The "Maggot from Italy's Tomb?" The "Black Widow" of St Bartholomew? Or one of the finest examples of power politics and survival ever seen? Well, I would have to say yes to all of the above, and more! Catherine was one of the most complex characters in a time of massive internal strife in France, with enemies both within (Guise, D'Albret) and abroad (Philip II of Spain).
Born on 13 April 1519, in Florence, Italy, Catherine was the heiress to the estates of both her father, Lorenzo II de Medici, Duke of Urbino, and her mother Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne. They both died soon after her birth. She then became a pawn in the hands of her Papal relatives, first Leo X, then Clement VII. It was Clement that negotiated her marriage to Henry, Duke d'Orleans, second son of King Francis I of France.
Henry's brother Francis died, and Catherine became Dauphine. For 10 years she tried to conveive a child, and when Henry became Dauphin, the situation was all the more critical. Rumours that Henry was to repudiate her drove her to try potions, rub dung on her genitals, and drink mules' urine (thought to increase fertility at the time). She even drilled a hole in the ceiling of the room where her husband was sleeping with his long-term mistress, Diane de Poitiers, to see if there was anything she was doing wrong in the bedroom. Finally, doctors checked both her and Henry, and found an abnormality in his penis. He advised certain sexual positions, which miraculously worked, as Catherine produced ten children!
Although Henry was completely besotted with his mistress, Catherine idolised he husband the the marragethey shared. Apart from a few nominal regencies in his absence, Catherine had very little experience of direct power, as Diane de Poitiers was more in favour at court. When Henry died, during a jousting match where a lance hit him straight in the face, and splintered through his eye, into his brain, and out of his ear, Catherine was thrust into the malestrom of French politics, and the first of her regencies. Francis II, her weak and sickly son, was married to Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary's mother was Mary of Guise, regent of Scotland, and a formidable character in her own right, who was sister of the Guise brothers who now had a strangle-hold on French politics, as they had been named co-regents with Catherine during Francis' minority. It was only when Francis died, and her second son Charles IX became king, that her role as 'Queen Mother' became unassailable. There is some evidence to suggest that Catherine was not altogether sad to see her son's demise, especially as she was able to convince Charles to name her sole regent.
During her reign, Catherine had to cope with the many 'wars of religion' between the ultra-Catholic reactionaries, headed by the Guise faction, and the Protestants, headed by Coligny, Conde and Queen Jeanne d'Albret of Navarre. Jeanne was fanatically Protestant, and a disciple of Calvin. Her husband, Antoine de Bourbon, was Prince of the Blood, meaning next in line to the throne after the Valois family. Once Antoine had died, it was her son Henry, who, in the event of all of Catherine's male children dying childless, would be heir to the French crown. In an inspired move, Catherine forced a marriage alliance on Jeanne, so that her son, the Protestant future Henry IV, would marry Catherine's daughter, Margaret. Just prior to the marriage, Queen Jeanne had died in what some called suspicious circumstances, apparently killed by a pair of poisoned gloves sent from Catherine. It was at the time of the marriage, however, that the most infamous event of her reign occured.
When her son, the future Henry IV, and his entourage of Protestant followers, arrived in Paris, tensions were heated as Paris was fanatically Catholic. An attempt was made on the life of Coligny, who survived, though with an amputated finger. Fearing a massive backlash, Catherine convinced her son Charles IX that a pre-emptive strike against the Hugenot leaders was necessary. His cry of "Then kill them all! Kill them all!" was more real than he would have liked: the ultra-Catholic faction and the people of Paris started to kill all the Protestants they could. The massacre spread out into the surrounding areas. Thousands died. It is not known the extent of Catherine's involvement in the massacre, but it was what lead to the "Black Legend" surrounding her from that time on.
One of the accusations thrown at Catherine was the use of astrology and black magic, and her belief in omens, signs, portents and premonitions. Nostradamus was known to have prophesied for her on more than one occasion. R. J. Knecht, in his book Profiles in Power: Catherine de' Medici, states that she:
"owned a book with pages of bronze on which rotating disks represented the constellations. By manipulating them, she could easily work out the conjunctions essential to the reading of horoscopes."
She was especially diligent at this in the case of her children. She also used astrologers at court, one being Regnier, but the more famous being Cosimo Ruggieri. Ruggieri was not just an astrologer, but also a Black Magician too. In her book, Catherine de Medici, Leonie Frieda talks about some of the practices used by Catherine and Ruggieri to get rid of her enemies in the Protestant camp, in particular the use of dolls and models to torture and kill at a distance. After one battle in particular, three of the top Hugenot's were found in exactly the same position as the dolls used by Ruggieri.
By far the most henious sorcery attributed to Catherine and Ruggieri was the Oracle of the Bleeding Head. Both Helena Blavatsky, in "Isis Unveiled", and Eliphas Levi, in "Transcendental Magic", quote Bodin's "La Demonomanie, ou traite des Sorciers" to describe the foul act of preparing the oracle. A male child, without imperfection, was chosen, and given his first communion. The black mass was prepaired, in front of the inverted cross, in the rooms of Charles IX, Catherine's sickly son. At the altar, after taking the white wafer, the head was struck from the body in a single blow, and placed:
"all palpitating, upon the great black wafer which covered the bottom of the paten, then placed on a table where some mysterious lamps were burning...the demon was charged to pronounce an oracle, and reply by the mouth of this head..."
We do not know the question allegedly asked of this oracle, but the answer given in "a feeble voice, a strange voice, which had nothing of human character about it..." was: "Vim patior" which in Latin means "I suffer violence." It is thought that this would be the king's fate in Hell for his part in the St Bartholomeaw's Day Massacre. On hearing this, he ran from the room, and died shortly after.
Catherine's life ended, probably dying of pleurisy, months before the assination of her last surviving son, Henry III. She had seen eight children go to the grave, her husband die, and her realm splinter and fracture under the strain of religious warfare. Yet still she managed to play off the different factions, to keep her incompetent sons in power, to marry off her daughters well, and so survive every reversal that befell her. Henry IV (Queen Jeanne's son) said of her:
"I ask you, what could a woman do, left by the death of her husband with five little children on her arms, and two families of France who were thinking of grasping the crown—our own [the Bourbons] and the Guises? Was she not compelled to play strange parts to deceive first one and then the other, in order to guard, as she did, her sons, who successively reigned through the wise conduct of that shrewd woman? I am surprised that she never did worse."
© James Edward Hughes 14/04/2010