Catherine de' Medici: The Life and Times of the Serpent Queen

Image of Catherine de' Medici: The Life and Times of the Serpent Queen
Release Date: 
July 2, 2024
Pegasus Books
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“a story of astonishing self-indulgence and greed by France’s tiny, privileged nobility at the expense of the subjects of the realm.”

Catherine de’ Medici has come down to us through history as “the serpent queen,” a tag that captures her reputation for political opportunism and ruthlessness. Her reputation has been especially stained by her alleged complicity in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of Protestants that took place in Paris in 1572 at the height of Catholic-Protestant hostilities.

In this deeply researched biography, Mary Hollingsworth has attempted to rehabilitate Catherine, presenting her as a skilled political operator who used her positions as queen and queen mother to moderate the fanatical tendencies of Catholic and Protestant extremists, prevent warfare, and create stability in the realm by securing her family’s hold on the monarchy.

Catherine was born in Florence in 1519. Her father, Lorenzo de’ Medici, was a wealthy banker married to a French noblewoman. Their marriage had been arranged by France’s king, Francis I, who sought both a political alliance with Florence against Spain, and access to the de’ Medici wealth.

Within months of her birth, Catherine was orphaned by the successive deaths of both her parents. She became the ward of Pope Clement VII, also a de’ Medici. The pope placed her in a nunnery to safeguard her. Her wealth and family standing made her a valuable political commodity in a world ruled by men, and a pawn in their contests over power.

Francis I had offered to serve as her guardian in order to bring her to France. That failing, he proposed her marriage to his second son Henri, duc d’Orléans. Seeing advantage in an alliance between Florence and France, Clement VII consented to the marriage and Catherine, age 14, left Italy for France never to return.

When Catherine was 17, the king’s oldest son died from a chill following a game of tennis and his younger brother Henri became next in line to the throne, making her the future queen of France. She took up this role 11 years later when Francis I died and her husband became Henry II.

Though she was now queen of France, her influence over the monarch was overshadowed by his mistress Diane de Poitiers, a widow 20 years his senior. Diane controlled access to the king and dictated how Catherine’s children should be raised. Catherine compensated for these humiliations by spending lavishly on jewelry, clothing, furnishings for her royal apartments, and on her extensive royal household, which grew to number 405 members.

Under Henry II’s reign, France’s on-again, off-again warfare with Spain continued. Warfare was part of the aristocratic way of life for men, along with hunting, jousting, and fornicating. Truces were signed when the warring parties ran out of funds, then war resumed again on some pretext, in an endless cycle. Catherine sought to break this pattern throughout her career, never fully succeeding.

Henry II also instituted the persecution of Protestants, whose numbers in France were growing, alarming the pope, the king of Spain, and France’s leading Catholic families. He sought permission from Pope Paul IV to establish an inquisition in France, and initiated prosecution of Protestants as heretics, a charge that carried both excommunication and death.

As part of a truce between France and Spain, Catherine’s daughter Elisabeth married Philip II, king of Spain, another marriage arranged for political ends. During a jousting tournament held as part of the extensive celebration of the marriage, Henry II was fatally wounded when his opponent’s lance penetrated his visor and struck his eye. Catherine went into mourning and wore black for the rest of her life. She never remarried. Her son Francis II became king. Henry’s death displaced Diane de Poitiers and increased Catherine’s influence on the monarchy.

A struggle ensued between the Guise family and Catherine over control of Francis II, a boy of 15 who was married to a niece of the duke of Guise. Francis II appointed the duke of Guise and his brother the cardinal of Lorraine to the two most important positions at court. Catherine was permitted to participate in their deliberations.

A rival family from the Bourbon line—the king of Navarre—contested the Guise brothers for control of the monarch. This rivalry would play out for the remainder of Catherine’s life, bleeding into the struggle between Catholics and Protestants and spawning plots against the crown. These were the friction points that continued in the realm as sons of Catherine successively sat on the throne and she retained her position as queen mother. She became the thread that knit the realm together. Her court life unfolded in unending waves of religious warfare and palace intrigues centered around the monarchy (Catholic, but tolerant of Protestantism), the Guise faction (fanatically Catholic), and the Navarre faction (fanatically Protestant). Sound familiar?

Hollingsworth constructs her narrative around official documents uncovered in her research—Catherine’s extensive correspondence with her sons and pivotal court officials, letters and reports from foreign diplomats posted at court, proclamations, edicts, treaties, and communiqués from foreign rulers. Noteworthy are the extensive descriptions of the elaborate ceremonial events commemorating marriages, deaths, victories in war, treaties, religious holidays, and movements of the court from region to region as the royals sought diversion and contact with their subjects across the realm.

This method turns the narrative into a somewhat shapeless chronicle of events laid end to end and makes for tedious reading. Detailed genealogies of important European families, and itemizations of the court’s frequent conspicuous displays of wealth and power, while historically accurate, bloat the narrative and obscure the significance of Catherine’s story.

The life story of Catherine de’ Medici can be understood as the story of how the aristocracy lived in 16th century France. It is a story of marriages arranged for political purposes, of elaborate and extravagant social rituals commemorating important events, of constant intrigues among the powerful at court, of frequent warfare (there’s a “season” for warfare), and most notably, of pitiless rivalry between French Catholics and Protestants. Above all, it is a story of astonishing self-indulgence and greed by France’s tiny, privileged nobility at the expense of the subjects of the realm. On these terms, the book can be read as a reflection of the times we are now living through.