Today, most know the Medici family for their notorious exploits in Renaissance Italy, yet few remember their infamous descendant Marie de' Medici, whose scandals were somehow even more shameful. After Marie became Queen of France in 1610, she began a ruthless reign of cruel betrayals, shocking brutality, and overweening ambition. Buckle up: This is one Medici who made good on her villainous name.
From practically the moment she was born in 1575, Marie de' Medici didn’t mess around. Her parents, Francesco I de' Medici and the Archduchess Joanna of Austria, were powerful movers and shakers in the Tuscan world, and Marie was indirectly descended from Cosimo de' Medici, the father of the notorious Medici house. Well, infamy must beget infamy, because Marie’s childhood was downright dangerous.
Little Marie was baptized in blood. Although she had five older sisters, only two of them survived infancy along with her younger brother, Philip. Somehow, it only got worse. In 1578, when Marie was just three years old, her heavily pregnant mother Joanna fell down a flight of stairs, accidentally killing herself and her unborn child. Yet this only set the stage for further scandal.
Marie might have been grieving, but she wasn’t motherless for long. Practically before Joanna’s body was cold in the ground, her father Francesco married again, this time to his long-time mistress, Bianca Cappello. Well, that tacky-as-heck move set the gossips whispering that Francesco had purposely offed his first wife, though nothing ever came of the rumors. Hmm, wonder why Marie turned out so dysfunctional.
By the time she was a toddler, Marie de' Medici had already seen enough of the grim reaper to last a lifetime, but her deepest tragedies were right around the corner. By 1584, she had lost two more of her siblings, and in 1587, both her father and his new wife passed under mysterious circumstances, likely from poison. With that cruel final blow, Marie’s childhood—such as it was—was officially over.
After formative years that would corrupt even the purest mind, Marie developed some disturbing coping mechanisms. Lonely and isolated, she became intensely dependent on one of her only playmates, her female companion Leonora Dori. Leonora had so much influence over the young girl, Marie often refused to make decisions without her. Sense some sinister foreshadowing here? You should.
Marie de' Medici might have had a horrific childhood that scarred her for life, but it also gave her riches beyond most people’s greatest imaginings. The tragedies of both her parents turned her into one of the wealthiest heiresses in Europe and, as she grew up, one of the most eligible bachelorettes on the marriage market. Plus, she had another thing going for her…
As Marie turned into a young woman, it became obvious to everyone that she was going to be a great beauty. She had a long, oval face, auburn hair, and wide, piercing eyes. The English statesman Ralph Winwood also described her as "of a comely stature," and with a natural grace. In short, Marie had it all—for now, anyway.
With both beauty and big bucks, Europe’s most influential suitors considered Marie de' Medici the top prize they could win, and she entertained courtships from multiple dukes around her area as a teenager. Somehow, though, she would wait 13 long years to find a man…and her relationship woes might not be for the reason you’d think.
Although Marie’s uncle Cardinal Ferdinand was at the head of her marriage committee, he gave the young woman an unprecedented amount of choosing power, refusing to force her hand into a marriage agreement. Accordingly, Marie would outright reject suitors in the blink of an eye—until, that is, she met her match at last.
When Marie first heard that the powerful King Henry IV of France was after her hand in marriage, she was smitten immediately. After all, Henry ruled over a vast and influential kingdom, and Marie thought that she could be just the queen he needed to reign beside him. She'd waited a long time to find her equal...but this wasn't the fairy tale it sounds like.
Sure, Henry was a royal catch, but Marie’s suitor had an utterly disturbing reputation. Not only had Henry just received an annulment after a disastrous marriage to Margaret of Valois, he was known throughout the continent as one of the most rampant philanderers of his time, with scores of mistresses and illegitimate children. Oh, but there’s more.
Although Marie was beautiful, Henry wanted her only—and I mean only—for her money. The aging ruler, who was nearly two decades older than Marie, had been dirt poor for years, at least by royal standards. People in the know also claimed that he was deeply in debt to the House of Medici in particular, and marrying into the family would turn his ledger into a blank slate.
In short, Marie was in for an extremely rude awakening.
In October 1600, Marie and Henry married—and the ceremony was bizarre in more ways than one. Because it was a "marriage by proxy," a common practice of the time where either the bride, groom, or both aren’t actually present, Marie had still never met King Henry at the moment he became her official husband. Well then, off to a great start.
When Marie finally did land in France and meet her king, it seemed for a (very brief) period that things might turn out well after all. Henry had been sending her romantic love letters, and when he finally met the bride, he continued to lavish her with chivalry. He praised "her sweet and pleasing carriage"—and immediately took her to bed, natch.
In fact, when she arrived in Paris in February 1601, Marie was already pregnant. And that's when it all started to fall apart.
On the day Marie accepted Henry’s hand, she probably knew the French king didn’t possess her own ample treasury, yet the gruesome reality of the situation shocked her. When she arrived at her home in the Louvre in the capital, she found her surroundings so run-down, she was sure her husband was playing a joke on her. Well, no one was laughing at what came next.
In addition to her shabby palace, Marie also had to deal with Henry's cunning head mistress, Henriette d’Entragues, who immediately despised her. To add insult to injury, the whole time Henry had been playing White Knight with Marie and sending her love letters, he had been sending almost the exact same letters to Henriette, saying he wanted to "kiss her a million times". It only got more tense from there.
Henriette hadn't kept her man around this long by being sweet and docile, and she showed her true colors to Marie in a devastating way. In reference to her money as well as her curves, Henriette took to spitefully calling Marie "the fat banker" to her face, just in case she needed reminding of why Henry had married her. Then again, Henriette had another reason to hate the new queen…
Little did Marie know, Henry had very likely promised to marry Henriette after the dissolution of his first marriage, not some upstart Medici noble. Somewhat understandably, then, Henriette was absolutely livid at the betrayal. Less understandably, she directed all her anger at Marie, and made it her business to destroy her happiness. As we’ll see, Henriette’s first true volley was a doozy.
On September 27, 1601, Marie gave King Henry his biggest wish: A legitimate son. After the little Dauphin Louis came into the world, Henry ushered hundreds of courtiers into the birthing room to celebrate. Marie, meanwhile, basked in the glow of success and looked forward to an official coronation now that she had done her duty. Uh, that’s not what happened.
Just weeks after Marie gave birth to an heir of France, she received a brutal blow. Henry’s mistress Henriette had to go and give birth to another son, albeit an illegitimate one. A true douchenozzle to the bitter end, Henry rejoiced just as much in the birth of this son too, and even declared that the younger boy was "better-looking" than his "fat and dark" son Louis. COME ON.
Oh, you want more bedroom dysfunction? Well, the hits just kept on coming. See, Henry’s philandering actually caused huge dynastic worries. Why? Not only did his mistress have a funny habit of getting pregnant at the exact same time as Marie, Henriette began to claim that since Henry had promised to marry her, it was their children who were legitimate, while Marie's were usurpers.
Sadly, Henry’s breathtaking acts of malice knew no bounds. With Marie still begging for Henry to crown her, the king instead spent his time playing his mistress and wife off of each other. A choice example: One day when Henriette happened to bow to Marie, Henry shoved the woman closer to the ground, declaring that she wasn’t curtseying low enough. Seriously girls, this guy?
Despite the fact that Marie had given the country a future ruler, the entire French court treated her with about as much respect as King Henry himself did. They regarded Marie as a foreigner for practically her entire time there, especially when the queen could never manage to speak French fluently and continued to keep her childhood friend Leonora as one of her only bosom buddies. And let me tell you, that was not a good idea.
Obviously, all was not well in the Kingdom of France, but events soon took a turn for the worse. Eventually, Henry and Marie’s relationship deteriorated into frequent and loud screaming matches, usually about his refusal to give her any allowance to spend on her royal household. These spats were disruptive, but there were other things going on in the broken home…
If Marie de' Medici wasn’t the most obedient wife, she wasn’t the most caring mother, either. She took a strict approach to parenting Louis, which was saying something for the time. Indeed, she considered it a mercy when she decided to beat him only just enough to "not cause any illness". Thanks, Mom. And that wasn’t all.
Although Louis was supposed to be Marie’s Golden Child, it didn’t take long for courtiers to notice that something was seriously amiss with the boy. Physically, he had a massive stutter and, somewhat alarmingly, a congenital double row of teeth. But hey, beauty is only skin deep—as it turned out, the real issue was that he was a monster inside.
Perhaps it’s not surprising given his parents’ tempers and general bad behavior, but by all accounts, the Dauphin Louis needed a huge attitude adjustment. He was "difficult," prone to tantrums, and grew ever more stubborn as the years went on. This personality problem did not help matters in Marie’s huge family feud to come.
In the end, Marie had to needle Henry for nearly a decade to give her a coronation. Then, on May 13, 1610, he finally gave in and crowned her—only there was a disturbing reason behind this timing. Henry was going away to battle, and he selfishly needed his wife to hold more official clout while he was gone. This backfired so, so badly.
The day after Marie officially became Queen of France, her husband suffered a horrific fate. The Catholic fanatic Francois Ravaillac assassinated the king. Yes, the literal day after Marie’s coronation, her husband was gone. In fact, Ravaillac only managed to approach Henry’s carriage and attack him because his vehicle was stopped in Marie’s post-coronation traffic. And this led to some dark whispers…
After Henry’s violent end, rumors persisted for decades that, given the oh-so convenient timing of the king’s passing, Marie must have had a hand in it. Writing decades later, the author Honore de Balzac accused her "of having known of the king's assassination". Personally, I think the French just don’t understand the term "poetic justice". As for Marie’s reaction…
As soon as news reached the palace that the king had perished, parliament wasted no time confirming Marie as Regent over her young son Louis. Well, Marie wasted no time either. Practically her first act as Regent was to seek vengeance on Henriette d’Entragues, banishing the bitter mistress from her presence and her court. And she was just getting started.
Marie didn’t forget about her Italian cadre of friends when she was at the top, and she promoted Leonora Dori and her husband Concino Concini to high ranks, most flagrantly creating Concini as a "Marshal of France" despite the little fact that he’d never fought in a single, solitary battle. In case you’re wondering, yes, this absolutely made her more enemies. Powerful ones.
Almost no one from King Henry’s old court was happy with this turn of events, and for years they unleashed rebellion upon rebellion in an attempt to boot Marie from power. Marie was one smart cookie, though: Not only did none of the conspiracies work, she somehow managed to grasp even more power with each revolt. Sadly, though, she had already made one fatal error.
Marie earned a long list of foes in her dangerous game of thrones, but her biggest rival was the one closest to her heart: Her own son Louis. Although Louis had come of age in 1614, Marie stubbornly refused to cede an ounce of power to her bouncing baby boy, remaining the de facto ruler of France long past her expiration date. It was an Oedipal nightmare—so is it any wonder Louis bit back?
Louis, who wasn’t exactly famous for his sweet disposition in the first place, grew intensely humiliated under mommy’s thumb, and he got a brutal revenge. In the spring of 1617, Louis finally ousted his mother from the throne in a coup d’etat, exiling her to the remote Chateau de Blois and executing her ally Concino Concini in the process. Shots. Fired.
As far as things went, Marie should have felt incredibly lucky to have escaped Concini’s fate, but that didn’t mean she was happy in her gilded cage. For nearly two years, she was a virtual prisoner at the Chateau de Blois, and watched enviously as her son Louis took his rightful throne. Yet Marie hadn’t given up, not by a long shot.
In late February 1619, Marie had enough of sitting pretty in some faraway palace. She hatched an ingenious and dangerous plan. The 43-year-old Queen Mother of France escaped the Chateau by scaling a wall with a rope ladder, then dropped into the arms of waiting conspirators, who rushed her away to another castle. And then she came back with a vengeance.
Marie didn’t want to escape the Chateau de Blois to live in peace and quiet—her ambition was far too great for that. No, she wanted the whole darn throne again, and she made no bones about it. To that end, she started an uprising against her own son, now King Louis XIII, using her old allies. In fact, she started an uprising twice. And whatever Marie wants, Marie gets.
Although King Louis XIII kept on trouncing his mother and her men on the battlefield in these uprisings, Marie was not a woman to accept defeat. Eventually, Louis realized that if he wanted to get any calm in his kingdom, he’d have to mollify her somehow. So in 1621, he invited her back to court in a undeniable victory for nagging mothers everywhere.
Did Marie almost immediately mess this chance up? Heck yes she did.
Marie took her son’s forgiveness as an opportunity to gain further influence at court—and to be fair, she was darn good at it. She groomed a young and soon-to-be notorious Cardinal Richelieu as a statesman, teaching the so-called "Red Eminence" everything he knew. Except when Richelieu got too powerful, Marie made a huge, panicked mistake.
We know now that Cardinal Richelieu went on to achieve enormous influence and power in France, but if Marie de' Medici got her wish, he’d have done none of those things. As the years passed and she saw how much sway Richelieu held over her son, a jealous Marie tried desperately to have him exiled. Unfortunately, it was far too late.
Marie must have grown soft in her later years, because she couldn’t see just how far Richelieu had sunk his teeth into the king. Her newest "coup" failed miserably, and Richelieu held onto his power, flicking Marie away like a gnat buzzing around his head. And the worst was yet to come. For her son King Louis XIII, this meddling was the very last straw.
In 1631, Marie found herself exiled from court for the second and final time, and King Louis made sure his mommie dearest could never come back. Playing the tough love card, he forced her into refuge with his enemies in Spanish territories, thereby stripping her of her title of "Queen Mother" along with any pensions. Okay, now Marie learned her lesson, right? *laughs nervously*
Despite her nightmarish relationship with King Henry IV, Marie still managed to have no fewer than six children with the man, and coached them into some seriously high positions when they came of age. Her eldest daughter Elisabeth became the Queen of Spain, while her youngest girl Henrietta Maria became the Queen of England.
Throughout her life, Marie de' Medici developed a kind of unofficial ex-wives’ club with Margaret of Valois, the first wife of her late husband King Henry IV. After all, these royal women could bond over just how much Henry sucked, which I assume they frequently did. They remained close until Margaret’s passing in 1615.
While in the matronly doghouse, Marie spent her time as a monarch-for-hire, and made a special visit to Amsterdam to help officially recognize the nascent Dutch Republic. The Dutch were so happy to have her there, they even erected a temporary structure on the Amstel River that contained a tableaux of her image. Bet she loved that.
Marie was an enormous patron of the arts, and she extended her wealth to a whole host of painters and sculptors throughout her life. Her favorite move was to use painters to decorate her lavish palaces, including when she hired the Flemish painter Ambroise Dubois to do up her apartments at the Palace of Fontainebleau. But her most extravagant move was just around the corner.
The Queen of France might have liked art, but she loved herself. Eventually, she found a hugely bombastic way to marry her two biggest passions. Around 1622, she commissioned the famed artist Peter Paul Rubens to do a 21-piece series of her favorite subject—herself. In the works, Marie got the painter to depict her as the Roman goddess Juno. I would expect nothing less.
Marie’s appreciation of the visual arts ran deep, and she also dabbled in the medium herself. Growing up in Florence near the height of the Medici clan’s powers, the young Marie was friends with many Florentine masters. The Renaissance painter Jacopo Ligozzi actually taught her drawing, turning the girl into a talented illustrator.
Like any classic intruding mother, Marie used her time in exile not to reflect on the error of her ways, but instead to collect other family members around her and pretend nothing was wrong. She spent an especially long time in the court of her youngest daughter, Henrietta Maria of England. In fact, it was around this time she came up with the final, ridiculous scheme of her life.
When Marie made the rounds to her various relatives around Europe, she took the time to grouse to each of them and their spouses about her son King Louis XIII and how much he had wronged her. She even tried to form—I kid you not—her own "league of sons-in-law" against France’s interests. Yeah, the Karen vibes were strong with this one.
As the former Queen Mother aged and traveled around the continent semi-homeless, her artistic connections helped her once more. In the mid 1600s, she planted roots in Cologne after her friend Peter Paul Rubens loaned her a house there. Still, her end came quick and tragic. In June 1642, a bout of pleurisy hit her, and her whole life unraveled…literally.
In the end, the great, powerful Marie de' Medici passed on July 3, 1642. She died in almost total poverty and obscurity, far away from both her homeland and the country she had once ruled. In a cruel twist of fate, her son Louis—her constant obsession and enemy—passed less than a year after her. He barely outlived the mother who had defined him since birth.
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