Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Monday, January 5, 2015

Catherine de' Medici: A Mother of Kings--and Peace

Catherine de' Medici, queen and regent of France (died 5 January 1579)


Catherine as queen of France,
c. 1555
One of the most formidable politicians of early-modern Europe, Caterina de' Medici was married to Henry of Orléans, second son of Francis I of France, in 1532.* Caterina and her new husband were both fourteen years old when they were married by the pope on 28 October, and she was no longer Caterina, but Catherine. The young woman's life took an unexpected turn when the dauphin, Francis, died unexpectedly in 1536, and Catherine's husband Henry became the heir presumptive. Catherine, now dauphine, found herself in a precarious position: she had been married for nearly three years and had failed to produce any children.

Nor would she become pregnant for some time. The dauphine was further humiliated when her husband's mistress gave birth to an illegitimate child in 1537, thus proving that the "fault" in conception was hers and not Henry's. But, given time, she was eventually successful. Her first child, a son named Francis, was born in January 1544; his birth was followed, in rapid succession, by Elizabeth (1545), Claude (1547), Louis (1549), Charles-Maximilien (1550), Edouard-Alexandre (later Henry, 1551), Marguerite (1553), Hercule (later Francis of Anjou, 1555), and twin daughters, Jeanne and Victoire (1556). Having fulfilled her duties as a woman at last, Catherine de' Medici nevertheless remained in the background throughout the remaining years of her father-in-law's reign and, after her husband succeeded to the throne as Henry II in 1547, throughout her years as queen consort, though she was briefly appointed regent in 1548 when the king traveled to Italy and then in 1552, when Henry was at the siege of Metz. 

Despite these two brief regencies, Catherine de' Medici was dominated at the royal court by the king's mistress, Diane de Poitiers. When Henry II died in 1559, at the age of forty, Catherine's fifteen-year-old eldest son  succeeded to his father's throne as Francis II, and his young wife, Mary Stuart, already queen of Scotland, became queen of France. Henry II's mistress was banished from the court, but Catherine herself was denied an opportunity to realize whatever potential skill at governing she might possess. Now Queen Mother, Catherine de' Medici was relegated to the background once more; any influence she might have expected to exert as "the king's mother" was denied to her by Mary Stuart's uncles, the duke of Guise and his brother the cardinal of Lorraine.

Catherine as Queen Mother, c. 1570
But on 5 December 1560, Francis II died, and Catherine de' Medici's political career began at last. The grieving mother appeared before the privy council the next day: "Since it has pleased God to deprive me of my elder son, I mean to submit to the Divine will and to assist and serve the King, my second son, in the feeble measure of my experience," she announced. The new king, Charles IX, was just ten years old. "I have decided . . . to keep him beside me, and to rule the State as a devoted mother must do," she concluded. On 21 December, Catherine de' Medici, the king's mother, became "governor of the kingdom." 

Catherine was no figurehead. She took charge of the government as effectively as if she had been king. "My principal aim," she wrote to her daughter," 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." She presided over the king's council, initiated and controlled state business, directed domestic and foreign policy, and appointed to offices and benefices. She was the first to receive and open dispatches, and had letters patent read out to her before they were signed by the king. Each of his replies was accompanied by a letter from his mother. She also gave herself a great seal in keeping with her new status.

In the period following her second son's accession to the throne, Catherine worked for a provisional toleration of Huguenot worship and a reduction in religious conflict. In the March 1562 edict of Saint-Germain (sometimes referred to as the edict of January), concessions made to both Catholics and Huguenots satisfied neither group and angered both. (As a brief aside here: the French king Henry IV is famous for his act of toleration, the 1598 edict of Nantes while Catherine de Medici's efforts, more than thirty years earlier, rarely find their way into a history book.)

But by April, the first war of religion had begun--while she sought peace, the Queen Mother, now regent of France, did not fear war. By March of 1563 she was able to negotiate a tenuous settlement; the peace of Amboise (March 1563) granted freedom of conscience to the Huguenots throughout the kingdom, but it limited their right to worship. Nevertheless, open Huguenot rebellion broke out again in September 1567. The second religious war was ended in March 1568, with the peace of Longjumeau, which confirmed the peace of Amboise. By August, however, it had been revoked, sparking the third religious war, which lasted until 1570, when peace was restored. During the brief peace that followed, Charles IX's marriage to Eleanor of Austria was celebrated, and in March the king addressed the parliament of Paris, expressing his gratitude to his mother for her care of the country.

But the fragile peace did not last, and after the notorious St. Bartholomew's Day massacre, which took place on 24 August 1572, religious war resumed. Whether Catherine was responsible for the massacre, satisfied with its results, or worn out by the religious conflict, she turned her attention away from religious conflict to securing the throne of Poland for her son Henry, duke of Anjou. She was successful in her efforts; Henry was elected king of Poland on 29 May 1573. 

A year later, the new king of Poland would return to France as its king. On 30 May 1574, the twenty-three-year-old Charles IX died in his mother's arms after signing an act appointing her to act as regent of France. The next day Catherine wrote to her son, Henry, the third of her sons to become king of France, summoning him home. "I am grief stricken," she wrote. Her only consolation was to look forward to seeing Henry in France again, soon, as his kingdom "required." If she were to lose him too, she claimed she would have herself "buried alive" with him. 

But Catherine's longed-for "joy and contentment" eluded her. She was to spend the remainder of her life trying to maintain peace. The situation in France remained tumultuous, and when Henry III's youngest--and last--brother, Francis--the youngest of Catherine's sons, died in 1584, the Protestant Henry d'Albret, king of Navarre became heir presumptive to the French throne. 

The aging Catherine de' Medici once more negotiated for peace. She traveled to Epernay to negotiate for peace with the Catholic party, headed by the Guises, so ill she often remained in bed while she worked. The unyielding position of the Catholic Guises made her efforts at conciliation impossible; the sixty-seven-year-old Catherine summed up her frustration and despair, caught between opposing forces that had no interest in compromise: "If I had a voice . . . I would please kings and popes until I had forces to command and not to obey."

Meanwhile Catherine had suggested to the Huguenot Henry of Navarre that he renounce his faith in order to remove opposition to his succession. To that end, she arranged to meet with him in December 1586. In a series of encounters that extended into March of 1587, she sought to come to terms with him, but her efforts failed. In May she was off on another meeting with the Guises. In September Henry III prepared for war, leaving his mother in control of the government of Paris during his absence, but without the power and authority to act effectively on his behalf. Blamed for his failure with the forces allied against him, she wrote that her son had been taught "that he must obey God's command to love and honor his mother" but "not to give her the authority and credit" she needed to act effectively on his behalf.

When her son arranged for the murder of the duke of Guise and his brother on 23 and 24 December 1588, he announced their assassination to his mother himself. On Christmas Day she told a friar attending her that she saw her son "rushing towards his ruin"; "I am afraid he may lose his body, soul and kingdom." Although she had spent her life in the service of peace, she was blamed for what had happened. Called to her side on 1 January 1589, the cardinal of Bourbon reportedly said, "Your words, Madam, have led us all to this butchery." She died on 5 January. 

Like so many women who wielded political power before her, Catherine de' Medici received a great deal of condemnation in her day. The Venetian ambassador had once noted that "the blame of everything that happens is put on the Queen Mother"; no matter what she did, he observed, she was "little loved" because she was "a foreigner and an Italian." Catherine herself was only too aware of these contemporary views, accepting them as a necessary consequence of her role. "I have preserved and guarded this realm from being divided into several parts," she wrote to her son, "God granted it to me that I might see it entirely obedient to yourself." Given her duty, she accepted "whatever evil or hatred" directed toward herself "this may have occasioned."

Catherine de' Medici is currently a very popular figure in historical fiction--none of which I've read, so I can't make recommendations. But two biographies stand out: R. J. Knecht's Catherine de' Medici, a volume in the Longman Profiles in Power series, and Leonie Frieda's more recent Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France. Both are excellent.

And for an in-depth look at the ways Catherine de' Medici was constructed by political foes and supporters alike, as well as for a selection of her own letters, there is Leah L. Chang and Katherine Kong's Portraits of the Queen Mother: Polemics, Panegyrics, Letters

*This post has been adapted from The Monstrous Regiment of Women: Female Rulers in Early Modern Europe (Palgrave Macmillan).