Unruly Figures
Unruly Figures
Episode 22: Catherine de Medici, Part 1

Episode 22: Catherine de Medici, Part 1

Queen of France, mother of three kings, and earner of the nickname 'The Serpent Queen'

It has been a minute, and I’m so glad to be back today with this episode covering Catherine de Medici. She is often maligned in historical circles, remembered as The Serpent Queen with a love for the occult. But as we’ll see, this is a somewhat unfair portrayal of her.

Also, thank you for all the lovely comments you all left on the announcement that my father passed away in December. It’s been a tough month since, but it was very encouraging to have all of you in my corner while my mother and I mourned. While I’m still sad, of course, it’s nice to be back and producing again.

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A portrait of a young Catherine de Medici, possibly the one sent to her future husband Henry, Duke of Orléans, when their marriage was negotiated.

🎙️ Transcript

Hey everyone, welcome to Unruly Figures, the podcast that celebrates history’s greatest rule-breakers. I’m your host, Valorie Clark, and today I’m covering the famous Queen Catherine de Medici. Though she’s had something of a mixed reputation for a few centuries now, recent historians have been doing a bit of reclamation of this polarizing queen. She’s remembered as a  powerful leader and devoted mother but also as a poisoner and a central figure in the French Wars of Religion. For this episode I’m relying heavily on the 2003 biography of Catherine by Leonie Frieda, which I recommend checking out if you’re interested. It’s over 400 pages and goes into much more depth than I’ll be able to here. 

But before we jump into Catherine’s life and how she became the most powerful woman in sixteenth century France, I want to give a huge thank you to all the paying subscribers on Substack who make this podcast possible. Y’all are the best and this podcast wouldn’t be possible without you! If you want to support Unruly Figures and my mission to make interesting history free, you can do that at unrulyfigures.substack.com Becoming a paying subscriber will also give you access to exclusive content, merch, and behind-the-scenes info on the podcast.

All right, let’s hop back in time. 

Caterina Maria Romula de Medici–or, as we know her, Catherine de Medici, was born in Florence, Italy on Wednesday, April 13, 1519. Her parents were Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino, and Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne, a kinsman of King Francis I of France. Catherine’s birth was marked by loss—her mother died on April 28th, when Catherine was just 15 days old. Though previously young and healthy, Madeleine was killed by puerperal fever, a type of sepsis caused by birthing assistants not washing their hands before helping a woman give birth. A week later, her father died, probably of a combination of syphilis and tuberculosis. Side note–some records have her father dying before Catherine’s birth; it’s unclear which is correct. Then, at just three months old, Catherine fell desperately ill for several weeks. No one was sure the baby would survive.

Before I get into what happened to Catherine next, let’s go through some set pieces that will help set the tone for this entire two-part episode. 

First of all, the Medici family was a prominent merchant family in Florence, then an independent city-state. The family specialized in the markets of wool, silk, precious metals, and spices, though they, quote, “appropriated the martyred physicians of Sts Cosmas and Damian as their patron saints,” probably to lend them the air of credibility the medical field held.1 In the fourteenth century they had risen up to become papal bankers, and the decimating effect of the Black Plague the same century hugely benefited the Medicis.2 The family had a reputation for philanthropy and a love of art–they pushed forward the narrative of patronizing art as the ultimate symbol of wealth and forward-thinking. According to Catherine biographer Leonie Frieda, “the Medici played an indispensable role in the process which produced the Italian Renaissance.”3 The family motto was ‘Le Temps Revient’ or ‘Our time will return,’ which probably bolstered Catherine throughout her intense life.4 

Nevertheless, this kind of upstart, nouveau-riche, almost grasping reputation of the Medicis hadn’t quite faded by the time Catherine’s father Lorenzo married Madeleine. His marriage to even a minor member of the French royal family was a big deal because it finally gave them more legitimacy. That intermingling of the blood, while less surprising to us today–both living British princes married quote-unquote “wealthy commoners”--was a much bigger deal then. 

Second set piece: You’ve probably heard of Niccolo Machiavelli and his little book called The Prince. The book is a famous repudiation of traditional moral leadership in favor of realpolitik–summed up in the phrase, “the ends justify the means.” Machiavelli wrote the book while in exile and looking for a pass back into society. He dedicated it to Catherine’s father, hoping to ingratiate himself with the Medicis, a full six years before Catherine was even born, but it would be a curse on her. The book’s association with autocracy and cruelty was established early, and it would be used by Catherine’s enemies throughout her life to discredit her. And the attacks started early. 

Third set piece: Catherine’s great uncle through her father was Pope Leo X. He was well-educated but prone to many of the vices that plagued leaders of the Catholic Church, including extravagant spending. When Martin Luther posted his theses in 1517, Leo did not recognize it as the first shot in a war that would ultimately split the Church.5 He saw it as, quote, “a monkish squabble” over doctrine.6

Okay, with those in place, we can make a little more sense of what happens next to Catherine: Her health recovered at just five months old, the little ‘duchessina’ as the people of Florence called her, was moved to Rome. Pope Leo made her the Duchess of Urbino with the intention of eventually marrying her to an illegitimate cousin named Ippolito. Together the couple would rule Florence. 

But first she had to grow up. She was initially sent back to Florence to live with her grandmother, Alfonsina Orsini. Unfortunately, her grandmother died soon after and before she was even a year old Catherine was moved into the home of her aunt Clarice Strozzi, who would become something of a surrogate mother for Catherine. Clarice’s  own young children became like Catherine’s siblings, and she would, quote, “love them prodigiously for the rest of their lives.”7 When Leo X then died in 1521, the family consolidated into a more cohesive unit in Florence, desperate to hold onto power without the prestige of Papal backing. 

Just a few years old, Catherine lived in luxury at the Palazzo Medici. Just her inheritance from her mother landed her among the richest young women in Europe, not to mention the Duchy of Urbino that she was technically the duchess of. 

In the background, ongoing wars between Francis I of France and Charles V of Spain were starting to spill over into Italian territories. Meanwhile, Lutheranism was spreading at an astonishing speed throughout German territories bordering Italian lands and the new pope, Clement VII, was not dealing with the conflicts well. A defeat at the Battle of Pavia in 1525 left Rome, Florence, People Clement, and Catherine at the mercy of Charles V. He lost control of his troops and in May 1527 they sacked Rome, destroyed sacred relics and murdering citizens and cardinals alike. Later that month, they moved on to Florence and managed to take Catherine hostage. 

Francis I of France. Source.

She was taken to the Santa Lucia convent in San Gallo, a place known for antipathy to the Medici family. Later that year, the French ambassador to the Papal states visited her and protested over the, quote, “disease-ridden hovel and insisted Catherine must be relocated immediately.”8 I guess they all suddenly remembered that she was also a distant relative of the King of France and obliged. Just eight years old at the time, Catherine was imprisoned for three years at the Convent of Santa-Maria Annunziata delle Murate. The convent protected her as much as it imprisoned her; back in Florence, citizens raged against the Medici, destroying all reminders of the family’s wealth. During this rioting, Michelangelo’s famous statue David lost his left arm. The Medicis were a patron of Michelangelo and the statue was displayed outside the seat of the Florentine government, in the Piazza della Signoria, where it was very vulnerable to attack. Michelangelo was still alive at the time, but it’s not clear to me if he carried out the statue’s repairs, as they seemed to be of lower quality than the original statue.9

Many of the nuns at the Murate convent were of high birth themselves; the convent had a reputation as a calm refuge for elderly wealthy women to retire from the world after their husbands died and children were grown. So Catherine was both educated and spoiled here. It was at Murate that she learned, quote, “her graceful deportment, her enchanting manners [...] the ability to charm in conversation and the strength of mind to keep her own counsel.”10

These all hugely served her for the rest of her life. She also learned the traditions and ceremonies of the Catholic church while living in this convent, but as we’ll see later, it seems like she wasn’t really educated in actual theology, which would not serve her. Like her late uncle Leo, Catherine’s lack of understanding of Catholic doctrine and Protestant issues with it would really come back to haunt her. 

In 1529, the increasingly desperate rebel army focused on Catherine again. They had been outmaneuvered by an alliance between Pope Clement and Charles V, who had agreed to restore Medici power in Florence. Still temporarily in control of Florence, the rebels tried to decide what to do with Catherine–I’m sure several plots to simply assassinate her were discussed. What does survive are two disgusting plans, each as cruel and horrible as the other. One was to lower the eleven-year-old “naked in a basket in front of her own city walls” in the hopes that she’d be accidentally killed by her own allies’ gunfire.11 The other idea was to take her to a military brothel, where she’d be forced into prostitution, so that, and I quote, “any valuable marriage plan by the pontiff would be spoiled forever.”12 I’m not sure what part of this I find more disgusting–the actual plan to leave an eleven-year-old child vulnerable to sexual assault, or the logic behind doing so. If you watched the TV show Reign, Queen Catherine tells a version of this story to Queen Mary after the younger queen is raped. But even in that famously dramatic show, the details are not as gruesome.

While neither of these plans won out in real life, Catherine was forcibly taken from the convent on the night of July 20, 1530. Fearful that she was going to be executed, she cut her hair and put on a nun’s habit and when soldiers came to take her away she announced that she was a bride of Christ and couldn’t be removed from the convent. When they still insisted, Catherine is said to have cried out, “Holy Mother, I am yours! Let us now see what excommunicated wretch will dare to drag a spouse of Christ from her monastery.”13 She refused to take off the habit, so she rode back to the St. Lucia convent on the back of a donkey in the outfit, subject to a crowd openly advocating violence against her. While it’s easy to imagine that she was harmed in this flight, we know she wasn’t largely because later, when Clement retook Florence, Catherine interceded in the trial of the soldier who had escorted her, Aldobrandini, and had his death sentence commuted to exile, a big reprieve. It’s hard to imagine she would have done that for someone who hadn’t kept her safe. As we’ll see, Catherine always remembered who was kind to her and who wasn’t. 

Around this time, Catherine was described as “small of stature, and thin, and without delicate features, but having the protruding eyes peculiar to the Medici family.”14 She would never be described as beautiful, but she did have a certain elegance to her that made her attractive.

Around this time, Catherine was described as “small of stature, and thin, and without delicate features, but having the protruding eyes peculiar to the Medici family.” She would never be described as beautiful, but she did have a certain elegance to her that made her attractive. 

Now freed from the violence of the uprising, Catherine lived with her great-aunt Lucrezia Salviati; her previous guardian, Clarice Strozzi, had died during childbirth while Catherine was held hostage at the convent. It was probably around this time that she acquired a love for art and architecture that would stay with her for the rest of her life. We don’t know much about how Catherine spent this time, though we can assume her education continued. History isn’t even sure what she studied though–Greek, Latin, and French are a given. She also grew up to be, quote, “a keen mathematician, an interest that would have coincided well with her later love of astrology.”15

Now twelve or thirteen, Catherine’s future marriage became a pressing matter. She, of course, had little say in the endeavor, though she did have the Pope in her corner. King James V of Scotland was temporarily considered, but Pope Clement couldn’t see how this would benefit himself. Classic. That left James to marry Marie of Guise, who would later give birth to Mary, Queen of Scots. The Prince of Orange was also considered as a partner for Catherine, but he was killed in yet another military campaign to capture Florence. The Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, wanted Catherine to marry the Duke of Milan, a, quote, “somewhat dim-witted man, prematurely aged at thirty-seven, sick and broken [...] not a particularly gleaming matrimonial prospect.”16 The Pope was seemingly at a loss for a while: Could there be no good prospects for Catherine? 

Then, Francis I of France, made a startling proposal: Why not marry Catherine off to his second son, Henry, Duke of Orléans? The Pope quickly agreed. It should be noticed that Francis’s motivations were clear: He was very interested in gaining territory in the Italian Peninsula, and he used the marriage contract to secretly gain control of Pisa, Parma, Piacenza, Reggio, Modena, and Leghorn.17 Though Henry was the younger son, this was a huge catch for Catherine, who–as I mentioned earlier–was emphatically not royal. Even though her mother Madeleine was a distant kinsman of Francis, it was very distant. Madeleine was a daughter of the House of Bourbon, a cadet branch of the royal family, under the Valois ruling branch. Catherine was rich, sure, but that wasn’t the same, and this was an enormous step up for her and the entire Medici family. Such a big leap, really, that Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, refused to believe this was a realistic possibility; it’s said he was, quote, “amazed” when the marriage was announced.18 No wonder the Pope leapt to make it happen.

While all this negotiating was going on though, Catherine had fallen under “the enchanting spell of Ippolito de Medici.”19 He was a cousin of hers, and he’s remembered as incredibly handsome–tall, lithe, dark hair. He, quote, “had a penchant for theatrical adornments, dressing with diamond aigrettes and jewelled scimitars.”20

After her years of terror and captivity, this fun-loving good-looking guy was a great change of pace, and rumors flew about the couple. Keep in mind, Catherine is like 13 years old and he’s probably about 20. It’s easy to imagine her having a classic girlhood crush on this handsome older (but still young) guy, and if this were happening today with a girl having a crush on her teacher, hopefully nothing would come of that. But because of her status in Florence, Ippolito–who saw ruling Florence as his rightful place as the oldest male in the family–he encouraged her crush, and clearly had ambitions to marry her and become ruler of Florence.21

Of course, this caused Pope Clement alarm. To stall any ambitions he had, Ippolito was unwillingly made into a cardinal and then basically paid off to forget Catherine and move away to Hungary as part of the Vatican’s power structure there. This allowed Clement to keep negotiating a marriage to Henry, which would be a much better marriage for Catherine and for the Pope. 

We might as well talk a little about Henry, Duke of Orléans.  According to biographer Leonie Frieda, Henry’s childhood was, quote, “at least as traumatic” as Catherine’s.22

His mother died when he was five, a fact we’ll do a little armchair psychoanalysis on later. Soon after his mother’s death, his father, Francis I, suffered an absolute military disaster that eventually led to Henry and his older brother Francis being held in captivity in Spanish court.  

Obviously this seems cruel to us, and no doubt the young boys felt it was cruel–or at least very scary–to be sent to be prisoners while their father made moves to honor the Treaty of Madrid. As Frieda points out, Francis I probably had little choice. His wife and father were dead, his sons were very young, and his mother was very ill–there was no one who could effectively rule as regent of France and raise the money he needed to honor the treaty obligations of his loss. In order to get France back on track, he had to return, and in order to return the Spanish would have requested the one thing Francis couldn’t abandon or renege on: His eldest sons. Any other family member or piece of land he could have abandoned or started another war to get back. But his eldest sons were too precious to risk that way because without them the monarchy is unstable. It seems like Francis’s choices were to trade his sons for his own freedom, or risk France becoming part of Spanish territory, which would have altered history significantly.

So the boys went into captivity in March 1526 and weren’t released until July 1530. In that time, the two boys were kept in increasingly squalid conditions and were treated terribly by their jailers. In September 1529, an usher of the French Queen Mother, Louise, went to see the boys in Spain. The man, Bodin, is said to have wept in despair when he found them.23 The children had grown into two adolescents with stunted growth from bad nutrition and lack of exercise. Henry, especially, seemed changed. He’d once been, quote, “a lively intelligent boy” but had been transformed by his ordeal into “a withdrawn and quiet youth.”24 The cruelest part was that their father quickly became impatient with his “gloomy sons” and began ignoring them in favor of his third son, Charles, Duke of Angoulême.25 Obviously today I think we’d recognize that the boys came back from Spain deeply traumatized, but their father didn’t have patience for this. 

His mother dead and his father ignoring him, Henry found a father figure in the soldier and courtier Montmorency. Henry would depend on him for the rest of his life. 

But soon after this, Francis I began the negotiations for Henry’s marriage. He initially discussed marrying Henry to Mary Tudor, the first daughter of Henry VIII by Catherine of Aragon. It was when those talks collapsed that Francis turned his eye to Catherine de Medici. As I already mentioned their marriage was negotiated and announced quickly. 

Once it was decided that Catherine was marrying Henry, Pope Clement decided that Catherine’s dowry and trousseau–that is, all her belongings she’d take with her to France–should befit her new status as a princess of France. The family ordered such enormous quantities of lace, gold, jewels, and various cloths to make sumptuous clothing for her that the Duke of Florence had to levy a 35,000 écu tax on the Florentines to pay for it.26 It’s hard to estimate how much that is worth today, but an écu right before the French Revolution in 1789 had a purchasing power equivalent to about 28 euros today.27 So this tax the duke of Florence would probably be worth over a million euros today, which is about 1.1 million in US dollars. Again, this is all just clothes and jewels and lingerie for Catherine. 

It’s worth noting that included in this trousseau were seven enormous pear-shaped pearls, which alone were said to be, quote, “worth a kingdom.”28 Many years later, Catherine would gift those pearls to Mary, Queen of Scots, when she became Queen of France. Mary eventually took them back to Scotland with her after she was widowed, and then Elizabeth I seized them when she took Mary prisoner. After she had Mary executed, Elizabeth apparently wore those pearls for the rest of her life, quote, “without a blush.”29 Today, those pearls are part of the British Imperial State Crown.30 

In addition to this trousseau, the bride and groom exchanged life-size portraits of themselves, which was traditional. Catherine’s was painted by Giorgio Vasari. At one point while he was painting her, he stepped out of the room and Catherine apparently picked up a brush and painted over his work, making herself look Moorish. Vasari found this precocious behavior from the 14-year-old Catherine charming and remained devoted to her for the rest of his  life. He’s quoted as saying, “I adore her, if I may say so, as one adores the saints in heaven.”31

Catherine departed for France on September 1, 1533. She arrived in the harbor at Marseille as part of a veritable armada of ships on October 11th. Since the wedding was to take place basically immediately in Marseille, the city had undergone a huge transformation for the celebration. In fact, an entire neighborhood was razed to make way for a temporary wood palace for the Medicis to stay in.32 Among the guests of the Medici family and the Pope was Ippolito, who Catherine still nursed a crush on. His new role as a cardinal did not change his, quote, “dramatic sartorial inclinations” and he apparently was the center of a lot of “admiring” attention as he and his pages entered Marseille.33

Despite landing in Marseille on October 11, Catherine didn’t formally enter the city until the 23rd. Dressed in gold and silver silk and riding a horse dressed in gold brocade cloth, she dazzled the residents. Likewise, Catherine was impressed by Henry’s appearance–since his release from captivity, he had grown tall and muscular, and had dark brown hair, brown eyes, a straight nose, and a clear complexion. Though he reputedly still was often quiet and moody–he, too, was a 14-year-old suffering through complex trauma, so, makes sense–he participated in the jousts and dances. They were married on the 28th, and the celebrations were absolutely raucous. After the ceremony, they had a banquet then a masked ball. After the young couple left for the night, the ball became a literal orgy.  I won’t go into too much detail, but there’s good documentation of what happened while Henry and Catherine consummated their marriage in the next room. 

Celebrations continued for a few days, then the French Court–which Catherine was now part of–began to make their way back north. Pope Clement’s final bit of advice to his niece was, quote, “a spirited girl will always conceive children.”34 Little did he know that the couple would end up having a lot of trouble conceiving for a while. After his departure, Catherine got to know her new family, especially her sisters-in-law Marguerite and Madeleine. Predisposed to being amiable and happy with where she’d ended up, Catherine quickly won over most of her in-laws and most of the French court. However, she and Henry didn’t spend much time together. 

Though things seemed great, Catherine’s happiness was short-lived, and a lot of the rest of her life would be a struggle for survival. It started almost immediately. Pope Clement died eleven months later with the promises he’d made to Francis in Catherine’s marriage contract largely unfulfilled. France hadn’t gained the territory they’d been promised, and her dowry was only half paid. The new Pope refused to honor his predecessor’s promises, and so the alliance they’d negotiated for was null and void. Politically worthless, Catherine’s value to Francis practically vanished overnight. 

Moreover, the French had a tendency to resent the Italians in a classically French way: They wore Italian fashion and loved Italian art, but otherwise, they despised them. They tended to regard the entire nation as untrustworthy, quote, “money-grabbing opportunists who would slip a knife between a man’s shoulder blades as soon as his back was turned.”35 Catherine, as an Italian with no dynastic backing was seen as something of a usurper, and she probably felt very vulnerable and alone. Her saving grace amid all this hostility is that Francis I adored her. Catherine, aware that her safety at court lived and died by his favoritism, made sure to amuse him, hunt with him, and dance with or for him. Additionally, she made friends with the king’s chief mistress, Anne the Duchess d’Étampes, and the king’s sister, Queen Marguerite of Navarre, who took Catherine under her wing. 

Around this time, Catherine is credited with introducing two Italian inventions to France: The side-saddle and pantaloons, an early form of underwear.36 The two went hand-in-hand, in fact, as Catherine wanted to ride better while also protecting her modesty. Until this time, women usually sat in sambues, which were basically cumbersome armchairs that didn’t permit women to actually ride any faster than a stately walk. 

Unfortunately, Catherine was not growing any closer to her husband. While she had been taken with him right away, Henry was rarely more than civil to her. Part of this stemmed from his lack of attraction to her; the other was due to her closeness with the Duchess d’Etampes, who had a bit of a rivalry going with Henry’s own favorite. 

As promised, there’s a facet of Henry’s life that I want to do a little armchair psychoanalysis on here. So, when Henry was six years old and sent to Spain to replace his father as a captive of the Spanish court, there was a whole entourage of nobles who accompanied the two princes to the handoff. Among them was a 25-year-old woman who showed, quote, “particular concern and tenderness for Henry. [...] Obviously moved by the children’s plight, she kissed the little boy on his forehead, bidding him farewell.”37

This woman was Diane de Poitiers, who later would become Henry’s lifelong mistress.

Engraving depicting Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), French noblewoman and a courtier at the courts of Kings Francis I and his son, Henry II of France, France, circa 1545. De Poitiers was also the mistress of King Henry II of France. Engraving by J. Rogers after J. Champagne. (Photo by Kean Collection/Getty Images)


Diane was known for being beautiful, elegant, and extremely virtuous. Unlike other female courtiers, she never wore makeup, which probably helped preserve her natural good looks because she wasn’t smearing mercury or lead on her skin all the time. When Henry came back from Spain, she had been tasked with trying to get him back up to speed with court life. Henry grew to love her first as a surrogate mother, though as he grew into his teen years the definitely transformed into a more obsessive love. For example, in 1531, when he was twelve, his stepmother Queen Eleanor’s coronation took place. The entire family wore her colors to honor her… except Henry, who wore Diane’s colors.38 This is kind of the Medieval equivalent to wearing a tshirt that says “I Heart Diane”! This set people talking and they kind of never stopped.

Given what we know about Henry, it’s hardly surprising to me that he fell in love with Diane. His parents abandoned him–his mother unwillingly, we can assume, since she died–and he became, it seems to me, very careful to cultivate the love of older adults around him, at the expense of relationships with people his own age. This episode isn’t about him so I’m not going to get too deep into this, but as we’ll see his preference for people much older than him, who could be a mix of parent and friend or lover, ended up really impacting his relationship with Catherine, as well as his ability to rule France, for the rest of his life. Henry, it seems, never fully moved past this need for parental love. 

And Diane, initially rivals with King Francis’s chief mistress Anne, eventually became the chief rival of Catherine. Most historians assume that Diane and Henry had not become lovers before his marriage to Catherine. He was 14 after all, and she was 33. But she was ambitious, and like Ippolito, who couldn’t help but encourage someone young and more powerful to love him, Diane would soon seek to further ensnare Henry. 

The change came probably in the fall in 1536. On August 2nd of that year, the Dauphin of France, Henry’s brother Francis, played a game of tennis. After, he felt hot and breathless, and asked for water. Immediately after drinking it, he collapsed, developed a high fever, and had difficulty breathing. He died on August 10th at just eighteen years old. It was incredibly unexpected. 

It was also the beginning of Catherine’s terrible historical reputation. 

You see, the Dauphin’s death was so sudden and unexpected, most assumed he had been poisoned. The man who had brought him the water, Sebastian de Montecuculli, was Italian, a man that Catherine had brought with her when she moved to France.39 His rooms were searched, and a book on toxicology was found.40 He was arrested and, under torture, admitted to poisoning the Dauphin. People assumed he was in the pay of either Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain, or Catherine herself. Montecuculli, for what it’s worth, accused the Emperor, but he retracted his confession before his execution. He was executed on October 7th in just the most gruesome way possible–his limbs were tied to four horses, which were then whipped and tore him to pieces when they galloped in different directions.41

Realistically, the Dauphin probably died from tuberculosis or pleurisy. The glass of cold water is a red herring, something people fixated on because poison was, at the time, both untraceable and preferable to the tragedy of an eighteen-year-old just…dying. As we all know, confessions under torture aren’t exactly sound. Moreover, his health had never fully recovered from his imprisonment in dank cells in Spain. It was a tragedy, but it probably wasn’t an assassination. After all, no one really benefitted from his death, except Henry and Catherine. So it remains the first of the many dark clouds that hangs over Catherine’s historical reputation. 

Upon his brother’s death, Henry automatically became the Dauphin of France, and Catherine the Dauphine. They were both seventeen. Francis reportedly called Henry to his side, saying, “Do all that you can to be like he was, surpass him in virtue so that those who now mourn and regret his passing will have their sorrow eased. I command you to make this your aim with all your heart and soul.”42 If it wasn’t clear before, Francis and Henry were not close!

In addition to the threat to her reputation that this change in status held for her, Catherine faced another issue: Children. After three years of marriage, she had yet to get pregnant. This had been less of an issue when they were not in the immediate line of succession, but as the Dauphine Catherine needed to have children or risk being set aside. She began to urgently try to conceive, but Henry left on a military campaign in Italy. While there, he fathered a child with another woman, proving, quote-unquote “conclusively” that the quote-unquote “problem” in their childless marriage was with Catherine, not him. 

That baby was named Diane de France, after Diane de Poitiers. The birth mother lived in a comfortable covent for the rest of her life, and Diane de Poitiers raised the baby. In fact, the baby was so adored by Diane that rumors abounded that the baby was Diane’s by Henry, and that Filippa Duci, the actual mother, was made up. The rumors weren’t true, but they hurt Catherine even more. The rumors also, however, provided the backdrop for the historical alteration by the tv show Reign, where Diane de Poitiers does have a child with Henry who is older than Catherine’s oldest son. 

This is also when it’s assumed that Diane’s relationship with Henry became sexual. She had long insisted to him that their relationship needed to remain platonic, but clearly changed her mind. Why is unclear–was it just because she finally saw seventeen-year-old Henry as a man, no longer a child? DId his affair with Filippa trigger some sort of jealousy in her? Was it because he was now the Dauphin and being the chief mistress of the future king would be an incredible position for her? It could have been some combination of all of these. We don’t know. We just know that around this time, she wrote an opaque poem about “having submitted,” which everyone kind of assumes meant that she had finally slept with him.43

The affair was not a secret. Henry had a monogram that interlaced the H and D of their names together and put it all over everything. If you go to France today, you can still see it all over chateaux he had built during his reign. He also adopted a crescent moon as his emblem, the symbol of the mythological Diana and a similar symbol to Diane’s emblem. He even eventually allowed Diane to write letters and orders on his behalf, signing with their names combined–HenriDiane, all one word. 

Catherine endured this quietly. She continued to try to get pregnant, to avoid being divorced. Little did she know, Madame d’Étampes, Francis’s mistress, was trying to accomplish exactly that. Not because she disliked Catherine–remember, she had taken Catherine under her wing–but because she so hated Diane that she wanted to see Diane’s position destabilized by the arrival of a new, more beautiful, wife for Henry. Even if she had succeeded in getting Catherine repudiated, reality is that it probably wouldn’t have worked–as I mentioned earlier, Henry’s love for Diane was very complicated by her role as a mother figure to him as well as a lover. He was surrounded by any number of young beautiful women at court, but he rarely strayed from Diane. 

In fact, he was so devoted to Diane, that she had to insist he sleep with his wife. Aware of Madame d’Étamples plot to see herself unseated, Diane moved in the opposite way: She insisted that Henry keep trying to conceive with Catherine in order to preserve the status quo. If Catherine stayed, there was no risk for Diane. Surprisingly, there’s nothing that i’ve seen in the historical record about Henry divorcing Catherine in order to marry Diane. I don’t know if this is because it would have been too great a scandal, or because of her age, or the fact that she also wasn’t getting pregnant by Henry… but it’s worth noting that Diane never seems to have tried for this option. She was ambitious, but she wasn’t that ambitious.

Also in Catherine’s corner was King Francis. Though people tried to convince him to help his son divorce Catherine–especially in favor of Louise of Guise, the beautiful young daughter of the Guise family, who claimed descent from Charlemagne. Catherine, who always had the potent combination of a good head on her shoulders but also an actor’s sense of when to lean into showmanship, threw herself upon her father-in-law’s favor, literally. In front of the entire court, she sobbed at his feet, saying that she understood the Dauphin needed children–she begged, instead, to be allowed to remain in France after their divorce in order to serve the next Dauphine, instead of being sent back to Italy.44 

It worked perfectly. Francis had no stomach for a woman in tears, and he was impressed by her humility to ask to serve. Drying her tears, he said that she had become the Dauphine by God’s grace and it was beyond him to change God’s will.45 Catherine could stay. 

She turned to traditional medicine immediately–which is to say, prayer. When that didn’t work, Diane provided her with advice and potions. When those didn’t work, Catherine turned to ancient texts by Photius, and Isodore le physicien, which contained magic and pagan recipes.46 Many of these cures were as bad as the problem–they included drinking a mule’s urine, and wearing poultices of ground stag’s antlers and cow dung on her, quote, “source of life.”47 Henry was said to already be unenthusiastic in bed with Catherine; I can’t imagine this made him any more excited to have sex with her. She began to consult astrologists as well, which started a lifelong love affair with astrology. 

Eventually, Catherine became convinced that she was quote, “committing a fundamental error of some sort,” aka–not having sex correctly.48 Though she could have asked for advice from anyone–I mean, keep in mind, this is a very public battle with infertility she’s having. Everyone at court cared and was watching. So she could have asked literally anyone for advice, and probably got more advice than she asked for, but she took a more direct route: At the chateau Fontainebleu, Catherine had holes bored into her floor so that she could peek into the bedchamber below, where Diane and Henry often spent the night together.49 Catherine, it should be noted, was passionately devoted to Henry and very in love with him, so going out of her way to watch her beloved husband have sex with the woman he loved more than her must have taken some amount of guts. When the time came for her to watch though, she saw little–her eyes were filled with tears when she finally turned away.50 She got enough gist though to realize that the sex she was having with Henry was very different from what he was doing with Diane. 

Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, 1827 by Louis-Marie Lanté (1789 - 1871). Source.

Finally, in late 1542 or early 1543, after nearly ten childless years of marriage, a doctor named Jean Fernel was called in. He examined both the Dauphin and the Dauphine and found “slight physical abnormalities” in both of their reproductive organs.51 To a lot of people’s frustration, what these supposed abnormalities were was not recorded, but he counseled them on how to overcome this to conceive and it worked. By summer of 1543, Catherine was finally pregnant. 

Their first child, a son named Francis, was born on January 19, 1544. Astrologers predicted that he would grow up “to be a strong, fit man, that he would take the Church under his protection and would have a large number of brothers and sisters.”52  Indeed, Catherine and Henry went on to have nine more children in twelve years, seven of which survived to adulthood. Whatever Fernel told them, it worked. 

As Leonie Frieda notes, Catherine surviving pregnancy and childbirth as many times as she did is a testament to her good health. The quote-unquote “help” that she would have received during childbirth was dubious at best. At the time, it was accepted practice for midwives to tear the mother’s genitals to speed up dilation during a slow delivery, as well as to simply reach inside her and yank out the placenta, both of which of course were done with unclean hands.53 This often caused severe blood loss, infection, and blood poisoning, which was what killed Catherine’s mother. If the mother happened to survive all of that horror, she was then denied solid food for weeks, preventing healing. 

Unfortunately, of these children, only one inherited Catherine’s own strong health–her daughter Margot. The rest all suffered from weak lungs and tuberculosis. Three of the boys, including her eldest, Francis, were prone to septic sores and fits of dementia that suggest they had contracted genetically inherited syphilis from Catherine’s father, Lorenzo.54 This would mean that Catherine was infected too, though she’s never described as showing symptoms, which is astounding because congenital syphilis usually kills children. The few children who survive infancy with congenital syphilis have their health severely impacted by it, and usually die very young. That Catherine could go her whole life asymptomatic seems so unlikely to me to suggest that her children didn’t actually contract syphilis and had health problems stemming from something else, especially since they all survived to adulthood. Either their symptoms that seem similar to syphilis are explained by something else, or maybe syphilis has gotten stronger in the last couple hundred years and kills its host more quickly? I don’t know, someone who is a medical historian please weigh in, this is actually an interesting question to me that I can’t seem to find an answer to. 

Now, if you thought that the arrival of a child–followed by several more–would have changed Catherine’s and Diane’s respective statuses in the royal family, you would be wrong. Diane somehow managed to take over the raising of Catherine’s children. Perhaps because she had already raised two children of her own, which she’d had with her husband when she was young, plus Diane de France, Henry entrusted the governorship and eventually education of his children to his mistress.

Diane’s growing power did cause drama though. Her rivalry with Madame d’Étampes, once very cloak and dagger, and blown up into outright hostility, which was mirrored by the worsening relationship between the King and the Dauphin. d’Étampes was accused of treason, including selling secrets to the Emperor, an accusation that probably started with Diane. In return, it seems, Diane was banished from court by Francis in fall 1544. At first triumphant at Diane’s fall, Catherine was soon just as punished as her rival was, because furious with his father’s move, the Dauphin ran away from court to be with Diane at her chateau, and didn’t return for months. Keep in mind, he had an infant son at home at this time. 

However, with just Catherine and Francis at court, the aging King doted on his daughter-in-law. For all that he seemed to hate Henry, he loved Catherine. She blossomed under his attention, and he showed his clear favoritism of her by giving her jewels worth 10,000 écus that Christmas. She was pregnant again at the time and he was present at the birth of her daughter, Elisabeth, in April 1545. 

Tragedy struck the French royal family soon after though–Henry’s younger brother, Charles, who had always been Francis’s favorite son, died suddenly of the plague. Francis, who had apparently been refusing to train Henry in statecraft out of a misguided hope that Charles might somehow inherit, had to face facts: Henry needed to be taught how to be king. But by that point, Henry had no interest in listening to his father, and in fact refused to attend council meetings so that he, quote, “did not wish to be tarnished by the misguided policies of his father when he finally ascended the throne.”55 He also resented the influence the Madame d’Étampes had over his ailing father and avoided association with her as best he could.

In fall of 1546, Henry and Catherine went on their first royal progress together to visit the eastern border of France. Catherine fell seriously ill during it and their travel had to be stopped so she could recover. It’s unclear what she became ill with–Frieda mentions the strain of childbirth, but it had been almost eighteen months since Elisabeth’s birth at this point. Perhaps there was a miscarriage in here, though the historical record isn’t clear. In any case, to have Henry caring for her, quote, “with some tenderness” might have been worth getting sick to Catherine.56 He so rarely showed her that he cared for her at all. 

In 1547, King Francis’s health deteriorated aggressively. He had an abscess, quote, “in his lower parts” that had been cauterized two years before, but it had never quite healed.57 Some have thought he had syphilis, though contemporary accounts claim he always remained quite lucid, though that’s arguable if you look at his confusing and muddled policies at the time. Others suggest gonorrhoea, which untreated would have created serious infections in his bladder and urinary tract. He also had infections in his stomach, lung, kidneys, and throat, and ultimately it’s unclear exactly what killed him. When it became clear to him in March that he was dying, he sent for Henry and spent days talking frankly and earnestly with him about how to rule. Though probably still not loving or affectionate, Francis finally gave Henry the advice and education that he had long needed. Chief among his advice was the recommendation that Henry always remain wary of the Guise family, as well as to never, quote, “submit yourself ot the will of others, as I have to [the Duchess d’Étampes].”58

Catherine was devastated by Francis’s decline. They had become genuinely close during her thirteen years in France, and from him she had learned how to “project the grandeur of monarchy” through public celebrations and supporting arts and building projects.59 In fact, it was by following his example that Catherine became such a great supporter of architecture–he had shown her that projecting the grandness of the monarchy was always a good idea, no matter the cost. When he died on March 31, 1547, she swore to honor his memory through building projects and in the way she and Henry ruled France. 

Henry ascended to the throne at twenty-eight years old to a pretty warm reception. In his final years, Francis’s policies had not always been totally sound, and his strength and judgment had often failed him at crucial moments, especially when it came to Spain. Henry, on the other hand, was young, athletic, and handsome. As the second son he’d been out of the spotlight for most of his life, so all the people knew about him was that he was, quote, “a brave soldier, a robust sportsman, and loved the hunt; he also seemed to eschew the showiness and extravagance of his father.”60 Importantly, though all of the court knew about his affair with Diane, news hadn’t gotten out to the general public, who had hated Francis’s affair with the Duchess. 

Portraits of Henry II (1519-1559) and Catherine de Medicis (Caterina de Medici) (1519-1589), King and Queen of France. Anonymous French painting, 16th century. Castle Museum, Anet, France (Photo by Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images)

However, Henry began sowing the slow-growing seeds of disaster pretty quickly. Because his education as a ruler had been neglected, he had missed some of the finer points on managing the nobles in his kingdom, and he began playing favorites with a few. Remember Montmorency, who I mentioned briefly earlier as becoming something of a father figure to Henry? Well, that long relationship paid dividends handsomely for Montmorency–he held the King’s signet and controlled what business made  it to Henry’s desk, usually doing a good deal of the actual work of ruling the kingdom for Henry, which annoyed basically everyone.61 Henry made Montmorency and his other favorites so wealthy and powerful that they eventually became a danger to Catherine and his own children when he died tragically. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. 

Now twenty-eight years old, Catherine was the Queen of France. Half her lifetime ago, when Pope Clement negotiated this marriage for her, he probably never could have imagined it would happen. Any pride or glory Catherine might have felt was probably eclipsed by Diane though, who suddenly found another passion in life as soon as Henry became King: Accumulating wealth and attention. Henry gave her the right to all “terres vagues,” lands and properties with no clear title or whose owners had died without an heir, which was an insanely huge and lucrative gift.62 He also gifted her the Chateau of Chenonceau, which was both property of the Crown and technically not his to give, and also a property that Catherine had loved and wanted for years. Watching Diane lord over Chenonceau was particularly heartbreaking for Catherine, and it was one of the few times she ever confronted Henry about his affair.63 In general, whenever she could, Diane pushed Catherine out of the spotlight, and Catherine spent Henry’s reign mostly just being pregnant and giving birth over and over again. As French historian Pierre Louis Roederer wrote, “Movement went on about [Catherine]; [but] she was becalmed. Politics died at her doorstep, her life remained purely domestic except in the Italian matters.”64

Again, Catherine bore all of this with little complaint, though perhaps she started to complain more as Diane’s greed began to be the talk of the court. She once wrote, quote, 

If I made good cheer for Madame de Valentinois [Diane] it was the King that I was really entertaining, and besides I always let him know that I was acting sorely against the grain; for never did a women who loved her husband succeed in loving his whore. For one cannot call her otherrwise, althought the word is a horrid one to us.65

We can guess though that Catherine usually remained silent. In a surviving letter to her daughter Elisabeth much later in life, she wrote, “I loved him so much, I was always afraid.”66 She endured Diane to be near Henry, because the alternative was to risk being sent away herself. After all, she had already fulfilled her duty by giving him sons.  

Henry must have felt some twinge of regret about Catherine’s position though, because he decided to do something to please his wife soon after he became King: he honored her four cousins, the Strozzi, who had been exiled from Florence by the authoritarian Duke Alessandro de Medici. Alessandro, by the way, had hired someone to assassinate Catherine’s beloved Ippolito in 1535, a fact she never forgot nor forgave.67 So when the two elder Strozzi brothers, Piero and Leone, made it known that they hoped to return to Florence to throw out Alessandro, Catherine made it clear to Henry that she favored that direction. To make her happy, he advanced their military positions so they would be in place to invade Florence when teh time was right. 

In fact, Catherine became something of a rallying figure for exiled Italians. At first they didn’t gain much from their fellow Italian on the French throne, but Catherine did manage to slowly, over time, use her influence to help. She imported heer gowns from Italy, setting the standard for fashion at court, and she brought in Italian artists and craftsmen to influence arts and building projects. Importantly, she also brought in a lot of wealthy Italian bankers, who provided Henry with loans when he decided that he, like Francis before him, couldn’t resist trying to conquer territory in Italy.68

Around this time, Catherine became very close friends with Marie-Catherine Gondi, the French wife of Antonio Gondi, a fellow Florentine. They had actually met many years before, when Catherine first married Henry, and had maintained a correspondence. Now finally in a position to reward that loyalty herself, Catherine made Madame Gondi her personal treasurer, responsible for the general administration of Catherine’s building projects and personal finances. It was an incredibly unusual position for any woman to hold in the sixteenth century.69 Catherine, generally wary of others, shared one of her few true friendships in her life with Madame Gondi. 

Henry’s coronation as King took place on July 26th, 1547. Catherine, very pregnant at the time, had no formal role in the coronation, and must have been devastated to see Henry enter the  cathedral at Rheims wearing a tunic embroidered with repeating HD symbols, honoring Diane. Among other changes, Henry’s long melancholy seems to have finally lifted after his coronation. Catherine’s own coronation as Queen of France was put off for nearly two years–she was finally symbolically confirmed as queen on June 10th, 1549 in Saint-Denis. 

The coronation is an interesting tradition. She sat on a throne in the Cathedral and listened to opening prayers. After, she descent and knelt at the altar for anointing with oil, which was performed by the Cardinal de Bourbon. “He smudged the holy oil on her forehead and chest, then placed the ring on her finger which symbolized her marriage to the kingdom of France, and placed the sceptre in one and and the ‘main de justice’ in the other. Finally, the great crown, supported by Antoine de Bourbon (the Duke of Vendôme) and the Comte d’Enghien, was placed on her head.”70 The crown was apparently so heavy that it was replaced almost immediately by a lighter one. She then led a procession of four princesses carrying sacred gifts–of course, Diane de Poitier was one of the four. But for once she didn’t outshine Catherine. 

After Catherine’s coronation, the Court went to Paris to celebrate. (Side note: Today Saint-Denis is on the northern border of Paris but then it was very separate.) However, religious factionalism and trouble had finally reached France and that conflict cast a dark shadow over the festivities. One of the, quote, “heretics,” aka Protestants, imprisoned in Paris, had been brought before the King so Henry could question him personally. They had brought a humble tailor, basically hoping he would be too stupid to be eloquent when faced with the Catholic king. He surprised them, however, by having, quote, “a great effect” on the others gathered around him that day.71

Deeply Catholic and even more deeply annoyed that day, Diane tried to bait the prisoner with her own questions, but the man gave a response so perfect that it has survived for centuries. He said, quote, “Madame, rest satisfied with having corrupted France, and do not mingle your filth with a thing so sacred as the Truth of God.”72 He was referring, of course, to her affair with the King, which Catholics were quietly tolerating but Protestants were publicly denouncing, among other things. What Catherine thought of this is unknown, but it enraged Henry so much that he sentenced the tailor to death. He attended the burning at the stake, and it’s said that the tailor stared directly into Henry’s eyes until he lost consciousness.73 The image haunted Henry for weeks, though it didn’t change his approach to trying to eradicate Protestantism. 

Meanwhile, Catherine’s developing interest in astrology grew quickly after her own ascent to the throne. Though still a habitual if not particularly passionate Catholic, she also believed in the powers of the stars and often relied on celestial readings. Many astrologers were on her payroll, including the infamous Ruggieri brothers Tommaso and Cosimo. The Ruggieri family had long been patronized by the Medici family, in fact, and Catherine relied on Cosimo’s talent for astrology and the, quote, “black arts” for a long time.74 The sixteenth century was a generally pretty superstitious time, and Catherine was not alone in having a huge collection of talsimans and sacred relics to protect her from harm. 

Of course, her fascination with all this did a lot of damage to her reputation later on, during more conservative centuries. But for her time, Catherine’s interest was pretty standard, and she certainly wasn’t performing any kind of witchcraft as her reputation would suggest. Some do suggest, however, that Catherine had a bit of a gift for prophecy herself, something that I’ll come back to in a little while. 

That said, her reputation was not helped by the reputation of some people around her, including Cosimo Ruggieri and a perfumer remembered only as Master René, who did become infamous for his, quote, “legendary poisoned gloves and rouge with which he is supposed to have hurried people to their deaths when he served Catherine in her widowhood.”75 If this sounds vaguely fantastical, that’s because it probably is. 

In summer 1548, Henry decided it was time for him to try his hand at territorial expansion into Italy. He left for the peninsula, creating a council of five and leaving Catherine behind as his regent.76 This very clearly signaled a growing amount of respect for her and her intelligence. In practice she didn’t actually have much power, but it must have felt good to her for him to show her this sign of respect. The regency didn’t last long, however, as uprisings quickly started over teh salt tax that Henry had instated. Henry heard and hurried back, getting back by early September. 

The next month, Mary, Queen of Scots, arrived in France. She had been engaged to Francis, Catherine and Henry’s eldest son since she was a baby, which is also about how long she’d been Queen of Scotland. Her safety was not guaranteed in Scotland, however, what with the ongoing conflicts with England, so Henry had agreed to educate and protect her in France. In France, Mary would also enjoy the protection of her mother’s family, the Guise family. When she arrived, Henry declared her, quote, “the most perfect child I have ever seen.”77 Like Catherine had before her, Mary enjoyed a happy relationship with her future father-in-law and was doted upon as much as any of the couple’s several children. Henry wrote a glowing letter to Marie of Guise describing how the Dauphin and Mary had danced together at a banquet; his letters were often touching and fatherly.78 She was sent to live with them.

For the time period, Henry and Catherine were, quote, “devoted parents.”79 As was traditional, the children were raised by a series of governors who controlled their education and general care, but Catherine especially spent hours each week writing letters to their caretakers, giving detailed orders for the raising of each child and asking for news. Henry, too, often got involved, clearly trying not to treat his children the way his father had treated him. Diane, as well, was very involved, which probably continued to annoy Catherine. 

Now, there is something small here worth noting. Around 1550, Henry began an affair with the Lady Fleming, Mary’s governess. Several people had encouraged the affair, hoping it would get him to give up Diane once and for all, who was continuing to drain the royal coffers for her own gain. Diane was outraged and threw fit after fit about the affair, while Catherine sat back and watched quietly with amusement. It might have stopped there and not been worth mentioning at all, if Fleming had not ended up pregnant. Alone, even that could have been a contained scandal except that she couldn’t stop telling people that the King was the father. This was the issue–her big mouth. Since she was publicly parading her affair, Catherine had every right to throw her own, probably much more restrained, fit. For the first and last time, she and Diane were on the same side. They, quote, “worked harmoniously together to make the King’s life so intolerable that in the end he sent Lady Fleming away.”80

I’m only noting any of this because in 1551 Lady Fleming gave birth to a boy named Henry, Chevalier of Angoulême. He was brought up with the other royal children. He’s remembered largely for his extreme cruelty, which would come back to reflect poorly on Catherine because of his role in the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in 1572. I’ll come back to that in part two. 

Around the same time in 1551, Catherine gave birth to her third son, Edouard-Alexandre, later known as Henri, Duke of Anjou. He became her open favorite.

Now, if you thought that Henry’s ascension to the throne meant he’d forgotten about his captivity in Spain as a child, think again. The same emperor who had once imprisoned him was still on the throne–Charles V. Two decades later Henry finally had an excuse to exact revenge.  Now royal titles and dynamics are confusing, but bear with me here: Charles V, who was king of Spain and Portugal and the Holy Roman Emperor, was also the Count of Flanders. And in that role, he was technically a vassal of the King of France. So Henry had demanded that Charles come honor this role and pay allegiance to Henry at his coronation 1547. Obviously this was an effort to humiliate Charles, and so Charles responded to this invitation by saying that he’d be happy to, “but only at the head of 50,000 men to teach Henry a lesson in manners.”81 The two continued trading insults, simmering in their resentments for a few years. So in 1551, when Charles tried to bear his power down on the Farnese family in Italy to take their land, that family turned to Henry and Catherine for help. Though not technically their subjects and therefore not someone Henry nor Catherine were obligated in any way to help, Henry couldn’t resist the temptation of a fight with Charles. Catherine encouraged him as well, because she saw French intervention in Italy as a chance for her to rest control of Florence from Cosimo de Medici, who she disliked. This inspired Henry, who was starting to notice that his growing brood of boys would need something to do when they got older–maybe a vassal duchy in Italy would be just the ticket for a younger Valois boy. The Strozzi brothers, who I mentioned earlier, finally had an outlet for their Italian ambitions, though Catherine would see them largely disgraced by the end of this campaign. 

Henry had, at this time, also started to pay more attention to Catherine in general. Though Diane was still a part of his life, it seems like he was starting to see that she was as, quote, “undemanding as she was loyal” to him.82 He showed her such tenderness and attention that a lot of people noted it in their own memoirs of court. It seems like, in addition to just finally growing to love her in some measure, he also finally realized her own political acumen. He began to rely on her for counsel more and more, and when he declared war on Charles in 1552, he installed Catherine as regent once again. Finally given something to do besides be pregnant, Catherine worked hard to impress Henry as regent. 

She made an early mistake that would come back to haunt her though. Hearing that some preachers were, quote, ‘speaking seditiously in Paris,” she had the city governor quietly arrest them and replace them with crown supporters.83 She was warned that doing so would only exacerbate the problem, but that was a lesson she had to learn the hard way. As we’ll see, Catherine often struggled to deal with the religious problems of her time. 

In March 1555, while the conflict with Italy dragged on, Catherine gave birth to a boy, Hercules. In June 1556, her final pregnancy tried hard to kill her. She was expecting twin girls, Jeanne and Victoire. The first baby was born just fine, but the second failed to emerge and she started to lose too much blood. To save Catherine’s life, the doctors broke the dying infant’s legs in utero to forcibly remove it from the womb. It seems like it had perhaps already died by this point, which was why the birth wasn’t proceeding as normal. The other child survived the birth but died six or seven weeks later. This birth was so difficult for Catherine that her doctors insisted that she couldn’t risk ever giving birth again, thereby ending that period of her life. She and Henry stopped having sex, but this didn’t change how much he had come to rely on her. 

Perhaps to cheer her up after this traumatic event, Henry gifted Catherine the Château de Montceaux-en-Brie, near Paris. It was a smaller chateau, but the royal family used it occasionally. Catherine commissioned her first solo building project there: She planned to cover an alley in the gardens where Henry played pall mall–an early form of croquet. She commissioned Philibert de l’Orme, a Renaissance master of architecture for this project. He created a grotto built to look like natural rock, where spectators could sit and watch the game.84 It was completed in 1558, but doesn't survive today.

In 1557, when Catherine was fully recovered, he made her regent again while he was on a military campaign. He was suffering defeat after defeat, and several of his top advisors and soldiers were either killed or captured. Needing money to raise and equip more soldiers, Henry wrote to Catherine in Paris, asking her to please find a way to get more money out of the Parisians who were at the same time trying to evacuate Paris as enemy soldiers marched to them. 

So Catherine, once again with her consummate skill for presentation, appeared dressed in all black with her sister-in-law Marguerite at the Paris Bureau de Ville, now called the Hôtel de Ville, or town hall. It was her first ever significant public address, and she, quote, “played her hostile and frightened audience with consummate skill. She did not command them to help their King, she appealed for their support, flattering them with her humble speech. Speaking of the peril which threatened them all, she asked the people to ‘aid their King.’”85 They asked her to give them a moment to debate, but they literally took only a moment to return a unanimous vote to help with three hundred thousand livres.86 Throughout this process, Catherine found that she not only had serious oratory skill, but was in general a good ruler. She had a talent for this sort of thing. 

In January 1558, when the weather was traditionally considered too bad to fight wars (which seems like such a quaint limit today), Henry decided that he was going to use the element of surprise to finally recapture Calais from the English. By this point, Charles V had died and his son, Philip had become king. Philip was married to Queen Mary of England, and recapturing Calais would be a blow to both of them. The attack worked, and the entire court celebrated. 

Henry had long been withholding the marriage of his son Francis to Mary, Queen of Scots as motivation for the Guise family to be loyal to him; to thank them for their loyalty and fighting at Calais, he finally allowed the marriage to happen. They were married in Paris on April 24 of 1558, which was a moment of great joy for Catherine. It was noted, however, how sickly the Dauphin appeared–at the ceremony his face was swollen and his nose ran constantly, something which probably worried Catherine in equal measure. As a nod to the cemented alliance with Scotland, the teen bride and groom were henceforth referred to as the Queen-Dauphine and the King-Dauphin.87

The celebrations were short lived, however. A few disastrous losses led to a disastrous treaty and the end of Henry’s Italian ambitions. Catherine is said to have begged him not to ratify, and blamed Diane for influencing him negatively in his decisions around this time. Nevertheless, he ratified and began to focus his attention to the interior of the realm again. Henry became ever more interested in, quote, “eliminating the ‘Protestant vermin’ from his realm.”88 He began what basically amounts to a witch hunt, arresting and occasionally executing people with Protestant leanings. Catherine watched this quietly, learning all the wrong lessons from it. 

Around this time, the Venetian envoy to the French court, Giovanni Capello, gave an account of Catherine as she approached her fortieth birthday. He said, quote, “her dress was always magnificent and her manner regal” though he then followed that with the old complaint that she wasn’t pretty enough: “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; her manners are charming and she has a pleasant smile or a few well-chosen words for each of her guests.”89 

Catherine had continued her love of riding and hunting, and spent a fortune on her horses and stables. She was described as, quote, “a very good and fearless horsewoman, sitting with ease, and being the first to put her leg around a pommel…until she was over sixty she loved riding and after her weakness prevented her, she pined for it.”90 While out riding, she usually carried a crossbow in case she game across game, and she used it with considerable skill. Catherine loved riding because she always had, but it began to hold special significance to her as the one place that Diane wouldn’t be an interloper between Catherine and Henry. For all that Diane liked to pretend she was Diana the goddess hunter, she was fearful of getting too much sunlight and darkening her complexion.91

Their marriage steadily improved in the late 1550s. Henry began spending an hour or so alone with Catherine every night before he went to bed. The pattern of doting on her continued, and he often went to her for political counsel. Unable to have sex with her for risk of pregnancy, and his sixty-year-old mistress losing interest in sex, Henry went to prostitutes for the rest of his life. Catherine, surprisingly, didn’t seem to mind this. She did continue to mind Diane’s continued prominence in his life though. 

As her one-by-one children entered their teen years, Catherine nurtured ambitions for important dynastic marriages for each of them. After the death of Queen Mary of England, she was pleased to marry her daughter Elisabeth to the widowed Philip of Spain as part of the ongoing treaties between France and Spain. This probably felt like a crowning achievement to her: Philip was part of the Hapsburg dynasty, one of the most famous of all the European royal families; for her lowly merchant blood to be mingling with the Hapsburgs through her daughter must have been very empowering. 

A somewhat strange tradition was celebrated here. Philip had not come to Paris himself, declaring it improper for Spanish kings to go “fetch their wives.”92 So he sent a proxy, Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba. The proxy isn't strange, this was done a lot for royal marriages. After the wedding ceremony, Fernando and Elisabeth laid in bed next to each other, each with one leg naked. They rubbed their feet together and the marriage was declared consummated.93 Which is maybe the wildest royal marriage custom I’ve ever heard.

Anyway, their wedding-by-proxy was celebrated with several days of feasts and jousts. Henry had never seemed happier, but as the morning of June 30 dawned, Catherine was incredibly anxious. 

As I mentioned, Catherine was a big believer in the occult–by this point, she kept the famous Nostradamus at her court, and was known to consult other seers and astrologists. And they had all made her nervous going into this joust. Seven years before, in 1552, Luca Giorco, the resident astrologer of the Medici family, had warned that Henry needed to be extra careful during his fortieth year to “avoid all single combat in an enclosed space” because he’d be risking a wound that could blind or even kill him.94 In 1555, Nostradamus had included the following prophecy in his publication, Centuries: 

The young lion will overcome the old, in a field of combat in a single fight. He will pierce his eyes in a golden cage, two wounds in one, he then dies a cruel death.95

Then, on the night of Thursday June 29th, 1559, Catherine had a foreboding dream: Henry was laid out on the ground with his face covered in blood.96 Again, people thought that Catherine had a bit of a gift for prophecy, so it’s no surprise that she was “noticeably anxious” when Henry suited up to join the jousting the next morning.97

Henry mounted his horse wearing a gold helmet and visor. His horse was named Malhereux, meaning ‘unhappy’ which seems prophetic too, considering what happened next. 

In the first run against his opponent, Gabriel Count de Montgomery, the King was nearly knocked from his horse. The Count begged to be allowed to resign, clearly nervous that he was going to hurt the King. Catherine sent word down, begging Henry not to ride again. Even his groom allegedly begged the King to stop. However, Henry told everyone assembled that continuing was “an order” and they rode again.98

On the second run, Henry didn’t even wait for the trumpet call that should have signaled the start. He and Montgomery thundered down the course toward each other, and Henry was struck. The Duke de Montmorency and the Duke of Guise rushed forward, catching Henry before he fully fell off his horse. They found his visor already half open and blood pouring out of his face. Wooden splinters of, quote, “a good bigness” protruded from his eye and temple.99

Horrified, the Count de Montgomery begged to be executed for hurting the king’s person. Henry, good-natured about it as he had become about most things since his coronation, insisted that Montgomery had done nothing but follow orders. He was carried inside, and the Dauphin, who had fainted at the sight of his father’s injuries, was carried up behind him. Henry was put in bed, where he, quote, “immediately tried to clasp his hands in prayer and strike his chest in contrition for his sins. It was as if he was already preparing for death.”100

He was treated, but I can’t say much for the wound care he was given. They applied “refrigeratives,” though what that actually means is unclear.101 The wound was dressed with raw egg white, which seems unsanitary by today’s standard, but I guess as we saw with the dung poultices Catherine had used herself fifteen years before, this is par for the course.102

Catherine kept vigil by his bed, though she seemed to be in a state of shock. He suffered for ten days, in and out of lucidity. At some points he asked for music, and even dictated letters, but he was also often unconscious and in great pain. Catherine barred Diane from entering the room. As Frieda points out, “Catherine had shared her entire married life with Diane, but these last moments belonged to her alone.”103

The wound worsened steadily, infection setting in. Various treatments were discussed and abandoned; it became clear that there was nothing anyone could do. Catherine split her time between Henry’s deathbed and the room where Francis wept and knocked his head against the wall in his fear and grief. As Henry lost his vision, he requested that the Dauphin sit with him, and like his father before him he gave the Dauphin all the advice he could muster in his final hours. He then requested that Catherine take care of the kingdom; he quote, “commended to her his kingdom and his children.”104 He died the next day, July 10, at around 1 pm, leaving Catherine as Queen Mother and their teen son Francis as king. 

And that’s where I’m going to leave things for now. I’ll pick up part two with Catherine’s work as regent, including the lengths she went to in order to protect three successive kings of France, and how she earned her dangerous moniker, the Serpent Queen. 

I hope you enjoyed this episode of Unruly Figures! If you did, please tell a friend about it. You can also let me know your thoughts by following me on Twitter and Instagram as @unrulyfigures, or joining us over on Substack. If you have a moment, please give this show a five-star review on Spotify or Apple Podcasts–it really does help other folks find this work. Thanks for listening!

📚 Bibliography


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  • “Château De Montceaux.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Jan. 2022, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau_de_Montceaux.

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  • “Garrard & Co - the Imperial State Crown.” Royal Collection Trust, Garrard & Co, https://www.rct.uk/collection/31701/the-imperial-state-crown.

  • Henman, Samantha. “Shameless Facts about Diane De Poitiers, the Shadow Queen of France.” Factinate, 9 Nov. 2021, https://www.factinate.com/people/facts-diane-de-poitiers/.

  • “Ippolito De' Medici.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ippolito-de-Medici.

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