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The Medici Queens

Catherine de Medici 

Portrait of Catherine de Medici by François Clouet c. 1560.

In 1533, when she was only fourteen years old, Catherine de Medici married the future King Henry II of France. Catherine was the daughter of the Italian Duke of Urbino, Lorenzo de Medici. King Henry II died in 1559 and was succeeded by his eldest son, François II. Only fifteen months later François was killed in a riding accident. The next in line to the throne was 10-year old Charles who was crowned Charles IX in 1560. Since Charles was a minor, Catherine de Medici acted as regent.

Catherine became used to ruling the country and making important decisions. Charles, however, reached an age when he was capable of taking on his duties as king. By 1572 the 22-year old Charles was under the influence of a certain Admiral Gaspard de Coligny. Coligny was the Huguenot's (French Protestant's) leader. He tried to persuade Charles to help the Protestant Netherlands in their fight for freedom against Catholic Spain. Having lost control of her son, Catherine now worked secretely against him. She feared that helping the Dutch would lead to an all out war between France and Spain. First she tried to have Coligny assassinated. This failed although the Admiral was wounded. In frustration she ordered the slaughter of his Protestant followers.

In August 1572 three thousand Huguenots were killed in Paris. The St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, as it came to be called, sparked off mass murders all over France. It is estimated that over twenty thousand Huguenots perished. Coligny was one of the victims. Catherine's plan succeeded in pacifying both Pope Gregory XIII and King Philip II of Spain. They both held special masses of thanksgiving after the massacre in Paris.

In 1574 Catherine's third son, Henry, ascended to the throne. Like his brother Henry III was under his mother's influence at the start of his reign. Nine years after his coronation he banned the Protestant religion in France. This act escalated the Religious War and developed into the War of the Three Henrys. The three Henry's were:

- Henry III (House of Valois): King of France. Murdered in 1589.

- Henry de Guise (House of Lorraine): He wanted the throne although he had no legal claim to it. He was the leader of the Catholic League which was supported by Philip II of Spain. He was murdered in 1588.

- Henry de Navarre (House of Boubon): Heir to the French throne and married to Catherine's daughter, Marguerite (whom he later divorced and went on to marry a distant cousin of Catherine de Medici, Marie de Medici). He supported the Protestants and was in a Protestant League.


Marie de Medici 

Portrait of Marie de Medici by Peter Paul Rubens.

Henry de Navarre, being the only survivor, became Henry IV of France in 1589. He adopted the Catholic religion in 1593. When he was assassinated in 1610 Marie de Medici assumed the duties of regent for her son, Louis XIII.

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© Shirley Burchill, Nigel Hughes, Richard Gale, Peter Price and Keith Woodall 2016

Footnote : As far as the Open Door team can ascertain the images shown on this page are in the Public Domain.