Catherine de' Medici

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Catherine de' Medici

Catherine de' Medici (April 13, 1519January 5, 1589), born in Italy as Caterina Maria Romola di Lorenzo de' Medici, and later lived in France under the name Catherine de M餩cis, was Queen of France as the wife of King Henry II of France, of the Valois branch of the kings of France, and mother of three further kings of that branch.

Born in Florence, Italy, she was a daughter of Lorenzo II de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, and a French princess, Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne. Having lost both her parents at an early age, Catherine was sent to a convent to be educated; she was only fourteen when she was married (1533), at Marseilles, to the duke of Orl顮s, whose elder brother was alive at the time, but who would become King Henry II of France.

Her uncle was Pope Clement VII (the pope who refused to grant Henry VIII a divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon). Although Clement VIII always addressed Catherine as his niece, he was in fact a first cousin of her grandfather. It was the pope who arranged her marriage negotiating with Henry's father Francis I of France. Francis, still engaged in his lifelong struggle against Charles V, was only too glad of the opportunity to strengthen his influence in the Italian peninsula, while Clement, ever needful of help against his too powerful protector, was equally ready to hold out some bait. During the reign of Francis, Catherine exercised little influence in France. She was young, a foreigner, in a country that had little weight in the great world of politics, of unproven ability, and over-shadowed by more important persons. For ten years after her marriage, she had no children. In consequence, whispers of a divorce began at court, and it seemed possible that Francis, alarmed at the possible extinction of his royal house, would listen to such a proposal. But Catherine did produce children, and Francis lived long enough to see his grandchildren before he died.

When her maternal aunt the Duchess of Albany died, Catherine inherited the County of Auvergne.

During the reign of her husband (1547–1559), Catherine lived a quiet and passive life but observed what was going on. Henry being completely under the influence of his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, Catherine had little authority. In 1552, when the king left the kingdom for the campaign of Metz, she was nominated regent, but with very limited powers. This continued even after the accession of her sickly son Francis II of France at age 15. His wife, Mary, Queen of Scots, little disposed to meddle with politics on her own account, was managed by her uncles, the cardinal of Lorraine and the duke of Guise. The queen-mother, however, soon grew weary of the domination of the Guises, and entered upon a course of secret opposition. On April 1, 1560 she named as chancellor Michel de l'H?al, who advocated a policy of conciliation.

Catherine unwittingly had vast influence on fashions for the next 350 years when she enforced a ban on thick waists at court attendance during the 1550s. For nearly 350 years, women's primary means of support was the corset, with laces and stays made of whalebone or metal. They forcefully shrank women's waists from their natural dimensions to as little as 43, 38, or even fewer centimetres (17, 15, or fewer inches).

On the death of Francis (December 5, 1560), Catherine became regent during the minority of her second son, Charles IX of France, and found before her a career worthy of the most soaring ambition. She was then forty-one years old, but, although she was the mother of nine children, she was still vigorous and active. She retained her influence for more than twenty years in the troubled period of the French Wars of Religion. At first she listened to the moderate counsels of l'H?al to avoid siding definitely with either party, but her character and the habits of policy to which she had been accustomed tended to be at odds with this stance. She was zealous in the interests of her children, especially of her favourite third son, the duke of Anjou.

Like many of that time, she looked upon statesmanship in particular as a career in which finesse, lying, and assassination were the most admirable traits. By habit a Catholic, but above all fond of power, she was determined to prevent the Protestants from getting the upper hand and almost equally resolved not to allow them to be utterly crushed, in order to use them as a counterpoise to the Guises. This trimming policy met with little success: rage and suspicion so possessed men's minds that she could not long control the opposing parties, and one civil war followed another toward the end of her life. In 1567, after the Enterprise of Meaux, she dismissed l'Hopital and joined the Catholic party. Having failed to crush the Protestant rebellion by arms, she resumed, in 1570, the policy of peace and negotiation. She conceived the project of marrying her favourite son, the duke of Anjou, to Queen Elizabeth I of England, but that did not come about.

She was successful in marrying her eldest daughter, Elisabeth (b. April 1545), to Philip II of Spain and then her third daughter, Marguerite, to Henry of Navarre. To this end she temporarily reconciled with the Protestants and allowed Coligny to return to court and to re-enter the council. Of this step she quickly repented: Charles IX conceived a great affection for the admiral and showed signs of taking up an independent attitude. Catherine, thinking her influence menaced, sought to regain it, first by the murder of Coligny, and, after that failed, by the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. However, although Catherine is blamed for the start of that war, in fact she was not the initiator. After the death of Charles in 1574 and the succession of her son, Henri III, Catherine pursued her old policy of compromise and concessions, but as her influence was nothing compared to her son's, so it is unnecessary to dwell upon it. She died on January 5, 1589, a short time before the assassination of Henry and the end of the House of Valois.

In her taste for art and her love of magnificence and luxury, Catherine was a true Medici; her banquets at the Royal Palace of Fontainebleau in 1564 were famous for their sumptuousness. In architecture, especially, she was well versed, and Philibert de l'Orme (Philibert of the Elm) relates that she discussed with him the plan and decoration of her palace of the Tuileries. Catherine's policy provoked a crowd of pamphlets, the most celebrated being the Discours merveilleux de la vie, actions et diportemens de la reine Catherine de Medecis, in which Henri Estienne undoubtedly collaborated.

Catherine died at the Royal Royal Chateau Blois, France, where today, visitors to the castle can see her poison cabinets. She was interred with her husband in a cadaver tomb in the Saint Denis Basilica. On her death, her possessions, including the County of Auvergne, were merged into the French royal domain by her last surviving son, Henry III.

See also: Medici family


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