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Investigating the Real Catherine de' Medici

Catherine's favourite residence, Château de Chenonceau.
Catherine's favourite residence, Château de Chenonceau. | © Guillaume Capron / Flickr
Catherine de’ Medici, a central figure in one of the deadliest religious wars in European history, was accused of organising a bloody massacre, poisoning her rivals and even dabbling in black magic—her name is synonymous with death and disaster. However, historians have begun to challenge the rumours that surround her, exploring the truth behind the woman once known as the ‘Black Queen’.

Catherine was born in Florence, the only daughter of an Italian duke and a French noblewoman. Within a month of Catherine’s birth, both of her parents were dead. At the age of eight, she was taken hostage and placed in a series of convents after her family, the powerful political Medici dynasty, were temporarily thrown out of Florence. When she was a young teenager, her uncle, Pope Clement VII, called Catherine to Rome to arrange her marriage to the son of the French king.

Henry, her husband, unexpectedly became heir to the throne after the death of his elder brother. But life at court was never easy for Catherine. Henry II had a mistress, Diane de Poitiers, and made no secret of his affection and love for her. De Poitiers wielded a great deal of influence and power at court, leaving Catherine watching from the sidelines. Despite this, she bore 10 of Henry’s children, and when he was killed unexpectedly from a jousting injury she was left grief-stricken, taking a broken lance as her emblem and wearing black for the rest of her life.

Catherine de' Medici © the lost gallery / Flickr

Her young son, Francis II, was put on the throne, and Catherine was unprepared for the powerful Catholic Guise family to sweep in and take control of the monarchy through the new king. However, Francis’s reign was short-lived—within a year he had died and his nine-year-old brother Charles IX ascended the throne. This time, prepared to fight for her right to defend her children, Catherine accomplished some incredible political maneuvering and became regent of France. Acting as her son’s regent, her time to step into the centre of power for the next 30 years had arrived.

Catherine was not a well-liked regent, not only because she was a woman, but a foreigner as well and because her rise to power was an unprecedented achievement. Salic Law had banned women from the throne in France, and across the continent women were expected to be unquestioningly deferential and obedient under the patriarchy. Suddenly, men, who were so used to their universal superiority, were expected to answer to a woman. An added complication was the fact that France had been at war in Italy from 1494 to 1559 and anti-Italian sentiment was rife. The Medici family was also known for its ruthless and cunning politics (Machiavelli’s The Prince was even dedicated to Catherine’s father) and Catherine was unable to escape the associations of her name.

Catherine was regent for her son, Charles IX © Grégory Lejeune / Flickr

One event that prompted the most malicious accusations against Catherine was the notorious St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572. Thousands of Catholics and Huguenots were gathered to celebrate the wedding of Catherine’s Catholic daughter, Marguerite de Valois, to the Huguenot leader and King of Navarre, Henry. However celebrations soon turned sour as an attempted assassination of Admiral Coligny, a prominent Huguenot, resulted in the massacre of approximately 2,000 Huguenots. Violence quickly spread to the provinces and another estimated 10,000 were slaughtered in the following month.

Today, it’s still unknown who ordered the initial assassinations, but possible perpetrators include the powerful Catholic Guise family, who had been engaged in a blood feud with Coligny’s family for years and whose servant fired the initial shot. At the time, Catherine was popularly seen as the orchestrator of the grisly events, and although historians have been conflicted over her role, there is a decisive lack of evidence suggesting she ordered the violence. While she certainly made mistakes and was not above ordering assassinations (she was accused of poisoning many of her enemies), Catherine’s overriding goal was the peace of her kingdom for her children.

Although Catherine could be brutally ruthless, she had fought for years to reconcile and mediate between the warring factions. Even before the official outbreak of war in 1561, she masterminded a Colloquy where she invited the leaders of both Catholics and Huguenots to Poissy to attempt to broker a diplomatic resolution (which was ultimately unsuccessful, despite her efforts). Even in the last years of her life, Catherine was often the sole voice at court arguing for peace, arranging Edicts of Pacification to fix the rash decisions made by her son, Henry III.

Catherine can be seen as a figure in black standing over a pile of corpses in François Dubois' depiction of the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Another accusation that has persisted in darkening Catherine’s name is that of her practising black magic. In an anonymously-published, widely-read pamphlet from 1576, Catherine’s accession to the regency of France was credited to her practice of witchcraft. This pamphlet, titled Marvellous Discourse on the Life, Actions and Deportment of Catherine de Médicis, Queen Mother, claimed, ‘through the wave of her wand and bewitching potions she had changed us into wild beasts and torn out our humanity’. There is no evidence to suggest that Catherine practiced magic, though it is likely that the accusations sprang from her relationship with the famed physician and seer, Nostradamus. She had summoned him to court after reading his almanacs from 1555, in which he referenced potential threats to the royal family. Later, she gave him a position as Charles IX’s Physician-in-Ordinary.

It was easy to throw all kinds of accusations at a foreign woman from a notorious family, alone in a court of powerful, entitled men. Yet perhaps Catherine can best be remembered as a cutthroat, intelligent politician searching to safeguard her children’s country. One thing is certain: she was a complex woman, and as polarising today as she was five hundred years ago.

This article was written in association with The Boar, a student publication based at the University of Warwick.