Tag Archives: France

Big news!

Despite a good start to the year, posts-wise, I’ve let this blog slip rather badly. I can only apologise, and offer something by way of an explanation.

There are big changes afoot at Harlot Towers. In what could easily be confused for a midlife crisis, I have dyed my hair bright red (pictures to follow), quit my job and in a few weeks I will be moving to a wee coastal town in Fife. This makes slightly more sense with a little context, of course. Earlier this year, I applied for a place on the University of St Andrews M.Litt in Early Modern History. After a nervous two or three weeks, I was thrilled to be offered a place!

Ambrosius Benson (c 1495-1550), Young Woman in Orison Reading Book of Hours 1520s

As is abundantly clear from this blog, the Early Modern period is where my main interests lie. After doing a General Arts degree which featured an awful lot of history courses, I got “back” into history when I picked up a copy of David Starkey’s Six Wives  on a whim. It reminded me of everything that got me excited about history and from there, I became particularly interested in the sixteenth century. It’s an especially fascinating period, with religious upheavals; global exploration; new ideas about education and important challenges and developments in women’s roles.  Initially, my interests were in England, later France, during the period.

Holbein study of a young English woman

I admit to suffering from Tudor fatigue now, with the current proliferation of generally poor quality books, tv series and films about the dynasty. It’s a shame as there are lots of really exciting things to be studied around the Tudors (as this article on The First Black Community in Elizabethan London, published today on the BBC News website, demonstrates) but it has all been drowned in a sea of soap opera pseudo-history. Happily, French history at the same period is even more interesting, and has so far slipped under the radar of the makers of trashy tv.

Mary Tudor and Louis XII

It was St Andrews provision for Early Modern French history which first made me consider applying there. They have several very well respected scholars in the field. However, in the last six months or so, I’ve seriously reconsidered the areas I want to focus on. Instead of the glittering courts of England or France, I’m more interested now in the far less glamorous world of women’s social institutions and women living on the periphery of society in late Renaissance Italy. This encompasses convents, as well as some incredibly forward-thinking refuges set up in Florence and other cities to help poor women, widows and abandoned or orphaned girls. I’m also interested in prostitutes and courtesans at the time who faced often ambivalent attitudes from the authorities, and attitudes to diseases like plague and syphilis. I told you it wasn’t glamorous!

So, in early September I will be upping sticks and moving into halls in St Andrews. Happily, I was offered a place in my first choice of residences, very close to the History Department and the university library (and if I am extremely lucky my room might look out over the water). I am quite beside myself with excitement. It’s only just starting to properly sink in though. It’s such a huge life change that I don’t think it’s felt real up to now.

As far as blogging goes, I will do my best to get back on track (and keep it up) but I’ll probably start a separate blog to talk about Masters business, postgrad life and the like which isn’t relevant here. I’ll post a link when it’s all set up for anyone interested.

Wish me luck!

The Venus of Urbino, Tiziano (Titian), 1538

 

Catherine de Valois and the Tudor Dynasty

On 27 October 1401, Isabelle of Bavaria gave birth to her last daughter in the Hôtel St Pol in Paris. The baby’s father was Charles VI of France and the newborn princess was destined for great things, though she was to achieve them in rather unexpected ways. Catherine’s infamy lies in her determination that, once her duty had been performed, she would ensure her own happiness rather than blindly follow decorum.

Henry V

On 2 June 1420, Catherine married Henry V of England at the church of St John in Troyes. Henry had been besotted by the French princess since their first meeting the year before. In fact he was so in love with her that he married her without a dowry and settled a fortune of dower lands on her.

Marriage of Henry V and Catherine of Valois

The couple left for England at the end of the year and Catherine was crowned queen at Westminster Abbey on 23 February 1421. The couple spent the spring on progress so that the English could see their beautiful new queen. By the time Henry left for France once more, Catherine was pregnant. She gave birth to a son on 6 December. Though she was a devoted mother, in May 1422 she left her little son in England to join her husband in France. Within a few months, though, Henry had died of dysentery, leaving Catherine a 21 year old widow and never having seen his little son.

Her nine month old son was now Henry VI, king of England. Soon, the question of the queen mother’s marrying was raised. She was still a young woman, very attractive and potentially very powerful. There would be plenty of Englishmen keen to marry her. However, until 1425, Catherine showed no signs of looking for a new husband. Not until Edmund Beaufort appeared on the scene. Beaufort was nineteen years old and rather dashing.

Henry VI, Catherine's son

Their exact relationship is unclear but parliament were sufficiently concerned about it that they changed the law to forbid a queen to marry without royal consent on pain of forfeiture of lands for life. Regardless, Catherine did marry without consent, but not to Edmund. At some point between 1428 and 1432, she married Owen Tudor, a Welsh groom. As the marriage was morganatic, their children had no claim on any royal titles Catherine may otherwise have passed on to them. It has even been suggested that Catherine married Owen Tudor while (or just after) giving birth Edmund’s son, in order to ensure that her true love, Edmund Beaufort, did not suffer the loss of his lands under the new statute. This idea is given further weight by the fact that her first son with Owen Tudor was named Edmund.

This may be mere speculation. She went on to have two more children who were certainly Owen Tudor’s: a son, Jasper, and a daughter named Margaret who died young. Catherine herself did not survive into old age, dying at Bermondsey Abbey on 3 January 1437, aged only 35.

She was buried in Westminster Abbey but somehow her embalmed corpse was put on display. On 23 February 1669 the diarist Samuel Pepys, bizarrely, lifted Catherine’s body and kissed her on her mouth, ‘reflecting upon it that I did kiss a Queen, and that this was my birthday.’

Catherine’s story has been the subject of many romantic legends but in fact, we know very little about what moved a queen to marry a squire in defiance of parliament. Perhaps it was an attempt to protect another man, or perhaps, having done her duty in marrying a king and providing an heir to his throne, she decided to marry a second time for love. Whatever her reasons, her actions would change England forever: the children of her second marriage would lay the way for a new dynasty.

Effigy of Catherine de Valois in Westminster Abbey

14 October Anniversaries

14 October is a bit of a hotspot for historical anniversaries, many of which are connected to an infamous (or otherwise interesting) lady.

In 1066, William the Conqueror defeated King Harold at the Battle of Hastings. William’s wife Matilda of Flanders is the subject of Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror, a new book by Tracy Borman. (In fact, Matilda is not really infamous at all but was rather pious and good, however her granddaughter was the Empress Matilda who was the first woman to claim the English throne and ended up fighting a bitter twenty year civil war with her cousin Stephen over it.)

Death of King Harold, Bayeux Tapestry

The Battle of Hastings, which took place between the Norman and English armies, took place on Seniac Hill, around six miles away from the Hastings town of Battle. If you are fascinated by history and enjoy learning about infamous women throughout history, why not make yourself drink, sit at your computer and play games like Party Poker while you read through the important historic events which took place on 14 October. Did you known that Empress Matilda was betrothed to Henry V Holy Roman Emperor at the age of seven? One year later she was crowned Queen of Romans and in 1114, at the age of 12, she married the 28 year old Emperor at Mainz.

Other important 14 October events include:

In 1322, Robert the Bruce’s Scots forces routed Edward II’s English army at the Battle of Old Byland. Isabella of France, Edward’s wife, would later lead an invasion of England and depose him in favour of their son.

In 1499, Claude of France was born. I wrote a bit about her here.

In 1586, the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots began.

In 1793, the trial of Marie Antoinette before the Revolutionary Tribunal began.

Trial of Marie Antoinette

Mary Tudor, the French Queen

On 9 October 1514, the 18-year-old English princess Mary married the 52-year-old king of France, Louis XII, at Abbeville in great pomp and ceremony.

Mary Tudor, Queen of France

Louis had been married twice before. First, to the pious Joan (later canonised by the Catholic church) and secondly to Anne of Brittany who had also been queen to Charles VIII of France. Anne had died in early 1514 leaving only two daughters after no less than 14 pregnancies. Neither of his daughters could inherit the French throne and so Louis sought a third wife to provide him with a male heir.

Mary Tudor was a renowned beauty and her youth made her an attractive marriage prospect for the European nobility. Prior to her marriage to Louis she had been betrothed to Charles of Ghent (later the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) but it was later repudiated. We know nothing of Mary’s feelings about her betrothal to the king of France. There are stories that she made a deal with her brother, Henry VIII, agreeing to marry Louis without complaint if, after his death, she could marry whomsoever she chose. However, there is no evidence of this bargain.

Mary Tudor and Louis XII

Mary’s tenure as queen of France was short lived. Rumour suggested that in his enthusiasm to sire an heir, Louis wore himself out with his new bride. He died on 1 January 1515 leaving Mary a widow at 18.

It was soon clear that Mary was not pregnant with Louis’s child and so several suggestions of a new husband were forthcoming, including the dukes of Savoy and Lorraine. Henry VIII had other ideas and wanted Mary back in England where he could make plans to marry her off to his own advantage. He sent his close friend Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk, to accompany her back to England.

Mary had her own plans though. Concerned that she would be forced into another unsavoury political marriage or that her reputation would be tarnished by the attentions of the new French king, François I, a notorious womaniser, she decided to take her future into her own hands.

Charles Brandon was a good looking man, an accomplished soldier and prominent courtier. The couple had earlier asked Henry’s permission to marry but were fobbed off with assurances that the king would consider it after an appropriate time had passed since Louis’s death. Doubting her brother’s promises, Mary decided that she would marry Brandon then and there. Brandon was, not unduly, fearful of her brother’s reaction but the beautiful young widow soon prevailed upon him and the two married in France in mid-February. Later, Mary would take the blame for the secret marriage and Brandon apologised to the king, claiming that he had been helpless as he ‘newar sawe woman soo wyepe.’

Mary Tudor and Charles Brandon


The couple returned apprehensively to England in mid-April and met Henry on 3 May. By that time, the king had calmed down and was, if not pleased, accepting of the marriage. He even attended their public wedding in England on 13 May. Henry’s acceptance of their marriage, Mary was always known at court as “the French Queen” and never as the Duchess of Suffolk (her title as Brandon’s wife).

The couple went on to have four children (Henry, died in childhood; Frances, mother of Lady Jane Grey; Eleanor, who had one surviving child; another Henry who also died in childhood). Despite their reconciliation, Mary and her brother fell out once again, this time on the matter of his marriage. Mary strongly opposed his divorce from Catherine of Aragon. She did little to hide her dislike for his new mistress, Anne Boleyn, who had waited on Mary in France. Mary avoided attending Anne’s coronation feast due to ill health. She died shortly after on 25 June 1533 at the age of 37.

Mary’s actions in determining her own second marriage, in defiance of the king, give a glimpse of a defiant spirit and the desire for self-determination that relatively few women of the period were able to show. I can’t help but imagine that she would have been formidable in old age, and wonder what side she would have taken had she been alive to see her granddaughter, Jane Grey, claim the throne of her niece and Henry’s daughter, Mary I.

Mary Tudor (detail)

Henry of Navarre (again)

Just in case, like me, you didn’t notice that Henry of Navarre had been released in the UK, you can find it on Amazon here. It has new cover art (which I like less than the original) and is indeed, as one outraged reviewer points out, in French with English subtitles (what will they think of next!).

My review of it is here.

Henry of Navarre

Summer Reading

History Today has recently made a few blog posts on summer reading so I thought I’d list some of mine.

On Wednesday, I treked half-way across Edinburgh to pick up packages of books from the Royal Mail depot inconveniently located in the middle of nowhere. As well as a box set of American crime drama (Law & Order Special Victims Unit, as it happens- I’m addicted to that and CSI), were two books I’ve been very excited about getting.

Cover imageThe first is Nicholas Terpstra’s Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence (2010), about the mysteriously high mortatlity rate in the Casa della Pieta, a shelter for homeless or orphaned girls in sixteenth century Florence. Terpstra claims that of the 526 girls who stayed there during its 14 year life, only 202 left alive. I imagine it’s going to be something of a Magdalen laundry of the Early Modern period. More than that, it looks like an exciting piece of historical detective work. There’s a review of it on the IHR website here which is what first attracted me. Assuming I like it, I’ll doubtlessly get a copy of Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance: Orphan Care in Florence and Bologna by the same author.

Cover imageIn addition, I got Monsters of the Gevaudan: The Making of a Beast by Jay M. Smith (2011) which takes a fresh look at an old story. Those who have seen Brotherhood of The Wolf (and if you haven’t, I strongly recommend you do) will be at least vaguely familiar with the legendary Beast of Gevaudin which terrorised the French countryside in the 18th century. It claimed over 100 victims but the real mystery was exactly what the beast was. Witnesses were certain that it was not a wolf, although the authorities eventually claimed that it was. Smith looks at the story in the context of French life at the end of the ancien regime, the Revolution only a few years away. There’s a website for the book here.

Other than that, my reading will be focused on the Roman Empire.

Jeanne d’Albret, queen of Navarre

On 9 June 1572, Jeanne d’Albret, the queen of Navarre died.

Jeanne d'Albret by Clouet

Navarre was a small, Pyrenean kingdom, nestled between France and Spain, and fiercely holding on to its independence in the face of these two great powers. Jeanne was born at Saint-Germain-en-Laye in France on 16 November 1528 and was a relation of the French royal family through her mother, the sister of François I. Her husband, Antoine de Bourbon, was a prince of the blood and spent most of his life torn between his conflicting loyalties to France and Navarre.

Jeanne inherited the throne from her father, Henri II in 1555. She had been raised a Huguenot (French Calvinist Protestant) and on her accession, declared Protestantism the official religion of Navarre. She was very clever and a shrewd politician. She was well educated and, taking after her mother, Marguerite of Navarre, she was a writer. Jeanne composed and published numerous poems.

Jeanne d'Albret, Clouet 1570

Pious and staunchly Protestant, Jeanne was suspicious when, in 1570, plans were formed to marry her son and heir, Henri de Navarre, to Marguerite de Valois (Margot), the daughter of Henri II of France and Catherine de’ Medici. Catherine hoped to bring peace to France, which was again on the brink of a religious civil war, with the wedding. Jeanne suspected a trap but was keen to see her son make such an advantageous marriage.

Two months before the marriage was scheduled to take place, Jeanne died suddenly in Paris. Rumour was rife that Catherine de’ Medici had had her poisoned. Shortly before her death, Jeanne had supposedly received a gift of scented gloves from Catherine’s infamous perfumier, René the Florentine. René was famed for his Italian perfumes and cosmetics, but widely suspected of being the maker of the poisons the queen mother allegedly used to dispatch her enemies.

The marriage went ahead on 18 August 1572, with horrific consequences.

Jeanne de Navarre, 1565 teston

Some Early Female Influences on Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn is often portrayed as uniquely ambitious and self-determined in a time when women were expected to be obedient and dutiful. However, she had some interesting role models in her youth, both women to emulate, and those whose lives were object lessons.

Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands.

Margaret offered prestigious positions in her court to young gentlemen and ladies, scions of Europe’s noble families. Thomas Boleyn had impressed Margaret while on diplomatic missions to her court and she offered one of his daughters a maid of honour position at her court in Mechelen, in what is now Belgium.

Margaret of Austria

Thomas and his wife Elizabeth Howard had two surviving daughters. The dates and even order of birth of the Boleyn children are uncertain but it seems likely that Mary was the elder. If this is the case, Thomas must have seen more promise in Anne than Mary as custom would otherwise have dictated that the older girl took up the opportunity in the Netherlands.

In her earliest letters home, Anne showed a good grasp of French, which was to become fluent. She was a quick learner though and her language skills improved. She thrived at Margaret’s court where she witnessed real power wielded by a charismatic, intelligent woman. Margaret was interested in humanism and was very well educated. She was a successful ruler who held the regency of the Netherlands intermittently throughout her life. The influence of Anne’s early exposure to a powerful, political woman can hardly be overestimated. Margaret defied the expectations of Early Modern womanhood. With three marriages over by the age of twenty four and no surviving children, Margaret had retired from the royal marriage market in defiance of her father, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who had seen no reason that his daughter’s marital career should not continue apace.

Margaret held the respectable position of a widow which traditionally allowed women a degree of freedom their never-married contemporaries did not have. She was entrusted by her father with the regency of the Netherlands for her nephew who would eventually succeed her father as Holy Roman Emperor in 1519. She proved to be an able and successful ruler, bringing prosperity to the Netherlands through commercial treaties with England which were favourable to her country’s cloth merchants.

Margaret of Austria

The bright, impressionable young Englishwoman at Margaret’s court could not have failed to be inspired by what she saw there.

Queen Claude of France

In 1514, however, Henry VIII’s sister Mary was betrothed to the king of France, Louis XII, and Anne was sent to Paris to wait on her. Thomas Boleyn had also secured a place in the new queen’s retinue for his elder daughter, Mary too. Louis died only three months after the marriage, reputedly worn out by his exertions in the bedchamber. Anne and her sister remained in France as ladies-in-waiting to the new queen of France, Claude.

The contrast between Margaret of Austria and Queen Claude could not have been more striking. Louis had no surviving sons and so Claude, as the eldest surviving child, was his heir. However, in France the Salic Law prevented a woman from inheriting her father’s land and so Claude could not become queen in her own right. She was duly married to her cousin, François, the heir presumptive with a view to her becoming queen consort.

François was one of the great figures of Early Modern Europe and totally eclipsed his diminutive wife. Claude and François were married for ten years during which time Claude was almost continually pregnant, producing no less than seven children. She dutifully followed her husband’s relentless wandering round France and died at the age of twenty-five, exhausted. Claude, though, fulfilled the contemporary ideal of womanhood and queenship: she produced five children who survived, including three sons; she lived chastely (although it would seem unlikely that she had the time or the energy to be unfaithful) and she turned a blind eye to her husband’s constant philandering.

She is remembered with a plum which was named after her (a greengage is une reine claude or une bonne reine in France).

Claude of France

As much as Margaret of Austria was an inspiration, Claude was a warning to Anne. Claude was a perfect illustration of the potential fate of a dutiful wife. During his wife’s perpetual pregnancies, François was neglectful and preferred to spend his time in the embraces of other women. In fact, the king surrounded himself with attractive, witty young women, preferring female company to that of his male courtiers. It would seem likely that King François would have found his wife’s young English attendant as fascinating as her compatriots did on her later return to England. Anne, however, would not have risked her marriage prospects in England with a dalliance with the notoriously philandering king of France had he shown interest in her.

Marguerite of Navarre

As well as Queen Claude, Anne seems to have come under the influence of François’s sister, Marguerite of Navarre. As much as the king neglected his dutiful wife, he lavished attention on his brilliant elder sister. He even turned a blind eye to her increasing sympathies with the ideas of religious reform sweeping the kingdom. John Calvin had fled his native France and remained in exile in Switzerland. His ideas on reform of the Church were widely, if secretly, imported into France and fed the growing population of Huguenots, the colloquial name given to French Protestants, which troubled the king. France’s relationship with the Holy See had been unique and frequently strained for centuries and while François was a great pragmatist in religious matters, he would not countenance a full schism and therefore took measures to restrict Huguenot religious freedom. His legacy of religious ambivalence was one which Catherine de’ Medici would have to tackle some thirty years later.

Marguerite of Navarre

The indulgence of her brother was a safeguard for Marguerite who was not only a patron of humanists in France and her small Pyrenean kingdom of Navarre, but also a writer herself. Her mystical, devotional work, Miroir de l’âme pécheresse (Mirror of the Sinful Soul), was a popular, radical work in her day. Indeed, in years to come Anne’s daughter, the princess Elizabeth, would translate it as a New Year’s gift for her last stepmother, Catherine Parr. Elizabeth may even have worked from Marguerite’s original manuscript which she reputedly gave to Anne. Anne, although no author, would similarly come to rely on Henry’s protection with her choice of radical books.

Eleanor of Aquitaine & Louis VII

On 21 March 1152, the marriage of Louis VII of France and Eleanor of Aquitaine was finally dissolved. The couple had married in 1137, shortly after the death of Eleanor’s father. He had entrusted the care of his daughters to the king of France. The king decided that the best way to take care of the girls’ huge fortune and important land was to marry the elder to his son. Less than a week after the wedding the old king died, making Louis and Eleanor king and queen.

The Unhappy Couple

From the start the couple were ill-matches, although Louis seems to have loved his wife. Eleanor found him bookish, overly pious and unmanly. Until his elder brother’s premature death, Louis had been meant for a career in the church. He had been educated by monks. The court, and in particular Louis’s mother Adelaide of Savoy, found Eleanor flighty and lacking the decorum and sobriety of the Parisian court. Eleanor was used to the court of Poitiers where the troubadour tradition flourished and where art, music and culture were celebrated. The court of her husband must have seemed dull in comparison.

Louis, with his monkish habits and unworldly ways, must have been a stark contrast with the men she knew from home. While her father had been a religious man (dying on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela), he, like his own father William IX, had been a great lover of arts, music and poetry. He was also a successful warrior. William IX had been rather scandalous in his personal life and his unorthodox approach to romantic relationships* would have been known to his precocious granddaughter.

Couple on horseback, hawking

However, Eleanor made the best of the situation and even managed to conceive a child by her pious husband. Their daughter Marie was born in 1145. The following year both parents joined the Second Crusade in the Holy Land. It was an opportunity for Louis to show his wife that he could be a man as well as a monk. Unfortunately for him, while rumours flew back to Europe that she and her ladies had led the Aquitanian armies bare-breasted like Amazons, Louis found that he had no skill for war. He proved to be ineffectual, indecisive and weak.

A Marriage Doomed

When the armies reached Antioch, Eleanor met the prince, her uncle Raymond. He was charming, good-looking and a skilled warrior. The two spent much time in private conversation, using their native Occitan dialect, excluding Louis and all the northern courtiers. It led to rumours that they were having an affair.

With little having been achieved, Louis eventually abandoned the crusade. The couple returned separately, meeting up in Italy. They paid a visit to the Pope and requested that he annul their marriage. The Pope refused and tried to arrange a reconciliation. It was a brief success as nine months later, in 1151, Eleanor gave birth to their second child. That it was a girl was another blow. Louis needed an heir, and that meant a son.

Louis secured the support of the French bishops and petitioned the Pope once again for an annulment. The bishops were only too glad to support a move that would rid them of the wilful and impious queen, replace her with someone more suitable (and no doubt more biddable) to provide a secure succession to the throne. The Pope acquiesced. He gave the king custody of their daughters and Eleanor returned to Poitiers, but not to a life of quiet retirement.

Stamp of Eleanor

*Definitely a subject for a future post. Any tale involving a woman named Dangereuse has a place on an infamous women blog.

Catherine de’ Medici

On 5th January 1589, Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen Mother of France died at Blois, possibly of pleurisy. She was 69 years old and had spent the last thirty years fighting to keep the French throne in the hands of her sons, three of whom succeeded their father, Catherine’s husband Henri II, to be king of France.

Catherine had arrived in France from her native Italy in 1534. Pope Clement VII (who famously refused to give Henry VIII his divorce from Catherine of Aragon), her uncle, had used his wealth and power to arrange a most illustrious marriage for her. She was descended from the Medici family but though they had been important in Florence, bankers could rarely expect to marry princes. However, Francis I of France had depleted his treasury in the pursuit of land and glory the Italian Wars and the handsome dowry which Clement promised to send with Catherine, along with an alliance with the Pope, meant that Francis was willing to overlook Catherine’s less-than-ideal pedigree.
Catherine de' Medici

That said, Catherine did have a small amount of royal blood. Her mother, Madeleine was related, fairly distantly, to the French crown. Sadly for Catherine, she never knew Madeleine as she had died only a few days after her daughter’s birth. It is thought that she had contracted syphilis from her womanising husband Lorenzo. Within a couple of weeks, he too succumbed and Catherine was left an orphan.

The young girl was raised initially in Florence with relatives and later in Rome, under the care of her uncle the Pope. She was intelligent, witty and lively but never described as a great beauty. Luckily for her, her family wealth and influence would go some way towards making up for such a defect. Many female failings could be compensated for with a heavy enough purse. Various matches were suggested for Catherine but it was the one with Francis I’s second son, Henri Duc d’Orleans, which went to fruition. As the second son, Henri was not expected to become king and so Francis was content to marry him off to the banking heiress.

Aged 14, Catherine set sail for France and was welcomed to Marseilles with great festivity. Soon after her arrival she and Henri married in a lavish ceremony. Henri was a withdrawn youth, scarred by his time as a hostage in Spain. He proved to be a polite and dutiful husband but his affection lay with his long-term mistress, the vampish Diane de Poitiers. Though Henri was distant and disinterested in his plain little wife, Catherine adored him.

Wedding of Catherine de' Medici and Henri, duc d'Orleans

Predictably enough, the marriage was troubled and Catherine and Henri’s lack of heir compounded the problem, especially after Henri’s elder brother died making him next in line to the throne. Catherine was in danger of being repudiated and replaced with a more fertile wife (the assumption being that infertility was the woman’s “fault,” particularly after at least two of Henri’s mistresses gave birth to his children.

Catherine reputedly tried all manner of superstitious solutions to her infertility. Eventually, after some medical intervention (the exact nature of which is shrouded in mystery), Catherine finally conceived after ten years of fruitless marriage. She went on to produce ten children in the following ten years, of whom three daughters and four sons survived infancy. Of those sons, three would become king of France.

As dauphine and then queen, mother to the heirs of France, Catherine still enjoyed all but no influence over her beloved husband. Instead, Henri discussed matters of state with Diane and it was with her that wise courtiers curried favour, not the dowdy foreign queen. Diane even encouraged Henri to visit his wife’s chambers in order to have more children with her but after the delivery of twin girls (both of whom died) in 1556 almost cost Catherine her life, she was advised not to attempt to bear more children. Henri therefore never slept with her again.

In 1559 tragedy struck when Henri was injured in a joust. His opponent’s lance shattered on his visor, sending shards through the king’s eye. After several days of agony, Henri died with Catherine at his side. Catherine took her revenge on Diane by barring her from attending to Henri as he lay dying, calling for his mistress. She then ordered that Diane was to return all the jewels that Henri had given her during their long relationship, claiming that they were crown jewels and not Diane’s to keep. She then banished her from court.

Unfortunately for the queen, her grief (for the rest of her life she rarely wore any colour other than black) and desire to extract a petty revenge caused her to miss the more important opportunity which had presented itself. Her eldest son Francis had acceded to the throne on Henri’s death. As Francis was only fifteen years old, a regent had to be appointed. Typically, the Queen Mother would take on this role however Francis was married to Mary, Queen of Scots, and it was Mary’s uncles who held the real power and Catherine was regent in name only. Francis was crowned at Rheims as was customary but within eighteen months he too was dead after an ear infection led to an abscess in his brain. He was succeeded by his younger brother who became Charles IX.
Catherine de' Medici in black

Catherine was not to let this opportunity slip through her fingers. The Guises held no particular power over Charles and Catherine took the reins of government on herself, finally able to exercise some power. During Charles’s minority and beyond, Catherine strove to reconcile the Catholics and Huguenots (French Protestants) and avoid civil war. Catherine was pragmatic on matters of religion and hoped to achieve an accord by extending toleration to Protestants while maintaining the support of the powerful Catholic factions. Despite her efforts, antagonism on both sides spiralled out of control and France was torn apart by thirty-six years of on and off civil war.

The nadir of Catherine’s period of power was the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre which began on 23 August 1572 and led to the murder of thousands of Huguenots. The Massacre followed the marriage of Catherine’s daughter Marguerite (known popularly as Margot) to Henri of Navarre, the Protestant king of Navarre. The marriage, of a prominent member of the Catholic ruling family, to Henri, a Prince of the Blood and a Calvinist, had been designed to unite the quarrelling factions and bring about it a lasting peace. It was not to be: another civil war followed.

Charles IX died only two years after the massacre, reputedly driven almost mad with guilt. He was succeeded by his brother who styled himself Henri III. Although Henri was old enough to rule in his own right, Catherine retained a prominent position at court and Henri left her to deal with the business of ruling which did not interest him, preferring to devote himself to acts of conspicuous piety, such as flagellation.

Though he married, like his brothers before him, he too failed to produce a male heir. The throne to which Catherine had held on so tightly was slipping from their grasp. When Catherine’s youngest son, the duc d’Alençon, the heir apparent, died before his thirtieth birthday, Henri was forced to name his brother-in-law Henri of Navarre as his successor.

The Guises, horrified at the prospect of a Protestant king, rallied their men and took control of Paris. Henri, under Catherine’s advice, fled the city for Blois to regroup. There, he summoned the duc de Guise. It was a trap and on his entrance to the king’s chambers, Guise was set upon by the guard. Catherine knew nothing of Henri’s plan and on discovering what had happened, knew that Henri’s days too were numbered.

Assassination of the Duc de Guise

Less than a fortnight later, Catherine herself died at Blois. She did not live to see her favourite son murdered and Henri of Navarre’s eventual succession to the throne as Henri IV. He later divorced Margot and remarried and so none of his successors carried Catherine’s blood, nor that of her beloved Henri. It was Henri IV though who brought about the peace which Catherine had tried so hard to effect.