Women of style – Catherine de Medici

We know her as a sinister Queen, “the Italian woman”, a scheming poisoner and a ruthless power player who controlled her sons and gave her daughter a hell of a wedding present – St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.


Film lovers probably remember Virna Lisi’s rather accurate portrayal of the queen dressed in black, scheming in the background, using her children as pawns in a movie La Reine Margot, based loosely on Alexandre Dumas’ novel. And it was Dumas who’s to blame for the unflattering portrayal of Catherine de Medici in popular culture.


But who was Catherine de Medici, deadly Queen Mother of France and the most powerful woman in 16th century Europe?


Historians, in a way, backed the ruthless and scheming part of the story but have also tried to make excuses for some of her worst decisions, presenting them as desperate measures to keep the Valois monarchy on the throne at all costs. However, all her achievements and efforts have been overshadowed by the unconfirmed stories about Black Mass, witchcraft, poisons and a squadron of sexy beautiful spies.


What is, maybe, less known about Catherine de Medici is that she was a fashion trendsetter. Thanks to her we have high heels in a form we know today. And thanks to her modesty, we have knickers.


Catherine de Medici was all that’s been said about her and much more, a truly remarkable character who survived and thrived in the deadly courts of Europe and made a place for herself in the history of France and Europe.


She was born in Florence, as the only child of Lorenzo de Medici, Duke of Urbino and his wife, Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, the Countess of Boulogne. She became an orphan very early on and was brought up by cousins until Pope Clement VII (also a Medici) housed her in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence.


Little is known about Catherine’s education other than she was fluent in Greek, Latin, and French. From an early age, she was also a keen mathematician, an interest that led to her later passion for astrology.


Not being a true nobility but more a nouveau riche, an offspring of a couple married by the Pope and the King of France to secure the Italian states, Catherine was raised to understand that wealth and power didn’t come only from blood lineage but also from using intelligent strategies to create circumstances and turn them in your favor. She soon became a really ambitious woman. A proper example of the Medici family.


After the Medici family was briefly overthrown in Florence, she was taken a hostage and placed in a series of convents. One, in particular, the Santissima Annunziata delle Muarte was her home for a couple of years and Catherine saved a place in her heart for the Sisters of Muarte. For the rest of her life, she wrote to the nuns regularly and sent them revenue from her lands.


As a member of the powerful and ambitious Medici house, she wasn’t supposed to stay in the convent so when the Medici family returned to the power in Florence, Pope Clement summoned her to join him in Rome where he began looking for her husband.


The Venetian envoy described Catherine as “small of stature, and thin, and without delicate features, but having the protruding eyes peculiar to the Medici family.” But she was wealthy and member of an influential and dominant family who remained in power over three centuries, and soon suitors lined up for her hand. Clement decided that Henry, Duke of Orleans, second son of Francis I of France was a catch.


The fourteen-year-old couple married in Marseille. Catherine knew her husband could become the king of France. She also knew that he was deeply in love with Diane de Poitiers, a tall and beautiful courtier with whom he had a long affair. Catherine was short but knew she had to captivate her future husband and make herself noticeable in the French court.


So, at her wedding, she wore an extravagant dress filled with embroidered jewels and intricate designs. And high heels.  But not just any high heels. Catherine instructed a Florentine shoemaker to make her a pair very similar to the ones we wear today.


High heels were in use in ancient Egypt. Butchers added platforms to their sandals to keep their feet clean and out of the blood and guts from butchered animals. Women in Italy, mainly in Venice, used platforms, known as chopines, to protect their shoes and dresses from the mud of the streets. Men also wore a small heel to remain secured in the saddle.


However, those chopines weren’t very comfortable and women couldn’t walk on their own while wearing them. So Catherine came up with an idea to add a platform on the back of the regular shoe and to leave the front flat for stability and comfort.  Soon after, other royals started wearing new shoes and they became a symbol of wealth and power as they gave them a more erect and fancy posture.


One of many weird and sad facts and stories about Catherine is that on her wedding night Henri’s father, King Francis I, apparently stayed in the bedroom until the marriage was fully consummated, and the Pope visited the couple in bed the next morning to bless the previous night’s “proceedings.”


Despite the peep show and the blessing, Catherine produced no heir in the first year of marriage. In fact, she saw a little of her husband. But the stories of her intelligence spread across the court. King Francis was so impressed by her bold wit he gave her a privileged place in his “la petite bande” made out of impressive female friends.


Catherine was often credited for bringing side-saddle to France and, as a result of using the side-saddle, she introduced France to an early concept of female underwear. In those times, women did not wear underwear and modest Catherine preferred to get on and off her horse without giving the men a peep show, so she started wearing long underpants.


The Pope died shortly after Catherine’s marriage, and the new Pope refused to pay her extravagant dowry, leaving Francis to lament “The girl has come to me stark naked.” That undermined her standing in the French court as well as the fact that she did not produce a child in the first ten years of the marriage, while one of Henry’s many mistresses did.


When Henry’s older brother Francis died, the pressure to provide a future heir to the throne multiplied.  Catherine tried every trick and remedy in the book, including placing cow dung and stags’ antlers on her “source of life”, and drinking mule’s urine.


The physician Jean Fernel noticed slight “abnormalities” with Catherine and Henri’s sexual organs and advised them which “positions” to take… Apparently, it worked, as the couple went on to have ten children.


Later on, Catherine, who was interested in astronomy and astrology and was also a patron of a reputed seer Nostradamus, had him draw horoscopes for her children.  Nostradamus predicted that each of her sons would be king, but that she would outlive them all.  This was “almost” true – three of her five sons became King of France and she outlived all but two of her children.


Catherine’s interest in astrology and astronomy and her knowledge of these subjects, as well as her patronage of Nostradamus and renowned astrologers the Ruggeri brothers who were also known for their involvement in necromancy and the black arts,  brought her notoriety that overshadowed everything else she did. Her superstitious nature and dark reputation also fueled rumors that she invented the Black Mass, a Satanic send-up of the traditional Catholic Mass.


The children did not improve her marriage. Henry was besotted with his twenty years older mistress Diane de Poitiers. When King Francis I died, Catherine became queen consort of France but was pushed aside by Henry who in turn gave his mistress the royal treatment. Diane de Poitiers was feeling so secure that she even encouraged the king to spend more time with Catherine and sire more children. After nearly dying while giving birth to twin daughters, Catherine had no more children. The doctors had to break the legs of one girl who died in her womb while the other girl died a few weeks later.


During Henry’s reign, the Guise brothers rose to power. Charles became a cardinal and Henry’s boyhood friend Francis became Duke of Guise. Their sister Mary of Guise married James V of Scotland and was the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots whom Catherine brought her up with her own children at the French court.


A long period of Italian wars was ended with the Peace of Cateau Cambresis and the marriage of Catherine’s daughter Elisabeth to Philip II of Spain. King Henry took part in the wedding celebration full of balls, festivities, and jousting. At the jousting, he has knocked out of the saddle and Comte de Montgomery’s lance shattered in his face. Splinters pierced his eye and brain. When he died, later on, Catherine took a broken lance as her emblem, inscribed with the words “lacrymae hinc, hinc dolor” (from this come my tears and my pain), and from that day on she wore black mourning in memory of Henry.



Images taken from Wikimedia Commons


Francis II became the king at the age of fifteen and the Guise brothers effectively seized the power and moved into the Louvre Palace with the young king and his bride, their niece Mary, Queen of Scots. Catherine worked with them out of necessity. Despite Francis being old enough to rule, she ruled instead, using her authority to get rid of Diane de Poitiers and force her to hand over the crown jewels and return the Chateau de Chenonceau Catherine always craved for to the crown.


The Guise brother persecuted the Protestants (Huguenots) with zeal, while Catherine at first adopted a more moderate stance and spoke against their persecutions. She worked closely with Chancellor of France to prevent the country from slipping into anarchy and neither sought to punish Huguenots who worshiped in private and did not take up arms.


Huguenots, however, turned to Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre and then to his brother, Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Conde for protection against the Guises. When Conde took up arms and began attacking towns in the south Catherine had him arrested and sentenced to death. His life was saved by the illness of King Francis. When Catherine realized Francis was going to die due to an infection in his ear, she turned to King of Navarre and offered him his brother’s life and in exchange, he would renounce his right to the regency of the future king, nine-year-old Charles IX. He accepted and Catherine was appointed the governor of France with sweeping powers.


It was rumored that at this time Catherine formed “escadron volant,” or “flying squadron” of female spies, a “stable” of about 80 beautiful ladies whom she would deploy to the beds of various courtiers for sexual espionage and information networking.


The name “flying squadron” had its roots in dance: when Catherine introduced ballet to the French court, her squadron gave its first performance as if they were flying. Most scholars consider the Ballet Comique de la Reine, performed at Catherine’s court in 1581, to be the first “authentic” ballet.


Catherine is also credited to the introduction of corsets. Her “femme fatales” had to have the mandated 45 cm wastes, which meant they had to starve themselves and wear corsets lined with wood, iron, and whalebone. Soon their desired hour-glass shape became the envy of France and became a fashion that persisted well until the 19th century.


Catherine was a great patron of arts. She was also a “selfie” pioneer. She was particularly interested in personal portraiture and commissioned official portraits of all her family members and other members of the court. The architecture was her other great love and all the costly building projects she commissioned were driven by the desire to immortalize her husband’s memory and to enhance the grandeur of the Valois monarchy.



Being a foreigner she couldn’t comprehend in the fullest the complexities of divided French nobility and the civil-religious war that was brewing.  She tried to build bridges with the Protestants but the Duke of Guise continued with his quest of killing Huguenots and massacred them in a barn at Vassy, prompting Prince of Conde and other Protestants to raise an army, form an alliance with England and strike back.


When the Duke of Guise was murdered at the siege of Orleans, it triggered an aristocratic blood feud that complicated the French civil wars for many years to come. The war was ended with the Edict of Amboise and Catherine decided to enforce it and revive loyalty to the crown. She negotiated peace with Jeanne d’Albret, the Protestant queen regnant of Navarre (and the wife of Antoine de Bourbon).


Following an attempt to kill the king, Catherine abandoned compromise for a policy of repression.  The Huguenots retreated to the fortified stronghold of La Rochelle on the west coast, where Jeanne d’Albret and her fifteen-year-old son, Henry of Bourbon, joined them. Catherine considered D’Albert as a threat and decided to marry her daughter Margaret (Margot) to Jeanne’s son Henry III of Navarre and thus unite Valois and Bourbon interests.


When Catherine found out that Margot was secretly involved with Henry of Guise, the son of the late Duke, she and the king beat her bloody. Catherine also had to persuade Jeanne to agree to the marriage. She called her to attend the court promising not to harm Jeanne’s children. To this Jeanne replied: “Pardon me if reading that, I want to laugh, because you want to relieve me of a fear that I’ve never had. I’ve never thought that, as they say, you eat little children.”


Jeanne finally agreed to the marriage providing Henry could remain a Huguenot. When buying clothes for the wedding, she was taken ill and died. Rumors had it that Catherine sent her a pair of beautiful, most exquisite gloves. Catherine introduced perfumed gloves into French fashion but these were reportedly laced with poison.


After the wedding, the much loved Admiral Coligny was murdered and the blame was placed on the Huguenots, even though many believed it was Catherine’s own doing as she was afraid he could turn against the king. This provoked The St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, which stained Catherine’s reputation ever since. The slaughter of Huguenots lasted for almost a week and spread on many parts of France. Navarre had to convert in order to avoid being killed and it is said that at that moment Catherine turned to the ambassadors and laughed. From this time dates the legend of the wicked Italian queen. Huguenot writers later branded Catherine a scheming Italian, who had acted on Machiavelli’s principles to kill all enemies in one blow.



When Charles IX died, Catherine’s favorite son Henry became the king of France. Unlike his brothers, he came to the throne as a grown man but was rather pious and uninterested in state affairs, depending on Catherine and her team of secretaries until the last few weeks of her life.


At that time, her youngest son Francis, known as “Monsieur” was a thorn in her side as he allied with the Protestant princes against the crown, forcing Catherine to give in to Huguenot demands. Francis died of consumption and since Henry III did not produce an heir, the Huguenot Henry of Navarre now became heir presumptive to the French crown.


Catherine tried to appease the Huguenots but her attempts appalled many leading Catholics who formed the Catholic League and planned to block Henry of Navarre’s succession and place Henry’s Catholic uncle Cardinal Charles de Bourbon on the throne instead.


Henry III had no choice but to go to war against the League but was unable to fight the Catholics and the Protestants at once, both of whom had stronger armies than his own. He went into hiding to fast and pray, surrounded by bodyguards known as “the Forty-five”, and left Catherine to sort out the mess.


Eventually, Henry gave in to all the League’s demands. Without warning, he decided to govern on his own. Publicly he thanked his mother for all she had done, but without warning, he dismissed all his ministers, ordered the Forty-five to murder Duke of Guise and then stormed into Catherine’s bedchamber and informed his mother, who was taken ill, about what he had done.


She died weeks later of a lung infection at the age of 69 and many believe that her life had been shortened by shock at her son’s disobedience. Months later Henry III was murdered and the King of Navarre succeeded him as Henry IV of France. Three centuries of Valois rule ended and the Bourbon dynasty was brought into power.


After the death of Catherine and Henri III, Henri IV annulled his marriage to Catherine’s daughter, Margot who was a reputed adulteress and replaced her with Catherine’s cousin, Marie de Medici.


Catherine was buried in the Saint-Denis basilica in Paris. In the 18th century, a revolutionary mob tossed her bones into a mass grave with those of the other kings and queens.

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