out of money to finance the siege.


The Huguenots agreed to the truce because it was a way out for them. Perhaps a better one then anticipated when they retreated to La Rochelle’s fortifications.


From this time Catherine de Medici adopted a new policy of trying to form alliances with her children in grand marriages. Charles IX was married to Elizabeth of Austria; she tried to match other sons with Elizabeth of England but was unaware that the English Queen would pretend to play the marriage game to England’s advantage by buying time for the Protestant country to grow stronger for the confrontations that would surely come in future. France would continuously be played off against Spain in this way. Also, the Queen of Navarre (Jeanne d’Albret) was persuaded to come to court and accept an alliance in marriage between Catherine de Medici’s daughter Margaret and Jeanne d’Albert’s young son, Henry of Bourbon (Henry III of Navarre.) The last alliance of marriage was agreed to, provided that Henry could remain a Huguenot. This was agreed, though Jeanne d’Albert fell ill and died before the marriage took place. Many Huguenots think Catherine de Medici had a hand in the sudden death of Jeanne d’Albert – Queen of Navarre.


A few days later, after the Royal wedding, Huguenot Admiral Coligny and friend of Charles IX, was wounded as he walked through Paris. Many believe Catherine de Medici conspired to assassinate him because of his influence with King Charles IX. The man was also in league with England and the Dutch.


The new Duke of Guise hated Coligny because he believed him responsible for his father’s death at the siege of Orleans. Once again, a member of the de Guise family was to cause trouble that Catherine de Medici would have no control over when it erupted. While Admiral Coligny was still ill in his lodgings, the Duke of Guise put into motion a successful attempt to murder the man in his sick bed. This was swiftly done and the body of Coligny was then thrown from the lodgings window and the Parisian crowd mutilated it.



This led to an event called the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre as over the next five days an estimated 10,000 Protestants were killed amid riots. This would remain a diabolical legacy to Catherine de Medici’s rule as regent to her son Charles IX. The killing went on throughout France over the next months. It was at this moment the legend of the Wicked Italian Queen was born.


All this slaughter weakened the Huguenot's strength but still led to more civil war throughout France. Once again the situation spiralled out of control with new uprisings all over France by Protestant Huguenots. During this time, Charles IX became angered by his mother (Catherine de Medici) He had attacks of conscience and became ill with tuberculosis. He began to cough blood and in May of 1574, Charles IX – second son of Catherine de Medici died age twenty four.


The next of Catherine de Medici’s sons was Henry Duke of Anjou. He had been elected as King of Poland the year before and was away in this country at the time of his ascendancy to the throne of France. Once again, Catherine was regent – this time for her third son to be King of France. He returned as monarch but relied on his mother and her advisers to rule. He seemed to have little interest in government and had produced no offspring.

Catherine de Medici had another younger son who caused problems during the Reign of King Henry III. He was called Francis Duke of Alencon. He got embroiled with other nobles outside of Catherine de Medici’s favour and she had to pull the youngster in because of his subversive ways.

Francis Duke of Alencon did not heed his mother’s advice and joined with the Protestants. This forced Catherine de Medici to come to peace terms and give up much to the demands of the Huguenots. Much of this Protestant achievement was attributed to the young Duke of Alencon.


Francis of Alencon died of consumption in 1584 leaving Catherine de Medici with her last son King Henry III of France, he had produced no heir and did not look likely to. The only thing left to the old regent Queen was the marriage of her daughter Margaret to Henry III of Navarre (Henry of Bourbon.) The Huguenot was now the presumptive heir to the throne of France.


Catherine also found that in later years, she could not exercise the total control over King Henry III as she had her first two sons. She still had power and travelled throughout France trying to pacify and win over Huguenots. In this she had some limited success because there had been many concessions won through Francis of Alencon.


Many Catholics became discontent with Catherine de Medici and her attempts to placate the Huguenots.

This Catholic unrest became stretched to new damaging levels in 1587, when Queen Elizabeth executed Catherine's former daughter in law, Mary Queen of Scots. It caused a back lash across the Catholic world and great upheaval in France, once again between Catholic and Protestant.


Henry III finally relieved his mother (Catherine de Medici) of power and started to rule the turbulent kingdom his way. She was woken in her bed chamber by her son, the king of France one morning during the last days of 1588. Henry III told his mother that he had killed the Duke of Guise. The nobleman had been summoned before the king and as he entered the king’s room, he was stabbed to death by the King’s loyal followers. Other Guise family members were also killed in the wake of the Duke’s assassination. Catherine de Medici thought her son had made a dreadful mistake, but she died a few days later at the age of sixty nine on January 5th 1589.


She had outlived all her sons save Henry III of France. Only eight months later, King Henry III of France would be stabbed to death by a Dominican Friar named Jacques Clement. His reign marked the end of the Valois kings. All of Catherine de Medici’s work (some say, wicked, scheming and plotting) had been in vain. Her daughter Margaret was confined by the late King Henry III for her scandalous behaviour. The reckless daughter of the late Catherine de Medici had run away several times and had extra marital affairs.


However, by marriage to the unfaithful Margaret, Henry of Bourbon (King Henry III of Navarre) became the first of the Bourbon kings and succeeded the French throne as King Henry IV. He concluded an annulment of marriage with Margaret though she retained the title of Queen.



The regent reign of Catherine de Medici and her endeavours echo throughout history. Some admire her efforts while others think she was wicked and scheming. I think she was born into a circumstance where she had to do her best to survive, but fate may have dealt her a cruel hand. Especially with the children she longed to have and then so tragically lost. She must have seen her efforts of securing future succession toppling one by one as each attempt failed.


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