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January 5, 1589 – Death of Catherine de’ Medici

Catherine de’ Medici, by Francois Clouet (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Yes, this was across the proverbial pond from the Tudors, but Catherine de’ Medici, as Queen of France, influenced the Tudor world the way Francis I had before her.

Admittedly, Francis and Henry were contemporaries in a way that Catherine and Elizabeth were not. Catherine (b. 1519) was more Mary’s contemporary (b. 1516) – Catherine even married Francis’ son (who became Henry II of France) after his betrothal to Mary was broken. Elizabeth was much younger than both women – and indeed, she would have become Catherine’s daughter-in-law if she had married the Duke of Alencon as she almost did in 1580 (though Elizabeth was about twenty years older than Alencon because he was Catherine’s youngest son).

Still, Catherine and Elizabeth were both essentially rulers of their respective countries – though Catherine’s power came through her sons. Catherine’s oldest, Francis, came young to the throne when Henry II died in a jousting accident. Francis was married to Mary, Queen of Scots and Catherine was not really part of that government: she had to watch Mary’s powerful Guise relatives seize enormous control over the young couple. But then Mary’s husband Francis died after only a year on the throne and Catherine stepped into the role of regent – not just for the new Charles IX, but for the next son as well (the family did not survive very well…) and she retained much of her power even after their majorities. It was Catherine who represented France from 1560 to 1588, Catherine with whom most of Elizabeth’s negotiating was done.

So Catherine de’ Medici was important, but who was she? She was the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici, ruler of Florence and himself the nephew of Pope Leo X. Her marriage to Prince Henry of France was arranged by another of her relatives, Pope Clement (who had been born Giulio de’ Medici…). It started out glorious, but then Clement died in 1534 and the new Pope Paul III refused to pay the rest of her dowry, which reduced her standing at the French court. It didn’t help that her husband didn’t really like her all that much – he was madly in love with Diane de Poitiers, who was some twenty years older than he was. It took ten years for them to have their first child, and yes, divorce was considered…

As a queen, Catherine has been labeled “sinister” – rumored to have an interest in the occult arts. Some of this stems from her failure to produce an heir for the first ten years of her marriage (people accused her of dabbling in witchcraft to fix the problem). Some of it was related to the same suspicion that surrounded Elizabeth: women were labelled “witches” when they did not conform to feminine expectations. It didn’t help that Catherine brought Nostradamus to her court and had him create a talisman for her, or that she summoned the Ruggieri brothers, who were renowned astrologers but were also involved in necromancy and the black arts. Nor did she gain any friends when she approved plans for the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the Huguenots. In all, she was in no way popular…

Still, let us pause to remember this woman today on the 430th anniversary of her death. RIP.

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