Caterina de' Medici

Caterina de‘ Medici: from the shadow of subjugation to the stage lights of power

periods: people: places:

For the whole duration of her wuthering existence (to get a sample of it, read this article), Caterina de’ Medici constantly resorted to occult arts to scry the future, her own and her children’s, to get her husband’s love, propitiate pregnancies or fend off misfortune – but in this case, we’ll see, the occult arts reveal themselves to be pretty lacking.

Caterina de' Medici
Rare miniature of Caterina de’Medici (1519-1589) before her widowhood, that happened in 1559 (ca. 1555, attributed to François Clouet, Victorian and Albert Museum). After that fateful day, Caterina will never stop wearing her black clothes.

Caterina brought to the French court an Italian astrologist who never left her side, in the end becoming her most trustworthy councillor and the keeper of her every secret: Cosimo Ruggeri (deceased in 1615).

Supposed portrait of Cosimo Ruggeri (XVII century, photo from Wikipedia).

Wa Caterina superstitious? For us, she surely was, but at the time, it was a common and firm belief that the movement of stars determined men’s fate, so Caterina wasn’t much more “gullible” than her contemporaries, she simply followed the common vision of the cosmos.

This irresistible need to maintain a sliver of control over events that, at the time, were mainly violent and unpredictable, brought Caterina to constant attempts at investigating the future, luring luck towards her and rejecting misfortune by all possible means.

Caterina de' Medici
Catrina de’Medici between 1547 and 1559 (Galleria degli Uffizi, anonymous, photo from Wikipedia)

It appears some answers were about her beloved husband, the King of France Henri II.

His Majesty had been vividly advised against competing, when he’d reach his forties, in any kind of individual combat.
Reckless, the proud sire – reached the baleful age of forty years old – thought well of challenging to a duel, during a tournament, his young captain of the guards, the Count de Montgomery.
The young man refused, the king insisted, and so they fought.

Il duello mortale di Henri II
A reconstruction of the tragic death of Henri II: a splinter of the lance that had smashed into his armor stuck into his eye. Such a pity, Henri, still, “a King forewarned is forearmed”…

Mortally wounded by a splinter of Montgomery’s lance, lodged in his eye, it took Henri ten days to die.
Four years before, the famous prophet and astrologist Nostradamus had published in Lyon his Centuries. Some of those verses were interpreted as a forewarning of the king’s death:

Montgomery is, in fact, younger, and he badly steamrolls the king in single combat; the golden cage would be the helmet, the splinter pierced an eye and a then temple, and the death was certainly cruel.


The moral to the story by Henri II.

Years later, the tragic place was turned by king Henri IV, who wanted to erase bad memories and enrich Paris, into one of its most beautiful squares: Place de Vosges.

Place de Vosges
The beautiful Place de Vosges, in Renaissance style, is built on the ancient site of the hôtel de Tournelles, where the deadly tournament of Henri II’s death took place.

Caterina’s grief was deep and devastating. From that moment on, the queen never stopped wearing the mourning black.
An idea of her pain, of which Caterina made an actual symbol, comes from the meager remains of the palace that was built, on her order, close to the Louvre, the today vanished Palace des Tuileries. Caterina’s coats of arms on the façade sported those symbols:

Caterina’s coats of arms, preserved in the Louvre, decorated the Palace of the Tuileries, today destroyed.

Toilings, for Caterina, were just beginning.

While the widow queen grieved over the remains of her beloved Henri, two ambitious brothers, two of the most powerful figures in France, the Duke de Guise and Cardinal Carles de Lorraine, were orchestrating a coup.
The two crafty devils bent to their will Caterina’s poor firstborn, the new king of France François II who, apart from his 15 years, brought to his kingdom a paralyzing fear and an unprocessed father-figure loss trauma.

Francois II
François Clouet, portrait of François II in 1560. The poor child was already orphaned by his father and king at only 15 (BNF collection, photo from Wikipedia).

So, the illegittimate domain of the de Guise family begun. They thought they could rule France as they pleased, infiltrating friends and relatives in all the powerful positions.

But, as everyone knows, you shouldn’t count your chickens before they hatch, especially when Mother Hen’s surname is de’ Medici.
The Lords of the de Guise family, all wrapped up in their power grabbing ascent, never stopped to consider the Queen Mother, not even for a second. They were pretty certain she would never represent a threat. To be fair, Caterina had been, until that very moment, submissive, obedient and shy. The lioness was sleeping…

This was poor François’s unfortunate position: on the one side, the ambitious uncles of the de Guise family were using his young wife to manipulate him – beautiful Mary Stuart of Scotland, of whom Françis was absolutely smitten -; on the other side there was his devotion to the most important woman in his life: mommy Caterina, who would have never let someone steal the throne from under her sons.

François II (center)’s Dilemma: who to appease? Mommy Caterina or Mary, the wife who lives to gratify his uncle 1 (duke de Guise) and uncle 2 (cardinal de Lorraine)? Hold fast, François, you won’t have a long life anyway. Interesting note for the enthusiasts of over-Channel history: Mary Stuart will precisely be that famous Queen of Scotland that Elizabeth I will have beheaded. But that’s another story.

Poor François, as it was predictable, didn’t survive the joys of family life, and died not so much time later, worn out by a cocktail of stress, syphilis, and tubercolosis.

Caterina, even if devoured by pain, had learned her lesson: she didn’t stop to mourn her loss. She had seen how delicate the periods of voids of power were.

Through promises, threats, schemes and scenes worthy of “Game of Thrones”, the queen mother had herself be declared “Ruler of the Kingdom” until the heir to the throne, her son Charles IX, would come of age… at 13 years old.
The de Guise family had to take a step back.


Nice job Caterina! The synthesis of the perfect scandal was finally sitting on the throne of France: woman, foreign, not noble, but still Queen!