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Katherine Howard- Some Misconceptions

On 13 February 1542, Katherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII, was beheaded in the grounds of the Tower of London. An Act of Attainder had been passed, convicting her of adultery and treason, without the formality of a trial. However, many of the well-known facts about Katherine are wrong.

Katherine Howard miniature

Miniature identified as Katherine Howard

A Frivolous Teenager

Well, probably not. We don’t know Katherine’s date of birth but scholars are increasingly in favour of an earlier date than was previously thought. Until recently, her year of birth was thought to be as late as 1525, making her only 17 years old at her execution. It seems more likely that it was 1520-1. This would mean that she was a mature, by Tudor standards, 21-22 years old at her death.

Of course, even 22 is horribly young to die, but in the sixteenth century, 22 was a lot more mature than it is now. By her early twenties, a Tudor woman could expect to be married and have had one or more children. Katherine’s youth is put more sharply into context by the relative age of her husband- Henry was 49 years old when they married. This too, though, was not unusual. Noblewomen in particular were likely to marry an older man. A woman would marry for the first time in her mid- to late teens, a man in his late twenties or early thirties. If it was the man’s second marriage, he would be older still. For example, Catherine Parr’s second marriage took place when she was 20 and her husband 40.

No Better Than She Ought To Be

Katherine Howard’s reputation suffers from a rather unjust assessment of her character. We are encouraged to believe that she was involved in a sexual relationship with Thomas Culpeper during her marriage because she admitted to a sexual relationship with Francis Dereham prior to it. Katherine’s past was laid out for all to see in a way which would make horrible modern gossip magazines rub their hands with glee. What is revealed is an unsupervised childhood during which she was involved in a relationship with her music tutor. It was the sort of “relationship” we would now call child abuse. She then became involved with Francis Dereham, a young man with far better breeding and prospects than her creepy music teacher. It is likely that she and Dereham intended to marry and this might indeed have come to pass had not the king shown an interest in her.

Katherine’s letter to Culpeper shows that she was indeed in love with him in 1541 but David Starkey’s research in his 2004 Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII demonstrates that the physicality of their relationship was far less certain. It appears from the detail of her confession that all the couple got up to was some hand-holding and earnest sighing.

This fact- the fact of Katherine Howard’s essential innocence- is often overlooked. She oddly, naïvely, believed that her husband was some sort of semi-divine being and she cautioned Culpeper not to speak of their relationship even in the confessional lest Henry find out that way. It may have been that she suspected the priest would inform Henry, but she may had simply believed that as Supreme Head of the Church, Henry would know the way that God knew.

Katherine Howard to Thomas Culpepper, 1541

Manuscript of Katherine Howard’s letter to Thomas Culpeper, 1541

“I die a Queen, but I would rather die the wife of Culpeper.”

There is a romantic story that on the scaffold, Katherine announced that she would have been married to her supposed lover, Thomas Culpeper, than Henry, with the above words. However, the etiquette of execution made such a statement unthinkable. The victim was permitted to address the crowd gathered to see their end, but it was expected that they would speak of their regret, ask for forgiveness and the prayers of those who would survive them and generally be contrite and uncontroversial. Neither Anne Boleyn nor any of the men executed for adultery with her protested their innocence from the scaffold, although they were all almost certainly innocent. It just wasn’t done.

It’s therefore unthinkable that Katherine Howard would say such a thing. Her actual words are far more dignified than the romantic nonsense would give her credit for. This is a woman who was so keen to meet her maker with some grace that she asked for the executioner’s block to be brought to her room the night before so that she could practice placing her head on it.

The Afterlife of Katherine Howard

Visitors to the splendid Hampton Court Palace are often treated to the tale of poor Katherine’s ghost. It is said to linger in the Haunted Gallery. On her arrest, Katherine broke free from her guards and ran down the gallery looking for her husband in order to plead for her life. She was quickly recaptured by the guards and dragged screaming back down the gallery and into imprisonment. Or so the story goes.

Aside from the supernatural question, there are several holes in this story. Firstly, is it plausible that Katherine could have slipped her guards, even for a moment? She was a young woman held by one or two strong men. Royal guards were not in the habit of relaxing their grip on accused traitors. The story also ignores one rather pertinent fact: by the time of her arrest, Henry had already left Hampton Court. He was not in the habit of lingering once he had put his plan to be rid of a wife into action. Anne Boleyn, for example, never set eyes on Henry after the May Day joust, the day before her arrest. He was said to be so bitterly disappointed in Katherine that he could not stand to see her again and he fled the palace so as to avoid her.

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)

Early Modern Carnivalesque

At the end of this month, I’ll be hosting the September Early Modern Carnival on behalf of Carnivalesque. The carnival is a round up of great blog posts so if you would like to nominate a post, please do so here. You can nominate yourself, or any other blog post you’ve enjoyed that was posted within the last 2 months or so.

To give you an idea, the last carnival was at Pure Medievalry and the most recent Early Modern edition was at Madame Guillotine.

The Battle of Carnival and Lent

The Battle of Carnival and Lent, Pieter Bruegel, 1559

Henry Fitzroy: The Boy Who Would Be King

On 15 June 1519, Henry VIII’s son was born. Unfortunately for the king, the boy’s mother, Elizabeth “Bessie” Blount, was his mistress and not his wife. The child was illegitimate and therefore barred from the succession to the English throne.

Henry’s wife at the time was the redoubtable Catherine of Aragon, the youngest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, the Most Catholic Kings of Spain. Catherine’s royal pedigree was beyond reproach and she was popular in England. After numerous pregnancies since their marriage in 1507, the only child which had survived was a daughter, Mary, then 16 months old.

Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond and Somerset, Lucas Horen, 1534

Henry’s joy in his new born son was obvious, not least because it demonstrated once and for all that he could produce a boy, even if his wife couldn’t. The boy was named Henry Fitzroy (“son of the king”). It was a bitter blow to Catherine and it would not be the last. In 1525, Henry made his six year old son Earl of Nottingham and Duke of Richmond and Somerset and sparked rumours that he meant to make his son, rather than Princess Mary, his heir.

Fitzroy was raised in Yorkshire and bestowed with various other titles over the years (including Admiral of England, Ireland and Normandy; Warden of the Cinque Ports; Lieutenant of Ireland). The king took great interest in his son, and in 1533 arranged a good marriage for him. It was rumoured around this time that Fitzroy should marry Mary, his half-sister, in order to ensure the succession! Henry VIII was an adulterer, a serial philanderer and a bigamist but even he drew the line at forcing his children into an incestuous marriage. Fitzroy was instead married to Mary Howard, daughter of Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk, and Anne Boleyn’s cousin.

Mary Howard, Duchess Of Richmond and Somerset, sketch by Holbein

Fitzroy witnessed Anne Boleyn’s execution at the Tower of London on 19 Mary 1536. By that time, he was ill himself and within weeks he had succumbed to consumption, dying on 23 July at Richmond Palace.

At the time of his death, his father was putting a bill through Parliament which, if passed, would disinherit his daughter with Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth (Mary had already been disinherited) and permit him to designate a successor of his choice. It is not certain that Fitzroy would have been the designate, but it is very likely that he would have been the king’s first choice in want of a legitimate heir. Fitzroy’s premature death means that we can only guess at what the repercussions of such a move would have been. As it was, Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour, gave birth to the longed for, legitimate son fifteen months after Fitzroy’s death.

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.

Ferrara

About an hour on the train from Florence (after a change at Bologna), in the Emilia-Romagna is Ferrara, where the rather magnificent Castello Estense was home to the Dukes of Este.

Castello Estense, Ferrara

The Este family rose to power in the late medieval period, building and expanding the castello over the centuries. Right in the centre of the town, the building, and moat, remain well preserved although the interior is rather Spartan, especially compared to somewhere like Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio. Still, the curators have done an impressive job with what little they have. There’s little furniture or wall decoration remaining but the ceilings are beautifully decorated and some rooms’ only floor furnishings are giant sloping mirrors so one can look at the ceilings without craning the neck. There’s also a lovely veranda with orange trees which feels almost Moorish in the bright sunshine: a stark contrast to the damp subterranean dungeons, used to imprison enemies of the Este family through to the sixteenth century.

It is in Ferrara, in the Castello Estense, that Lucrezia Borgia spent the second half of her life as the wife of Alfonso d’Este. She arrived in 1502 with two previous marriages behind her. She never returned to Rome and the nefarious influence of her father and brother. She flourished in Ferrara and although he had been reluctant to marry the notorious Pope’s daughter, Alfonso grew to love Lucrezia and despite numerous infidelities on both sides, their bond seems to have been strong and affectionate. They had six children, of whom four survived into adulthood. Her sister-in-law, Isabella d’Este (1474-1539) never fell under the spell of the charming Lucrezia though and maintained a bitter hostility to her. No doubt fuelled by Lucrezia’s passionate affair with Isabella’s husband, Francesco Gonzaga.

Another point on the Lucrezia Borgia map of Ferrara is the little church, attached to the convent of Poor Clares, of Corpus Domini a short walk to the south. It’s hidden away from the hubbub of the town centre where bicycles trundle about in all directs. There’s little in the way of signs outside it: just a small plague erected in 2002, Ferrara’s Year of Lucrezia Borgia, which notes that inside is the Este tomb and Lucrezia’s grave.

The church is open to the public for two hours in the morning and another two after lunch. A door to the right of the altar leads through to the nuns’ choir where Lucrezia and other members of the Este family are buried, including one of Lucrezia’s daughters, Eleanor (1515-1575), who was a nun at Corpus Domini. Lucrezia is buried with her son Ercole, her husband, his mother, and the infant daughter, Isabella, Lucrezia died giving birth to.

As befits the convent, the nuns’ choir is very quiet and peaceful but brightened by the sun streaming through the simple coloured glass windows. Indeed, the nuns’ choir is much brighter, though more simply decorated, than the main church. When we visited just after Easter, the nun who was present, at the other side of a grill, was very helpful and pleasant though her English was no better than my Italian. She sqeezed a little English guide card through a gap in the grill so I could identify which of the six graves in front of the altar was Lucrezia’s. Sadly, they don’t allow photographs of the graves however I found this one (taken by someone less concerned for respecting the nuns’ wishes!):

Grave of Alfonso d'Este and Lucrezia Borgia

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.

Classical Greece by Robin Osborne

Cover of "Classical Greece" by Robin Osborne

Book 1 for the Short Oxford Histories project arrived today. It was a welcome distraction from the horrible weather (pouring rain and snow in Scotland at the moment), leaking roof and the cold that has overstayed its welcome.

I’m excited about starting and now wondering if I should stick to my arbitrary starting date of Thursday or take advantage of some train travel I’ll be undertaking for work tomorrow and the couple of hours of good reading time it will provide. Perhaps 31st March is a more auspicious start date than 1st April anyway.