Had Catherine de Medici been born noble and beautiful, I suspect history might have praised her—as we do Elizabeth I—for her abilities as a diplomat, politician, fashionista, and patroness of arts and culture, because Catherine was all that, and more as biographer Leonie Frieda aptly demonstrates in “Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France.”
But Catherine was at best “plain” and descended from Medici merchants and not nobility, thus she spent much of her life denigrated as the “Italian.” She was the barely tolerated—albeit respected and ignored—wife of Henri II. More is made of her purported necromancy than of her diplomatic skills, which were formidable. Prior to reading this biography, I read Catherine de Medici’s story through the stories of others, chiefly Mary, Queen of Scots but also Nostradamus, and Diane de Poitiers—all more romanticized subjects. As a secondary character in historical fiction she is most often portrayed as an ugly, bitter, power-hungry woman who dabbled in the occult.
Frieda’s book gives a more measured account of Catherine, who swam in political waters all her life, first as a political collateral but later as a master of diplomatic and political intrigue. She portrays a deeply religious woman who heeded fortune-tellers, but dispels the witchcraft and necromancy associations.
Born 13 April 1519, Caterina Maria Romula de Medici was the daughter of Lorenzo II de Medici, Duke of Urbino and Madeleine de la Tour D’Auvergne, a French countess and heiress. Both parents died within days of her birth and her Medici relations brought up the orphaned Catherine. The Medici—famous for being Papal bankers, a formidable political dynasty and patrons of the arts—were not nobles by birth and this led to sneers and smears Catherine experienced later in life at the hands of caste-conscious French courtiers.
Catherine’s early upbringing was fraught with uncertainty and danger. She was often caught in the crossfire of French and Spanish expansionist strategies into the Italian states, and the political machinations of her Uncles, Medici Popes Leo X and Clement VII. During the siege of Rome in 1527 that sent Pope Clement VII into hiding at the Castel San Angelo, Catherine (age eight) was essentially incarcerated in a convent. Her life was in danger on several occasions.
Her fortunes rose once Pope Clement was free. He negotiated for her marriage to Henri, the son of the French King Francis I. But they were no sooner wed than Clement died, leaving her dowry only partly paid. Moreover, she was proving unable to secure the succession and give Henri with a child, her primary purpose. She did survive a move to have her marriage annulled (and eventually had 10 children), but always took second place to her husband’s mistress, the reputedly beautiful Diane de Poitiers. On Henri II’s death, one of her first moves was to take back the jewels Henri had given Diane and exile her from Court.
From Henri’s death on Catherine flexes her political muscle, managing the contentious Montmorency and Guise factions at the French Court. Frieda is a perhaps kinder to Catherine than many historians, suggesting that her role in France’s wars of religion and in particular the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, was one of attempted compromise. However, Catherine was a student of Machiavelli, and her actions are more consistent with his theories of power politics—including the use brute force as required.
Catherine presided over the French Court as Queen and Dowager Queen for five reigns spanning forty-odd years, dying in 1589 with the awareness that the dynasty she worked so hard to build was crumbling under the continued religious battles and poor decisions of her last son, Henri III.
Her story is a fascinating one of a woman who is first a pawn in political games, and went on to become the mastermind behind many. Patience was her virtue. She watched, learned—one could say at the foot of several masters of political intrigue—and when her day arrived, she was ready to rule. Whether you fully agree with Frieda’s portrait or not, this is an excellent biography that separates the fact from the fictions and myths that have perpetuated about this Queen, a Great Catherine.