When I was growing up, I was obsessed with princesses. But not in a fluffy heels and tiara way. No, I thought that the idea of being a princess was absolutely horrifying. Because it was.
Until at least the turn of the twentieth century, princesses didn’t sit around waiting for their prince to come. Instead, they were packed off at the first sign of puberty to some far-flung land to cement an alliance that was useful to their father or brothers. Often, their husband was some portly middle-aged Duke who’d worked his way through three wives already. Sometimes they inherited stepchildren who were older than them. Almost always, they would never see their homes again. The most memorable scene in Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette is when the young Austrian princess arrives at the border of France, only to be stripped of all her clothes, deprived of all her attendants, and given a new name (she was christened Maria Antonia). They even confiscate her dog. In the 2006 film adaptation, it’s even more memorable, because you get to see Kirsten Dunst’s bum.
Pugs? Where you’re going, you won’t need pugs!
Anyway, my point is that being a princess was rubbish. And Catherine de Medici (christened Caterina) wasn’t even a princess. She was the niece of Pope Clement VII, and really had no business marrying a prince at all.
That’s certainly how the French people felt about the match: it was a reminder of their king’s desperate search for allies in the decade after his terrible military defeat by the Spanish at the battle of Pavia of 1525. Francois I was captured and held to ransom; his mother Louise negotiated his release but had to hand over his two eldest sons in the exchange. Dauphin François and his brother Henri grew up as Spaniards, whom the French regarded as dour and pedantic. By the time their father finally got round to paying for their release, they couldn’t speak French any more.
Had Catherine been young and beautiful, the French people might have been prepared to overlook her low birth. But she wasn’t: she had prominent eyes, and was already puffy. Contemporary chroniclers mention her beautiful hands a lot, which must be the sixteenth century equivalent of a “nice personality”.
So she arrived in France, aged 14, and discover her future husband Henri – also a teenager – was already in love with someone else. Diane de Poitiers was a beautiful widow, ten years older than him, who wore only black and white, took regular baths and was an excellent horsewoman. She was so attractive that François had had a crack at her himself, but she had turned him down.
Diane de Poitiers. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty
This was typical of Catherine’s rotten luck. She arrived in the most sexually liberated court in Europe, and married one of the only powerful men of the age who was largely monogamous. Just not with her.
Because the couple were 14, it was decided that they should consummate the marriage immediately. In a move which will throw every other Embarrassing Parent story you’ve ever heard into sharp relief, the groom’s father François decided that he really ought to hang out in the bedchamber and check that everything went smoothly (an unconsummated marriage could be annulled by the church). “Each had shown valour in the joust,” he later told the court. The Pope also popped his head around the door the next morning.
Then, a year later, the Pope did something even worse: he died. His successor refused to pay Catherine’s dowry, leaving the king with a sub-optimally noble daughter-in-law who didn’t even bring him much-needed Medici gold.
Catherine’s next few years at court were miserable: her husband ignored her; her father-in-law resented her; the people didn’t warm to her. In 1536, Dauphin François died, and his Italian cupbearer was torn apart by wild horses after being accused of the crime. Catherine’s nationality became even more loathed.
It’s amazing that Catherine survived the next eight years at the French court. She consistently failed to produce an heir, and the King didn’t have any other sons left to succeed the throne after Henri. Various remedies, including drinking animal urine and rubbing antlers on her vulva, were suggested. None worked. Eventually, an anatomical problem seems to have been discovered: the suggestion is that Henri suffered from hypospadias, where the urethra exits the penis underneath the tip. (He wasn’t the last French royal heir to have Chopper Trouble: the future Louis XVI refused to have sex with Marie Antoinette for some time, instead taking refuge in the deeply Freudian hobby of lock-making. He was found to have phimosis, where the foreskin is uncomfortably tight.)
With Henri’s birth defect uncovered, the royal couple were advised to have sex “a la levrette” (doggy style). Something seems to have worked because Catherine gave birth to a son in 1544. She had another nine children in the next 12 years, ending with a twin birth which nearly killed her. One of the twins died in the womb; the other lived less than two months. All her children were sickly, with the exception of Marguerite, who is the subject of the film La Reine Margot. Despite being what the French might call Une Go-er, Margot never conceived. As with the children of Henry VIII, this is suggestive of something more than the usual poor life expectancy of the time, perhaps a congenital STD or inherited disorder.
After the birth of twins Joan and Victoria, Catherine was advised not to have any more children. So Henri gladly gave up visiting her bedchamber – something which, by all accounts, left her distraught. Even a dutiful show of affection was welcome, given that Catherine had hopelessly fallen in love with her husband. Unfortunately, he was still in love with Diane de Poitiers, and when he ascended the throne, he gave his mistress the beautiful chateau of Chenonceau, built across a river.
As queen consort, Catherine was largely invisible. But when Henri died young, after a jousting accident, she seized her chance. As the mother of the teenage king, she had status. She also took Chenonceau off Diane and gave her a crap castle instead, which feels like an understandable act of pettiness. But the real power lay with the Guise family, who had married one of their own – Mary, Queen of Scots, who had been raised at the French court since infancy – to the teenage king.
The Guise family were extremely Catholic, and extremely keen to drive Huguenots out of France. Catherine tried to resist a descent into sectarianism, with limited success. And when it became obvious that the young François II was going to die, she made a pact with the Protestant King of Navarre that his brother would be released from prison if she gained the regency of her next son, Charles. Even after Charles turned 18, he was not much interested in governing, so it was Catherine’s job to try to hold the kingdom together and prevent all-out civil war caused by religion.
The St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in 1572 was a bloody attempt to wipe out the leading Huguenots; however, its leaders seem to have thought they were pre-empting an uprising. This is where Catherine gained her reputation for evil: the queen of Navarre, Jeanne, was reluctant to hand over her son to marry Catherine’s daughter Margot, having heard rumours that “you eat little children”. Soon after the match was agreed, Jeanne d’Albret died, allegedly from wearing poisoned gloves.
With the benefit of hindsight, Catherine was probably no more bloodythirsty or sectarian than any number of contemporary rules. But her foreign birth and strange, sombre demeanour made her an attractive object on which the French people’s hatred could be projected. (Marie Antoinette went through a similar process two centuries later; however, instead of being called frigid, she was accused of lesbianism with her ladies-in-waiting.)
Charles died two years later, and was succeeded by his brother as Henri III. He was probably gay, which didn’t help with getting heirs, and he also didn’t listen much to Catherine despite being her favourite son. She could see the country was descending into anarchy, with enemies circling outside and factions squaring up within. Again, Catherine tried to prevent the Catholic faction from slaughtering thousands of Huguenots, particularly since the next in line to the throne was the Protestant Henri of Navarre. The king fought an unsuccessful war against the Catholic League, and everything went to shit in ways which are too complicated to go into here. Catherine died, at 69, in 1589, partly out of disgust with her son’s uselessness.
In her long life, Catherine was a notable patron of the arts. She didn’t fritter away money on her court, bankrupting France, as her successors did. She didn’t confine her nobles in what Nancy Mitford calls “a perpetual house-party at Versailles”, as Louis XIV did so disastrously. She didn’t shirk the responsibilities of ruling, even though she had no training and was accorded little respect. Yes, she made mistakes, and yes, she may have poisoned the odd person, but she’s nowhere near the top of the Most Murdery Monarchs league for the era.
Oh, and she also introduced underpants to France.
I’ve always been fascinated by Catherine de Medici since reading Jean Plaidy’s trilogy of novels about her – Madame Serpent, the Italian Woman and Queen Jezebel. (Now there is a good newish biography by Leonie Frieda, and a fun joint life of her and Diane de Poitiers by Princess Michael of Kent called The Serpent and The Moon.) As a teenager, those Plaidy books made me obsessed with princesses – but not with their gowns and jewels, but with their status as high-value pawns in the marriage market, and later, as walking royal incubators. From her LRB lecture on “Royal Bodies”, I sense Hilary Mantel feels the same way. Being an aristocrat didn’t protect these women from the structural sexism and outright misogyny of the age. Who wants to be a princess when that means leaving everyone you love and living with strangers who hate you?
But Catherine de Medici was not beaten down by the circumstances in which she found herself. She watched, and waited, and absorbed as much knowledge as she could. The history of women is a history of oppression, but also one of resilience. And that’s why she is my favourite monarch.
Chenonceau, which I visited in 2014. Catherine ran France from her study here.
This article is part of the New Statesman’s Monarchy Week. Find more here.