Catherine de’ Medici was a divisive figure during her own time and on into the modern period. There are many even now who believe she practiced witchcraft or Satanism. Whether or not this is true, she was a pivotal figure at a time with France was being torn apart with the wars of religion.
She was born Caterina Maria Romula di Lorenzo de’ Medici in Florence, Italy to Lorenzo II de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino, and Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, Countess of Boulogne. Her mother died of childbed fever after she was born, and her father followed soon after. This left young Caterina in the care of her grandmother and then later an aunt. When she was eight years old, an angry mob attacked the palace where she was living to oust the Medici from power in Florence. Her relatives evacuated, but the mob demanded they leave young Caterina behind as a hostage. She was sent to a series of convents, and there received a top notch education which allowed her to become one of the most well educated women of the age.
A few years later, the rebellion was put down by Guilio de’ Medici, now Pope Clement VII, and Caterina went to live with him in Rome. It is said he wept with joy and relief to see her out of Florence safely. Pope Clement went about arranging a brilliant marriage for his newly rescued niece. In 1533, Caterina was married to Henry of Orleans, the second eldest son of Francis I of France. This marriage was to shore up the relations between France and the Papacy and stem the influence of the Germans on the Italian peninsula. The bride and groom were both fourteen, and the bride was described as “small and slender, with fair hair, thin and not pretty in face, but with the eyes peculiar to all the Medici”. Not exactly flattering. To improve her height, she had a special shoe designed by a Florentine artisan for her presentation to the French court. This is the first appearance of a modern high heeled shoe and she caused a great stir at court with this new fashion.
The French were not pleased with Catherine, and called her “the Italian woman”. The alliance she brought crumbled when Pope Clement died and was succeeded by Pope Paul III, who renewed relations with the Germans. He refused to pay Catherine’s dowry, leaving her with a diminished status in the eyes of the nobles. Her new husband did not have much time for her either as he began his lifelong dalliance with Diane de Poitiers a year after he married Catherine. Henry became the dauphin after the death of his brother in 1536, and the French were not pleased with the thought of Catherine on the throne. They all hoped since there had been no children, Henry could find a way to put her aside. It was at this time that rumors of witchcraft began to dog Catherine as unexpectedly she became pregnant in 1544. Rumors also said that the King’s mistress Diane had insisted he share his wife’s bed to get an heir, which must have been humiliating if true. Either way, Catherine and Henry had a child each year after that until they had a family of ten.
Henry died in a tournament accident in 1559, making their fifteen year old son King Francis II. However, he was much under the influence of his wife’s family. Francis had married Mary Queen of Scots, whose mother was a member of the powerful Guise family. As long as Mary was married to Francis, the Guises held all the power. This only worsened the divide between Catholics and Protestants in the country. The Guise were the leading Catholic family, and the Bourbons the leading Protestant family. The royal family sat between them trying not be ripped apart. Catherine originally promoted tolerance and understanding towards the Protestants, much to the dismay of the Guise. However, this would change.
Francis died young, leaving the crown to his nine year old brother Charles IX, and Catherine became Queen Regent. It was during this time she developed and employed her “Flying Squadron”. This was a group of devoted ladies, both low and high born, who used their feminine wiles to infiltrate the bedrooms of the powerful. From their position in the confidence of these high placed officials and nobles, they gathered information and reported back to Catherine. She also cultivated the seer Nostradamus, making him the Counselor and Physician-in-Ordinary to Charles IX. Her interest in the occult and astrology did nothing to quell the rumors of witchcraft that had begun early in her career. Soon that would be the least of her worries.
At first Catherine tried to keep the peace between the two warring religious factions, but then one got too close to her son. Gaspard de Coligny was a Protestant who became a close advisor to the king. So close that Charles called him “ma pere”, my father. This threatened both Catherine’s power over her son as well as the powerful Guise family. In fact, a failed assassination attempt on Coligny was laid at the feet of the Guise. The King was outraged, but Catherine took the strategy of ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’, and convinced the king that if the Protestants took Paris none of the royal family would be safe. Finally, she was able to convince the King to authorize Coligny’s death, but he made a throw away comment that would ring down the centuries. Charles said something to the effect of if Coligny was to die they would have to kill every other Protestant because if any were left alive they would want their revenge.
That comment led to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. Death swept like wildfire from Paris and beyond as Protestants were murdered by their Catholic countrymen. The killings lasted for a week, and no one is sure the exact death toll, but some counts put it in the tens of thousands. There is no proof Catherine was involved, however, consensus says she was as Protestants she favored were spared. It was not the only battle in the French Wars of Religion, but it is the worst crime laid at Catherine’s feet.
Charles IX died young as well, and the crown passed to Catherine’s favorite son Henri III. She was again named regent. Her position of striking a balance of tolerance between Catholics and Protestants was gone after the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. This legacy blotted out her attempts to unite the factions. She had her daughter Marguerite married to the future Henri IV, who was a Protestant, and tried for years to make a match with one of her sons and Elizabeth I of England. Despite this she was portrayed by Protestants as “the wicked Italian Queen”. At her death in 1589, few had a kind word for her. Despite all this, she was one of the most influential women of her age and this time period in France is called the ‘Age of Catherine de’ Medici’.