Catherine de Medici was, quite literally, the original black widow. After her husband, King Henri II of France, was accidentally killed in a jousting contest in 1559, she always dressed in black, despite the fact that French queens traditionally wore white mourning. Figuratively the term might seem equally apt, for Catherine has customarily been depicted as black-hearted, as well as black-garbed. However, as Leonie Frieda shows in this absorbing biography, Catherine was a well-intentioned woman who resorted to extreme measures only under pressure.
Prior to 1559 Catherine had been a neglected queen consort, overshadowed by her husband’s mistress, but the king’s fatal accident transformed her into a pivotal figure in 16th-century Europe. Her frail and ineffectual eldest son did not long outlive his father and in 1560 Catherine was proclaimed regent of France on behalf of the new king, ten-year-old Charles IX. From the outset she faced appalling problems. Faction struggles among the nobility undermined royal authority and France’s bitter religious divisions complicated matters still further. Catherine’s late husband had intended to tackle heresy by exterminating the ‘Lutheran scum’ who infested his kingdom, but Catherine’s approach was more conciliatory. As regent, she repeatedly attempted to implement a policy of religious toleration, but the experiment failed because of the fanaticism of the opposing parties. Catherine was unable to prevent the outbreak of civil war, which lasted, with brief remissions, for nearly 40 years.
In dealing with this desperate situation Catherine could not afford scruples. She soon acquired a reputation for eliminating enemies through poison or black magic, although, as Frieda wryly comments, the only poison she was definitely familiar with was tobacco, whose use she pioneered in France. Many of the allegations made against her can be ascribed to French prejudice against a woman of Italian birth, but Catherine cannot be exonerated from using assassination as an instrument of policy.
The crime that is forever associated with her name is the Massacre of St Bartholomew, which took place in 1572. Frieda’s gripping description of this event confirms that it was a ghastly blunder rather than a premeditated bloodbath. Catherine’s aim was to eliminate a few key Protestants who were threatening to embroil France in a war with Spain, but the violence escalated uncontrollably. Thousands of Protestants who had gathered in Paris to attend the wedding of a Huguenot prince to Catherine’s daughter were butchered when the citizens rose up against them. Naturally the survivors assumed they had been deliberately lured into a trap, but in fact such wholesale slaughter had not been intended by Catherine.
With the kingdom convulsed by confessional strife, Catherine’s difficulties were compounded by the antics of her children, a vicious and decadent brood who, when not committing incest, were riven by sibling rivalry. Their jealous squabbles and sexual peccadilloes envenomed the atmosphere at court, and posed additional dangers to the unity of the kingdom.
When her favourite son succeeded his late brother as King Henri III in 1574, Catherine hoped that the monarchy would regain its ascendancy, but lasting peace proved elusive. Royal prestige was scarcely enhanced when Henri appeared at court balls dressed as a woman, and religious issues continued to polarise the nation. Catherine responded by seeking to appease the militant Catholic party, until finally the king tired of this abject policy. In a bid to assert himself he assassinated his Catholic rival, the Duke of Guise, but Catherine rightly foresaw that this would merely beget fresh violence. Before long Henri was murdered in his turn, although mercifully Catherine did not live to see the extinction of the Valois dynasty.
Catherine was herself devoid of religious conviction, and this hampered her efforts to resolve sectarian conflict. Since passions inspired by doctrinal differences were beyond her comprehension, she sought to reconcile warring factions through dissimulation and intrigue when the times required political genius. Reviled in her lifetime as a disciple of Machiavelli, Catherine’s lack of resolve outweighed her ruthlessness, and her worst mistakes arose from improvisation and panic.
Frieda does not gloss over the short- comings of this devious and unprincipled woman, but if Catherine died a failure, her extraordinary life still makes her a wonderful subject for a biographer. With its engaging style and deft handling of complex events, this accomplished account of Catherine’s career is an engrossing tale, compellingly narrated.
Anne Somerset’s latest book, The Affair of the Poisons: Murder, Infanticide and Satanism at the Court of Louis XVI, is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at £20.