Catherine de’ Medici, b. April 13, 1519; d. January 5, 1589; she was the daughter of Lorenzo de’ Medici (II), Duke of Urbino, and Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne who. by her mother, Catherine of Bourbon, was related to the royal house of France. Left an orphan when only a few weeks old, Catherine had barely reached the age of thirteen when Francis I, King of France, eager to thwart the projects of the Emperor Charles V and to court the friendship of Clement VII, Catherine’s uncle, arranged a marriage between Catherine and his second son Henry, Clement VII coming to Marseilles in October, 1533, for the ceremony. The death, however, of the pontiff during the ensuing year prevented Francis I from realizing the political advantages he had hoped for from this union. Having brought to the French court only 100,000 ecus and a few poor appanages, Catherine was relegated to the background, where she remained even when, on the death of her husband’s elder brother, she attained the dignity of Dauphiness. Obliged to continue in this comparative obscurity for ten years because of being childless, her entire policy meanwhile consisted in trying to retain the favor of Diane de Poitiers, her husband’s mistress, and of the Duchesse d’Etampes, mistress of Francis I. On the accession of Henry II, March 31, 1547, Catherine became Queen of France, but she still remained inconspicuous, except during Henry’s short campaign in Lorraine, when she acted as regent, and even then showed her political abilities.
It was only on Henry II‘s death, July 10, 1559, that Catherine’s political career really began. Her son Francis II, husband of Mary Stuart, was king, and the Guises, Mary Stuart’s uncles, were in power, a condition that overtaxed Catherine’s patience. The Huguenots relied on her because everyone knew that the psalms of Marot had always delighted her, and that she had recently promised the Prince de Conde and the Admiral de Coligny, who were Huguenot leaders, liberty and security for their followers. But the intriguing Huguenots developed a State within the State in France, and Castelnau tells us that at their synods they were urged to adopt “all means of self-defense and attack, of furnishing money to military men and making attempts upon cities and fortresses”. Catherine was obliged to allow the Guises to quell the conspiracy of Amboise, March, 1560, and for a few months to exercise a sort of Catholic dictatorship. Then, to check and paralyze their power, she appointed Michel de l’Hopital chancellor a man whose wife and children were Calvinists, and convoked an assembly of notables at Fontainebleau (August, 1560) at which it was decided that the punishment of heretics should be suspended, and that the States-General, from which religious peace was looked for, were to meet at Orleans in December. Meanwhile Francis II died, December 5, 1560.
Catherine’s policy remained just what it had been during Francis’ brief reign. She continued to oscillate between the Catholics and Protestants in order to establish the dominion of the royal family, and was forever manoeuvring between Protestant England, whose queen, Elizabeth, she sought at certain times as a daughter-in-law, and Catholic Spain, whose king, Philip II, was her son-in-law. Thus did Catherine strive to insure the independence and political self-government of French royalty. As Charles IX, Catherine’s second son and the successor of Francis II, was scarcely ten years old, Catherine was regent and virtually sovereign. She named Anthony of Bourbon, King of Navarre and a Protestant, lieutenant-general of the kingdom, increased l’Hopital’s power, inflicted upon the Guises a sort of political defeat by imposing an obstacle to the marriage of Mary Stuart with Don Carlos, son of Philip II, and convoked the conference of Poissy in an endeavor to bring about a theological understanding between Catholics and Huguenots. “It is impossible”, she wrote to Rome, “to reduce either by arms or law those who are separated from the Roman Church, so large is their number”. She also opposed her son-in-law, Philip II of Spain, who demanded severity against the Huguenots, and the edict of January, 1562, insured them toleration. The political interests that helped to set the religious factions at variance did not abate: the arrogance of the Huguenots exasperated the Catholics, and the Vassy massacre (March, 1562) opened the first religious war, which fact alone was a victory for the Guise policy and a defeat for that of the regent. At one time Catherine thought of taking sides with Conde against the Guises, and accordingly wrote him four letters, which the Huguenots subsequently claimed to have contained her orders to Conde to take up arms, but which Catherine declared had been altered. Events then occurred in rapid succession, and she had the humiliation of seeing Guise bring Charles IX back to Paris.
Thenceforth Catherine fluctuated between the Catholic and Huguenot forces. She negotiated and watched the intrigues of Spain when it would interfere in behalf of the Catholics; of England when it would interest itself in the Huguenots; and of the emperor who took advantage of French anarchy to reclaim the three bishoprics recently conquered by Henry II. The assassination of Guise by the Huguenot, Poltrot de Mere (February 18, 1563), hastened the hour of peace, and when the treaty of Amboise (March 12, 1563) had granted certain liberties to Protestants, Catherine, to show Europe that discord no longer existed in France, sent both Catholics and Protestants to recover Le Havre (July 28, 1563), which Admiral de Coligny had yielded to the English. It was indeed a great period in Catherine’s life: Charles IX who had attained his majority on the 27th of June solemnly declared to her that she should govern more than ever; the treaty with England, April 11, 1564, assured Calais to France; and Catherine and the young king made a tour of the provinces. The Bayonne interview between Catherine and the Duke of Alba (June, 1565) caused a renewal of trouble; the Protestants spread the rumor that the queen-mother had conspired against them with the King of Spain, and a serious resort to arms was under way. For Catherine’s growing hatred of Coligny; her fear lest Charles IX, susceptible to certain Huguenot influence, should ally himself with the Prince of Orange and wage war against Spain; her order for the murder of Coligny that she might regain her control over Charles IX; and, finally, for the connection of Coligny’s murder with the massacre of St. Bartholomew‘s Day and Catherine’s responsibility in the matter—see the article Saint Bartholomew’s Day.
Charles IX died May 30, 1574, and Henry, Duke of Anjou, whom Catherine had but lately made King of Poland, became King of France. She was very fond of this third son, but had only a limited influence over him. The concessions which he made to Protestants in the treaty known as the “Peace of Monsieur” (May 5, 1576) brought about the formation of the Holy League for the protection of Catholic interests. For twelve years the power of the Guises in France was constantly on the increase, the relentless warfare against the Huguenots serving only to fortify it, and as a consequence Catherine suffered cruelly. Surrounded by his favorites, Henry III let his dynasty fall into disrepute. Francis of Valois, Catherine’s youngest son, died June 10, 1584, and Henry III being without issue, Henry of Bourbon, a Protestant (the future Henry IV), fell heir to the crown of France. And now the discouraged queen-mother and the childless king saw France become the bone of contention between the League and the Huguenot party; the royal family of Valois, doomed to extinction, watched the struggle as would supernumeraries assisting at a theatrical performance. Catherine, ever ambitious, laid claim to the crown of Portugal for a member of her family, and dreamed in vain of giving the crown of France to her daughter’s son, the Marquis de Pont Mousson; but the matter rested between the Guises and the Bourbons. At the close of 1587 the real master of Paris was no longer Henry III, but the Duke of Guise, and on the “Day of the Barricades” (May 12, 1588) Catherine saved her son’s honor by going in person to negotiate with Guise who received her as would a conqueror. She thus gained time for Henry III to fly secretly from Paris, and then she provisionally reconciled Henry III and Henry of Guise by the “Edict of Union” (July, 1588). This intriguing woman, who used these means to prolong the wearing of the crown by a Valois, was at Blois with her son, Henry III, for the meeting of the States-General, when she learned, on December 23, 1588, that through assassination Henry III had rid himself of Guise. Her surprise was tragic. “You have cut out, my son, but you must sew together”, she exclaimed upon hearing the news, and thirteen days later she died in despair at leaving her son in this critical situation. It was soon ended, however, when, on August 1, 1589, the dagger of Jacques Clement cut short Henry’s earthly existence. Catherine had always placed the interests of her children and her family first, and she died oppressed with anxiety whether this last representative would remain king of France until his death.
Dictatorial, unscrupulous, calculating, and crafty, the subtlety of her policy harassed all parties concerned and perhaps contributed to the aggravation of discord, although Catherine herself was peaceably inclined. Moreover, being intensely superstitious, she surrounded herself with astrologers. But she was sadly wanting in strong religious faith, and acted in favor of Catholicism only because in so doing she saw some advantage to her crown. There was never any joint interest between the Catholic Church and Catherine’s religious policy. Indeed her methods were so essentially egotistical as to border on cynicism, and it was because the interests of France and of royalty were at that time identical that Catherine, in working for her children, incidentally rendered direct political service to France and, for thirty years, prevented foreigners from interfering with, or exploiting, its religious discords. Despite her many cares she found leisure in which to enrich the Bibliotheque Royale, to have Philibert Delorme erect the Tuileries, and Pierre Lescot build the Hotel de Soissons. In a word she was a woman of the Renaissance, a disciple of Machiavelli, and the objective point of her policy may be perceived when we remember that she was a mother, crowned.