Who’s afraid of Caterina de’ Medici?

I recently had the good fortune to visit Saint-Denis in Paris and see not only a gorgeous Gothic cathedral, but the tombs of French royalty.  Caterina de’ Medici’s tomb is among them and, since I live in Florence (like she did) and was visiting Paris (like she did…that’s where the similarities end!), I started asking questions about her.

Well, she was quite a gal!  Her story is endlessly fascinating. She was, of course,  the Italian noblewoman, who just happened to also become the queen of France (from 1547 until 1559) by marriage to King Henry II. The 3 following kings were all her sons, and she played a big role in their respective reigns.

For me, my interest was stoked when earlier this month I visited the tomb in Paris that she designed for her husband and herself.  It almost always begins for me with a work of art!  Caterina meticulously planned the funerary monument, but what we see today in Paris is not exactly what she planned, not by a long shot.


The tomb of Henry II and Catherine de’ Medici, St. Denis, Paris

But, even for the Queen of France, the best laid plans don’t always pan out.

The view above of the actual tomb in Saint-Denis, in a northern suburb of Paris, is pretty grand, no?  The King and Queen are depicted in kneeling in positions of perpetual prayer atop the ensemble.  These 2 statues are far from the most impressive ones in this church that serves as the burial place for French royalty.  Especially the figure and face of Caterina: not particularly well conceived. She looks rather wan.

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So, let’s review her history. Caterina de’ Medici  was born on 13 April in 1519 in the Republic of Florence, the only child of Lorenzo II de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, and Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, the countess of Boulogne.

Caterina’s parents were a young couple who had only been married the year before, at Amboise, as part of the alliance between King Francis I of France, the father of the future king Henry II, and the bride’s uncle, non other than Medici Pope Leo X.  This arranged marriage was a seal to the pact between France and the the Roman Catholic Church, and against the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I who had his own ambitions for the lands the other two leaders ruled.

Only 20 days after Catherina’s birth in April of 1519, her mother died, probably from puerperal fever or the plague and, unfortunately, he father died one day later “worn out by disease and excess.” Thus, before she was a month old, Caterina was an orphan.

But, she was a very wealthy orphan, and she had very powerful relatives.

King Francis of France, who had sponsored Caterina’s mother, Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, the countess of Boulogne, as Lorenzo de’ Medici’s bride, wanted Caterina to be raised at the French court. But she had equally powerful relatives on her father’s side. And, indeed, Pope Leo X had other plans for her.

Medici Pope Leo X was Caterina’s uncle and he took responsibility for Caterina’s upbringing. She was first cared for by her paternal grandmother, Alfonsina Orsini (wife of Piero de’ Medici). After Alfonsina’s death in 1520, one-year-old Caterina joined her cousins and was raised by her aunt, Clarice de’ Medici.

The death of Pope Leo X in 1521 briefly interrupted Medici power, but Cardinal Giulio de’ Medici was elected Pope Clement VII in 1523. The new pope and his surrogates looked after Caterina and she grew up in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence. The Florentine people affectionately called her duchessina (“the little duchess”), in deference to her unrecognized claim to the Duchy of Urbino.


Palazzo Medici, Florence

In 1527, the Medici were overthrown in Florence by a faction opposed to the regime of Pope Clement’s representative, Cardinal Silvio Passerini, and Catherine was taken hostage and placed in a series of convents. In the last convent, the Santissima Annuziata delle Murate, which was her home for three years, it is believed she was happy.

The city finally surrendered on 12 August 1530. Pope Clement VII had no choice but to crown Charles Holy Roman Emperor in return for his help in retaking the city. The Pope  summoned Catherine from her beloved convent to join him in Rome, where he is said to have greeted her with open arms and tears in his eyes.

Then he set about the business of finding her a husband.

While we don’t have any images of Caterina as a young maiden, we do have an eye witness description: on her visit to Rome, the Venetian envoy described Caterina as “small of stature, and thin, and without delicate features, but having the protruding eyes peculiar to the Medici family.

Suitors, however, lined up for her hand, including James V of Scotland who in 1530 twice sent the Duke of Albany to Pope Clement VII to arrange a marriage.

But, when Francis I of France proposed his second son, Henry, Duke of Orléans, as the husband for Caterina in early 1533, Pope Clement VII jumped at the offer. Henry was a prize catch for Catherine who, despite her wealth, was of common origin.

And so it came to be that in 1533, at the age of fourteen, Catherina married the 14 year old Henry, second son of King Francis I and Queen Claude of France.


Below: King Henry II as a child.


The wedding was a grand affair, marked by extravagant display and gift-giving. It took place in the Église Saint-Ferréol les Augustins in Marseille on 28 October 1533. Prince Henry danced and jousted for Catherine. The fourteen-year-old couple left their wedding ball at midnight to perform their nuptial duties. The bridegroom arrived in the bedroom with his father, King Francis, who is said to have stayed until the marriage was consummated. The King noted that “each had shown valor in the joust.” Pope Clement VII visited the newlyweds in bed the next morning and added his blessings to the night’s proceedings.

Catherine saw little of her husband in their first year of marriage, but the ladies of the court treated her well, impressed with her intelligence and keenness to please. However, the death of Pope Clement VII a year later, in September of 1534,  undermined Caterina’s standing in the French court.

The next pope, Paul III, broke the alliance with France and refused to pay her huge dowry. King Francis lamented, “The girl has come to me stark naked.”

Meanwhile, Prince Henry showed no interest in Catherine as his wife; instead, he openly took mistresses. For the first ten years of the marriage, Catherine failed to produce any children. In 1537, Philippa Duci, one of Henry’s mistresses, gave birth to a daughter, whom he publicly acknowledged. This proved that Henry was fertile and added to the pressure on Caterina, or Catherine, to produce a child.

In 1536, Henry’s older brother, Francis, caught a chill after a game of tennis, contracted a fever and died shortly after, leaving Henry the heir to the crown as the dauphin. As dauphine, Catherine was expected to provide a future heir to the throne. According to the court chronicler Brantôme, “many people advised the king and the Dauphin to repudiate her, since it was necessary to continue the line of France.” Divorce was discussed.

In desperation, Catherine tried every known trick for getting pregnant, such as placing cow dung and ground stags’ antlers on her “source of life,” and drinking mule’s urine. On 19 January 1544, she at last gave birth to a son.

After becoming pregnant once, Catherine had no trouble doing so again. She may have owed her change of fortune to the physician Jean Fernel, who had noticed slight abnormalities in the couple’s sexual organs and advised them how to solve the problem.

Catherine quickly conceived again and on 2 April 1545 she bore a daughter, Elisabeth. She went on to give Henry a further eight children, six of whom survived infancy, including the future Charles IX (born 27 June 1550); the future Henry III (born 19 September 1551); and Francis, Duke of Anjou (born 18 March 1555). The long-term future of the Valois dynasty, which had ruled France since the 14th century, seemed assured.


Above: Portrait of Henry II by François Clouet

Catherine’s ability to bear children, however, failed to improve her marriage. One year into their marriage, in 1534, Henry, at the age of 15, had taken as his mistress the 38-year-old Diane de Poitiers, whom he adored for the rest of his life. Even so, he respected Catherine’s status as his consort.

When King Francis I died on 31 March 1547, Catherine became queen consort of France. She was crowned in the basilica of Saint-Denis, the very same church for which she later designed her mortuary monument, on 10 June 1549.

Henry allowed Catherine almost no political influence as queen. Although she sometimes acted as regent during his absences from France, her powers were strictly nominal. Moreover, Henry was a cad: he gave the Château of Chenonceau, which Catherine had wanted for herself, to Diane de Poitiers. Diane took her place at the center of power, dispensing patronage and accepting favors. She was Henry’s chief mistress and wielded much influence over the king.


Painting of Diane de Poitiers by Francois Clouet

The imperial ambassador reported that in the presence of guests, Henry would sit on Diane’s lap and play the guitar, chat about politics, or fondle her breasts. Diane never regarded Catherine as a threat. She even encouraged the king to spend more time with Catherine and sire more children.

In 1556, Catherine nearly died giving birth to twin daughters, Joan and Victoria. Surgeons saved her life by breaking the legs of Joan, who died in her womb. The surviving daughter, Victoria, died seven weeks later. Catherine had no more children.


Above: Catherine de’ Medici, as queen of France. A Venetian envoy remarked of Catherine when she was about 40 years old “Her mouth is too large and her eyes too prominent and colourless for beauty, but a very distinguished-looking woman, with a shapely figure, a beautiful skin and exquisitely shaped hands.”

Henry’s reign saw the rise of the Guise brothers, Charles, who became a cardinal, and Henry’s boyhood friend Francis, who became Duke of Guise. Their sister, Mary of Guise, had married James V of Scotland in 1538 and was the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots. At the age of five and a half, Mary was brought to the French court, where she was promised to the Dauphin, Francis. Catherine brought her up with her own children at the French court, while Mary of Guise governed Scotland as her daughter’s regent.

In April of 1559, Henry signed the Peace of Cateau-Cambrésis with the Holy Roman Empire and England, ending a long period of the so-called “Italian Wars.” The treaty was sealed by the betrothal of Catherine’s thirteen-year-old daughter, Elisabeth, to Philip II of Spain. Their proxy wedding, in Paris on 22 June 1559, was celebrated with festivities, balls, masques, and five days of jousting in the Place des Tournelles in Paris, now known as the Place des Vosges.

King Henry took part in the jousting during the celebrations of his daughter’s wedding, sporting Diane’s black-and-white colors. He defeated the dukes of Guise and Nemours, but the young Gabriel, comte de Montgomery, knocked him half out of the saddle. Henry insisted on riding against Montgomery again, and this time, Montgomery’s lance shattered in the king’s face.

Henry reeled out of the clash, his face pouring blood, with splinters “of a good bigness” sticking out of his eye and head. Catherine, Diane, and Prince Francis all fainted. Henry was carried to the Château de Tournelles, where five splinters of wood were extracted from his head, one of which had pierced his eye and brain.

Catherine stayed by his bedside, but Diane kept away, “for fear,” in the words of a chronicler, “of being expelled by the Queen.”

For the next ten days, Henry’s state fluctuated. At times he felt well enough to dictate letters and listen to music. Slowly, however, he lost his sight, speech, and reason, and on 10 July 1559 he died, aged 40.

From that day, Catherine took a broken lance as her emblem, inscribed with the words lacrymae hinc, hinc dolor (“from this come my tears and my pain”), and wore black mourning in memory of Henry II.

Henry’s untimely death in 1559 thrust Catherine into the political arena as mother of the frail fifteen-year-old King Francis II.


Francis II became king at the age of fifteen in 1559. In what has been called a coup d’état, the Guise brothers, the Cardinal of Lorraine and the Duke of Guise, seized power the day after Henry II’s death and quickly moved themselves into the Louvre Palace with the young couple. Don’t forget that the Duke’s niece, Mary, Queen of Scots, had married Francis the year before.

The intense fights over religion came to the fore and the influential Guise brothers set about persecuting the Protestants with zeal. Catherine adopted a moderate stance and spoke against the Guise persecutions, though she had no particular sympathy for the Huguenots, whose beliefs she never shared.

The Protestants looked for leadership first to Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre, and then, with more success, to his brother, Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, who backed a plot to overthrow the Guises by force.

When the Guises heard of the plot, they moved the court to the fortified Château of Amboise. The Duke of Guise and his troops attacked the rebels when they appeared and killed many of them, including the commander, La Renaudie. Others they drowned in the river or strung up around the battlements while Catherine and the court watched.

In June 1560, Michel de l’Hôpital was appointed Chancellor of France. He sought the support of France’s constitutional bodies and worked closely with Catherine to defend the law in the face of the growing anarchy. Neither saw the need to punish Protestants who worshipped in private and did not take up arms.

On 20 August 1560, Catherine and the Chancellor advocated this policy to an assembly of notables at Fontainebleau. Historians regard the occasion as an early example of Catherine’s statesmanship.

Meanwhile, Condé raised an army and in autumn 1560 began attacking towns in the south. Catherine ordered him to court and had him imprisoned as soon as he arrived. He was tried in November, found guilty of offences against the crown, and sentenced to death. His life was saved by the illness and death of the King Francis II, as a result of an infection or an abscess in his ear.

When Catherine realized that Francis was going to die, she made a pact with Antoine de Bourbon by which he would renounce his right to the regency of the future king, Charles IX, in return for the release of his brother, Condé.

As a result, when Francis died on 5 December 1560, the Privy Council appointed Catherine as governor of France (gouvernante de France), with sweeping powers. In this way she was regent on behalf of her ten-year-old son King Charles IX. She wrote to her daughter Elisabeth: “My principal aim is to have the honor of God before my eyes in all things and to preserve my authority, not for myself, but for the conservation of this kingdom and for the good of all your brothers.”

Catherine’s three sons reigned in an age of almost constant civil and religious wars in France. The problems facing the monarchy were complex and daunting, but Catherine was able to keep the monarchy and the state institutions functioning, if only at a minimum level.

At first, Catherine compromised and made concessions to the rebelling Calvinist Protestants, or Huguenots, as they became known. She failed, however, to grasp the theological issues that drove their movement.

Later she resorted, in frustration and anger, to hard-line policies against them. In return, she came to be blamed for the excessive persecutions carried out under her sons’ rule, in particular for the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, in which thousands of Huguenots were killed in Paris and throughout France.



Miniature of Catherine de’ Medici, a rare portrait of Catherine before she was widowed in 1559, when she adopted the veil and severely plain dress of a widow.

Some historians have excused Catherine from blame for the worst decisions of the crown, though evidence for her ruthlessness can be found in her letters. In practice, her authority was always limited by the effects of the civil wars. Her policies, therefore, may be seen as desperate measures to keep the Valois monarchy on the throne at all costs, and her patronage of the arts as an attempt to glorify a monarchy whose prestige was in steep decline.

Without Catherine, it is unlikely that any of her sons would have remained in power. The years during which they reigned have been called “the age of Catherine de’ Medici.”  Catherine was certainly the most powerful woman in sixteenth-century Europe.

On 5 January 1589, Catherine died at the age of sixty-nine, probably from pleurisy. L’Estoile wrote: “those close to her believed that her life had been shortened by displeasure over her son’s deed.” He added that she had no sooner died than she was treated with as much consideration as a dead goat.

Below: the effigies of Catherine and Henry, in Saint-Denis.


Because Paris was held by enemies of the crown, Catherine had to be buried provisionally at Blois. Eight months later, Jacques Clément stabbed Henry III to death. At the time, Henry was besieging Paris with the King of Navarre, who would succeed him as Henry IV of France. Henry III’s assassination ended nearly three centuries of Valois rule and brought the Bourbon dynasty into power. Years later, Diane, daughter of Henry II and Philippa Duci, had Catherine’s remains reinterred in the Saint-Denis basilica in Paris. In 1793, a revolutionary mob tossed her bones into a mass grave with those of the other kings and queens.


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