Longreads

Queens of Infamy: The Reign of Catherine de’ Medici

Illustration by Louise Pomeroy

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Anne Thériault | Longreads | October 2018 | 26 minutes (6,557 words)

From the notorious to the half-forgotten, Queens of Infamy, a Longreads series by Anne Thériault, focuses on badass world-historical women of centuries past.

* * *

When we last left the Serpent Queen, things were looking dire. She had been married to Henri, the heir to the French throne, for nearly five years. Although the Dauphin and Dauphine were both young and healthy, Catherine was failing in her most fundamental duty: providing the country with an heir. Rumors had spread throughout the court that she was incapable of conceiving. Since her husband’s only living brother was unmarried and childless, the entire fate of the Valois dynasty rested on Catherine’s ability to produce a child.

Faced with a rival noble faction, the Guises, who wanted to replace the apparently barren queen-to-be with one of their own, Catherine had thrown aside her pride and made a risky preemptive strike. Swooning pathetically at Francis I’s feet, the young woman tearfully begged the king to go ahead and replace her, saying that she loved Henri beyond measure and just wanted him to have a wife who could give him heirs. Catherine asked only that she be allowed to stay in France and humbly serve her beloved’s new bride.

It was a risky move, but Catherine had banked on the fact that the aging king couldn’t bear to see a young woman crying. Francis, nearly in tears himself, declared that it was God’s will that Catherine be the Dauphin’s wife. The question of replacing the Dauphine was resolved, for now.

But Catherine knew that this amnesty was only temporary; just across the English channel, Henry VIII was ditching his wives all over the place for not giving him a son. How long would it be before the Valois family decided to follow suit?

Catherine attacked the problem from every angle she could think of: prayers, doctors, alchemists, and questionable folk remedies like drinking mule’s urine. It’s possible that her obsession with magic and the occult stemmed at least in part from this time, since historical records make it clear that she was willing to try anything. Catherine even had a hole drilled into the floor above the chambers of Diane de Poitiers, her husband’s mistress; she wanted to spy on her rival to make sure she, Catherine, was doing sex right.

It’s possible that for her entire life, Catherine was an unwitting carrier of whatever killed her parents, a ticking bomb that would eventually help tear apart the Valois dynasty.

In a last-ditch effort to conceive, Catherine had a doctor named Jean Fernel perform an exhaustive physical exam on both her and Henri. The doctor said that based on the anatomy of their respective reproduction systems, they should try boning in a specific position in order to optimize their chances of making a baby. Sadly, the details of his recommendations have not been preserved, but whatever he suggested worked. The Dauphine became pregnant in 1543.

Let us pause for a second and marvel over this. It’s rumored that Henri had a mild penile deformity that had caused their childlessness, but even if that’s true, it seems astonishing that a simple change of position could produce such immediate results. I have questions, most of which boil down to: what position were they formerly doing it in that was apparently so detrimental to their fertility? Because after following Dr. Fernel’s advice, Catherine and Henri went on to have not just one or two children but ten. Ten! Ten whole children! After a decade of trying and failing to conceive!

HENRI: *squints at diagram*

HENRI: ok, so, milk, milk … lemonade?

HENRI: and then around the corner…

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: no!! remember what the doctor said?

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: around the corner is too far

HENRI: I don’t get it

HENRI: this is too complicated

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: just do whatever you did to make that baby in Italy!

HENRI: babe, that was so long ago

HENRI: I was in a war

HENRI: living in a foreign country

HENRI: drinking a lot

HENRI: you can’t expect me to remember every single detail of what happened

Catherine delivered her first child, Francis, in 1544, then spent the next twelve years popping out babies all over the place. By 1555, she had given birth to Elisabeth, Claude, Louis, Charles-Maximilien, Alexandre Édouard, Margaret, and Hercules; in 1555 she capped off this baby extravaganza with a two-for-one special: Princesses Joan and Victoria.

Sadly, Louis and the twins did not survive infancy, and the rest of the royal children, with the exception of Margaret, would have serious lifelong health problems. Remember the speculation that Catherine’s parents died of syphilis and/or tuberculosis? The symptoms her children experienced were consistent with both congenital syphilis and tuberculosis. It’s possible that for her entire life, Catherine was an unwitting carrier of whatever killed her parents, a ticking bomb that would eventually help tear apart the Valois dynasty.

* * *

In early 1547, King Francis took to his bed after several months of poor health. Henri, who had grown close to Francis during his protracted illness, held his father in a tight embrace as he lay dying and refused to let go. Francis, for his part, spent his last hours giving his son advice like “don’t sleep around too much” and “don’t trust the Guises.” Then, on the afternoon of March 31, Francis I died at the age of 52. Henri and Catherine, both 28 years old, were the new King and Queen of France.

In spite of the constant wars against the Holy Roman Empire and mounting tensions between Catholics and Protestants, the couple had inherited a fairly stable country. Catherine was no stranger to violent political upheavals, but she could not have foreseen the powers that would tear the country apart during her rule, let alone that she would have to navigate most of it on her own. She also could not have known just how prophetic her father-in-law’s warning about the Guises would turn out to be.

Henri dressed for his coronation in a tunic emblazoned with the “HD” monogram that honored his love for Diane. Catherine, five months pregnant, swallowed down whatever her real feelings were and gave the outward appearance of pride and joy. This was exactly how the relationship between the three would play out over the next few years, with Henri openly declaring his love for his mistress and Catherine playing the role of uncomplaining wife and mother.

Catherine was polite and pleasant to Diane at all times, an act that she considered part of her duty to her husband. In a letter dated many years after this period, Catherine wrote, “If I made good cheer for [Diane] it was the King that I was really entertaining, and besides I always let him know that I was acting sorely against the grain; for never did a woman who loved her husband succeed in loving his whore. For one cannot call her otherwise, although the word is a horrid one to us.” That might be one of history’s most stunning examples of sorry but, like, lol not really sorry.

Catherine was no stranger to violent political upheavals, but she could not have foreseen the powers that would tear the country apart during her rule, let alone that she would have to navigate most of it on her own.

As their children grew older, Catherine and Henri began to plan out their futures. They decided to renew the Auld Alliance — a treaty between France and Scotland that could also be described as The Enemy Of My Enemy Is My Friend: Fuck You, England! Edition — by promising their eldest son, Francis, to Mary Queen of Scots. Mary, whose mother was a Guise, came to live at the French court when she was just 5 years old and was raised with the Valois children.

Catherine’s plans to see her children well-married moved at a quick pace. In April of 1558, 16-year-old Mary wed Francis, the 14-year-old Dauphin, at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. On January 19, 1559, Princess Claude, 11 at the time, married the Duke of Lorraine. Later that year Princess Elisabeth wed Philip II of Spain. This marriage came a result of the treaty that ended the Last Italian War, so called because it marked the conclusion of the series of wars that France and the Holy Roman Empire had been fighting in Italy for 38 goddamn years. It was amid the celebrations of this new, contentious alliance that disaster struck.

Disaster, Catherine was sure, that had been amply foretold.

* * *

Like many of her Renaissance peers, the Queen of France often consulted astrologers and fortune-tellers and believed that her own dreams were often prophetic. Shortly after Elisabeth’s wedding ceremony, Catherine had a dream that Henri was lying on the ground, gravely injured and covered in blood. She was sure that this vision had something to do with the joust Henri was scheduled to participate in as part of the festivities; compounding her certainty was a warning she’d received from the Medici family astrologer, Luca Gaurico, who had said that Henri must “avoid all single combat in an enclosed space” in his 40th year.

On the morning of June 30, 1559, Catherine wept and begged her husband not to fight, but he brushed off her concerns. Under the gaze of his wife, his children, and his mistress, Henri took to the field; he was wearing Diane’s colors, which must have felt like an especial affront to Catherine after he’d ignored her warnings. Henri’s first few jousts against the Dukes of Guise and Nemours went well, and he seemed tired but confident as he prepared to ride against the Count of Montgomery. During their first clash, Montgomery nearly unseated the king. Their second clash ended in catastrophe: when the two riders met, a splinter of wood from one of the lances broke off and lodged itself in Henri’s eye. The wound proved to be fatal. After suffering through almost two weeks of unimaginable agony, Henri died of septicemia on July 10.

The Merchant’s Daughter stepped forward into the vacuum left by her husband’s death and grabbed the reins. For the sake of Henri, her children, and the entire Valois dynasty, she swore to hold on for as long as she could.

Catherine de’ Medici, just forty years old, was now a widow. Her youngest child was 4; her eldest, the new King of France, was 16. It was clear that the succession would be rocky; not only was Francis III young, but his health was deteriorating. On top of that, Henri left behind a country far less stable than the one he had inherited: the religious unrest reshaping much of Northern Europe threatened to tear France apart; the people were furious at Henri’s recent alliance with the Empire and could not believe that Princess Elisabeth had married the son of their former nemesis, Charles V; the Guises, sensing that their time had come, ramped up their scheming.

The Merchant’s Daughter stepped forward into the vacuum left by her husband’s death and grabbed the reins. For the sake of Henri, her children, and the entire Valois dynasty, she swore to hold on for as long as she could.

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: honestly, it would have been easier for me to retire at this point

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: but listen, do you know what it’s like to be pregnant nine times in a row?

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: I had about five minutes total of not being pregnant during those twelve years

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: and that’s not even getting into the decade of misery preceding that period

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: I was not about to have all that hard work be for nothing

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: so, I took charge

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: it wasn’t supposed to be a forever thing

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: I truly thought that one of my many sons would eventually be competent to rule

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: I’m mature enough to admit that I was wrong

* * *

The day after Henri’s death, the Cardinal of Lorraine and the Duke of Guise, both uncles to Mary Queen of Scots, moved into the Louvre with the royal family. Their intent was clear: to hold sway over the naive young monarch and, through him, rule the kingdom according to their own interests. Catherine, ever the pragmatic, decided to give the appearance of working with the Guises while privately doing her best to make sure her advice was the first and loudest Francis heard. It was the same tactic she’d used with Diane: keeping up a publicly solicitous veneer while secretly plotting the downfall of her enemy.

Speaking of Diane, one of Catherine’s first acts as a widow was to ban her from court. She demanded that Diane return the crown jewels that Henri had given her, and also asked Diane to “trade” her beautiful castle at Chenonceau for Catherine’s own castle at Chaumont. Since both Chenonceau and the jewelry had formerly been royal property, Diane could hardly say no. In any event, she’d always known that her position at court was temporary and could last only as long as the king himself. After acquiescing to all of Catherine’s demands, the former favorite retired to a quiet life at Anet; the two of them never met face-to-face again.


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Catherine’s interest in the occult seemed to intensify around this time, or, at the very least, it became more widely known. During her last stay in Chaumont, Catherine allegedly performed a scrying ritual with Cosimo de Ruggiere, her personal astrologer. Ruggiere, said to be a master of the dark arts and also possibly a necromancer, held up an enchanted mirror for Catherine; in it, she saw a vision predicting that three of her sons would be kings but that the throne would eventually go to her children’s cousin Henri, Prince of Navarre. This was far from the only spooky shit Catherine was involved in. She also commissioned an amulet from Nostradamus made from metal mixed with human and goat’s blood, her “workroom” at Blois had walls filled with hundreds of secret cabinets where she was said to keep an array of poisons, and one of her contemporaries, philosopher Jean Bodin, claimed that she invented the Black Mass.

Was Catherine petty and vindictive? Definitely. Was she a witch? Maybe! But her fascination with the occult was, in retrospect, completely understandable.

While many of the rumors about Catherine’s more questionable hobbies are almost certainly exaggerations or just straight-up lies — men, after all, have long used accusations of witchcraft to delegitimize powerful women — at least some them were true. One of the reasons we know this is because Catherine didn’t do a great job of cleaning up after herself at Chaumont. When Diane took possession of castle, she was horrified to discover pentacles drawn on the floor along with other evidence of occult practices.

DIANE DE POITIERS: I think you, uh, forgot to pack a few things when you left

DIANE DE POITIERS: like this vial full of blood

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: oh, that’s fine! I don’t need that stuff anymore

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: you can keep it

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: you can especially keep the vortex to the underworld that I made in the second-floor drawing room

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: hahaha just kidding, I would never do that!

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: but seriously, be careful around those pentacles

DIANE DE POITIERS: you know, I think I’m good? I’m just going to go back to Anet

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: suit yourself!

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: Chenonceau is really nice by the way, you did a great job with it

Was Catherine petty and vindictive? Definitely. Was she a witch? Maybe! But her fascination with the occult was, in retrospect, completely understandable. Francis’ health was declining rapidly, and the French economy, depressed from years of war with the Empire, was in a tailspin. The Huguenot movement was gaining ground, and the Guises pushed for a bloody solution to the Protestant problem. Looking into magic mirrors and casting spells must have made Catherine feel like she had some kind of control over her life, however illusory.

* * *

As Francis deteriorated throughout the spring and summer of 1560, the Huguenots plotted to overthrow the Guises’ regency and give power to King Antoine of Navarre and his brother Louis of Condé, both of whom were Protestant. Antoine and Louis should have held a high position on the royal council as members of the House of Bourbon, but the Guises’ quiet coup after Henri II’s death had pushed them out of the government. The Bourbons and their supporters were understandably pissed off about this, and in the months that followed, there were numerous Huguenot riots and revolts across France. Catherine tried her best to make peace between the two religious factions, promoting clemency and freedom of conscience. Unfortunately, her attempt to find some kind of amicable middle ground between Catholicism and Protestantism only made each side distrust her more.

The Guises insisted on arresting Louis of Condé for treason because of his involvement in Huguenot plots. A brief trial with a stacked jury ensued, resulting in a “guilty” verdict; Condé was sentenced to death. During the same week that the trial began, Francis fell gravely ill with a fistula in his left ear. For Catherine, it must have felt like her life was disintegrating on every side. She knew that if the Guises had Condé executed, there would be no hope for a peaceful reconciliation between the Protestants and Catholics; Francis’ death, which would bring about the end of Mary’s reign in France, would do much to lessen the Guises’ power. But, of course, Catherine could hardly pray for the death of her beloved son. She also knew that having a 10-year-old king — the age of Charles-Maximilien, her second-eldest son — would only create more political instability.

Catherine’s solution to this problem was nothing short of brilliant: she and Antoine of Navarre reached an agreement that made her regent and ensured the release of his brother. The Guises began to grow anxious about retaliation for their treatment of Louis of Condé once their niece, Mary, was no longer queen; to placate them, Catherine had the dying Francis announce that was the one who had ordered the arrest and death of Louis of Condé. Then, because she was That Mom Friend, Catherine made the Guises and the Condés hug it out in front of everybody.

King Francis II died on December 5, 1560. In just over a year and a half, Catherine de’ Medici had lost both her husband and her eldest son, yet she knew that she couldn’t give in to her anguish; if she didn’t act quickly, the Valois dynasty would lose its grip on the crown. On December 6, Catherine asked the grieving Mary to return the crown jewels. She then called a Privy Council meeting and declared Charles-Maximilien King of France.

“Since it has pleased God to deprive me of my elder son, I do not mean to abandon myself to despair, but to submit to the Divine Will and to assist and serve the King, my second son, in the feeble measure of my experience,” she said by way of opening the session. “I have decided, therefore, to keep him beside me and to govern the state, as a devoted mother must do. Since I have assumed this duty, I wish all correspondence to be addressed in the first place to me; I shall open it in your presence and in particular in that of the King of Navarre who will occupy the first place in the council as the nearest relative of the King … such is my will.” At another council meeting on December 21, Catherine was officially proclaimed Gouvernante de France; a few months later, Charles-Maximilien was crowned at Rheims Cathedral as Charles IX.

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: as my old pal Billy Shakes would say

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: some are born great

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: some achieve greatness

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: and some of us have to wrest greatness from the hands of conniving dukes

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: you know, I’ve spent my whole life having other people make decisions for me

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: where I live, who I marry, whether or not I survive

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: but now I’m in charge

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: so you can either do what I want or get the fuck out of my way

* * *

Charles IX’s reign did not begin very auspiciously; he wept at his coronation from exhaustion and stress. In spite of this poor start, Catherine pressed on. The first thing on her agenda was religious reconciliation, which she hoped to bring about at a conference with Protestant and Catholic leaders in Poissy. Unfortunately, Catherine didn’t seem to grasp what was at stake when it came to her country’s divided faith. She saw it as a political issue, and couldn’t understand why everyone was being so unreasonable about it. Her own relationship with Christianity was loose and practical; the Catholic Church generally aligned with her life ambitions and she did seem to find some genuine comfort in its rituals, but she was also drawing pentacles on floors. Maybe it’s not surprising that she couldn’t grasp why other people were so ride-or-die for their particular brand of Jesus. In the end, the conference disbanded after a little more than a month when it became clear that no agreement could be reached. Once again both sides felt that Catherine had let them down.

Things devolved from there. The Duke of Guise massacred a group of Huguenots while they were at worship; shortly after that the Condés raised an army of 1,800 men, made an alliance with England, and began seizing towns across France. This was the beginning of three decades of civil unrest in France, a series of ongoing conflicts known as the Wars of Religion, which would permanently blemish the reputation of the Valois dynasty.

Catherine packed just the essentials — stuff like gold plates and silk sheets and portable triumphal arches to set up whenever they entered a new city.

During a particularly violent period between 1562 and 1563, Antoine of Navarre died of battlefield wounds, and the Duke of Guise was killed by a Huguenot double agent. After brokering a short-lived treaty, Catherine set her iron will to maintaining peace in her country. She knew that despite the vast power of the regency, she could not wield it the way a man could, and so she set about figuring out how to achieve her political objectives through the means that were available to her.

She began to throw lavish parties, which had two main goals: to keep the nobility, Catholic and Protestant alike, too drunk and happy to fight, and to show the world that the House of Valois was just as vital and magnificent as it had been during the years of Francis I and Henri II. It was also during this time that Catherine created one of her most notorious legacies: her Flying Squadron.

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: what’s the Flying Squadron?

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: honey, I’m so glad you asked

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: it’s a group of political agents who just happen to be beautiful women

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: turns out men will spill all their secrets if you show a little skin

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: like, slip a nip while asking who they’re plotting to bring down

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: and they’ll just tell you

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: men are so weak and predictable

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: it almost makes me feel bad, like I’m taking candy from a baby

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: but, you know, a baby that would destroy my life if it had the chance

The Flying Squadron, who dressed in robes of silk and cloth of gold, were Catherine’s spies, bringing her back information about political maneuverings. They also used their wiles to distract men who might otherwise have been reigniting religious tensions. One member of the Flying Squadron, Isabelle de Limeuil, began an affair with Louis of Condé and was apparently so successful in her objectives that he quit attending Protestant services for a while.

The second prong of Catherine’s plan to bring about peace focussed on the common people. She figured that they might be more likely to love and obey their new king if they had the chance to see him, so she organized a grand tour of France. For this venture, Catherine packed just the essentials — stuff like gold plates and silk sheets and portable triumphal arches to set up whenever they entered a new city. The trip, which lasted over two years, was by and large a success when it came to Catherine’s political objectives: the French got to know their young king, and he got to know his people. She also managed to achieve two personal goals: a meeting with Nostradamus and a reunion with her daughter Elisabeth, Queen of Spain.

Through Catherine’s efforts, France saw four years of “armed peace” after the first war of religion. But even the most opulent feasts and masques couldn’t stave off the inevitable, and in 1567 the Second War of Religion broke out. The Huguenots tried to kidnap Charles IX at Meaux and then massacred a group of Catholics at Nîmes; the Catholics did their best to retaliate. The war concluded with a decisive battle in 1568, but by then it became clear that Catherine’s greatest fears were true: the religious problem remained unsolved, and would likely remain that way for many years to come. In fact, the Third War of Religion commenced just months after the end of the second.

* * *

After the Peace of Saint-Germain-en-Laye ended the third round of fighting, Charles IX began spending more and more time with Admiral Coligny, a gifted military leader and head of the Huguenot faction. Coligny established himself as an important presence in Charles’ life and became a close advisor of the king’s. As Coligny’s influence waxed, Catherine’s waned. Charles was, after all, an adult; his mother’s regency had formally ended in 1563, and by the end of 1570 he was 20 and married to Elisabeth of Austria. It’s natural that he was tired of being under Catherine’s control. Equally natural was Catherine’s seething resentment as Coligny’s power over the king eclipsed her own.

Speaking of marriages, a big one was in the works for Catherine’s seventh child, Margaret: a union with King Henri of Navarre, son of Antoine de Navarre and a leader of the Protestant forces. One small catch was that Margaret was in love with a different Henri, the new Duke of Guise, and the two of them were Doing It on the regular. Catherine was, to put it mildly, furious; she saw the match between Margaret and the King of Navarre as the perfect solution to the ongoing conflicts between the Huguenots and the Catholics, and she couldn’t believe that her daughter would let a little thing like love stand in the way of her duty to her country. Catherine and Charles managed to catch Margaret and Henri of Guise in bed together; the king and his mother dragged the girl from her chambers and beat her while she screamed.

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: was it my proudest parenting moment?

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: definitely not

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: but these fucking Guises

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: they’re like cockroaches, you think you’ve killed them all but they just keep coming back.

Henri of Navarre’s mother, Jeanne d’Albret, who had left court several years earlier after being disgusted by the loose morals of the Flying Squadron, was initially against the match. Jeanne didn’t see it as a chance to broker peace; to her, it was more like throwing her son to the wolves — slutty, morally devoid, Catholic wolves. But Catherine pulled out all the stops and was as charming and persuasive as she could be. She even promised to get a special dispensation from the Pope so that Henri of Navarre could remain Protestant. Eventually, Jeanne d’Albret agreed, and they announced the engagement. Less than two months later, Margaret’s future mother-in-law fell ill and died in Paris, where she’d gone to buy clothes for the wedding. It was widely rumored that Catherine had killed her with a pair of poisoned gloves.

* * *

The wedding of Margaret and Henri was set for August 18, 1572. As the date approached, Paris began to fill with Huguenots, who were excited by the chance to celebrate the marriage of one of their own. The Parisians, a staunchly Catholic population, were decidedly not thrilled about the match or the crowds of Protestants. The ceremony itself went off without a hitch, but just four days later a chain reaction set into motion and culminated in a burst of violence that has stained the Medici name ever since.

On August 22, a man named Maurevert leaned out the window of a house owned by the Guise family and shot Admiral Coligny. It’s impossible to know who, exactly, organized this attempt on Coligny’s life; regardless of who was behind it, the assassination attempt failed and the admiral escaped with an injured finger.

Charles IX was initially appalled by the attack and sent his personal physician to attend to his mentor. The king wasn’t allowed to have a private audience with Coligny, however, and was told by his mother, his brother the Duke of Anjou, and various Catholic advisors that Coligny had actually been working against his interests all this time. Further, he was told that the Huguenots were going to seek revenge for the attack on Coligny. It was this last point that convinced the young king that his beloved mentor was up to no good, at which point he was said to have yelled, “Then kill them! Kill them all!”

St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre began early in the morning of August 24 with the murder of Admiral Coligny, which Henri of Guise carried out himself. Huguenot nobles, who had lodged in the Louvre for the wedding, were slaughtered in their rooms. Mayhem quickly broke out, and the violence spread to the streets, with furious Catholics killing any Huguenots they could find. If Catherine had hoped that orchestrating the removal of Coligny and the Protestant nobility would end the smoldering religious tensions in France, she had made a grave miscalculation. The royal family cowered in the palace, terrified that the horde would turn on them next. Catherine, no doubt, spent the time reliving the Siege of Florence, when, as a young child, she had endured stomach-churning threats from all sides.

By the time the massacre was over, Catholic mobs had murdered tens of thousands of their Huguenot countrymen. Henri de Navarre and his cousin Henri of Condé were spared, but only because they had promised to embrace Catholicism. The remaining Huguenots were convinced that the whole thing had been an elaborate plot wrought by the Serpent Queen; they thought that, in a deeply Machiavellian move, she had arranged her daughter’s wedding to Henri with the intention of luring Protestants to Paris and then slaughtering them. Henri’s conversion was the icing on her scheming, poison-filled cake.

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: if it wasn’t such a horrible accusation, it would be kind of flattering

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: imagine how much foresight and planning a massacre like that would require!

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: it would take a genius to pull it off

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: and I am just a humble queen mother

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: a queen who, by the way, has spent years advocating for reconciliation between the Catholics and the Protestants

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: the St Bartholomew’s Day thing was a complete accident

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: I will admit that it was gauche for Charles to throw a parade celebrating it

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: especially while the killings were still going on

Not long after the massacre, it became clear that Charles was dying, probably from the same illness that had killed his older brother; he spent his last years tormented by the violence that he had unleashed on his country, and often blamed it all on his mother. Catherine, in denial that she was about to lose another son, finagled a deal that unwisely involved sending the Dauphin, formerly known as Alexandre Édouard but now going by Henri, off to be King of Poland. (For those of you keeping score at home, the tally is now four Henris: Henri of Navarre, Henri of Guise, Henri of Condé, and Henri of Valois. The Four Henris of the Apocalypse, if you will. Or else just plain Too Many Fucking Henris.) Getting a foot in the Eastern European door seemed like a great idea to Catherine, who had dynastic ambitions and was broke as hell; not only would the Valois dynasty rule two countries, but Poland would also generate the cash she needed. Unfortunately, the deal turned out to be much less lucrative than she had hoped.

* * *

On May 30, 1574, 23-year-old Charles IX died with Catherine at his bedside. His last words were “Adieu, ma mère, eh! Ma mère.” Catherine, deeply gratified, repeated the story of his death to anyone who would listen. Not that she wasn’t devastated, but, you know, silver linings and all that.

The Dauphin, now Henri III of France, was notified of his promotion at home in Poland. Knowing that his departure would not go over well in his adoptive country, Henri III promised the Poles that he would not abandon them and that their interests would come first while he figured out what to do next. Then he peaced out of his castle in the middle of the night with a bunch of the Polish crown jewels. It was a classic Medici move.

Much like his brothers before him, Henri III was not very interested in the practicalities of ruling and left most of it up to his mother. He preferred to carouse with his close-knit circle of friends, who all happened to be exceedingly attractive young men; the king referred to this group as his mignons, which roughly translates to “adorables.” Henri III seems to have been fluid in both his sexuality and gender presentation. His fashion preferences tended towards what his contemporaries considered feminine, with corsets, sumptuous fabrics, and flashy jewelry. He would often throw dress-up parties to which he would wear elaborate skirts and stunning bodices. He had several very close (read: probably sexual) relationships with men, but he also obsessed over beautiful women, particularly Marie of Clèves, the wife of his sometime-nemesis, Henri of Condé.

Much like his brothers before him, Henri III was not very interested in the practicalities of ruling and left most of it up to his mother.

After Marie’s death (of a lung infection, although the king swore that her husband had poisoned her), Henri III married Louise de Vaudémont, who bore a haunting resemblance to his former beloved. Henri threw himself into planning their wedding, even going so far as to design all of the bride’s wedding outfits himself. He also styled Louise’s hair for the occasion, and took so long primping and curling her locks that the ceremony had to be delayed by several hours. Louise, whose childhood had been marked by neglect, loved the attention her husband lavished on her; he, by turn, loved to dress her up and show her off. By all accounts, it was a happy marriage and Louise was smitten with her husband. (After his death she inherited Chenonceau, which she filled with black tapestries embroidered with skulls. It’s called mourning, sweetie, look it up.)

Henri had long been his mother’s favorite child; she called him chers yeux (“darling eyes”) and fawned over him at every chance. He had been involved in his mother’s intriguing before the massacre, and their political and personal ambitions often seemed to align (although she would have preferred a more prestigious match when it came to his marriage); according to some historians, they even practiced the dark arts together.

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On June 10, 1584, Catherine’s youngest child, who had formerly been called Hercules but now went by Francis, died of the same illness that had claimed her two eldest sons. The queen mother had outlived all of her children except Henri III and Margaret, now Queen of Navarre.

The death of his younger brother and heir meant that Henri, who was childless, had to name Henri of Navarre as Dauphin. This would have been fine — Henri of Navarre was, after all, related through both blood and marriage to the king — except that the new Dauphin had re-converted to Protestantism after the fallout from the massacre had died down. The Duke of Guise could not tolerate the idea of a Huguenot on the throne, took control of the League of Catholics, and moved in open revolt against the throne.

By 1588, the French monarchy completely lost control of the country. The Parisians, who had aligned themselves with the Duke of Guise and the League of Catholics, set up barricades in the streets, although they allowed Catherine safe passage on her way to and from mass. This was the third time that the queen mother’s daily life was circumscribed by mob rule; distraught beyond words, she soon took to her bed with a lung infection. Henri, always one to seize an opportunity, dismissed all of his ministers, many of whom had obtained their positions through his mother’s orchestrations. This was the end of any institutional power Catherine still held.

Had Catherine de’ Medici been a man, she would probably be remembered as one of the greatest European rulers, but because she’s a woman she’s referred to as a maggot and a serpent.

On December 23, 1588, Henri had the Duke of Guise over at the Chateau de Blois, allegedly to discuss the evolving crisis. In reality, Henri had planned to murder him in cold blood. Immediately afterwards, Henri captured Guise’s brother, Louis, and killed him too. Both bodies were dismembered and then burned in a fireplace; Henri worried that giving them a proper burial plot would create a shrine where Catholics would worship them as martyrs.

When Henri bragged to Catherine about his sweet murder plot (sample sentence: “mom, don’t get upset, but I murdered all the Guises today”), he stressed that he had only preemptively done what the Guises were planning to do to him. Catherine recognized, though, that the already-unpopular king had committed an offense that his people could never forgive. The queen mother, her seemingly indomitable spirit finally crushed by her son’s crimes, grew sicker over the following days. On January 5, 1589, Catherine died at the age of 69. Henri III was assassinated eight months later; he was succeeded by Henri de Navarre, who had re-converted to Catholicism and ruled as Henri IV of France.

HENRI IV: Paris is well worth a mass

HENRI IV: lol, I actually said that!

HENRI IV: can you believe it?

HENRI IV: the ends totally justify the means

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: I tried to tell everyone that all those Wars of Religion were about politics

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: but no, no, no, you all insisted they were about Jesus

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: well, millions of people are dead

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: and it turns out that your sweet little Protestant Prince is as fickle as anyone

CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI: are you all happy now?

The reign of the House of Valois was over.

Had Catherine de’ Medici been a man, she would have probably been remembered as one of the greatest European rulers, but because she was a woman, she’s referred to as a maggot and a serpent. And that’s not even getting into the fact that she’s often cited as the sole author of the St Bartholomew Day massacre, in spite of the multiple men around her who had a vested interest in getting rid of Protestants. Philip II of Spain is said to have laughed — laughed — for “almost the first time on record” when he learned of the killings, and yet his name isn’t the one that comes up during discussions about those events. No one would argue that Catherine was blameless, but it also seems fair to say that it’s time to reassess her legacy. Was she truly a Machiavellian monster? Or did she serve as a scapegoat for the men around her?

Catherine spent her entire adult life trying to protect her family from the growing chaos around them. Although she sometimes failed and failed badly, her sense of duty never wavered. She was the force that held the Valois dynasty — and, to a certain extent, France — together until the bitter end. Long live the fucking queen.


Previously:
Queens of Infamy: The Rise of Catherine de’ Medici
Queens of Infamy: Joanna of Naples
Queens of Infamy: Anne Boleyn
Queens of Infamy: Eleanor of Aquitaine

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For further reading on Catherine de’ Medici:
Leonie Frieda, Catherine de’ Medici: Renaissance Queen of France
Christopher Hibbert, The House of Medici: Its Rise And Fall
Mary Hollingsworth, The Family Medici: The Hidden History of the Medici Dynasty

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Anne Thériault is a Toronto-based feminist killjoy. She is currently raising one child and three unruly cats. If she has a looming deadline, you can find her procrastinating on Twitter @anne_theriault.

Editor: Ben Huberman
Illustrator: Louise Pomeroy

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