THE PRIDE OF OUR HERITAGE: CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI (1519-1589)

Updated: Aug 20


Rendered an orphan at only a few weeks of age, Catherine, in her early years, could not have envisioned that she would grow up to become the Queen of France and have three of her sons become Kings of France. She was born to an aristocratic family. Her father, Lorenzo de' Medici (II), was the Duke of Urbino and ruler of Florence. Her mother, Madeleine de la Tour d' Auvergne was the cousin of Francis I, King of France. She however, did not get to experience the opulence of her family wealth for very long. In her early life, at times, she was held captive in convents and educated, trained and disciplined by nuns in Florence and Rome. During her time in the convents, she became fluent in Greek and Latin. Her entire life was chock-full of challenges and tragedies that carried beyond her death. Yet, due to her steadfast determination and strong character traits, she was able to accept it and persevere.

Her adult challenges began at age 14 when her uncle, Pope Clement VII, arranged for her to marry the second son of the king of France for the sole purpose of having power and control. In the marriage, she was quickly sidelined by her husband's mistress, 20 years his senior, whose relationship lived through 25 years. Being childless for the first ten years of marriage, Catherine was obliged to comply in obscurity, while trying to retain the favor of her husband's mistress as well as the mistress of her father in law, the king. Her ability to accept this horrendous disdain with stoic languor is truly remarkable by today's standards. But, such were the mores of 1500s Europe. The arrival of her fist child, a son, greatly improved her position in the royal house. The couple eventually had 10 children in 10 years, with seven of them surviving to adulthood. Her growing family consumed most of her time with the supervision of their upbringing and education.


Her fate begin to shift a bit in her favor In 1547. Her husband, the duke of Orléans and at the time heir to the throne, became King Henry II of France, at age 28. As a result, she became Queen consort of France. But nonetheless, she remained in her insignificant role, except for being the queen consort (wife of) her husband. Sadly, the king died in an horrific sparring accident in 1559, at the marriage celebration of Phillip II of Spain. Due to this tragedy, Catherine was thrown into the political stage, as the Queen Mother, of the next three kings of France. Her eldest son Francis was proclaimed king at age 15. But, he too died after only 17 months on the throne due to a type of ear infection. He was married to Mary, Queen of Scots, who later was beheaded by Elizabeth I.


Soon after, in 1560, her second son Charles was crowned king at age 10. During his reign, Catherine acted as regent for the young king. She governed France throughout the fourteen years of her son, Charles IX, reign. She was entrusted with governing the country, in the late 1500s, during the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598) between the Roman Catholics and the French Protestants that tore the country apart, with each side wanting complete victory. Initially, she aimed at bridging the two factions by arranging the marriage of her reluctant daughter Marguerite to the converted Protestant Henry of Navarre who later reconverted to Catholicism and ruled France as Henry IV. During the wedding celebrations in Paris, one of the Protestant's leader was murdered, as were approximately 3,000 other Protestants, who had gathered in Paris to witness the wedding celebrations. Within couple of months after the wedding, it was estimated that approximately 50,000 to 70,000 Protestants were additionally killed across France, due to the tumultuous religious civil unrest that was present throughout the country. The event became known as the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Catherine probably had a role in planning the massacre and because of it, she gained the reputation of being a wicked queen. But, in reality, she was not.


Her second son, King Charles IX, died in 1574 of tuberculosis and no children as heirs to the throne. This ascended Catherine's preferred son Henry to succeed as King Henry III of France. She continued to play a central role in governing the country. She also continued to spend lavishly on properties and art collections, in an effort to mimic her father-in-law Francis I, whom she greatly admired. She adorned the properties with numerous commissioned sculptures, portraits from her favorite artists, ceramics, tapestries, antiquities, and all kinds of precious objects, including rare manuscripts that now are a part of France's national library. In essence, she managed to set the wheels in motion for Paris to become a city of grandiose monuments and fine art. She never lost her love for Italian art and pageantry. With the help of Bergonzio di Botta, an Italian master dancer, she invented the ballet in honor of the marriage of her third son. The name ballet was derived from the Italian word "ballare", meaning to dance and had a story line, costumes, setting, music and dialogue. She also introduced the usage of a fork for serving and eating food, imported Italian ice cream, many new Italian desserts, stylish undergarments, and so much more.


Catherine de' Medici died at age 69, probably from pleurisy, eight months before her third son, King Henry III was murdered by rival Catholic royals who wished to exclude his dynasty from being rulers of France. Catherine was hastily buried in an unmarked grave at Saint-Saveur, Blois' churchyard in the darkness of night, due to Paris being held by the enemies of the Crown. She remained in that humble plot for 21 years. Later she was reburied by her husband in the Basilica of Sain-Denis in a Paris suburb where most kings had been buried. .

Regrettably, during the French Revolution, a decree was issued on August 1st in 1793 that: "The tombs and mausoleums of the former kings, mounted in the Church of Saint Denis, in temples and in other places, across the entire Republic, will be destroyed on August 10th". Consequently the remains of over 170 kings, queens and other royals were removed from their resting places and thrown into two large pits, one for the Valois and one for the Bourbons. The pits were dug in the monks cemetery adjacent to the Basilica and the remains were simply thrown in and covered with lime. Twenty four years later, on January 21st in 1817, those royal remains were recovered from the pits. But, sadly they were not identifiable. They could only be collectively reburied in the Basilica in an ossuary, serving as a crypt, behind two marble plates bearing their names.


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