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History & Religion

Catherine de’ Medici

Catherine de’ Medici, was an Italian noblewoman who was queen consort of France from 1547 until 1559, by marriage to King Henry II, and Queen mother of kings Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III from 1559 to 1589.

The years during which her sons reigned have been called “the age of Catherine de’ Medici” as she had extensive, if at times varying, influence in the political life of France.

  • Born: 13 April 1519, Florence, Republic of Florence
  • Died: 5 January 1589 (aged 69), Château de Blois, Kingdom of France

About Catherine de Medici

She was born in Florence to Lorenzo de’ Medici, Duke of Urbino and Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne. In 1533, at the age of fourteen, Catherine married Henry, second son of King Francis I and Queen Claude of France. Catherine’s marriage was arranged by her uncle Pope Clement VII.

Henry excluded Catherine from participating in state affairs and instead showered favors on his chief mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who wielded much influence over him. Henry’s death thrust Catherine into the political arena as mother of the frail 15-year-old King Francis II.

When he died in 1560, she became regent on behalf of her 10-year-old son King Charles IX and was granted sweeping powers.

From 1560 to 1563, she ruled France as regent for her son Charles IX, King of France. After Charles died in 1574, Catherine played a key role in the reign of her third son, Henry III. He dispensed with her advice only in the last months of her life (he would outlive her by seven months).

Catherine’s three sons reigned in an age of almost constant civil and religious war in France. The problems facing the monarchy were complex and daunting but Catherine was able to keep the monarchy and the state institutions functioning even at a minimum level.

At first, Catherine compromised and made concessions to the rebelling Calvinist Protestants, or Huguenots, as they became known. She failed, however, to grasp the theological issues that drove their movement.

Later she resorted, in frustration and anger, to hard-line policies against them. In return, she came to be blamed for the excessive persecutions carried out under her sons’ rule, in particular for the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, in which thousands of Huguenots were killed in Paris and throughout France.

Some historians have excused Catherine from blame for the worst decisions of the crown, though evidence for her ruthlessness can be found in her letters.

In practice, her authority was always limited by the effects of the civil wars. Her policies, therefore, may be seen as desperate measures to keep the Valois monarchy on the throne at all costs, and her patronage of the arts as an attempt to glorify a monarchy whose prestige was in steep decline.

Without Catherine, it is unlikely that her sons would have remained in power. According to Mark Strage, one of her biographers, Catherine was the most powerful woman in 16th-century Europe.