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Catherine De Medici A Victim Of Circumstance History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

Catherine de Medici was an Italian-born, French queen who became very powerful and even more controversial during her time at the helm of France.  Orphaned as an infant, used as a pawn in her family’s vicious power games, saddled with an unfaithful husband, and forced to suffer the untimely deaths of several of her children, Catherine managed to maintain control of the true power of the French throne in an effort to protect her family and preserve her birthright. Her methods of doing so, including hiring an assassin to kill Admiral Gaspar de Coligny whom she believed threatened her son’s rule as King and her own power, earned her the offensive nickname “the Black Queen.” This nickname was given to her by the French people who blamed her for all of the ills of France, including the massive killings that took place on St. Bartholomew’s Day over religious differences between French Protestants and Catholics. While Catherine had a hand in many of the events for which she is blamed, Catherine de Medici was a victim of circumstance who overcame adversity, made the best she could out of a bad situation, and helped to find peace between French Protestants and Catholics. Her status as one of France’s most hated women is less deserving than majority opinion might have you believe.

Her given name was Caterina Maria Romula de Medici and she was born on April 13, 1519. [1] She entered this world in the midst of the Italian Renaissance, which would later lead to her life as a great patron of the arts. However, her childhood would not be filled with such niceties. The major powers in Europe during the time of her birth were Spain, France, the Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church in Rome. They were all great enemies who warred with one another for even greater power, and Catherine’s homeland of Italy was often the battleground. Though the country in which she lived was being torn apart by warring nations, this was no concern of Catherine’s as she was only and infant; however, her own little personal world was about to be ripped apart at the seams and it would be years before she would be old enough to understand the significance of any of it.

Catherine’s mother was a French countess named Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne. She was blood-related to the King of France, Francis I. Catherine’s father was Lorenzo II de Medici and he was the Duke of Urbino at the time of her birth. While Madeleine was a great catch for Lorenzo; he was from a merchant background and the people of France were not extremely excited over their marriage. As it turned out, the time following their wedding left little to celebrate as well. Lorenzo had become very ill. Some sources, including the French memoirist, Florange, claimed that Lorenzo was suffering from syphilis and tuberculosis. [2] Whether that be the case or not, Madeleine was dying of the same illness. Madeleine died on the fifteenth day of Catherine’s life, followed by Lorenzo on the twenty-first.

King Francis I had actually arranged the marriage of Catherine’s parents in an effort to maintain a strong relationship with Pope Leo X, whom just so happened to be Lorenzo’s uncle, Giovanni de Medici. Both Giovanni and Francis had ulterior motives for their alliance – Francis wanted the Papal authority backing his claims for Milan and Naples, and Giovanni wanted one of the two continental super powers on his side during the battle for supremacy between France and Spain. [3] When Lorenzo and Madeleine died, both Francis and Giovanni were worried that their relationship might fall apart with only a little girl left as their hope for an alliance. This mentality set the stage for what would become a series of chess-like moves, with Catherine as their pawn, in an effort to maintain their individual best interests.

Catherine grew up in ever-changing environments. First she was sent to live with her grandmother, Alfonsina Orsini, who died shortly after. Then she was moved to her Aunt Clarice Strozzi’s home, where she remained for a few short years. Her great uncle, Pope Leo X – Giovanni – had planned for Catherine to marry the Duke of Nemours’ son, Ippolito, who was a member of the senior branch of the Medici family. Unfortunately, Giovanni died in 1521 before he was able to see Catherine and Ippolito become the ruling couple of Florence. [4] Giovanni’s illegitimate cousin, Giulio de Medici, hoped to become the next Pope; however, the Papacy was handed to Hadrian VI. To add insult to injury, Hadrian granted the Duchy of Urbino to the della Rovere family. Both of these changes sufficiently removed the Medici family from power in Italy.

In 1523 Hadrian VI died suddenly, some have speculated that he was poisoned, and Giulio de Medici became the new pope – Clement VII. Catherine once again became a valuable marriage prospect because of her large dowry of land and money. Giulio retook the Duchy of Urbino, but did a poor job of running it from Rome and the people grew tired of his ways. Catherine was eventually sent to live at the Santa Lucia convent to protect her from the political turmoil that Giulio had caused. She moved from Santa Lucia to Santa-Caterina of Siena as her security called for the change. Eventually she was moved to the convent of the Santa-Maria Annunziata delle Murate when the French Ambassador found her living in terrible conditions at Santa-Caterina. [5] It was during this time of outrage with the Medicis that Michelangelo’s statue of David lost its left arm when someone threw a stone at it in a fit of rage. [6] 

In 1529 Giulio, as Pope Clement VII, saw an opportunity to restore the Medici power in Florence. He made a deal with Charles V of Spain, to crown him Holy Roman Emperor in exchange for reestablishing the Duchy of Urbino under the Medici name. [7] In 1530 Charles V was crowned, a constitution was written in Florence making the Medicis hereditary rulers of the city, and Catherine was moved from the Murate to the Palazzo Medici in Rome. Shortly after, Giulio and Charles V were at odds with one another and Giulio was once again seeking a favorable alliance through marriage to Catherine.

During Catherine’s years in Rome her “uncle,” Giulio, entertained marriage propositions from several potential suitors from different Italian nation-states, but he set his sights on more advantageous matches. He turned down the Duke of Albany, King James V of Scotland, and the Prince of Orange on her behalf. [8] It was not until Henri of Valois, Duke of Orleans and second son of the French king, Francis I, was offered as a potential husband that Giulio’s ambitions for land and power were made a reality.

Like Catherine, Henri had a similarly unpleasant childhood. His father had been taken hostage by Spain when Henri was only six. In exchange for Francis’ release, he offered his own sons as hostages instead. An entourage of nobility accompanied the boys to be exchanged for their father. One noble woman, Diane de Poitiers, was so moved by his plight that she kissed Henri on the head as he said goodbye to freedom. [9] The two boys, Henri and the Dauphin Francis, spent four years in captivity. [10] After returning to France, at almost eleven years old, Henri and Diane grew much closer.

In 1533, both only fourteen years old, Catherine and Henri were wed in Marseille, France. In attendance at the ceremony was Diane de Poitiers – nearly twenty years Henri’s senior – who would later, openly, become his mistress. Because of Henri’s weak-mindedness, Diane was able to usurp considerable governing power throughout France which greatly bothered Catherine. [11] However, Catherine knew she was on shaky ground at court and with the people of France because of her Italian heritage, so she said nothing about Madame Poitiers that might give her husband cause to be angry with her. It was also no secret how much Henri disliked Catherine so she was quite worried when, after almost ten years of marriage, she had not yet born a child. This would all change in 1544, when she gave birth to her first son, Francis II.

Between 1544 and 1555 Catherine and Henri were blessed with ten children, three of whom died in early infancy, one daughter who would die while giving birth to a child, and three of whom would eventually die during their reign as King. [12] Catherine’s children were of the utmost importance in her life. Not only were they her only friends in France besides her father-in-law, they were the only people in the world who loved her unconditionally. She took to personally educating her children until they were about ten years old when they passed into the hands of tutors. [13] 

Henri’s brother, the Dauphin Francis, had died in 1536 leaving Henri as the heir to the French throne and Catherine as the Dauphine and heiress to the title of Queen of France. The French people were enraged by the idea of an Italian-born woman reigning as their queen. The people somehow overlooked her maternal lineage which connected her, by blood, to Francis I and the royal line of Saint Louis – Louis IX. Then, in 1547, Catherine’s beloved father-in-law died and Henri II became King of France. Although this meant that Catherine was now the Queen, Diane de Poitiers continued to hold a higher place in the hearts of Henri and the French people, as well as a higher position of authority. In one particular incident Diane’s power was extremely evident. It was 1557 when Henri left France to fight a battle in Germany during the Protestant Reformation. Rather than leave Catherine as the sole regent in his absence, Diane convinced him to decree the Chancellor Bertrandi – no friend of Catherine’s – as fellow-regent which basically annulled any power to act freely on Catherine’s part. [14] Catherine was distrusted and disrespected at court, so she continued to pour herself into raising and caring for her children, but she never stopped looking for ways to help her kingdom and gain their respect.

Catherine finally got her chance to make a difference after the siege of St. Quentin (1557) when the French were defeated and the French people showed signs of rioting. Catherine took it upon herself to try to stop the disturbance and get money from Parliament to continue the war. [15] She was so successful that Parliament actually granted more money than she had requested and the French people rejoiced in her success. Much to Diane’s surprise:

The King himself was more impressed by [Catherine] because of this achievement than he had been throughout their marriage, and he showed it in his behaviour. For it was from this day, as has been told, that he changed his habit of giving the evening to Diane and spent it with Catherine instead. She did not win Henri’s love, but she had at least gained his respect. [16] 

Though this achievement may have had the potential to change the way the French people thought of Catherine, we will never know for sure. Henri died in 1559, shortly after his son Francis II married Mary Queen of Scots. Francis II was now fifteen years old and had passed his majority. He was crowned the King of France, though he never truly played the role.

Instead, Francis delivered a speech at his inauguration ordering the French people to obey his mother in the same way in which he obeyed and trusted her advice. [17] He went as far as to begin all legal documents in the same manner. Catherine made certain not to be separated from her son at this time. The true amount of influence she would have in protecting him and his kingdom she had yet to find out. [18] She would however, have enormous obstacles to overcome.

Henri II had become very close with his Lieutenant General, Montmorency, during his time serving in France’s army. That relationship carried over into Henri’s reign as King. Catherine had often been jealous of the control that Montmorency had over her husband – suspicious and nervous of that control as well. In fact, it was Montmorency who had provided Henri and Diane a place to consummate their love affair. [19] In addition, Montmorency had played a role in a secret campaign to have Catherine repudiated for not bearing any children early on. This was when the Guise branch of Henri’s family had seen their chance to promote their own advancement – they wanted to marry their own match to Henri. The early years of Catherine and Henri’s marriage had very clearly defined who her enemies were. Now playing such an important role to her son, she was careful to keep her friends close and her enemies closer.

Catherine expelled Diane de Poitiers and Montmorency from the Louvre Palace and the royal family moved in. This would include the Guise family who worked quickly to install themselves into important roles in Francis’ life. Though Catherine did not much care for Montmorency, she knew that he helped to balance the power of the Guise family, and for that reason she kept him close by in case she needed to call on him for assistance. As if there was not enough for Catherine to worry about with her son’s power being threatened by his own family members and her birthright at risk of being pulled out from under her; the country was being pulled apart from the inside by opposing Catholic and Protestant factions while also having its borders threatened by Spain in the south and a newly unified England under Queen Elizabeth I. In addition, the Guise branch of Catherine’s family supported the Catholic side, while the Bourbon branch of the family supported the Protestant cause. To make matters even worse for Catherine, Henri’s recent war had left France in massive debt, so much so that the soldiers returning from Italy were enraged by the fact that they had not yet been paid. The combination of these damaging factors led Catherine to her breaking point.

Catherine did not understand why so much fuss was being made over the Protestants. Her father-in-law had sympathized with them and she too agreed with many of their reform ideas. Henri, on the other hand, had thoroughly supported the Catholic side and even carried out cruel punishments against Protestants. Catherine once said:

When I see these poor folk burnt, bruised and tormented, not for thieving and marauding but simply for upholding their own opinions; when I see some of them suffer cheerfully, with a glad heart, I am moved to believe that there is something in this which [passes] human reason. [20] 

Then, in 1560, Catherine asked Parliament to pass the Edict of Toleration, which called for the end of abuses against Protestants in France. The law passed, but French Catholics remained enraged with the Huguenots and were growing angrier with Catherine for sympathizing with their cause. Shortly after, Francis II died of an infection that began in his ear. Francis and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, had not had any children yet; therefore, Mary was no longer the Queen of France. This meant that Catherine’s second son, Charles IX, was now the king. Fortunately, for Catherine, Charles was only ten years old which meant that Catherine had finally attained sole regency over France.

Catherine knew that the most pressing problems of her Kingdom were its near-bankrupt economy and the Protestant/Catholic fight that threatened to divide France. She sat idly by and watched the Guise brothers, who had alliances with Spain, become unpopular with the people, and while the Cardinal of Lorraine struggled with the failing economy. The Cardinal proceeded to cut government spending in a rather arbitrary fashion. He stopped paying salaries of government employees and told soldiers not to expect their salaries either. He reneged on many of France’s debts as well. All the while, the religious conflict was escalating. Catherine felt that the Guise brothers, and there harsh policies of persecution of the Protestants, were only making matters worse. She took a much softer line on dealing with the heretics, as the Protestants were called by the Catholics.

By 1562 the religious conflict had become so heated that Catholics and Protestants alike were dying or being injured in various assemblies of the two groups. Catherine pushed through Parliament the Edict of January which allowed Protestants to hold religious services in French lands as long as they were not within the city walls of Paris. [21] Unfortunately, in March of the same year, the Duke of Guise heard a Huguenot service taking place in a barn in the town of Vassy and had his men storm the place, resulting in the death of over twenty Protestants. This event would eventually lead to the French Wars of Religion, and the Guise family was seen by the French people as being at fault.

Catherine reached out to the Huguenot leader, Louis de Conde, in an attempt to find some way to stop the violence. Her request fell on deaf ears. Instead, Conde and his relative, the Admiral Gaspar de Coligny, formed a Huguenot army while the Guise family and Cardinal Lorraine formed an opposing Catholic army. Both sides claimed to be behind the king, but neither side trusted Catherine. After all, Catherine sympathized with the Protestants causing the Catholics to distrust her intentions, and when the Protestants had listened to Catherine and followed her rules it got several of their members killed.

In 1563 Catherine made another huge political move in an effort to find peace between the warring factions. She hurriedly pushed through the Edict of Amboise which granted amnesty for past religious crimes, but condemned any future incitement of rebellion. The edict also failed to permit the freedom of worship. Then, much to Catherine’s dismay, the Duke of Guise was assassinated by a member of the Protestant faction who claimed that Coligny had hired him to do so. He later recanted his statement, but it was too late. Catherine had grown to distrust the Admiral, who now stood as the leader of the Huguenots, and she feared for her children’s lives because of his existence.

By this point the First Religious War was underway and Catherine and Charles IX were right in the middle of it all. When the Huguenots began seeking and receiving international assistance in the form of money and troops, Catherine had no choice but to do the same. French nobles were taxed to raise money for the war effort, the Papacy sent money, and King Phillip of Spain sent over 10,000 troops. The two sides fought against each other in civil war while Catherine continued to search for a way to find peace between them.

In 1563 Catherine was able to unite the two sides under the French flag to fight against their common enemy, the English, and expel Queen Elizabeth’s troops from the town of La Havre. This was no small feat. Until the end of the First Religious War in 1564, Catherine created a tenuous peace between the two factions by keeping the Lords from each side busy with pleasurable distractions at court. She then began a progression around France, with the young king by her side, in an effort to train Charles for his fast-approaching role.

Until 1567 France enjoyed a period of relative peace as Charles began his reign. Then the Second Religious War broke out when Charles lent his support to the Catholics in Flanders who were being accused of iconoclasm. The Huguenots saw this as threatening and re-mobilized their troops. The Huguenots then made a daring strike close to Paris, known as the Surprise of Meaux, and they established a blockade around the city preventing food and supplies from getting in. Charles wanted to sue for peace but the French people gave money instead for him to continue the war. [22] While Catherine was no longer Queen Regent, she remained a principal fixture in his life. Catherine helped to broker peace, again, amongst the two factions and signed the Peace of Longjumeau (March, 1568) with the King – granting greater religious freedom to the Huguenots. However, due to the direct threat against the king, Catherine’s policy toward the Huguenots was beginning to take on a repressive rather than tolerant edge.

A third war of religion broke out later the same year. Catherine was occupied with power brokering and Charles took a greater role of leadership. Catherine was attempting to set up favorable marriages for her remaining children, such as King Charles to Elizabeth of Austria – the Holy Roman Emperor’s daughter – and her son Eduourd-Alexandre, the Duke of Anjou, to Queen Elizabeth I of England. Eduourd refused to marry the Queen so Catherine proposed her son Francois-Hercules instead, but the Queen refused him. She had already succeeded however, in marrying her daughter to the Spanish King, Phillip II, who had been helpful at times throughout the periods of war. Meanwhile, Charles’ Catholic army and Coligny’s Protestant forces were fighting numerous battles throughout France in which both sides won and lost, retreated and advanced, and ultimately suffered huge amounts of debt. This eventually led to the Peace of Saint-Germaine (1570) in which the Huguenots received a few more minor concessions.

Over the next two years, despite the Peace of Saint -Germaine, more anti-Protestant murders took place and Admiral Coligny had become a hero amongst his Huguenot followers. Catherine had arranged the marriage of her daughter Marguerite to Henri de Navarre – a Protestant leader. Despite this union and Catherine’s previous sympathetic nature toward the Huguenots, she had begun to believe that Coligny had usurped too much power. If left unchecked, Catherine felt as though Coligny represented a direct threat to her son. On August 22, 1572, while in Paris to attend Marguerite and Henri de Navarre’s wedding, Coligny was shot in the arm by a would-be assassin. Historians disagree as to whether or not Catherine was responsible for this assassination attempt, but there was little or no doubt in the minds of the French people. There is some consensus however, that Catherine had instigated a rumor about Coligny and his supposed plans for a military coup against Charles. Over the next two days, tensions mounted between Catholics and Protestants in Paris because there were so many Protestants visibly present in the city. Both sides had begun to carry weapons to protect themselves against attack. [23] It seemed as though Paris was primed and ready for a battle, but not many expected what would happen next.

On the morning of August 24, 1572 – Saint Bartholomew’s Day – Charles’ military guard stormed Coligny’s hotel room, stabbed him, and threw him out of the window. They then proceeded to slaughter Huguenots wherever they could find them, including ones staying in the king’s own palace. The people of Paris took a cue from Charles and began murdering Huguenots in the streets. The Massacre finally ended and rumors began circulating about its cause. Most of the blame was inevitably placed squarely on Catherine’s shoulders. Although it is likely that Catherine had malicious intent by telling Charles lies about Coligny; it is doubtful that Catherine ever intended for this massive amount of bloodshed to occur.

Catherine immediately returned to being the practical mother she had been throughout her time in France. Her new job became keeping Charles on the throne despite his vicious attack on the Huguenots. This job however, would not last long as Charles died in 1574. Upon Charles’ death Catherine’s third son, now called Henri III, ascended to the throne. Henri continued to listen to advice from his mother until the last few months of her life in 1589. In contrast to his brothers before him, it has been said that Henri understood the need to pull away from his formidable mother and lead the country on his own. [24] 

The history of our world is just that – his story. In the majority of stories of the past, women have faded into the backdrop of great events – a mere afterthought. In the last century or so however, an interest in her story has shed light on some very amazing women whose impact and life stories rival those of their male counterparts. Catherine de Medici is one such woman. Catherine was an Italian-born heiress who became the Queen of France. Her break from the traditional role of a woman in the public and private spheres of her existence, made an immense impact on the society of her time, the Protestant Reformation, and upon the whole of history itself.

Catherine died in 1589, in time to miss her third son’s assassination later that year. By the time of her death, she had all the aches and pains of an almost seventy-year-old woman and had suffered ten times the heartache. After losing both of her parents in infancy and never experiencing their unconditional and nurturing love, she was used by her family for her political potential. She suffered through twenty-seven years of a loveless marriage with an unfaithful partner, and spent her time as a mother mourning the loss of child after child. She was disrespected and downright hated within her own kingdom and her children were constantly at risk of losing their birthright and/or their lives. All the while Catherine maintained an emotionless disposition and honed her diplomatic skills in an effort to preserve her family’s rightful place at the head of France.

While it is true that Catherine’s decisions as Queen Regent and Queen Mother were not always in line with the majority opinion of France; it is not certain as to whether or not she deserves the blame and hatred that history has forever associated with her name. Catherine once said, “I am very upset that it will be said throughout Christendom that it is I – although I have been so concerned about the honor of this country – who am responsible for ruining it.” [25] She further defended her legacy by saying:

“If things had been worse than they are after all this war, they might have blamed the government of a woman; but if they are honest, they should blame nothing but the government of the men who want to play the part of kings. Henceforward, if I am not further trammeled, I hope it will be known that I have a sincerer love for the kingdom than those who have plunged it into the state to which it is now reduced. [26] 

Furthermore, the facts revolving around Catherine’s amount of sympathy for the Huguenots, or her role in Admiral Coligny’s assassination attempt and the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, remain uncertain. Therefore, her status as one of France’s most hated women may be less deserving than majority opinion might have you believe.


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