Catherine de Medici: the ‘Serpent Queen’ who became one of France’s most powerful 16th-century rulers

Often regarded as brutal and calculating, the powerful Catherine de Medici is much maligned. But how should we regard her actions and power? Estelle Paranque considers the life and legacy of the fascinating royal, from her historical unpopularity to her influence on the history of Europe…

Portrait of Catherine de Medici

Catherine de Medici was never meant to be queen. The ‘orphan of Florence’ suffered more losses during her childhood than most people do in a lifetime. Yet fate struck, and the ‘duchessina’ – as she went on to be called by the Florentine people – ended up marrying into the French royal family. Little did she know that, one day, she would become queen of France. 

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Catherine de Medici: key dates and facts

Born: 13 April 1519, Republic of Florence

Died: 5 January 1589, France 

Parents: Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino, and Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne

Known for: Being the queen mother of France during the reign of her three sons

Husband: Henry II of France

Children: 10, including Francis II of France; Charles IX of France; Henry III of France; Margaret of Valois and Francis, Duke of Anjou

Legacy: Catherine de Medici’s legacy is controversial. On the one hand, she is remembered for being one of the most powerful French queens of the early modern period. On the other, none of her sons were able to secure the dynasty and, ultimately, she was blamed for many of the atrocities that occurred during their reigns.

  

Catherine de Medici’s family and upbringing

Catherine was born in Florence on 13 April 1519 to Lorenzo de Medici, the ruler of the kingdom of Florence, and his wife Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne. Within three weeks of her birth, Madeleine died from a violent fever and Catherine was left without a mother. Shortly afterwards, her father, who was also the Duke of Urbino, had to defend the region after it was attacked by Francesco Maria, a former duke of Urbino who had plotted his revenge during a vulnerable time for Lorenzo’s family. Lorenzo sustained injuries in the town’s defence and died of his wounds amid other disease complications in May 1519.

Despite relatives who stepped in to look after Catherine after the death of her parents, the little duchess was now alone in the world; nothing could replace parental love and protection – or, at least, almost nothing. Initially, Catherine was looked after by her paternal grandmother, Alfonsina Orsini, but when Alfonsina died in 1520, Catherine was left with her aunt, Clarice de Medici. By 1527, the ruling Medicis had been overthrown by a faction that opposed Giulio de Medici, who had been elected as Pope Clement VII in 1523. Catherine was then raised in several convents until peace was reached, at which point Clement summoned her to go and live with him in Rome. He cared for her and also arranged her union to Henry, Duke of Orléans, the second son of King Francis I of France, in early 1533. The young couple were married in Marseille on 28 October 1533.

Aged just 14, Catherine had now entered into the French royal family – a life-changing experience.

Catherine de Medici and Henry II of France
Catherine as queen consort, depicted beside her husband, Henry II of France. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

How did Catherine become governor of France?

Catherine’s marriage to Henry II was not a happy one. As queen consort following the death of Francis I in 1547, Catherine was fully devoted to her husband, but in reality, she was the third wheel in the relationship; Henry II was profoundly in love with his royal favourite, Diane de Poitiers, who exercised enormous influence over Henry’s life. There were three people in this union and, as a result, Henry spent very little time with his wife – to the point where courtiers gossiped that the queen was infertile (after all, Henry had illegitimate children with other mistresses). But after nearly a decade of further humiliations, Diane actually helped the royal couple conceive. Worried that she could lose her position and influence at court if the king were to remarry a younger and more enticing wife to sire an heir, Diane made sure that Henry frequented the royal bedchamber; Catherine was no threat to her, even with heirs, as Diane had secured the king’s affection and sexual attraction. From 1544 onwards, Catherine and Henry had a total of 10 children – seven of whom survived to adulthood.

It was through her sons that Catherine built up her own political power

When Henry II died following injuries sustained during a jousting tournament in 1559, Catherine’s situation at court changed in an instant. At first, she acted as a political advisor to her eldest son, Francis II of France. Though Henry had allowed her little influence as queen consort, she had previously been made regent by her husband in 1552 while Henry was absent at the siege of Metz, and she used this brief political experience under Francis II. Then, when Francis died of illness on 5 December 1560, her 10-year-old son, Charles IX, became the next king of France. In an attempt to prevent Catherine from taking control, a regency was put into place, but she overcame it and was made ‘governor of France’, ruling alongside Antoine de Bourbon, the king of Navarre. Although Antoine was a prince of the blood (a legitimate male heir to the French throne) and had been declared the ‘official’ regent, the arrangement was ultimately approved by parliament.

It was through her sons that Catherine built up her own political power. When Charles IX became of age to rule on his own, she took the title of ‘queen mother of France’, imposing herself on all governmental meetings and using the influence she had over her son to remain in power. She continued this strategy – though less successfully – with her next-youngest son, Henry III, who became king upon Charles’s death in 1574.

Catherine de Medici meets her sons Charles IX and Henry III. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Catherine de Medici meets her sons Charles IX and Henry III. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Catherine and the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre

The long regency of Catherine was marked by the French Wars of Religion, a period of war between Catholics and Huguenots (Protestants). Many urban legends depict Catherine as a murderer who hated Protestants, but it is important to note that the reality is quite different. In fact, Catherine spent a lot of her time in power trying to find peace compromises between Catholics and Protestants. Was she a fervent Catholic? Yes. Would she have preferred it if all her country was Catholic? Of course. But she also knew the importance of preserving stability in one’s realm in order to secure the dynasty.

Catherine spent months negotiating a potential marriage between her daughter, Marguerite of Valois, to the Huguenot Henry of Navarre, son of Antoine de Bourbon and Jeanne d’Albret. Once the marriage was agreed, the wedding was arranged for 18 August 1572. But in the days following the union came one of the bloodiest events of early modern French history. With tensions already high in Paris, an assassination attempt was made on Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the military and political leader of the Huguenots, and the event sparked days of bloodshed, not just in Paris but all over France: it later became known as the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

A depiction of the St Bartholomew's Day massacre
A depiction of the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre. (Photo by Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images)

How did Catherine react that night? She tried to save Coligny – the leader who had been targeted by the powerful Catholic Guise family – by sending for the royal doctor, Ambroise Paré, to treat his wounds. She also opened her doors to any Protestants who needed to find refuge, including the English ambassador at the time, Sir Francis Walsingham, when his apartments were no longer safe enough.

The bloodshed is traditionally believed to have been instigated by Catherine. Did she suspect that the Guise family would seek revenge on Huguenot leaders for the death of their father at the hands of a Huguenot noble in 1562? Very likely. But she could not possibly have known it would lead to the thousands of deaths that followed.

Did she encourage it? Hardly. Instability was never in the interest of the ones in power. Did she orchestrate it? No concrete evidence has ever been revealed.

Engraved scene depicting Catherine de Medici surveying the aftermath of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre
Engraved scene depicting Catherine de Medici surveying the aftermath of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. (Photo by Archive Photos/Getty Images)

How did Catherine de Medici die?

In September 1588 Catherine started to feel weak, and she eventually became ill with a lung infection. At this time, the situation in France was at its worst. The authority of Henry III, her favourite son, had been contested to the point when, in May 1588, he had to flee Paris as it was besieged by the Catholic League led by the Guises. Catherine spent her time trying to advise her son, but he no longer wished to listen to her.

Her illness progressed and she continued to feel powerless as she watched her son’s own power being diminished. When, in December 1588, Henry III ordered the assassinations of his enemies – Henry, Duke of Guise and Louis, Cardinal of Guise – Catherine gasped at the horror she was witnessing. She knew that the French people would never forgive such treacherous behaviour from a king; she knew it would seal her son’s fate.

Her lung infection spread further, and, on 5 January 1589, she gave her last breath in her own bed at the Castle of Blois. It is believed she died of pleurisy.

Catherine de Medici on her deathbed
A depiction of Catherine de Medici on her deathbed. (Photo by API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

Why was she called the ‘serpent queen’?

A dark legend has stained Catherine’s reign and those of her sons, largely due to the fact that none of them put an end to the religious civil wars that ravaged France between 1562 and 1598.

Her Italian origins were also considered a problem by courtiers, as well as the fact that she showed interest in astrology and astronomy. She believed astronomers, such as Nostradamus, and asked them for predictions of the future. Some people saw this as being an interest in the occult, which she did not have, and – little by little – her detractors wrongly portrayed her as a ‘serpent queen’ who knew how to poison her enemies and who was heartless with the people of France. These attacks could not be further from the truth. Catherine, like any other ruler, did plot and lie when needed in order to protect her authority – or that of her sons – but she also showed how much she truly cared about the preservation of France, and always tried to find ways to promote peace and reach stability within the borders of her realm.

Catherine was also fond of art and a keen collector of it; during her lifetime she acquired a great deal of tapestries, sculptures, rich fabrics, furniture and pottery, as well as portraits she commissioned from Jean Clouet and his son, Francis Clouet. She also had a passion for architecture, ordering the renovations of important buildings such as the castles of Montceaux-en-Brie and Chenonceau. She spent a huge amount on the arts, but was never truly recognised as a patron – partly because of the dark legend that still hangs over her reign today.

By her end, Catherine had become a force to be reckoned with. From orphan to queen consort, to queen mother, she drastically influenced French history by producing three of the nation’s kings. Though the Valois dynasty did not prevail after Henry III, Catherine’s grandchildren from her other children went on to shape late 16th and 17th-century politics. In many ways, she was the grandmother of early modern Europe.

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Dr Estelle Paranque is a lecturer in early modern history at New College of the Humanities. Her books include Elizabeth I of England Through Valois Eyes (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and a forthcoming joint biography of Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici (Ebury Press). Find her on Twitter at @DrEstellePrnq