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Sunday, 24 January 2016

Catherine de Medici: France’s answer to Queen Elizabeth I



28th October 1533 was the wedding day of the future King Henri II of France and Catherine de Medici, the great-granddaughter of Lorenzo the Magnificent and a niece of Pope Clement VII. The young girl would become a major player in the history of France during the 16th century.

Catherine and Henri

As might have been expected, the union of Henri and Catherine was a typical royal “arranged marriage” that was designed to strengthen international ties and was in no way a love match. For one thing, the couple were both aged only 14 at the time.

Henri (who became king in 1547 on his 28th birthday) revealed his lack of affection for Catherine only a year after marrying her, by taking a mistress who was nearly 20 years his senior, this being Diane de Poitiers. Catherine was allowed into the king’s bed only for the purpose of conceiving children, which she was perfectly capable of doing, but Diane was clearly Henri’s preferred companion.

Indeed, Catherine gave birth to three future kings of France among a total of ten children, most of whom lived to adulthood. However, when she gave birth in 1556 to twin girls, one of whom was stillborn and the other lived for only a few weeks, she was advised to have no more children and Diane then had complete access to Henri’s favours.

Catherine becomes the power in the land

It was probably therefore to be expected that, when Henri died in 1559 after a jousting accident in which he had worn Diane’s ribbon on his lance rather than Catherine’s, the latter decided to assert her authority and give Diane her marching orders.

The new king was Henri and Catherine’s eldest son, Francis II, who only lived for 17 months before being succeeded by his brother who reigned for 14 years as Charles IX. Catherine had not acted as regent for Francis but she did for Charles, who was ten years old on his accession. She continued to have a dominant influence on the government of France for the rest of her life (she died in 1589), given that none of her sons (Henri III became king in 1574) demonstrated much talent for the job.

One of Catherine’s methods of keeping control was to establish a network of spies, much as her contemporary Queen Elizabeth I was doing in England. However, Catherine’s spies consisted of beautiful women (known as the “flying squadron”) who used their feminine wiles to extract secrets from friends and foes.

Catherine’s tarnished reputation

Catherine de Medici is most remembered for being the chief influence behind the religious wars that plagued France at that time, the most notorious event being the “Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day” in 1572 which was a concerted attack on French Protestants (the Huguenots). The slaughter was ordered by King Charles IX, but must have been sanctioned by Catherine. As many as 30,000 people may have died within a week as the killing spread across France.

Although Catherine de Medici was hardly the greatest import that the French royal family ever made, she is reputed to have introduced one notable feature that improved French manners and which has lasted to the present day, namely the table fork!


© John Welford