Every country has its national myths, its defining narratives, its untouchable heroes and unspeakable villains. But most of the historical characters history enshrines or vilifies are far more complicated than their legends might suggest, and it is the task of revisionist historians to attempt to restore some balance and reality to their images. Thus Thomas Jefferson has been nudged from his high perch; thus many have tried—and generally failed—to salvage some of Richard III’s ruined reputation.

Catherine de Medici, like Richard III, is one of history’s caricatured villains. The so-called Black Queen, she was long supposed to have been not only a master intriguer but also an accomplished plotter and poisoner, the personification of all that the world found sinister in Renaissance Italy.

Reaction had to set in eventually. The first move to rehabilitate Catherine was made by the feminist movement to which, as a strong woman unafraid to exercise power, she naturally appealed. In her book The Road from the Past: Traveling Through History in France, Ina Caro amusingly contrasted two visits she made to the Chateau de Blois, first in 1974 and then in 1990. On the 1974 tour, Caro said, “the description of Catherine was the one traditionally given by historians. She was, as she had always been, the fat, unattractive, scheming, Sinister Queen of bourgeois descent. . . . Catherine’s use of poison, massacre, and Machiavellian cunning paved her way to thirty years of power.” Blois’s tour guide took it more or less for granted that Catherine had murdered her brother-in-law, paving the way for her husband Henri II to become King. By 1990, Caro noticed, these allegations had been brushed aside, and the Blois tour earnestly celebrated Catherine’s many accomplishments. The Black Queen, it seemed, was no more.

The real Catherine was far less evil than the traditional version would have it.

The real Catherine was far less evil than the traditional version would have it, but certainly more ruthless and bloodthirsty than current revisionists are ready to admit. She was, to put it briefly, a woman whom history placed in an almost impossible position, as Leonie Frieda demonstrates in her new biography, Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France. Orphaned at only a few weeks of age, Catherine spent her childhood as a marriage pawn bandied about by her powerful Medici kinsmen, Popes Leo X and Clement VII. At the age of fourteen she was brought to France and married to Henri d’Orléans, second son of King François I. François chose her as a means of forwarding his territorial ambitions in Italy: she was supposed to bring a dowry that included Pisa, Parma, Piacenza, Reggio, Modena, and Leghorn. But very soon after the marriage, Clement VII died with these promises unfulfilled and the rest of Catherine’s dowry unpaid. She was now perceived as worthless: “J’ai reçu la fille toute nue,” was François’s comment, and her nationality rendered her especially disagreeable to the French, who, Frieda comments, when they “were not imitating the Italians in art and culture or occupying their country . . . , despised them as money-grubbing opportunists who would slip a knife between a man’s shoulder blades as soon as his back was turned.” Worse, Catherine was a rich girl rather than a royal one, and more than one courtier was heard to disparage this descendent of Lorenzo il Magnifico as a “shopkeeper’s daughter.”

Catherine kept her place at court by being a loyal wife to her taciturn husband, who became Dauphin upon the death of his brother in 1536, by producing ten children, and by currying favor with her all-powerful father-in-law. Though her rivalry with her husband’s glamorous lover, Diane de Poitiers, would become legendary, she behaved with restraint in her dealings with the older woman. By the time her husband ascended the throne in 1547, she had earned respect if not love from his subjects. Henri II clearly trusted her judgment, for he left her in charge when he went to war.

Henri’s accidental death while jousting left Catherine, now forty years old, in a dangerous position. Their eldest son, François II, was only fifteen and weak in both body and mind. The other children were small and, with the notable exception of Marguerite (who later, as the wife of Henri de Navarre, would become the infamous Reine Margot), sickly, tainted with tuberculosis and syphilis inherited from their grandfather, Lorenzo II de Medici. Henri II’s wars with Spain had left the government deeply in debt and the peasantry overtaxed. The rising animosity between Catholics and Huguenots was about to explode in the long and singularly bloody French Wars of Religion. And Henri’s overmighty subjects, especially the Châtillon family and the Guises, a cadet branch of the royal house of Lorraine, were ready whenever the opportunity might arise to wrest control of the kingdom from the feeble François and his inexperienced foreign mother. The Duc de Guise and his brother, the Cardinal de Guise, were in a particularly menacing position as the uncles of France’s new Queen, Mary Queen of Scots, François’s bride.

By nominally allying herself with the Guises, Catherine succeeded not only in being named regent for her son but also in ruling as such: quite an accomplishment at that time. It cannot be said, however, that she ruled well. In a vain effort to shore up fiscal ruin, she and her temporary allies the Guises reneged on the interest due on their loans, stopped pensions and salaries, and demobilized soldiers without pay. All of this contributed to the general discontent. As Frieda says, “there were two types of Huguenots, those who genuinely followed the new religion and others who were unwilling to be ruled by the ‘illegal’ regime of the Guises. The latter would be appeased if the Lorrainers and their stooges were replaced by a proper council with the Bourbon Princes of the Blood at its head.”

These Princes of the Blood were Antoine de Bourbon (father of the future Henri IV) and his brother, Louis de Condé. The reason they were passed over was not only because, as next in line to the throne after Catherine’s sons, they were politically threatening, but also because they were Protestants. Antoine de Bourbon, whom Frieda justifiably dismisses as “bird-brained,” misplayed every card he was dealt in his life, and the cannier Catherine easily outmaneuvered him. When François II died in 1560, Catherine once again grabbed the regency—this time against stiffer competition—by masterfully manipulating not only the Bourbon princes but also the Estates-General. Her second son, aged ten, succeeded as King Charles IX. He, as weak and unhealthy as his defunct brother, would “reign” for fourteen years, but his mother remained the true monarch.

A Catholic herself, Catherine had little religious bigotry—very little, by the standards of her day. “In religious matters,” Frieda comments, “she was no fanatic except when her sons and their birthright was concerned. The Catholic Mass suited her, a lifelong habit that she found comforting, almost as though it were another talisman to ward off evil.”

There was nothing of the mystic in her makeup. Once when her unruly children burst into her room dressed as cardinals and bishops and riding on a donkey, she was heard to hoot with laughter. To her, tolerance was not only the sensible and natural line to take but the expedient one as well, as she tried to explain to the tireless zealot Philip of Spain: “For twenty or thirty years now we have tried . . . to tear out this infection [Protestantism] by the roots, and we have learned that violence only serves to increase and multiply it, since by the harsh penalties which have been constantly enforced in this kingdom, an infinite number of poor people have been confirmed in this belief . . . for it has been proved that this fortifies them.”

A Catholic herself, Catherine had little religious bigotry—very little, by the standards of her day.

She was correct. Although the chaos of the kingdom during her lifetime rendered her numberless efforts at religious conciliation pointless, Henri IV would later apply her policies successfully with his Edict of Nantes. Philip, in fact, would have done well to take her advice more seriously. His own game of hardball in the Spanish Netherlands, where he brooked no religious opposition whatever, ended disastrously. But while from our modern point of view her want of zeal seems healthy, it did not work to her advantage within the mental framework of the sixteenth century. “Her pragmatism and . . . lack of imagination fatally blinded her to the passion with which men and women clung to their spiritual beliefs,” Frieda writes. She simply could not understand why people would go to war for religious reasons. She herself held nothing against the Huguenots, so long as they did not interfere with her sons’ succession and the survival of the House of Valois. That, in fact, was her true religion. Her love and ambition for her children had more to do with their worldly glory than their happiness, and she did whatever she could to forward their interests, marrying a daughter to the King of Spain, maneuvering a son onto the Polish throne, and trying desperately to marry off her pockmarked, hunchbacked son, the duc d’Alençon, to Elizabeth of England. (Elizabeth, for political reasons of her own, pretended enthusiasm for the match, shamelessly caressing the dwarfish fellow in public and referring to him fondly as “my frog.”)

In reality Catherine, in spite of a lifetime spent fighting for her children’s birthright, was a spectacularly bad mother. Her court was splendid and extravagant (the greatest gifts she brought to her adopted country were cultural ones: the introduction of Florentine art, food, ballet, opera, and theater to France), but it was morally and sexually rotten. As Jeanne d’Albret, Queen of Navarre and mother of the future Henry IV, wrote to her son, Catherine was surrounded by “the most vicious and corrupt atmosphere imaginable.” Catherine apparently believed that her sons were less dangerously employed debauching themselves than plotting against one another, but of course they did both, and the widow and children of Henri II just might qualify as the most dysfunctional great family in history—beating, by a nose, the family of Henry II of England.

Catherine’s worst move, the blunder that finally destroyed what was left of her reputation, was her part in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. It need hardly be said that she never intended the killings to spiral out of control as they did: all she, and her favorite son, the Duc d’Anjou, had in mind was the judicious assassination of certain key Protestants, including their leader, the Admiral de Coligny. But they reckoned without the Parisians’ violently anti-Protestant bias, the festering rage on both sides, and the summer heat that enflamed the Catholics and Protestants gathered for the ill-starred wedding of Margot to Henri de Navarre. By the time the killings ended there were 20,000 to 30,000 dead: a grisly portent of 1789. Catherine, the instigator of the hated massacre, was the loser by it. It more than undid all the efforts she had exerted for decades on behalf of the French monarchy and specifically the Valois dynasty.

Charles IX died in 1574 and was succeeded by his brother, the duc d’Anjou, who now became Henri III. Elected King of Poland shortly before Charles’s death, Henri had ignominiously to flee Cracow at dead of night (taking Poland’s crown jewels along with him) in order to get to Paris before his younger brother could grab the throne. The rest of his reign was carried out with a similar lack of dignity: Henri has gone down in history as “King of the Island of Hermaphrodites,” France’s only drag-queen monarch. He was more intelligent than his two elder brothers, but fatally unstable, and left much of the running of his government to his little clique of mignons.

Henri’s unpopularity in Paris was a stark contrast to the city’s idolization of the Duc de Guise (son of the old Duc of Henri II’s time), champion of the ultra-Catholic party and a far more inspiring leader than the hermaphrodite king, or for that matter than any member of the Valois tribe since François I. With the country at war and Paris in open revolt, Henri arranged for the murder of Guise and his brother, the Cardinal, and for the secret disposal of their bodies in the great fireplace at Blois. Catherine, it should be noted, was not consulted: with the accession of the willful Henri, her life of power had finally come to an end. She lived long enough to tell him that he had made a fatal error, and died shortly afterward, in January 1589, at the age of nearly seventy. Only a few months later Henri himself met his end at the hands of a deranged monk. His younger brother, the duc d’Alençon (who had subsequently become the duc d’Anjou), had predeceased him.

It was Catherine’s worst nightmare: the end of the decayed line of the Valois.

It was Catherine’s worst nightmare: the end of the decayed line of the Valois. There followed four-and-a-half years of civil war, during which Henri de Navarre, Henri III’s heir, fought not only the ultra-Catholics and other French factions but also foreign forces aided by, among others, Philip II and the Pope. In 1593 he converted definitively to Catholicism (uttering his famous bon mot about Paris being well worth a Mass) and a few months later entered Paris peacefully as King Henri IV. The wars of religion were at an end.

The story is a highly dramatic one, and the character of Catherine is not only fascinating but also, more often than one might expect, engaging and sympathetic. Trapped by circumstance in a consummately difficult role, she acted with spirit and determination. But when Frieda tries to sell her as “a great prince and a great woman” she goes too far. “By fighting to preserve the throne (albeit for her sons) and the principle of legitimacy,” Frieda claims, “Catherine de Medici—foreigner, consort and then beleaguered regent—had ensured the future of the French monarchy, at least until the revolution of 1789.” This seems just plain preposterous. It appears, on the contrary, that Catherine endangered the monarchy and certainly the Valois line—first by introducing tuberculosis and syphilis into the family (though this was hardly her fault), then by bringing up her children with such a stupendous lack of discipline, decorum, and moral standards that they wasted all the respect their father and grandfather had garnered for the Crown. Her judgment was notoriously bad, and her love for excitement and intrigue harmed the nation again and again. (“This trouble,” Henri de Navarre wrote to her during wartime, with his usual perspicacity, “pleases you and feeds you if you were at rest you would not know how to continue to live.”)

Catherine’s huge expenditures, crippling taxes, and general fiscal irresponsibility also helped create and perpetuate the conditions that would lead to revolution two centuries later. In the mid-1570s, after years of Catherine’s rule, the country was in a shambles, wrote the Venetian ambassador of that time:

Everywhere one sees ruin, the livestock for the most part destroyed . . . stretches of good land uncultivated and many peasants forced to leave their homes and to become vagabonds. Everything has risen to exorbitant prices . . . people are no longer loyal and courteous, either because poverty had broken their spirit and brutalized them, or because the factions and bloodshed have made them vicious and ferocious. . . . Demoralized, the people have lost their supreme reverence and obedience for the king, which was once so great that they would have given him not only their lives and their property but their souls and their honour . . . as for obedience to the royal orders and edicts they seem to make sport of them.

The person who really saved the monarchy was of course not Catherine but Henri IV, whose intelligence, bravery, clemency, and fiscal wisdom (he put the country’s failing economy into the capable hands of the duc de Sully) brought the country back to peace and prosperity and restored dignity and authority to the Crown. His enduring reputation—he is still France’s most popular sovereign—is fully deserved, and if any one person can be said to have postponed the revolution, he deserves the credit.

Leonie Frieda’s portrait, then, is entertaining and often persuasive, but it is hardly the last word on Catherine de Medici, nor is it even a temporarily definitive biography: it is simply a first, and important, step in turning her back into a three-dimensional character rather than a simplistic national myth. Catherine was no villain. Neither was she much of a heroine. She was simply an imperfect, limited, bumbling human being trying to function in a role that would have taxed the greatest politicians and diplomats in history.


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 Number 6, on page 71
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