Caterina de' Medici

Caterina de' Medici (* 13 April 1519; † 5 January 1589) was the only child of Lorenzo di Piero de' Medici and Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne.

François Clouet (?). Catherine de Médicis. Musée Carnavalet, Paris. CC0

Her mother was related to the Bourbons (Caterina’s maternal great-grandfather Jean de Bourbon was also the great-great-grandfather of her later son-in-law Henri de Navarre). and belonged to one of the richest families of the French aristocracy. Her father was a grandson of Lorenzo "the Magnificent" de' Medici and a grand-nephew of Giovanni de' Medici, Pope Leo X. The latter took over Caterina’s guardianship after the early death of her parents. She spent her childhood in Rome and Florence, where she witnessed the siege of 1529/30. Since 1523, her uncle Giulio de' Medici (a son of Giuliano di Piero de' Medici, the brother of her great-grandfather Lorenzo de' Medici) sat in the Holy Seat as Clement VII. Although the Medicis' wealth had diminished and Caterina was no beauty, she was a desirable match thanks to her mother’s large inheritance and her connection to the Pope. When the rumour emerged that Clement VII had succeeded in betrothing his niece to Henri, Duke of Orléans, the second son of the French King François I, it was dismissed as unthinkable from Emperor Charles V downwards. In fact, the proposal for this union had come from France. With a view to her maternal inheritance, François I would have liked Caterina to grow up at the French court, but her uncles had prevented this. Now Clement VII also assured her of a generous dowry including territorial gains in Italy. The wedding took place with great pomp in the presence of the Pope in October 1533. For Caterina de' Medici, this truly meant an unimaginable social advancement; for the French court, the union of a king’s son with a descendant of merchants and bankers represented a mesalliance. Caterina was given the derisive name "la fille des marchands" (merchant’s daughter). With the death of Clement VII a few months later, her situation became worse. His successor Paul III neither paid the rest of the dowry nor ceded the promised territories to France. Contrary to expectations, Caterina held her own at court, as she succeeded in winning over the leading ladies, such as the king’s sister or mistress, and ultimately François I himself. Only her husband showed little interest in her throughout his life. He already had a close relationship with Diane de Poitiers at that time, which was to deepen over the years. In 1536 François, Henri’s eldest brother, died unexpectedly. Caterina was now the childless wife of the heir to the throne. Once again it was the king who held a protective hand over his daughter-in-law and refused to annul the marriage. No stone was left unturned, yet the longed-for pregnancy did not occur until 1543. With the birth of an heir to the throne, Caterina’s position as future queen was consolidated. A total of nine more children followed. In 1547, France’s crown passed to Henri II. Caterina was queen, but had no influence. Henri II kept her out of political developments, leaving representative, charitable and cultural matters in the hands of his mistress Diane de Poitiers.

Since she was fourteen, Caterina de' Medici had lived in an environment that blatantly looked down on her. To her husband, who was only a few months older and of an attractive appearance, she certainly showed affection, which was not even met with friendly goodwill on his part. She had to watch her private and official position being taken over by a woman who, unlike her, lacked spirit and intelligence. In this situation, Caterina’s only unique asset was motherhood. She existed through her children. Hardly surprising that she had a much stronger bond with them than was usual at the time. By the way, their children did not get along so well with each other.1

In 1559 Henri II succumbed to injuries sustained during a tournament. During the short reign of François II, Caterina remained in the background. However, she watched with growing concern how the Guise family was grabbing power. When Charles IX came to the throne in 1560, he was only nine years old. The Queen Mother agreed with Antoine de Bourbon, the first prince of the blood, that he would renounce the regency for the minor king in her favour. At the age of 45, she became actively involved in politics for the first time. She understood her role as a keeper of the kingdom for her children. She almost always tried to find an agreement. Their "mistake" was to regard the fight between Catholics and Huguenots as a political dispute. She thought that if she could bring the respective leaders to a reconciliation, their followers would obediently accept it. A struggle out of religious zeal was hardly comprehensible to her.2 Out of this consideration, the marriage between her daughter Marguerite and Henri de Navarre was indeed to bring peace. Likewise, the failed assassination attempt on Coligny thus meant a much greater danger, which resulted in a fear – unfounded as we know today – that the Huguenot leadership might take revenge on the Catholic leadership for it.
On 23 August 1572 there were two or three informal meetings of the royal council, starting in the afternoon. At the first consultation, which took place in the garden of the Tuileries, Caterina de' Medici, Anjou, Maréchal Gaspard de Tavannes, Retz, Gonzague and René de Birague were present. The king is only likely to have attended an all-night meeting at the Louvre. At this point, the Duke of Guise and the Duke de Montpensier may have joined them.3 It was hoped that the elimination of the Huguenot leadership would not only prevent a supposed first strike on their part, but would also weaken the entire Huguenot movement in the long term. Henri III would later succumb to the same misjudgement when he had the Duke of Guise assassinated.4
Caterina de' Medici’s part in the plan to have the leading Huguenots killed is undisputed. Like all the others in charge, she was then also taken by surprise by the self-dynamics of the events. The Huguenots considered her to be the main culprit. In 1575 Discours merveillieux de la vie, actions et deportements de Catherine de Médicis, Royne merewere published. Henri Estienne is presumed to be the author of the text. The work enjoyed enormous popularity, it was even translated into English in the same year of publication,5 and was the beginning of a centuries-long demonisation of Caterina de' Medici. Starting with her brother-in-law François, she had everyone poisoned who stood in her way, including Jeanne d’Albret. With her lover Albert de Gondi, she was planning autocracy and the extermination of the French high nobility, which is why she originally intended to have the entire nobility, not just the Huguenots, massacred on the occasion of the wedding between her daughter and Navarre. After her plan failed, she blamed the Duke of Guise, who did not want to be drawn into the riots and murdered Coligny out of revenge, but actually on behalf of the Queen Mother.6 To this day, Caterina de' Medici is presented as a Machiavellian, poison-mixing occultist. It was not long before the Catholics also saw in her an ideal scapegoat for all real and imagined problems.7 One has to take into account that for the people at that time really tremendous conditions reigned. With Margaret of Parma, Marie de Guise, Jeanne III, Mary I, Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart and Caterina de' Medici, the 16th century saw seven women at the top of European politics in its second half alone.

Charles IX died in 1574. The Queen Mother again took over the regency until her favourite son Anjou, who had been elected King of Poland in 1573, returned to France to be crowned as Henri III. She now had to use her diplomatic skills within her own family. The royal siblings Marguerite and Alençon caused a lot of irritation. The reign of Henri III further aggravated the internal political situation. Caterina de' Medici travelled for months through France to negotiate with the Huguenots. She repeatedly warned her son of a possible uprising of the population, but had to stand by and watch the strengthening of the Catholic League and the increase in power of the Duke of Guise. Before the Estates General in 1588, Henri III thanked his mother for all she had done for him and the country. She was not privy to his plan to have Guise killed. She was spared the death of her favourite son and the consequent downfall of the House of Valois. Caterina de' Medici died in Blois on 5 January 1589.

The Massacre at Paris

Her appearances in [Scene 1] marked the first time a member of the Medici family entered the English stage.8 As with Dukes of Guise, Marlowe’s portrayal of Caterina de' Medici mainly follows contemporary propaganda. In addition to the sources mentioned, Anne Dowriche’s narrative poem The French History of 1589 may have influenced him.9 A close bond between the Queen Mother and Guise, as mentioned several times in the drama

"The Mother Queene workes wonders for my sake,
And in my love entombes the hope of Fraunce:"10

did not exist. Caterina de' Medici was sceptical of the Guise family and had no outspoken sympathy for the Duke.
In [Scene 4] she is both the driving force behind the planning of the massacre and the person who persuades Charles IX to visit Coligny so that he can be lulled into a sense of security.

Another legend shows Marlowe in [Scene 11]. Caterina de' Medici " inspects" Coligny’s corpse with an escort. This episode could go back to the Huguenot Simon Goulart. At least Henri Martin in Histoire de France depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’en 1789 quotes from his Mémoires de l’estat de France.

"la cour alla passer en revue les cadavres qu’on avait entassés, en façon de trophée, devant la porte du Louvre; on vit les filles d’honneur de la reine mère, et Catherine elle-même, examiner avec des remarques obscènes les corps dépouillés des gentilshommes huguenots de leur connaissance!"11

François Dubois depicts this in Le massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy.

François Dubois. Le massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy. 1584. Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts, Lausanne. Detail. CC0

Édouard Debat-Ponsan even dedicates his own painting to the invented episode.

Édouard Debat-Ponsan. Un matin devant la porte du Louvre. 1880. Musée d’art Roger-Quilliot, Clermont-Ferrand. CC0

In this scene, Caterina assures Louis de Lorraine-Guise that she will kill her son Charles IX if necessary and replace him with Anjou if the king continues to associate with Navarre. Marlowe captured her reaction to the death of Charles IX in [Scene 13] very well. Only a few hours later, she wrote to Anjou in Poland, who indeed left the country immediately, but first in the direction of Italy. Your remark in [Scene 14] about a loving mother who preserved the land for Anjou is correct. He did not arrive in France until early September 1574. In the meantime, his mother had taken over the regency. Again, she mentions to the Cardinal that she could replace Henri III with his brother if the King did not follow her will and that of the Guise brothers. After the king shows her the dead Guise in [Scene 21], she curses her son and mourns the duke who was killed. With his death, her will to live leaves her.

In Marlowe, Caterina de' Medici is not the woman who wanted to preserve the empire for her children, but the Machiavellian bad mother who would sacrifice her offspring on the altar of power. Sometimes it seems that Guise and she are one and the same person. Perhaps, however, Marlowe’s approach was not as undifferentiated as it seems at first glance. The demonisation of the Queen Mother had a special significance in England. Indeed, she and Elizabeth I did not seem dissimilar, so the dismissive attitude of some English writers towards the Queen Mother may well represent attempts to criticise their own ruler.12

Garloff, Mona. 2007. “Chassez loin de nous les italiens qu’on hait tant: Antiitalianismus in politischen Streitschriften im Umfeld der Bartholomäusnacht (1573-76).” Diplomarbeit, München: Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität.
Holt, Mack P. 1995. The French Wars of Religion, 1562 – 1629. New Approaches to European History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Knecht, Robert Jean. 2014. Catherine de’medici. Profiles in Power. Hoboken: Taylor & Francis.
Mahoney, Irene. 2004. Katharina von Medici: Königin von Frankreich. 3. Auflage. München: Diederichs.
Martin, Henri. 1845. Histoire de France Depuis Les Temps Les Plus Reculés Jusqu’en 1789. 9th ed. Vol. 10. Paris: Furne.
Wilkinson, Alexander. 2004. “’Homicides Royaux’: The Assassination of the Duc and Cardinal de Guise and the Radicalization of French Public Opinion.” French History 18 (2): 129–53.

  1. Mahoney (2004)↩︎
  2. Knecht (2014)↩︎
  3. Holt (1995)↩︎
  4. Wilkinson (2004)↩︎
  5. Kocher (1941)↩︎
  6. Garloff (2007)↩︎
  7. Knecht (2014)↩︎
  8. Boase (1974)↩︎
  9. R. Martin (1999)↩︎
  10. The Massacre at Paris. 2,76-77↩︎
  11. H. Martin (1845), 380. I could not find the quotation in the section Martin mentioned.↩︎
  12. Hillman (2002)↩︎

Aktualisiert am 24.05.2024

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