On this day, June 5th, in 1549, Catherine de’ Medici was crowned Queen of France.
I’ll admit, I never knew much about Catherine until a few years ago when the CW show Reign debuted. The show is a dramatized, often fictional, version of Mary Queen of Scots’ life. However, the stand out character was Catherine de’ Medici, played by Megan Follows.
She played her role with such intensity and understanding I found myself hating her and loving her all in one episode. Her character knew the cost of power and was willing to do whatever it took to keep that power in her hands.
Upon looking into the life of the real Catherine de’ Medici, you see that same strength and intelligence. Catherine was born into one of the most powerful family’s in Italy. At the time, the Medici family controlled the banks and had a family member as the Pope. Sadly, both Catherine’s parents died within weeks of her birth and she spent her childhood with nuns in Florence and Rome.
In 1533, Catherine’s uncle Pope Clement VII arranged her marriage to Henry II, the future king of France.
Their marriage was not a happy one. Henry was preoccupied with his mistress Diane de Poitiers and Catherine was focused on providing him with an heir. It took the couple ten years before their first child was born. They went on to have ten total, but only 7 survived infancy.
Despite her marital difficulties, Catherine was an impressive courtier. She was educated, cultured, and politically savvy. Catherine even took the responsibility of educating her children throughout their childhood.
A little fun fact, Catherine was accredited with bringing the use of the fork to France. The Italians had been using the utensil for many years, but the French were far behind. Before her arrival, the French were still predominately eating with their hands, aside from the occasional use of knives and spoons. Catherine took one look at their table manners and swiftly introduced the fork into the dining arrangements. It is because of Catherine, this utensil’s popularity spread across Europe.
Ten years after Catherine’s coronation, Henry died from a jousting tournament injury. Her son Francis II ascended to the throne at the age of 16. Less than two years later, Francis died and his ten-year-old brother Charles was crowned. This is when Catherine’s political power spread its wings.
As Charles was still so young, Catherine was in charge of ruling until he came of age. During this time, there was increasing tension between the Catholics and the Protestants in France. Catherine had to toe the line between these two factions and fight or negotiate her way out of a handful of attempted coups.
She saw the country through years of civil war until the peace treaty of 1570. Catherine played an important role in these negotiations; she arranged the marriage of her daughter to the Protestant leader Henry of Navarre.
Unfortunately, Catherine made a fatal political error and ordered the death of another Protestant leader, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. The first attempt failed. The second attempt succeeded, but it resulted in a wave of violence and riots, later known as the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
In the following years, Catherine lived through another civil war, an attempted uprising, and the death of her son Charles. With her son Henry III in power, Catherine toured the country on his behalf; listening to the grievance of his subjects and putting on a good show for the people. She also spent the last years of her life guiding Henry away from even more conflicts with the Huguenots faction. Catherine was one of the main reasons France didn’t end up in a war with Spain.
Catherine died on January 5th, 1589, at the age of 70.
As Catherine was a woman living in a time dominated by men, we will never know all her contributions. However, we know enough to see Catherine could hold her own and did her best to ensure the kingdom would continue after she was gone.