Queen of France (1547-1559)
Catherine was born on April 13, 1519, in Florence, Italy, the daughter of the Florentine ruler Lorenzo de’ Medici, called Lorenzo the Magnificent and Madeline de la Tour of Auvergne. Catherine grew up in the Villa of Coureggi (Fiesole) Florence. She would be the mother of the last three Valois kings of France, and a major force in French politics during the 30 years of Roman Catholic-Huguenot wars and an instigator of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
Catherine married (29/10/1533) Henry (Henri) de Valois (c.1518 – 1559), King of France (1547 – 1559), Duke of Orleans, second son of Francis I de Valois, King of France and Claude de France. Henry was held as hostage in father’s stead in Spain by Charles V of Austria (c.1526), and married Catherine prior to becoming dauphin (28/10/1536).
Although it was said that Henry loved her, their marriage was fruitless for nine years. Henry however, fathered several bastards on ladies-in-waiting; then Henry fell madly in love with Diane de Poitiers (she 38, he 29). Henry would be dominated by Diane, morally, socially, and politically until his death.
Catherine was the mother of: Francis II of France, King of France (b.1544); Elizabeth (b.1545); Claude (b.1547); Louis (1549 – 1550); Charles IX of France, King of France (b.1550); Henry III of France, King of France (b.1551); Margaret de Valois (b.1553); Hercule Francois, Duke of Alencon-Anjou (1554 – 1584); Victoire (b.1556); and Jeanne (b.1556).
When Henry II assumed the French throne (1547), Catherine had little power during his reign as she was completely overshadowed by his mistress Diane de Poitiers. Catherine’s only successful taste of power came when Henry was recognized as Vicar of Empire (1552) – during his absence from France (1152 – 1155), Henry gave power to Catherine. During a tournament in Paris, Henry II lost an eye and died ten days later (10/7/1559) after suffering terrible agony. He was buried St. Denis.
Catherine also had little power during the reign of her first son, Francis II, but on Francis’s death (1560) the government fell entirely into her hands. Catherine ruled as regent for her second son, Charles IX, and despite him reaching his majority and assuming power in his own right (1563), she continued to dominate Charles for the duration of his reign.
In her determination to preserve royal power at any cost, Catherine devoted her energies to maintaining a balance between the Protestant group known as the Huguenots, led by the French military leader Gaspard de Coligny, and the Roman Catholics, led by the powerful house of Guise. During the religious civil wars (1562=>), Catherine, a Roman Catholic, usually supported the Catholics; sometimes, however, political expediency led her to switch her support to the Huguenots. Her political manipulations also affected the personal affairs of her family.
She arranged (1560) for her daughter, Elizabeth of Valois, to become the third wife of the powerful Roman Catholic king of Spain, Philip II. Then, Catherine found it propitious to marry (1572) another daughter, Margaret of Valois, to the Protestant king Henry of Navarre, who later became Henry IV, king of France. Later that same year, she found the growing Huguenot influence over her son Charles, the French king, frightening. Accordingly, she instigated the plot to assassinate the Protestant leader Coligny that led to his death and the deaths of an estimated 50,000 other Huguenots in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572).
After the death of Charles (1574) and the accession to the throne of her third son as Henry III, Catherine’s power declined. In a vain attempt to regain control of the government, Catherine tried to reconcile Catholics and Protestants, but she was trusted by neither.
Catherine was a patron of the arts – her interest in architecture was demonstrated in the building of a new wing of the Louvre Museum, in initiating construction of the Tuileries gardens, and in building the chateau of Monceau. Her personal library, containing numerous rare manuscripts, was renowned in Renaissance France.
Catherine died in Blois, France (5/1/1589). Her son, Henry III would also die that same year (1589) and would be succeeded by Henri of Navarre as King Henry IV of France.