“Elizabeth I was in charge of her fate. Perhaps that’s why Catherine de Medici despised her”
Estelle paranque talks to Rhiannon Davies about her book Blood, Fire and Gold, exploring the 30-year rivalry of two of 16th-century Europe’s most powerful queens – Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici
Your book Blood, Fire and Gold follows two powerhouses of early modern Europe, Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici. Can you briefly introduce us to them?
I’ll start with Elizabeth I of England, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. She was declared a bastard before she was three [following Anne’s execution for treason], but by 1543 she was back in the line of succession and, against the odds really, became queen in 1558.
Elizabeth was far from perfect. To compete with Spain in the conquest of the New World involved piracy and slavery. But by being such an extraordinary woman – establishing the Church of England, for instance – she serves as an example of feminism. Such a notion did not exist in the 16th century and I’m sure she wouldn’t have identified as a feminist, but she did take on the patriarchy.
There’s one comment in particular that Elizabeth made in 1566 that really captures her spirit. In a response to a parliamentary delegation, she said that “it is monstrous that the feet should direct the head”. She was declaring that parliament – run by men – were the feet, and she – the queen – was the head. This absolutely did not fit 16th-century values, but she said it anyway. I adore that: if you had to summarise Elizabeth’s reign, it would be through that quote.
And what can you tell us about Catherine de Medici?
She was an orphan from the powerful house of de Medici, who lost everything and almost everyone at a young age. But her uncle and great-uncle were popes, so Catherine de Medici became an important pawn.
When King Francis I of France wanted to gain more territories and secure an alliance with the pope, he offered his second son, Henry, to be Catherine’s husband. The two got married in October 1533 in Marseille, when Catherine was only 14 years old.
You have to imagine this young girl, who had lost her parents within weeks of her birth – her mother probably dying of childbirth complications and her father of wounds when defending Urbino – being welcomed into the French royal family. She was thrilled. She was marrying a young boy who she thought was handsome, and she was absolutely in love with him.
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But Henry was not in love with her. Their marriage was not successful in terms of producing heirs, at first, and this became a big problem when Henry’s older brother died and Henry and Catherine became the heir and heiress of the French throne. The pressure on Catherine to have children increased, but her husband was devoted to his royal favourite Diane de Poitiers, who was viewed as the most beautiful woman in the land. Diane was older than him, and his tutor, so she had complete power in their relationship.
Catherine spent years being humiliated by this beautiful woman, and ended up actually being given advice and details on how to arouse Henry so they could have children. And it worked. This must have been a bit horrific for Catherine, I think, but in the end she had 10 children, with seven surviving into adulthood.
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What were some of the main differences, and similarities, between the two women?
There are striking parallels between Elizabeth and Catherine in this period, with the former having been removed from court while the latter was humiliated at court. But then from 1558 to 1560, everything changed. Death brought glory: Elizabeth lost her sister Mary I, and Catherine lost her husband Henry. For Elizabeth, it was straightforward as she became queen. It was more complicated for Catherine. Her first-born son, Francis, became king in 1559, and married to Mary Stuart (or Mary, Queen of Scots). This was when Catherine became a political advisor and truly showed her intelligence.
But there was obviously a difference in their queenships: Elizabeth was a queen regnant, so ruled in her own right, and Catherine did not. What’s interesting with Catherine is that she never became regent officially. Yet she held that role in all but name after Francis II died a year into his reign in 1560, and her 10-year-old son Charles became king.
In fact, even when Charles was meant to be ruling on his own, he was still making it clear that his mother was very much in charge. Catherine remained in all privy councils, even in the reign of her third surviving son, Henry III (1574–89), who was in his twenties when he became king.
She took the title “queen-mother”, not the traditional “mother of the king” or “queen dowager”. The term was extremely powerful and with it Catherine saw herself as a strong and powerful queen: she was a mother of kings.
- On the podcast | Sixteenth-century Europe was dominated by two female powerhouses: Elizabeth I of England and Catherine de Medici, the French Queen Mother. The two women had a tumultuous relationship, being sometimes friends and at other times foes, as Estelle Paranque reveals to Rhiannon Davies
Did Catherine’s role as queen-mother mean that Elizabeth came to see her as an equal?
Elizabeth surely didn’t see Catherine as an equal, and Catherine saw herself in many ways as superior to Elizabeth, since she had given birth to children, and more importantly boys. She really saw power and queenship solely through the lens of motherhood. Elizabeth was single and didn’t want to have children, a decision that Catherine couldn’t understand as she thought motherhood would give Elizabeth protection.
For more than a decade, she tried to convince Elizabeth to marry one of her sons. Of course, this wasn’t a selfless act: she wanted one of her sons to be king of England. Francis, the Duke of Anjou, named after his brother who had become king, was the most willing to pursue Elizabeth at his mother’s insistence. They met in 1579, and Elizabeth gave him a ring and a promise of marriage. I don’t think this was for love – I think it was because he amused her – but the pair did develop a type of friendship.
Elizabeth wriggled out of the proposal. I think it was actually a game between her and Catherine, and at the end Catherine was annoyed that it hadn’t worked. She lost so much time trying to have her son seduce and pursue a woman who could not care less. For Elizabeth, power came from herself, and for Catherine it was through her sons. That’s the biggest difference between the two women.
Was this competing view of power the main driver of the two women’s disagreements – more so, even, than their religious differences?
Oh, definitely. I think both were actually, for the period, quite tolerant in terms of religion. I’m not saying that they were accepting of atheism, but I do believe that Elizabeth was relatively accepting of different beliefs until 1570, when she was excommunicated.
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After that point, she did change her policies and persecute Catholics, and when you read her prayers you can see humanist and reformist ideas. But she wasn’t a hardcore Protestant like her brother Edward VI. She actually didn’t like some of the things the Protestants and Puritans were planning to do: pushing for religious reforms that would undermine her via media vision for the church. So she was really in the middle.
Catherine was massively Catholic. I mean, she was the niece of a pope. But she understood power, she understood politics and, contrary to what people believe, she was very much interested in making peace. To achieve peace in France, she wanted to find compromise. Though it is true that one was a Catholic hammer and the other was a Protestant saviour, in a way they were pushed into these roles. I don’t think that means that’s where they wanted to be.
Did Catherine and Elizabeth ever meet, and how did they communicate with each other?
They exchanged letters with one another, but what I found interesting – and it’s what we tend to forget – is that these letters would have been sent via their ambassadors. These men were their mouthpieces, and through the ambassadors’ letters detailing their meetings with the queens, we can get a glimpse into the conversations that happened.
The two queens never met in person. Catherine wanted to, saying a few times that she would travel to Dover in order to meet Elizabeth. It’s important to remember that Catherine did travel – she went to see her daughter, Elizabeth of Valois, at the border between France and Spain for example – but Elizabeth never left England. In that way, she was less a woman of Europe, although she was heavily involved in European politics and supported Protestantism across the continent.
You write in your book that their relationship wasn’t always positive. Why was Calais, in particular, such a sticking point for the two women?
Calais had been part of England for a long time, but by 1558 it was becoming clear that Queen Mary was going to lose it. Her husband, Philip II of Spain, was at war with France, and although the French were initially losing territories they ended up recovering Calais. And it was because of Catherine. While Henry was on campaign and she ruled as co-regent, she gave a beautiful speech in which she appealed to the parlement of Paris for help. I was so touched when I found this speech: she managed to convince them to fund her husband’s army, which allowed Henry to push back the English and take Calais.
When Elizabeth became queen in 1558, she wanted Calais back. For the first five years of her reign, this was her obsession, but Catherine stood in her way. By this time, she was monarch in all but name (after Francis II had died and his underage brother Charles had come to the throne).
Calais was a huge point of contention between them. Something Elizabeth was able to use to her advantage were the tensions in France. In 1562, the first war of religion broke out, and Elizabeth wanted to help European Protestants. She supported the Huguenots, French Protestants, financially and militarily. For several months from 1562 to 1563, English forces (assisted by the Huguenots) occupied Le Havre, which Elizabeth used as a bargaining chip. She essentially said to Catherine: “If you give me back Calais, I’ll return Le Havre.”
It was at this point that Catherine showed how intelligent she was. She came to the conclusion that if she could appease the Huguenots then they would side with her again and join forces with the French army. That’s what she managed to do by signing a peace between Catholics and Protestants (which brought a brief halt to the war) and, together, the French were able to push the English out of Le Havre. Elizabeth had no leverage for Calais. This was actually how the two women started their relationship.
That relationship got better when Catherine wanted the throne of England for one of her sons, but by the late 1580s things had turned sour again. Elizabeth was growing even more powerful and wasn’t afraid of showing it. She made decisions that appalled Catherine – the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 being one of them. And then, the following year, she defeated the Spanish Armada, which really cemented her power on the European stage.
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I think in many ways, Elizabeth was everything that Catherine would have liked to have been. She was a free woman, in charge of her fate and without any men involved. It’s remarkable what Elizabeth achieved, and I think that’s why Catherine despised her so much at the end.
How did Elizabeth respond to Catherine’s death in 1589?
We have one letter that she sent to Henry III, Catherine’s third son to be king of France. They had developed a kind of friendship, so she felt like she had to say something. But the most interesting part of that letter is that she struck a line through some words, even paragraphs, and it is still possible to read what she wrote. In those crossed-out sections, she was extremely respectful of Catherine, praising her for her accomplishments: securing her line and giving birth to kings. Obviously, no one knew at the time that Henry III was about to die the same year, so Elizabeth thought the line was protected.
But I was really interested in the fact that she chose to cross out all these nice things about Catherine, which suggests that she pretended that she didn’t want Henry to see them, but sent the letter anyway. It means there’s this personal, almost intimate part of the letter before she gives the more formal response to Catherine’s death.
I think that Elizabeth realised that once this had happened, she was the only queen left. Now all her counterparts in Europe were male. By 1587, Mary, Queen of Scots was gone; and by 1589, Catherine de Medici was gone. While Philip II’s daughters were growing in power, they were nowhere near Elizabeth’s level.
I think Catherine’s death was like the loss of, not perhaps an old friend, but at least someone she’d had an important relationship with for nearly 30 years. It marked a shift in Elizabeth’s reign, a shift in Elizabeth’s mentality. She’d won over her rivals, and that was an important moment for her.
Why do you think that Elizabeth is the better remembered of the two women?
Catherine has a black legend around her name. She’s been absolutely vilified, and blamed for everything that happened in France in the 16th century. All of the religious wars were seen to be because of her. This wasn’t true, by the way: Catherine was diplomatic and politically astute, and wars within her realm were a major inconvenience that went against all her plans of establishing a stable and durable dynasty.
There was also lots of xenophobia: she was half-French and half-Italian, but only remembered as an Italian woman. Her son Henry III – whose death in 1589 ended the Valois line – has similarly been remembered as a tyrant.
The Guises, a hugely powerful French Catholic family, were largely responsible for this vilification. I don’t want to say they were the villains of the 16th century, but they certainly were thorns in the sides of many rulers, including Elizabeth, Henry, Catherine, and even Philip II. They were the family of Mary, Queen of Scots, and wanted to control Europe with Mary ruling England and Scotland, and the Guises in power in France.
Catherine was portrayed in a really negative light. In France and Italy, I think she’s quite well-remembered, but for the wrong reasons. Other authors and historians have worked on rehabilitating her image, and I’m building on that work. I hope that, by comparing her to someone as well-known, powerful and respected as Elizabeth I, it sheds light on Catherine’s successes and accomplishments. She deserves her life to be recognised, and her story to be told.
Dr Estelle Paranque is a historian in queenship, royal and diplomatic studies, and assistant professor in early modern history at New College of the Humanities at Northeastern University.
This article was first published in the August 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine
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