Catherine de' Medici (1519-1589) was a Machiavellian politician, wife of Henry II of France, and later regent for her three feeble sons at the twilight of the Valois dynasty, who authorized the killing of French Protestants in the notorious Massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day in 1572.
Catherine de' Medici was never able to rule France as its monarch because the Salic Law restricted the succession solely to men. But this Machiavellian—whose father was Machiavelli's patron—ruled it as regent for nearly 30 years, and did everything she could to strengthen the position of her three weak sons on its throne. She presided over, and was partly responsible for, many of the horrors of the French Wars of Religion in the 1560s and 1570s, of which the worst was the massacre of Protestants gathered in Paris to witness the marriage of her daughter Marguerite Valois to Duke Henry of Navarre in 1572. Her calculating policies yielded short-term victories, but when she died in 1589 her hopes for her family's long-term future lay in ruins.
Catherine was born in 1519, daughter of a powerful Italian prince from the Medici family. Her mother died within a few days from puerperal fever and her father succumbed to consumption a week later at the age of 27, leaving her an orphan after less than one month of life. Her father's relatives, among them popes Leo X and Clement VII, took over her care, and she grew up in the midst of the stormy Italian Wars in which they were central actors. When a German army of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527, the citizens of Florence took advantage of this eclipse of Medici power to restore their republic, and took the eight-year-old Catherine hostage. Escaping from Rome and hiring a group of mercenaries to recapture Florence, her uncle Clement VII was able to rescue her from her refuge in a nunnery.
In pursuit of Pope Clement's dynastic ambitions, 14-year-old Catherine was married in 1533 to 14-year-old Henry, duke of Orleans, younger son of King Francis I of France. The elaborate ceremony at Marseilles Cathedral was conducted by the pope himself, but her childlessness for the first ten years of marriage made her unpopular in the French court. With the help, as she believed, of astrologers—she was patroness of the seer Nostradamus and a lifelong dabbler in necromancy, astronomy, and astrology—she overcame this early infertility and gave birth to ten children, beginning in 1543. Few of them were healthy, however, and she, enjoying an iron constitution and great powers of recovery, would outlive all but one, Henry III, who would follow her to the grave in a matter of months. The death of her husband's older brother in 1536 made Henry and Catherine heirs to the throne, but the circumstances of his death increased Catherine's unpopularity. One of her retinue, Count Sebastian Montecuculi, was suspected of poisoning him to promote the interests of Catherine and, possibly, of France's enemy Charles V.
Catherine's husband, now Henry II, had spent several childhood years as a hostage at the Spanish court in Madrid. On his return, at the age of 11, he had been cared for by Diane de Poitiers, who was 20 years his senior. Despite this age difference, they became lovers, and throughout most of Henry's reign, which began in 1547, Diane completely eclipsed Catherine in influence over the king, though her age and her lack of beauty made Henry's attraction and loyalty to her something of a mystery at court. Diane was even given responsibility for raising Catherine's children, and she and Henry arranged the betrothal of the oldest son, Francis, to Mary, Queen of Scots in 1548. But in 1557, Catherine's coolness in an emergency won her new respect from Henry. He had lost the battle of St. Quentin to Philip II of Spain; when Paris itself was jeopardized, Catherine made a patriotic speech to the Parlement, persuaded it to raise more troops and money to continue the fight, and put to rest the old suspicion that she was more an Italian schemer than a true queen of France.
At the time of Catherine's birth in 1519 the Reformation was beginning with Martin Luther's criticism of the Catholic Church. The challenge to Rome's religious hegemony (dominance) began in Germany but soon spread throughout Europe. The French lawyer and theologian John Calvin, living and writing in Geneva, Switzerland, was particularly inspiring to many French men and women, who saw in his version of Christianity a truer form of their faith than that offered by a politicized and often corrupt Catholic Church. In France, for example, appointments and promotions in the Catholic Church were all at the king's disposal; political cronyism rather than piety and administrative skill led to advancement. French Protestants were known as Huguenots, and the rapid growth of their numbers among the nobility and upper classes as well as among ordinary folk soon made them a politically significant force; the Huguenots held their first general French assembly in 1559.
This was an era in which monarchs assumed that the integrity of their kingdoms depended on the religious uniformity of their peoples; religious schism of the kind which beset France by mid-century was unprecedented. The Catholic monarchs of France and Spain made peace at Cateau-Cambrésis in 1559 partly because they were bankrupt but also so that they could unite their forces against Protestantism. The treaty was sealed by the marriage of Philip II of Spain to Elisabeth, the teenaged daughter of Catherine and King Henry. At the joust held to mark the wedding celebrations, however, King Henry was fatally injured by a lance wielded by a Calvinist nobleman, the Comte de Montgomery. It shattered his helmet, pierced his eye, and entered his brain. Henry's death a few days later brought their oldest son, 16-year-old Francis II, to the throne.
France was full of demobilized soldiers, many of them unpaid for months. Tax burdens on the peasants were heavy, and Calvinist preachers with their message of an uncorrupted faith found a receptive audience. Huguenot noblemen took action almost at once, organizing a conspiracy to overthrow or at least dominate the court of Francis II, and winning the active support of England's new Protestant queen, Elizabeth I. Then, at the city of Amboise, their military uprising failed, and the royal army arrested the leaders. In the presence of Catherine, her children, and Mary, Queen of Scots, 57 of the Huguenot leaders were hanged or beheaded. This retribution did not end the religious-political conflicts besetting France, however; from this time forward, the Huguenot Navarre family and the Catholic Guises led rival religious and court factions. The death of 16-year-old Francis II the following year made Catherine regent for her second son Charles, who now became King Charles IX at the age of ten.
Herself a lifelong Catholic but always with a degree of religious cynicism, Catherine appears never to have understood the passion with which many of her contemporaries lived their religious lives. For her, religious differences seemed at first to be bargaining chips in court intrigues, which might be smoothed away by tactful diplomacy. She permitted Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, an influential Huguenot, to act as Charles's chief advisor for awhile, provoking three powerful noblemen, the duke of Guise, the cardinal of Lorraine, and the constable of France, to sink their own differences and make a three-way alliance, a triumvirate, for the defense of Catholicism against Coligny.
Catherine's miscalculation of the Reformation's impact on France was evident at the Colloquy of Poissy, 1561, when she tried to conciliate the Catholic faction, under the cardinal of Lorraine, with the Huguenots, under the reform theologian and friend of Calvin, Theodore Beza. Far from coming to an understanding with one another, the two parties hardened their differences. In the poisoned atmosphere of broken negotiation, open hostilities began, marking the first of a succession of religious wars. Interrupted by truces, but marked by fierce vendettas, the conflict raged for a decade.
Charles IX was an unstable character, and as he matured he came to dislike his mother and her favorite, younger son Henry. Charles, says the lively historian Henri Nogueres:
had the figure of a sickly adolescent, too thin for its size, hollow-chested and with drooping shoulder…. his sallow complexion and bilious eyes betrayed liver trouble; he had a bitter twist at the corners of his mouth and feverish eyes…. He hunted in order to kill, for he soon acquired a taste for blood, and almost every day he needed the bitter sensation, the uneasy satisfaction of seeing the pulsating entrails and the hounds on the quarry.
Catherine found it relatively easy to dominate Charles, despite his growing resentment, and in the face of constant warfare she also tried to carve some order out of the fiscal and administrative chaos of the kingdom, to strengthen it for her sons' reigns. She took Charles on a long royal journey through his kingdom. She incorporated in 1565 a meeting with her son-in-law, Philip II of Spain, to discuss the continuing religious crisis. Philip disliked her apparent willingness to play off Catholics and Protestants against one another; in his view, she should have been doing more to advance the Counter-Reformation. But he also knew that France's weakness was a strategic benefit for Spain. It made French intervention to aid troublesome Dutch rebels against Spain far less likely. When Philip's wife and Catherine's favorite daughter Elisabeth died in childbirth in 1568, Catherine hoped he might marry her younger daughter Marguerite, but Philip was determined to take his French connection no further. Another blow to Catherine's politicking came the same year when her daughter-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots, was captured by her English enemies and imprisoned, leaving Scotland open to Protestant domination and effectively ending a Franco-Scottish Catholic encirclement of Elizabethan England.
Through much of the 1560s, the two religious factions were at war while Catherine and Charles tried to avoid falling too heavily into either camp. The religious warfare was complicated further by English incursions into France itself, ostensibly in alliance with the Huguenots, but largely in pursuit of traditional English designs on northern France. The war was also complicated by a blood feud among the major families, brought on when the Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny ordered the assassination of the duke of Guise in 1563. As the fighting continued, especially in the third religious war, from 1568 to 1570, Huguenot armies attacked convents and monasteries, torturing and massacring their inhabitants, while Catholic forces, equally merciless, slew the Huguenots of several districts indiscriminately.
After a decade of war, the Peace of St. Germain in 1570 reconciled the two sides temporarily and led to Admiral Coligny's return to court. Among the treaty's provisions was the specification that Catherine's daughter Marguerite should marry Henry of Navarre, the Huguenot leader, that the Huguenots should be given several strongholds throughout France, and that Coligny could resume his position as a royal councillor. Catherine hoped that, as a moderate Huguenot, he might act to mollify his fellow Huguenots while she played the same role among Catholics. But Coligny quickly and tactlessly reasserted himself at court, becoming a friend and confidante of King Charles IX but arousing suspicions among Catholic courtiers that he was planning another coup. When Coligny discovered that Charles and his mother were at odds, he miscalculated and chose the king's side rather than Catherine's, provoking her furious resentment.
The city of Paris had remained friendly to the ultra-Catholic Guise party throughout these years of war, and most Parisians resented the concessions to Huguenots made at the Treaty of St. Germain. The population was, accordingly, restless and angry when a large Huguenot assembly entered their city in the summer of 1572 to celebrate the wedding. Marguerite Valois, the bride, was herself a stormy personality and an inveterate intriguer. When Catherine had discovered earlier that Marguerite was having an affair with the duke of Guise, she and Charles IX had beaten her senseless. The motive for this marriage alliance was that Henry of Navarre, though a Huguenot, would have a strong claim to the French throne if neither Charles IX nor Catherine's younger son Henry had a living heir. A connection to the Valois family would strengthen Navarre's claim as well as Catherine's prospects of continued influence. Marguerite, still in love with Guise, resisted the planned marriage, says historian Hugh Williamson:
she and Henry of Navarre had known each other during their growing up at least well enough to be aware that they had no glimmer of sexual attraction for each other and even domestic accommodation was imperilled by such differences as her liking for at least one bath a day and his aversion to more than one a year. Also he always stank of garlic.
She refused to give up her Catholic faith for this marriage, which was in any case imperiled when Henry's mother Jeanne of Navarre died suddenly during the negotiations which preceded it. In the fevered atmosphere of the time, many Huguenots were ready to believe that Catherine de' Medici had poisoned Jeanne, although that seems unlikely.
Catherine decided to dispose of Gaspard de Coligny once and for all. She accepted an offer from the Guise party to assassinate him, hoping that the outcome would be revived power for her own party. The assassin shot Coligny but failed to kill him, and Charles IX rushed to his side, promising a full inquiry and retribution against the assassins. But under interrogation from Catherine and his younger brother Henry, Charles finally accepted their claim that Coligny was manipulating him, that Coligny planned to overthrow the whole Catholic court, and that he and the other Huguenot leaders should now be finished off in a preemptive strike. According to his brother Henry's diary, Charles at last shouted; "Kill the Admiral if you wish; but you must also kill all the Huguenots, so that not one is left alive to reproach me. Kill them all!"
By careful prearrangement, church bells began to ring at two in the morning of August 24, Saint Bartholomew's Day, 1572. The bells signaled Catholic troops to begin, and at once they moved to kill the injured Coligny and other Huguenot leaders. The attacks became indiscriminate; all sense of order broke down. As widespread looting and fighting broke out across Paris, over 2,000 men, women, and children (including many people uninvolved in political and religious controversy) were shot or hacked to death. Similar massacres followed in the provinces, as Catholics seized the initiative against their local Huguenot rivals. King Charles feared that he had unleashed a revolution, but Catherine, according to one onlooker, "looks a younger woman by ten years and gives the impression of one who has recovered from a serious illness or escaped a great danger." A fourth civil war at once began, but by a strange turn of circumstances, leadership of the Huguenot party now fell to Catherine's youngest and most unscrupulous son Francis, duke of Alençon. Placing himself at the head of the Protestant forces and dreaming of a crown, he declared that his older brother Henry, who had just been elected to the throne of Poland, was no longer available as heir of France.
Henry, this third son of Catherine, was less easily dominated and manipulated than Charles. He was homosexual and had had a long succession of lovers. His mother tried to "correct" this propensity by ordering a banquet at which the food was served by naked women, but she could not succeed. Henry had spent the 1560s garnering the laurels of a successful general in the wars against the Huguenots. His victories won him the envy of King Charles IX, whose physical frailty forbade campaigning. Catherine tried to marry Henry to Elizabeth I of England, but the "Virgin Queen" tactfully declined the offer and was equally obdurate against the wooing of the pathetic fourth brother, Alençon, whom she called her "frog." The only woman to excite Henry's interest, and to whom he sent ardent love letters signed in his own blood, was already married to the prince of Conde. Henry did not relish the prospect of going to Poland, even though his mother's judicious distribution of bribes to the electors there had secured the throne for him, but at last he set out. His departure prompted another Huguenot uprising, in which Alençon, Henry of Navarre, and Marguerite Valois were all implicated as conspirators. With her usual energy, Catherine coordinated forces to quell it, and with her usual decisiveness, she witnessed the executions of the ringleaders Montgomery, La Mole, and Coconnas. She also witnessed the death of her son King Charles, aged 24. She now recalled her favorite, Henry, to his hereditary kingdom.
Henry III was crowned in 1575 and married in the same year to Louise of Lorraine, but they had no children to carry on the Valois line. From this time on, Catherine entrusted family fortunes more wholeheartedly to the Catholic Guise family, and approved the formation of the Catholic League in 1576 which marched to triumph against the Huguenots. Henry's homosexual favorites predominated at court. When the Guise provoked a duel and killed two of them, Quelus and Saint-Megrim, Henry conceived an implacable hatred against them. Another round of blood feuding began despite Catherine's continued urging that Henry must settle his differences with the Guise for the sake of national and Catholic security.
Catherine remained politically active until the end of her life, touring France on Henry's behalf and trying to assure the loyalty of its many fractured and war-torn provinces. She also amassed a huge collection of books and paintings, built or enlarged some of Paris's finest buildings, including the Tuileries Palace, and carried on to the end her fascination with astrology. She was fat and gouty by 1589 and was taken ill that year from the exertion of dancing at the marriage of one of her granddaughters. She lived just long enough to hear that Henry's bodyguards had murdered Guise; this news, writes Williamson, "destroyed her will to live, for it epitomized her failure. Her idolized son, for whom she had spent her whole life, had destroyed all that she had built and rejected everything she had taught him." Later that year, Henry III in turn died, assassinated by a Dominican friar, Jacques Clement, who regarded him a traitor to the faith for joining Henry of Navarre against the Catholic League. In this way, the Valois dynasty came to an end. Ironically it was the Huguenot prince Henry of Navarre who succeeded to the throne, though he was unable to sit upon it until 1593 when he cynically adopted the Catholic faith with the famous remark, "Paris is worth a Mass."
Further Reading on Catherine de' Medici
The most satisfactory study of Catherine de' Médici is Paul VanDyke, Catherine de' Médici (2 vols., 1992). The short pamphlet by N. M. Sutherland, Catherine de' Médici and the Ancien Régime (1966), provides an excellent introduction to the major problems in interpreting the political role of the queen mother. Sutherland also wrote The French Secretaries of State in the Age of Catherine de Medici (1962), a study of Catherine's closest administrative assistants. On Catherine's religious policy see H. Outram Evennett, The Cardinal of Lorraine and the Council of Trent: A Study in the Counter Reformation (1930), and the relevant portion of Joseph Lecler, Toleration and the Reformation (trans., 2 vols., 1960). An example of Catherine's use of art in support of her political program is described by Francis A. Yates, The Valois Tapestries (1959).
There is considerable historical literature on the wars of religion in France. Recommended are James Westfall Thompson, The Wars of Religion in France, 1559-1576 (1909); Franklin Charles Palm, Politics and Religion in Sixteenth-Century France (1927); J. E. Neale, The Age of Catherine de Medici (1943; new ed. 1957); Robert M. Kingdom, Geneva and the Coming of the Wars of Religion in France, 1555-1563 (1956); and Philippe Erlanger, St. Bartholomew's Night: The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew (trans. 1962). The French wars of religion are placed in the context of European politics in J. H. Elliot, Europe Divided: 1559-1598 (1968).
Additional Biography Sources
Heritier, Jean, Catherine de Medici. St. Martin's Press, 1963.
Mahoney, Irene, Madame Catherine, New York: Coward, McCann, & Geoghegan, 1975.
Nogueres, Henri, The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew. Macmillan, 1962.
Soman, Alfred, The Massacre of Saint Bartholomew: Reappraisals and Documents. Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974.
Strage, Mark, Women of Power: The, Life and Times of Catherine de Medici. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976.
Williamson, Hugh Ros, Catherine de Medici. Viking, 1973.