The Serpent Queen: STARZ’s Catherine de’ Medici drama offers "myths and caricature"
STARZ drama The Serpent Queen portrays Catherine de’ Medici as a queen who will do anything to survive and retain power. But we shouldn’t entirely believe in her ‘dark legend’, writes Dr Estelle Paranque
There is no one quite like Catherine de’ Medici. She was many things: born into high Franco-Italian nobility, she was an orphan at three weeks old, a kinswoman to two popes, princess of France, dauphine of France, queen consort of France, and then regent of France. She had a fate that surprised everyone, including herself.
Despite her incredible life, however, she has been either overlooked or vilified for centuries. Perhaps this is why she remains such a charismatic and enigmatic historical figure.
As such I was elated when I heard that STARZ was developing a show based on Catherine de’ Medici’s story. I was less happy when I realised it was called The Serpent Queen, which for me only reinforces the myths and misconceptions that surround her. One might ask: does Catherine deserve that title? I’d argue not.
Why was Catherine de’ Medici called the Serpent Queen?
The nickname ‘Serpent Queen’ stems from the dark legend of Catherine de’ Medici, which casts her as being manipulative, scheming and untrustworthy. These attacks against her reputation have been shared for centuries, as she and her sons were accused of being the catalysts for the French Wars of Religion.
STARZ’s The Serpent Queen plays on this, showing Catherine de’ Medici to be politically ruthless, emotionally bankrupt and willing to sacrifice others to secure her own future.
She is seen giving gunpowder to a maid, to help said maid maim another servant. Her entourage includes a magician who practises black magic. It is inferred that her perfumer Angelica acts as her personal poisoner; the character of Angleica is a fiction, but Catherine de' Medici did retain a fellow Florentine, René Bianchi, as a perfumer – and she also had a reputation as a poisoner, a story spread by Catherine’s detractors after her death.
Was Catherine de’ Medici a poisoner?
The idea that Catherine de’ Medici poisoned her enemies was spread over the centuries, yet there is no evidence that she did so. All that can be said for certain was that she had an interest in herbs and alchemy.
Perhaps the most famous death linked to the real Catherine is that of Jeanne d’Albret, the queen of Navarre. It was said that just before Jeanne died, Catherine offered her a pair of perfumed gloves that had been poisoned by Bianchi.
This story is entirely untrue: d’Albret died of an illness that she’d had for months before receiving those gloves. There was also no reason for Catherine to poison her, as they had both reached an agreement that benefited them both: Catherine’s daughter, Marguerite of Valois, was to marry d’Albret’s son, Henry of Navarre.
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Did Catherine de’ Medici practise dark magic?
At one point in the show, Catherine is seen applying a dark substance prepared by her magician on her privy parts to ensure her fertility before seeing her husband to perform their royal duties.
Elsewhere, her magician implies there will be a ‘price’ to be paid, which leads to a spectacularly gruesome death by écartèlement – dismemberment, in this case by horses.
While the real Catherine de’ Medici did show an interest in alchemy and other forms of natural science, and also consulted Nostradamus on the future of her family, there is no evidence of her practising dark magic; on the contrary, she was an incredibly pious person.
Catherine, like other rulers of her time – including Elizabeth I of England – was intrigued by astrology and alchemy. Witchcraft and magic, on the other hand, were considered pure heresy, and Catherine would have never risked being associated with that in any way.
- Read more from Estelle Paranque | “Elizabeth I was in charge of her fate. Perhaps that’s why Catherine de Medici despised her”
Did Catherine de’ Medici choose to be feared rather than loved?
This is a complete myth. Catherine knew the importance of being loved by the people in order to rule effectively, and that stability and prosperity for crucial for a dynasty to thrive.
Rather than instilling fear, it was Catherine who encouraged royal progresses to connect the people with Charles IX (the second of her three sons to wear the crown of France), and herself as regent of France.
What was Catherine de’ Medici's real relationship with Henry II?
One major plot point in The Serpent Queen is Catherine de’ Medici’s relationship with her betrothed (and later husband) Henry II of France. Catherine was very much in love with Henry, but she also suffered greatly at the hands of his favourite (and mistress) Diane de Poitiers.
Their outright love and the way he favoured Diane at court caused huge grief to Catherine, who found herself completely overshadowed by her rival.
In the show, Diane and Catherine are portrayed as being at each other’s throat. In reality, Catherine suffered in silence. But later in life, once her husband had passed away, she did make comments that revealed how deeply she had been affected by their relationship and the despise she felt for Diane.
Did the French hate the Italians?
The Serpent Queen makes much of the idea that the French hold little love for the Italian peoples. Certainly, some xenophobic ideals prevailed during the 16th century, but there is no strong evidence of this in any royal letters. They can, at times, be found in chronicles, but mostly aimed at the Spaniards, who were seen as dangerous and arrogant – mainly because of their ruler, Philip II of Spain, as he dominated Europe and posed a great threat to the sovereignty of France.
But why were the Medici so hated in particular? The show depicts them as being manipulative and scheming, but in reality their bad reputation is mostly due to the fact that they were an important noble family who were in power struggles with other important noble families. Their poor reputation was mostly created by their enemies.
Was there a rift between Catherine de’ Medici and Mary, Queen of Scots?
Catherine de’ Medici and Mary, Queen of Scots had a complicated relationship, which had mostly been stained by Mary Stuart’s own worship and love for Diane de Poitiers, Catherine’s archenemy.
Promised to the Catherine’s son and dauphin of France, the future Francis II, Mary was sent to be raised and educated at the French court when she was just five years old and brought up alongside Catherine’s own children.
Henry II was very fond of Mary and, as a result, so was Diane de Poitiers. As Mary grew up, she started showing disrespect to Catherine, just as Diane would have done – and Catherine would never forget it.
Did Catherine plead to the lords of France to fund her husband’s war?
Yes. As in the show, in real history Catherine de’ Medici was part of the reason why France regained Calaisfrom the English. However, the speech she gives in The Serpent Queen is a far cry from the one she gave in real life.
In the show, she claims that all lords, Protestants and Catholics are to be granted a private audience with the king to put their grievances forward. She claims that the king wants tolerance, which in fact could not have been further from the truth.
Henry II was a staunch Catholic, who despised Protestantism and heresy. It was he who issued the Edict of Châteaubriant in 1551, which created a special judicial chamber named Chambre Ardente (Burning Chamber), in which Protestants were prosecuted for heresy and shown no mercy.
In contrast, during her regency during Charles IX’s reign and her role as a political advisor under Henry III’s reign, Catherine had always shown more interest in finding a compromise that would bring peace to the country. Henry never did so.
In real life, Catherine gave a speech when her husband was at war to get funding for the conflict, which was later granted. She claimed that France’s blood was her blood, and that she did not wish to see so many of her compatriots die.
The Serpent Queen’s Catherine vs the real Catherine de’ Medici
The Serpent Queen is entertaining, but it presents a caricature of Catherine de’ Medici – especially in the first episode, where she is portrayed as cold-hearted and pragmatic as a child, and manipulative of the servant to whom she is telling her tale.
A number of historical discrepancies have made their way into the show, reinforcing the stereotype the drama chooses to portray – for instance, Catherine’s parents did not die of syphilis or suicide. Her mother died due to complications from childbirth, with a great fever, a few days after Catherine was born.
After a few episodes, some elements of Catherine’s true personality do start to shine through. For instance, by helping a maid face her enemies and offering advice on the rules of the games of court, Catherine is ultimately portrayed as being cautious, and as being a supporter of the underdog if she felt they were stuck in an unfair situation. This is close to the real character of Catherine de’ Medici.
Another interesting – and real – event in the The Serpent Queen comes when the young Catherine de’ Medici begs her father-in-law Francis I not to repudiate her as a wife to Henry.
This was based on a letter written by the Italian diplomat, Gasparo Contarini, who recalled that Catherine showed great humility and claimed that she would accept whatever decision the king would make regarding her position at court. The show smartly selected to dramatise this moment and portray Catherine’s shrewdness and ability to play the games of the court.
The Serpent Queen is an entertaining show, but ultimately one that portrays a sliver of the real Catherine de’ Medici. My hope is that it creates a real appetite for a queen whose life and character were far more entertaining and compelling than the one we see here.
- Read next | Who was the real Catherine de' Medici?
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.