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Catherine de' Medici - a powerful regent queen of France

Portrait of Catherine de' Medici at the French court.

Portrait of Catherine de' Medici at the French court.

Portrait of Catherine and Henry's marriage painted 17 years after the fact.

Portrait of Catherine and Henry's marriage painted 17 years after the fact.

Catherine de' Medici 1519-1580

The de' Medici family of Florence, Italy continued for more than 300 years and one of its most famous and powerful women was Catherine de' Medici who eventually became the Queen Consort of France, Regent Queen of France and overseerer of the French Renaissance.

Catherine was the daughter of Lorenzo II de' Medici and Madelieine de La Tour d'Auvergne and so she was a Franco/Italian noblewoman. At the age of fourteen she married Prince Henry of France, Duke of Orleans, son of Francis I of France. As a result of this marriage, her biographer, Mark Strage, has said, "Catherine was the most powerful woman in 16th century Europe." As the powerful de' Medici relatives before her, Catherine learned to consolidate power and influence for the Valois monarchy in France and made her sons kings of France and ruled as regent until her death in 1580.

Catherine and Henry married October 28, 1533 in Marseille, France in a grand marriage affair which was an extravagant display and of gift-giving. Both Catherine and Henry were fourteen years of age at the time and this was a powerful union of the de' Medici's of Florence, Italy and King Francis I of France. During the wedding reception, Henry danced and jousted for Catherine. Unfortunately, after the wedding, Prince Henry showed no interest in Catherine as a wife and took many mistresses during this time after his marriage.

For the first ten years of their marriage, Catherine bore Henry no children, although he did have a daughter by one of his mistresses which he fully recognized. In 1536, Henry's older brother died, thus paving the way for Henry to succeed his father to the throne of France. Now Henry and Catherine were the Dauphin and Dauphine of France. At this point, there was talk of Henry divorcing Catherine because she had bore him no sons.

By this time, Henry had taken the beautiful Diane de Poitiers as his mistress (she was 19 years his senior) and it was Diane that pushed for Henry and Catherine to conceive an heir. Diane was not threatened at all by Catherine so she wanted Henry and Catherine's marriage to succeed. Henry had given Diane the crown jewels and the Chateau de Chenonceau and she had also acquired much power from Henry. With Catherine remaining as his wife, Diane knew she would be able to acquire more power when Henry became king of France.

In January 1544, Catherine did indeed give birth to a son, Francis, named after his grandfather, King Francis I. After this, Catherine had no trouble getting pregnant again. In fact, Catherine and Henry had ten children all together, but her ability to produce children did not improve her marriage. Diane de Poitiers remained as mistress to Henry until his death.

Children of Catherine and Henry II

  • Francis II, King of France
  • Elizabeth, Queen Consort of Spain
  • Claude, Duchess Consort of Lorraine
  • Louis, Duke of Orleans
  • Charles IX, King of France
  • Henry III, King of France
  • Margaret, Queen Consort of France and Navarre
  • Francis, Duke of Anjou
  • Victoria - twin to Joan - died in infancy
  • Joan - twin to Victoria - died in utero

Of the ten children, seven survived into adulthood. The three oldest sons became kings of France. Two of their daughters married kings and one daughter married a duke. Catherine outlived all her children except Henry III and Margaret.

Catherine, Queen Consort of France.

Catherine, Queen Consort of France.

Catherine de' Medici, Queen Consort of France 1547-1559

King Francis I of France died in 1547 and Henry and Catherine descended to the throne as Henry II and Catherine, Queen Consort of France. Catherine was crowned in the basilica of Saint-Denis on June 10, 1549. However, Henry did not allow Catherine any political influence as queen. As Diane de Poitiers had reasoned, she took her place at the center of power and influence over Henry. She dispensed patronage and accepted favors on behalf of Henry. During his reign, Henry excluded Catherine from participating in state affairs and she sat by on the sidelines of the court.

In the meantime, Catherine raised her children and planned what to do with Diane after Henry's death and how to rule the Valois monarchy. Catherine had learned much about authority and power from her de' Medici family and she did not waste these lessons.

In 1559, Henry died a few days after a jousting accident. In a coup d'etat, Catherine did not hesitate to exploit her new authority and power. She immediately forced Diane de Poitiers to return the crown jewels and the Chateau. She banned Diane from court and Diane de Poitiers lived the rest of her life in exile from the court and Paris, France.

Portrait of King Francis II of France.

Portrait of King Francis II of France.

Portrait of King Charles IX of France.

Portrait of King Charles IX of France.

Portrait of King Henry III of France

Portrait of King Henry III of France

Catherine de' Medici, Regent Queen of France

Henry II's death thrust Catherine into the political arena of France as the mother of the frail fifteen year old king, Francis II. This was the first of the three sons of Henry and Catherine to be crowned king of France with Catherine as the Regent Queen. Catherine's three sons reigned during a French age of almost constant civil and religious wars in France. The years that Catherine's sons reigned were called "the age of Catherine de' Medici,"

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Although Catherine and Henry had been married for a long while and had ten children together, Catherine was still considered a foreigner in France. She was always seen as an "Italian de' Medici" for most of her reign in France and it was not the end of her reign as Regent Queen that she became accepted by the French.

During her sons'' reign, Catherine took center stage as the power and influence behind the throne. She was ruthess as a ruler and her policies were seen as desperate measures to keep the Valois monarchy, of which her sons were a part, on the throne at all costs. Without Catherine, it is unlikely her sons would have remained in power for very long.

During her reign as Regent Queen, there were many problems facing the monarchy that were huge and complex. One that stretched for over thirty years was the problem of the Hugenots and the Catholics, continually at war during all three son's reigns as kings of France. Although Catherine tried very hard to bring the two waring factions to peace, she failed to grasp their theological issues. First, she tried to appease the Hugenots, then she took a hard line against them.

She was ultimately blamed for the St. Bartholomew's Day massascre of 1572 when thousands of Hugenots were killed in Paris and throughout France. Catherine expected a Hugenot uprising and decided to kill them before they killed the French Catholics. She has been severely criticized in history and blamed for the massacre, even though it was Francis II who cried, "kill the Hugenots, kill them all!"

During this time, Francis II died of an infection (abscess) in his ear. Catherine moved quickly to consolidate power and made a pact with Antoine de Bourbon to be the regent of the future king, her son Charles IX. The Privy Council appointed Catherine as governor of France and gave her sweeping powers.

Charles IX was ten years old at his coronation as king of France. Catherine presided over his council, decided policy, and controlled state business and patronage. At this time Catherine was never in a position to control the entire country of France as a whole,which was on the brink of civil war. In many parts of France, the noblemen held more power and sway than the crown.

Charles IX never ruled on his own and showed little interest in government and he gladly allowed Catherine to do this for him. Catherine was not unhappy to assume this role for Charles IX. Unfortunately, Charles did not live long and died at the age of twenty-three. But, a few days before his death he named his mother, Catherine as regent.

His brother, Henry III. was in Poland at the time, but returned home to France to rule. Henry III was Catherine's favorite son and was the only son to come to the throne as a grown man. He, too, depended on Catherine to run the government. He was not interested in the tasks of government and Catherine ran France until the last few weeks before her death.

Unfortunately, Catherine was unable to control Henry as she had with Francis and Charles. However, her role in his government became that of chief executive officer and roving diplomat. She traveled widely across the French kingdom enforcing her son's authority and trying to head off war. Incedibly, at fifty-nine years of age, Catherine was in the south of France to meet the Hugenots face to face. This act won Catherine new respect from the French people. She was finally recognized for her merits and her concern for unity within the French kingdom.

Catherine died of pleurisy in January 1589. Eight months after her death, Henry III was stabbed to death. The King of Navarre became Henry IV of France, ending three centuries of Valois rule and bringing in the Bourbon dynasty to France.

Source: "Catherine de' Medici: Renaissance Queen of France" by Leonie Frieda

Copyright (c) 2012 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved


Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on September 24, 2012:

I'm so glad you read this and enjoyed it. Catherine d'Medici was quite a woman, especially for her day. I love strong, bold women and she certainly became one once she was queen. I love this d'Medici family, I am also half Italian, and have read alot about all of them. They were quite a flamboyant and ostentatious family. Thanks for your visit!

Thelma Alberts from Germany on September 24, 2012:

Great and very informative history hub. Very well researched. I have seen a film about Catherine de´ Medici before. Awesome film. Thanks for sharing.

Suzette Walker (author) from Taos, NM on July 09, 2012:

Mhatter: Thanks for reading this piece. I decided I had to give the de' Medici women their due. The family is so men heavy on accomplishments, but the women too accomplished a lot. In the Who's Who of Women during the Renaissance period - Catherine de' Medici certainly would have made it in there. When so much of life was determined by men at that time, it is nice to see a woman powerful enough to run a country albeit behind the scenes! Thanks again for your visit!

Martin Kloess from San Francisco on July 08, 2012:

Another great article. thank you

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