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Catherine de' Medici: Diabolist or Scapegoat?

In history and politics, women have traditionally had a raw deal. Characters like Elizabeth I of England, Isabella of Spain and Maria Theresa of the Holy Roman Empire, are the exceptions rather than the rule. Their strength – political, regal and sexual – set them apart from other women of their age, and indeed from many of the men too! Some were accused of using magickal powers...

Catherine de' Medici, who had little power as Dauphine and even as Queen of France, amazed the mediaeval world when she took over as regent in all but name (she did not want the title) to her son François II, who died before attaining his majority. She guided France through a thirty year regency, witnessing the accessions of her three sons in turn, as it had been predicted by Nostradamus that she would. In all this time, her only real error of judgement seems to have been the conflict which resulted in the horrific bloodbath of St Bartholomew's Night, 23rd August, 1572, in which an estimated 50,000 people were massacred. It is ironic that this one mistake is more commonly remembered as her work than the many years of religious tolerance which she strived always to maintain.

Born 13th April, 1519, in Florence, the daughter of Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino, and Madeline de la Tour d'Auvergne, the young Catherine was to quickly learn that women born into noble families were generally treated as little more than political pawns of their ambitious relatives and countrymen. Catherine was orphaned before she was one month old, and by the age of eight she had been removed for her own safety to the convent of the Santissima Annunziata delle Murate where she was well loved. Political and religious wars raged around her, and by the time she was 11 her Italian guardians were suggesting some outlandish solutions to her predicament. To stop her being of any use as a marriage pawn of the French and Spanish, it was thought that she could be hidden in a brothel, after which contamination no prince would ever accept her. Even more horrific ideas were put forward: that she be tied naked to the city walls (again no prince would accept her after such degradation), or even gang-raped by the Italian soldiery! Although none of these things came to pass, this was one lesson in political rough justice that the young Catherine was never to forget.

At the age of 14 she was married off to Henri, the Duc d'Orléans, second son of the French King François I. When the Dauphin died in August 1536, Henri became heir to the throne, and Catherine moved from being a Duchesse to a Dauphine. Eleven years later she became Queen Consort, though she was always treated as an outsider in Henri's lifetime, owing to his all-conquering adoration for Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse de Valentinois, a women twenty years his senior. Catherine spent ten barren years, largely ignored by her husband and shunned by the powerful French families who considered her an irrelevance beside Henri's mistress, the real power behind the future King. Her natural love of learning endeared her to François I and his official mistress, Anne d'Heilly, the Duchesse d'Étampes. The King prized above all other things beautiful and intelligent women, and though Catherine was no beauty, her passion for study made her a beloved daughter in law. Catherine learned French, Latin and Greek (though she always made a conscious effort to display errors in her French, a suggestion of the extreme humility she showed in her youth), and studied mathematics, natural history, astronomy and astrology. She was a born diplomat, politics fascinated her, and during her later regency she became a strong patron of music, the arts and the sciences. She invented games and dances, was a terrific archer and loved to hunt. But it was her passion for astrology which led to subsequent rumours of sorcery and pernicious magick used to rid herself of the husband who despised her, her later political enemies, and even her sons, weak and congenitally ill-suited for responsibility as they were. Although it is known that she had a passionate interest in the tarot, consulted alchemists with philosophical questions, and astrologers for advice before taking major decisions, there is absolutely no evidence of her using her knowledge for illicit or malicious ends, though it is certainly true that she always had a higher aspiration than to be a mere brood mare for the kingdom of France.

With infinite patience and humility she suffered Henri's love for Diane de Poitiers, eventually bearing him 10 children, 7 of which survived infancy. When Henri was killed at a joust (as foreseen by Nostradamus, many of whose prophecies revolved around Catherine's family), the young, ailing King François II was too young to reign alone. A battle for dominance of the young King ensued, fought between Catherine (who considered herself as his mother the best person to advise him, and through him, France) and the manipulative uncles of his wife, Mary, Queen of Scotland. Catherine won – just – but it was rumoured that she had François poisoned so that her regency could be absolutely ensured by putting her second son, the 10 year old Charles IX on the throne. Again, there is no apparent truth to this rumour, and it would seem to stem from propagandist literature spread by her political enemies, who recognised her strength and feared it.

Catherine was in many ways vastly ahead of her time, and she took as her guiding inspiration the master work of the Italian Machiavelli, 'Il Principe' ('The Prince'), which set out the ideal way for a ruler to govern. Machiavelli's ideas were neither utopian nor fanatical, but followed a middle course, seeking to administer justice and peace, but not being afraid to commit brief acts of savage retribution to make an example to others. Catherine in her prime followed these ideas as far as she could, even under extreme provocation. The highest lord in the land instigated open rebellion against her; she imprisoned him briefly and then released him, knowing that to execute him would be to invite even worse atrocities in its wake. She strove always to promote peace in an era when war was everywhere. At the heart of virtually all 16th century war was religion. Fiercely Catholic Spain took issue with Protestant, independent England, and France was caught right in the middle of it all. Whilst outwardly Catholic – all French monarchs were expected to uphold Catholic beliefs, and she was an Italian Medici, related by blood to the Papal throne – Catherine had a flexible understanding of the Protestant/Huguenot belief also. She attempted, at the conference of Poissy in 1561, to bring these two faiths together to discuss their relative points of view, and to try to bring about some kind of understanding between them. Her watchwords were always arbitration, conciliation and peace. The conference was, however, a disaster. This early form of 'inter-faith debate' was doomed to failure, given that the more powerful Catholics went into the council chamber with two ideas: to weed out the true heretics so they could call for an Inquisition to bring them to 'justice'; or to pointedly ignore everything uttered by the Huguenots – after all, what possible sense could anyone excommunicated from the Papal church ever hope to make? The Huguenots were condemned before the meeting even started.

Catherine continued to pursue religious tolerance however, and inevitably events soon spiralled out of control. Right up until the time of her death, she tried to keep France out of all-out rebellion and religious genocide. She married her daughter Marguerite (Margot) to the future Henri IV (a Protestant) and tried for years to persuade Elizabeth I of England (another Protestant) to accept her youngest son Henri, Duc d'Alençon. At the same time she kept the Catholic Philip II of Spain happy by siding with him against his enemies in the matter of the American colonies. In many of her letters which survive she speaks of wanting above all to maintain France in peace, as a legacy for her children, 'to free this kingdom from all those leeches who are draining its life's blood from it unto death'.

The tragedy of Catherine's whole life was that despite her prodigious intellect and passionate belief in humanism, she was always viewed as an outsider by the French. She was most commonly known as 'The Florentine Shopkeeper', because of her bourgeois roots, and she was never allowed to forget that she was not of the Blood Royal of France, and therefore only suffered under necessity. In her own lifetime she was vilified as 'Madame Serpent', a Jezebel whose advisors were the prophets of Baal, and even as a whore who had given birth to lepers. Notwithstanding all this, she never failed from giving her all to the country which she considered her home. She suffered from the disinterest of her husband, the hatred of her people, and even the betrayal of her own children. When her beloved son Henri III – the only one she had ever really loved, leading some of her detractors to see in it some sordid passion – rebelled against her judgement, she finally gave up all hope. From the woman who once passionately declared that if her 'dear eyes' were to die before her, she would have herself buried alive with him, this betrayal stung the deepest of all. Despite seeming for some years as though she would live forever, she died on 5th January 1589, at the age of 69, having just witnessed the pointless execution of the highest nobles in the land. Her decades of tireless working for peace had all been squandered by the idiocy of her son and the influence of his power-hungry favourites.

It is believed that she knew her death to be upon her when she learned the name of her confessor, Julien de Saint Germain, Abbot of Charlieu. One of her astrologers had prophesied years before that she would die close to Saint Germain – a town close to Paris – and when she heard her confessor's name she allegedly cried out "I am dead!" Within a matter of hours, she was. The autopsy commissioned by the King showed her lungs diseased, a blood clot and an abscess on her brain. The maddened Parisian rabble – never her allies, despite all she had done for them – considered she should have been thrown into the Paris sewers for the rats and lepers to feed on, though thankfully this did not happen. She was embalmed and buried a month later at the Church of Saint Sauveur at Blois.

Since her death, Catherine has been vilified as a political tyrant, a poisoner, and a black magician, all of which accusations were also levelled at her during her own lifetime. It is true that she had a gang of devoted female servants – the so-called 'Flying Squadron' (many of whom were high ranking) – who infiltrated the bedchambers of senior nobles and political figures in order to spy for Catherine. It is true that her interests in astrology and the sciences gave her the intelligence to use poisons, though there is no evidence that she ever did. In the 16th century, her political views were simply not understood. In a world where religious persecution was a daily fact of life – in 1562 alone, 20,000 churches were sacked or destroyed in France – and political radicalism was practised at the highest levels, her rational humanism was an aberrant confusion to nobles and politicians alike. She was in many ways the first activist for basic human rights, desiring religious freedom for all, strenuously avoiding the invasions of the Inquisition, and allowing the rise of the Third Estate in Parliament, the Estate of the working classes. She was simply ahead of her time; trying to instigate beliefs which were not to be realised in France until 200 years after her death – Liberty, Egality and Fraternity. Catherine's favourite seer, the renowned Nostradamus, foresaw the rise of working class power which started the Revolution of 1789, as he also witnessed the bloody excesses of its later years. It is tempting to think that he of all others appreciated Catherine's driving ambition to change things for the better, whilst always knowing that she was simply born too early to do so.

see also on this site: Nostradamus John Polidori Gilles de Rais Mozart Aleister Crowley Bathory More Bathory

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