So in researching this, I was struck by how Catherine is like the best case scenario for so many other royal women from history. She had the early orphanhood of Mary Queen of Scots, the vast amounts of power that made people mistrust and vilify her, like Erzsébet Báthory, combined with a Cleopatra VII-like joint reign that she finagled into basically a new paradigm with her on top, combined with a Katharine of Aragon level fertility crisis. But the thing is, she overcame all of this, to be generally understood as the unofficial leader of France for several decades, living to the then-ripe old age of 68. By virtue of living as long as she did and doing as much rad stuff as she did, this is going to be a longer than usual essay. But trust me: it’s worth it.
Catherine de’ Medici was born on 13 April 1519, the only child of a Duke and a Countess who were both dead within a month of her birth. Being female, she didn’t inherit her father’s land or title, though her unrecognized claim led to the childhood nickname Duchessina (The Little Duchess). She was shunted around between various relatives, who seemed to wind up dying in a very Lemony Snicket sort of way, culminating with her kidnapping at age eight by enemies of her family. She would later recall the years spend technically imprisoned in a convent as some of the happiest of her life, which says a lot, really. When she was ten years old, her city was laid siege to by the Holy Roman Empire, and the invading forces called for her as a sort of gruesome human sacrifice to be tortured and killed. She survived, obviously, and was sent to the Vatican to live with the Pope, who was also her Uncle.
Her family’s wealth and connections made the fourteen-year-old Catherine a much sought-after wife, and she was finally promised to France’s Prince Henry, also aged fourteen, to whom she was married in 1533. Her fortunes changed shortly thereafter, literally, when her Pope Uncle died and the new Pope refused to pay her dowry to the French royal family. Her situation went from grim to worse, as her new husband spent long periods of time away from her, preferring the company of his numerous mistresses. A year after their wedding, when both were 15 years old, Henry fell deeply in love with 38-year-old Diane de Poitiers, who would become his long-term mistress.
So Catherine was effectively broke, a hardship on her family-in-law, the unwanted wife to a King besotted by another woman. If she managed to birth an heir or two, perhaps she could have solidified her role at court, but the teenage couple would go childless for ten years. As we’ve discussed here before, this was a time and a place when a woman’s worth was almost entirely dependent on her fertility, or lack thereof. A woman’s role in the world was to be fruitful and multiply, women linked intrinsically with nature and fertility and life-giving. Thinking this through, women who appeared infertile were therefore seen as unnatural at best, witches at worst. Catherine was assumed to be the problem with conceiving an heir, particularly as Henry successfully fathered children with some of his mistresses (including a son born to Nicole de Savigny, an ancestor of Jeanne “The Affair of the Necklace” de la Motte). Divorce and annulment began to be discussed as very real possibilities to get rid of Catherine. Other women’s stories may have ended there. But for Catherine, this is where it starts to get really interesting.
Girlfriend did everything she could think of, up to and including weirdo folk remedies (which did little to dissipate rumours of witchcraft because these involved eating and/or drinking highly unusual things). So what’s a gal to do? Catherine went to Diane de Poitiers for pointers and, as the older woman had never viewed Catherine as a rival — in fact, Diane encouraged Henry to spent more time with his wife in order to conceive children — she offered some Kama Sutra-esque advice on sexual positions that would work best with Henry’s deformed penis. The three of them worked together as a sort of team at times, Diane warming Henry up, Catherine only coming on the scene in time for the climax. With Diane’s help, Catherine and Henry finally conceived an heir. Their first son, Francis, was born in 1544; they would go on to have nine more children, six of whom survived infancy.
Henry was crowned King in 1547, and Catherine was named Queen Consort. Again, she fell in Diane’s shadow — the mistress held more political influence and even shared co-hosting duties at royal functions. Diane was even given the Château de Chenonceau, a beautiful residence Catherine had wanted for herself.
Catherine’s luck changed when Henry died in 1559 of a joust-related eye/brain injury. Fifteen-year-old Francis was named King, and Catherine’s second life as the power behind the crown began. Francis was old enough to rule on his own, but had been sickly for most of his life. Catherine wasn’t given an official role in her son’s government, but her influence was clear in the language of all of his official acts, which always mentioned her as a sort of co-regent. She took to power with a ferocious intensity, using her new influence to force Diane to return hew jewels and the Château Catherine had wanted.
She didn’t only use her power for personal reasons, but helped guide her son and the government through a tumultuous period of religious instability. The French royal family were Catholic, facing an increasing number of Protestant Huguenots in their country. Catherine initially supported a passive reaction, allowing the Huguenots to worship in peace, so long as they did not take up arms. However, the Bourbon brothers, Prince Louis of Conde and Antoine of Navarre, refused to keep the peace. Catherine had Louis brought to court and imprisoned. He was sentenced to be put to death for offences against the crown, and would have been killed… except King Francis succumbed to an ear infection while Louis was in jail.
Sensing an opportunity, Catherine made a pact with Louis’s brother Antoine that promised to neutralize the Bourbon threat in exchange for Louis’s release. Due to the success of this negotiation, Catherine was named Governor of France — giving her new, actual powers, rather than the sort of ceremonial ones she had wrested for herself. The new king was her second son, Charles, who at nine years old was more in need of her guidance than even Francis had been.
The next several years saw more back-and-forth battles between the Huguenots and the French royal family, with lots of battles and bloodshed along the way. After one battle too many, Catherine changed her policy regarding the Huguenots, and from 1568 onwards, she set about destroying them rather than allowing them freedom of religion.
Catherine didn’t just spend her time on ruthless military campaigns; she was also intent on marrying her many children off into the most politically advantageous marriages possible. Her oldest daughter, Elisabeth, was married to the King of Spain, and when she died in childbirth, Catherine tried to marry her youngest daughter, Margaret, to the same King (he declined). In a plot twist that is the basis for the excellent French language film Queen Margot, Catherine then set about marrying Margaret (who is also amazing and I’ll write about her another time) to Henry of Navarre. These two got married in 1572… and then shit got real. Like, months and months of brutal bloodshed real.
The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre occurred a few days after the royal wedding. Not to get into too much detail, but basically every important Huguenot in France was in town for Margaret and Henry Navarre’s wedding, and a series of accidentally-on-purpose events led to Catherine and Charles’s troops killing basically all of them or at least, all of the important Huguenot leaders, over the course of a week. The slaughter spread from Paris out into the countryside, where Huguenots continued to be killed by Catholic troops for the next several months. Catherine’s obvious complicity in and/or instigation of the slaughter led to her reputation as a ruthless Disney villain-level evil Queen. And unlike so many of the things that wound up besmirching the reputations of other women (like, for instance, Erzsébet Báthory), there is no doubt that Catherine was absolutely involved in this deal.
Two years later, Charles died at age 23 (he’d also always been pretty sickly). Having had no children of his own, he named his brother Henry (yes, another Henry) as his heir, with Catherine as regent because Brother Henry was out of town. Henry had always been Catherine’s favourite. Unlike Francis and Charles, he was strong and handsome, effective in battle, and also was crowned King as an adult man. Like Charles, he wasn’t super-interested in the business of being King, focusing more on looking like a King and having really, really good-looking people surround him at all times. Luckily, Catherine was quite experienced at ruling by now, and she continued to be in charge of mostly everything.
Henry was married to a commoner, against Catherine’s wishes (she wanted him married to a foreign royal, for dynasty reasons), and failed to produce any children. Interestingly, the fault for this fell on him, rather than on his wife, but either way, Catherine’s family’s dynasty was not shaping up like one may have anticipated given the number of sons involved. She had one more son after Henry, also named Francis (??), who allied with the Huguenots against his family and the crown. New Francis forced Catherine and Henry to compromise a bit with the Huguenots, and then — like Old Francis before him — died very, very young, of consumption. His death, combined with Henry’s childlessness and the law of the time which said that only males could ascend to the throne, meant that the new heir to the throne was Margaret’s husband, Henry of Navarre. Honestly, I promise I’ll write more about Margaret later because she is amazing also. So all I’ll say right now is: Margaret and Henry of Navarre wound up splitting up, so even if and when H of N became King of France, Margaret was very much no longer his wife.
So, with Henry being her third in a row useless son/King, Catherine — now aged fifty-nine — set about to keep peace via face-to-face meeting with Huguenot leaders. For a time, this kept another religious war at bay. But, because a pendulum can only swing back and forth, her cozying up to the Huguenots turned some of the Catholics against her. And just like that, King Henry wound up going to war against the Catholic League. Like, France at this time was just a no-win situation for everyone, no matter which religion you were.
Henry took charge of the negotiation to end the war, which was a terrible idea, and ended with him going into hiding and leaving Catherine to sort it all out. Between France and England and Spain and Catholics and Protestants, basically all of Western Europe was in a mess and the only thing keeping France from imploding upon itself was Catherine’s sheer force of will.
There were riots on the streets in Paris as basically everyone had turned against Henry because, of course they had: he was a terrible King. As if he couldn’t be any more short-sighted, when Catherine was convalescing with a lung infection, Henry basically fired her from her political role in his government. He then set about with The Worst Plan Ever, which was more or less to straight-up murder the leaders of the other factions who wanted to take the crown from him, which didn’t do anything to solve the ongoing Civil War issues that were threatening to destroy all of France.
Catherine died of pleurisy on January 5, 1589. Because Paris was still under siege by her enemies, her body couldn’t be properly buried in the traditional spot for members of the royal family. It was only years later that her remains were moved to the Saint-Denis basilica in Paris. And then, because even her afterlife wasn’t without plot twists, during the French revolution, a revolutionary mob tossed her bones into a mass grave with those of the other kings and queens.
Catherine was a great patron of the arts, perhaps partly out of respect for her Medici ancestors and partly for PR reasons: much of her sons’ reigns were spent just keeping the monarchy in place, so any buildings or works of art that glorified the royal family was good for business. Her patronage was not limited to paintings; she also oversaw numerous great festivities at court, which generally included performances of drama, music, and dance, including what is generally agreed upon as the first authentic ballet performance. As suggested by her great affection for the Château de Chenonceau, she was passionate about architecture. She oversaw the construction of several palaces and great houses, many of which had emblems of her love and grief carved into their stonework.
Perhaps partly due to the rumours about her early seeming infertility combined with historical records of her collusion with the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Catherine was often written about in terms of her connection to the occult. She was known to entertain magicians and astrologers at court, perhaps even necromancers. The well-known spiritualist Nostradamus was known to spend time with her at court, and regardless of the nature of their conversations, merely spending time with people identified with the occult was considered suspicious during this time of religious conflict and witch hunting. Catherine was never formally accused of witchcraft, and perhaps her connection with Nostradamus and others was her own education in astronomy, one of her other great interests.
Perhaps the most famous portrayal of Catherine is as on the CW costume drama Reign. She also appears in the 1992 French language film Queen Margot, itself based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Her history with her daughter Margaret is explored in the very readable nonfiction work The Rival Queens: Catherine de’ Medici, Her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom, by Nancy Goldstone.
Ann Foster is a writer and historian with a research interest in the intersection of women, history, and pop culture, especially the lives and stories of figures both well-known and half-forgotten. patreon.com/annfosterwriter