Catherine de Medici does not get her fair shake in the average history class. She is the sort of fascinating (and controversial) historical figure that any bored high-schooler would perk up to learn about. After all, her story is one of intrigue, physical relationships, violence, and a little bit of good old fashioned royal scheming.
It’s wrong to cast Catherine de Medici (b. 1519-d. 1589) as just a Machiavellian matriarch whose ambition eclipsed her children’s happiness… but it’s equally wrong to paint her as a passive pawn of circumstance. Scandal followed Catherine throughout her tumultuous life, and it’s clear she took an active role to survive and thrive in the deadly courts of Renaissance Europe. From her untimely birth, “security” was perhaps a foreign concept to Catherine. She went from an Italian prisoner of war in Italy, to a fertility-challenged princess of France, to a single mother thrust into religious conflict. She is most remembered as the Queen Mother (and sometimes Regent) to her three sons, who successively became Kings of France and relied on Catherine’s guidance through the 16th century Wars of Religion.
Here are 42 scandalous facts about Catherine de Medici, the deadly Queen Mother of France.
42. Not Without Blue Blood
These days, it’s common to view Catherine as an Italian nouveau riche who fluked her way into marrying French royalty.
However, Catherine had very close claims to the French aristocracy through her mother, the French countess Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne. The Pope and the King of France had married Catherine’s parents together as a plot to secure the Italian states.
That is some illustrious parentage.
41. The Orphaned Duchessia
Just because she was born into fantastic circumstances, doesn’t mean Catherine’s life was easy. Hardship eventually makes a mark on us all.
Within a month of her birth, illness killed both of Catherine’s parents. For the rest of her childhood, the vulnerable Medici heiress would be shuffled between relatives and convents to protect her from the family’s enemies in an increasingly volatile Italy. Say what you will, but that’s a tough childhood by anyone’s standards.
40. The Republic of Male Opinions No One Asked For
Contemporaries loved to highlight that Catherine was no great beauty. Even in her youth, a Venetian envoy described Catherine as “small of stature, and thin, and without delicate features, but having the protruding eyes peculiar to the Medici family.”
Another observer drew attention to Catherine’s face as “heavy-looking” and her body as underdeveloped, declaring that “altogether this little girl does not look like she will become a woman for a year and a half yet.” Hey guys, she was a kid. Can we chill?
39. Big Brother from Another Mother
Catherine’s half-brother was Alessandro de Medici, who was believed to be the product of their father and a Moorish slave woman. Alessandro’s nickname “the Moor” references such origins, and his portraits also strongly suggest that he was of mixed race. After their father’s death, Catherine’s brother stepped into power and would be the last Medici of the “senior” branch to rule Florence, before his assassination at the age of 26.
38. A Heavenly Hellion
In 1530, anti-Medici armies flanked the nunnery where young Catherine took refuge. The public debated whether the 11-year-old heiress should simply be killed or sent to a brothel to “devalue” her in the Pope’s marriage plans. Certain that she was to be led to her death, Catherine shaved off her hair and bore a nun’s habit because she was convinced no bride of Christ would go quietly. Eventually, she was led safely to the Pope’s custody, but all the way there, she still refused to discard her holy outfit. Little Catherine braved past the crowds, and even called back at the menacing mob who wanted her death.
37. Sisters Before Misters
In a life of few friends and many foes, Catherine saved a place in her heart for the Sisters of Murate—the nuns who sheltered and schooled her during the political violence of her girlhood. For the rest of her life, Catherine wrote to the nuns regularly and sent them revenue from of her own lands as their annual income.
Loyalty like that says a lot about a person’s character. Or maybe it was a guilty conscience? Hard to say without a peak into the woman’s mind. But from the vantage point of history, you have to admit the woman seems to have had a kind heart.
36. Close Enough!
In July 1556, Catherine had Nostradamus draw horoscopes for her children. He predicted that each of her sons would be kings, but she would outlive them all. This turned out to the almost true: only three of her five sons became King of France and she outlived all but two of her children. Close but no cigar.
That’s the kind of prophecy George RR Martin would write into Game of Thrones. But at least his actually end up working out somehow!
35. Room with a View
It’s said that Catherine bored peep holes into the roof of Diane de Poitiers’s bedchamber so that she could see her husband “in action” with his mistress. She apparently noted the contrast between the disinterested performance she got from Henri versus the “spectacle” he gave Diane…
Listen Catherine, I know people gave you a hard time about your looks, but insecurity like that is just downright unhealthy. Pick yourself up, sister!
34. Meaner Than Fiction
Alexandre Dumas’s story, Queen Margot, helped popularize the legend of Catherine de Medici as a great poisoner, whose cabinets at Blois housed a secret stash of toxins. The legend was abetted, in no small part, by her Italian origins.
In her day, Italians, especially women, were stereotyped as schemers in the art of poison.
Whereas nowadays the stereotypes are much more flattering (Jersey Shore not withstanding).
33. Creative Conception
After a decade of royal infertility, the physician Jean Fernel noticed slight “abnormalities” with the Catherine and Henri’s sexual organs. That must have been a fun conversation. Imagine telling a pair of absolutely powerful royals that their junk looks strange.
Anyway, he advised them with “positions” to take… and it appeared to work. The couple went on to have ten kids, which is a good number by anybody’s standards. Jean Fernel must have been thanking the gods.
Someone shoulda bought them the Kama Sutra a long time ago!
32. Daddy (in-Law)’s Dearest
As Dauphine, Catherine arguably had a warmer relationship with her father-in-law than she did with her actual husband. Impressed by her bold wit, King Francis gave Catherine a privileged place in his infamous posse of impressive female friends, la petite bande.
31. A Pioneer of Ponies…and Panties
Historians often cite Catherine with bringing side-saddle to France. This is the riding position wherein a lady sits with both of her legs on one side of the horse. With the side-saddle, Catherine also introduced France to an early concept of female underwear, because a man offering to help a woman off of her horse might otherwise risk espying the “sights of heaven” (their words, not mine).
30. Our Lady of Vindication
Catherine was cordial to her husband’s mistress… during his lifetime. As Henri lay dying from a jousting accident, her true feelings revealed themselves. Catherine denied Diane de Poitiers any access to Henri’s deathbed, ignoring her husband’s final pleas for his lover. After his death, she banished Poitiers and her friends from Paris. She also ordered the surrender of Poitiers’s crown jewels and her fine castle, the Château de Chenonceau. Even years later, Catherine made her real opinion heard on Poitiers in a letter to one of her children which read, “Never has a woman who loved her husband liked his whore.”
29. Toddlers in Tiaras and Coronets
Maybe it goes without saying (because The CW did make a whole TV show about it called Reign…), but Catherine’s daughter-in-law was the equally infamous Mary, Queen of Scots. She had known Mary since the age of five and a half, when the little Scottish queen was brought to Paris and raised alongside Catherine’s own children.
28. Grief Knows No Subtlety
After her husband’s death-by-joust, Catherine took the image of a broken lance as her personal emblem, inscribed with the words, “lacrymae hinc, hinc dolor” (from this come my tears and my pain).
27. Power Deferred
In 1559, her eldest son, Francis II, came to the throne at just 15 years old. Contrary to the image of Catherine as the domineering queen mother, she began her first son-king’s reign by conceding power. Under French law, Francis was considered an adult and did not need a regent. And although he ordered his ministers to obey his mother, she was still in deep grief over Henri II’s death and directed all orders to Mary Queen of Scots’ uncles in the House of Guise.
26. Holding It Over Him
In 1560, it was clear to Catherine that her son Francis II would die soon. Eager to secure power over her next son, the nine-year-old future Charles IX, Catherine made a deal with Antoine de Bourbon, who was next in line for the little king’s regency: surrender his right to the governorship and she would let his brother, Condé, out of prison.
25. Queen of the Quarrels
Catherine’s widowhood was marked by rising religious tensions between French Catholics and Protestants (called Huguenots). From Charles IX reign onwards, she would be a major player in the Wars of Religion, a conflict which lasted thirty years.
24. Bare to the Bank
The Pope died shortly after Catherine’s marriage, and the new Pope refused to pay her extravagant dowry. Her father-in-law, Francis I, was famously disappointed and lamented, “The girl has come to me stark naked.” Some guys are into that, you know…
23. Mommy Massacre
The Bartholomew’s Day Massacre is arguably the largest stain on Catherine’s reputation. It was publicized as Crown-sanctioned revenge against Protestants in Paris for the August 1572 attempted murder of Admiral Coligny. However, the violence against Huguenots (and simple bystanders) snowballed for a week in the city, spreading out into the French countryside where it persisted, purge-like, well into the autumn months. Catherine’s culpability is still debated; historians suggest she might have only intended to take out the leaders and the rest is chaotic history. Still, not too many people who have a massacre connected to their name are completely innocent.
22. But First, Let Me Paint a Selfie
Consider Catherine one of the earliest selfie enthusiasts; A huge patroness of all arts, Catherine was particularly interested in personal portraiture and commissioned official portraits of all her family members and other members of the court. Demand for these early-modern selfies declined noticeably upon her death. Good news, Catherine, they’ve come back with a vengeance.
21. I Want to Believe
Deeply superstitious, Catherine was into the almanacs of Nostradamus and believed in astrology and soothsaying. That’s right, you can tell your skeptical friends that reading your horoscope is a practice fit for a Queen.
20. Foodie Fashions: Debunked!
The idea that Catherine introduced the fork from Italy to France is a routinely discredited myth. Historians point out that Catherine’s father-in-law, Francis, frequently dined at elite Italian tables, where he would have encountered and even imported their culinary practices long before her arrival. Nevertheless, the legend of Catherine as a culinary tastemaker endures, and I don’t see her doing much to dispel that myth!
19. Whispers of the Devil
Catherine’s superstitious nature and dark reputation lent themselves to the rumor that she invented the Black Mass, a Satanic send-up of the traditional Catholic Mass. Of course, there’s very little to prove this outside of a scandalous book by Jean Bodin.
18. Gold Will Be Their Shrouds…
Despite giving birth to ten children, Catherine outlived every single one, save for Henri III (who was stabbed to death just seven months after his mother’s passing) and Marguerite (who inherited her mother’s robust health and aversion to being stabbed).
17. The Bodice-Ripper Brigade
The legend of Catherine de Medici’s “escadron volant,” or “flying squadron” of female spies has been contested by various historians, but one can’t deny its interesting place in her story, adjacent to tales of poison and intrigue. According to rumors, Catherine had a “stable” of about 80 beautiful ladies whom she would deploy to the beds of various courtiers for sexual espionage and information networking. The name “flying squadron” had its roots in dance: when Catherine introduced ballet to the French court, her squadron gave its first performance as if they were flying.
16. Your 20s Are Just Like That
Towards the end of his life, Catherine’s second son-king, Charles IX, became emotionally unstable. He would fluctuate from boasting about the body count of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, to being guilt-consumed by the atrocities, to simply blaming his mother for being “the cause of it all!” Ever the practical parent, Catherine declared she had a “lunatic” for a son.
15. Momma’s Boy Becomes the Man in Charge
Catherine’s favorite son was her fourth male child, and the third to become king, Henri III of France. He was the only one of her boys to ascend to throne as a fully-grown man, at the age of 23.
14. You’re Never Too Old for a Verbal Spanking
Catherine had a fifth, less famous son who did not rise to become king like his surviving brothers. Francis (born “Hercules”), the Duke of Anjou, was a thorn in his big brother Henri’s side for years. Catherine tried to bring Francis back into favor, at one point lecturing her grown duke son for six hours straight about toning down the reckless behavior.
13. He Grows Up, She Checks Out
Henri III valued his mother Catherine’s advice… until the last month of her life. To resolve the family’s conflict with the Catholic League, Henri first publicly thanked his mother for her lifetime of service to both him and the state… before he had the Duke of Guise stabbed to death (against her wishes!) in the room right above her. Contemporaries believed Catherine’s shock at her son’s disobedience hastened her death by lung infection at the age of 69.
12. Put on Your Dancing Chaussures
Most scholars consider the Ballet Comique de la Reine, performed at Catherine’s court in 1581, to be the first “authentic” ballet.
11. The Best Revenge is Living Well (and Building Sick Châteaux)
Despite Henri II’s attempts to marginalize her influence during his lifetime, Catherine set out to immortalize her late husband’s memory through architecture. She was involved in the design of expensive castles at Montceaux-en-Brie, Saint-Maur-des-Fossés, and Chenonceau, which were all built to amplify the glory of the Valois dynasty.
10. Mother’s Mercy (Is Non-Existent)
When it came to her youngest surviving daughter, Marguerite, she and Catherine had a complicated relationship. This was made harder by Marguerite’s tendency to cheat on her husband. In October 1586, on Catherine’s orders, Marguerite’s husband imprisoned his wife and executed her lover… although not right in front of Marguerite, as Catherine had wanted. Small victories, I guess…
9. Catch These Hands
Catherine introduced perfumed gloves into French fashion, but her trendsetting raised suspicions when one of Catherine’s greatest enemies, Jeanne d’Albret, was found dead, and rumors circulated that d’Albret had been murdered by a gift of poisoned gloves. Ahh, the oldest trick in the book.
8. Move Over, Red Wedding
In 1572, Catherine forced her daughter to marry Henry de Bourbon, despite her own animosity towards French Huguenots like himself. Just six days later after the wedding, Catherine and Charles IX unleased the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, a Catholic mob against French Protestants (Huguenots) that just happened to kill many of Henry’s assembled in-laws!
7. In-Laws, Am I Right?
After the death of Catherine and (months later) her final son, Henri III, Catherine’s son-in-law seized the throne as Henri IV of France. However, he promptly annulled his marriage to Catherine’s daughter, Marguerite, and replaced her with Catherine’s own cousin, Marie de Medici! (At least your blood stayed on the throne, Catherine).
6. Near-Death Delivery
In 1556, Catherine’s late-starting but lucky streak with fertility came to a violent end when she almost died giving birth to twin girls, Victoria and Jeanne. Doctors had to break Jeanne’s legs to save Catherine, thereby killing her in the womb. Her sister, Victoria, died seven weeks later. Physically and emotionally traumatized, Catherine would never conceive again.
5. No Fertility Without Fermentation!
The first ten years of Catherine and Henri’s marriage were completely sterile. She looked into every trick to get pregnant, including drinking mule’s urine and even putting cow dung and ground up stag antlers on the ground as “sources of life.” What ever happened to rose petals?
4. Student of the Stars
Little is known about Catherine’s education other than she was fluent in Greek, Latin, and French. From an early age, she was also a keen mathematician—an interest that proved handy in her later passion for astrology.
3. Thanks Diane
Catherine’s husband was utterly enthralled by his mistress, Diane de Poitiers. In fact, it was Poitiers who had to remind Henri of his royal baby-making “duties,” and bid him to spend more (re)productive time with his wife. You know you’re doing something wrong when your mistress starts telling you to sleep with your wife.
2. Corporal Punishment at the French Court
When Catherine’s youngest daughter, Marguerite, was found to be having an affair with Henry of Guise, Catherine and her son Charles IX allegedly had the princess pulled from her bed, her nightclothes ripped, and hair torn from her head as punishment. Yowch.
1. Paternal & Papal Invasions of Privacy
On October 2 1533, the Pope Clement VII married Catherine off to the french Dauphin (the son of the King), Henri. The couple were lucky to be the same age—just 14 years old—but old men still wormed their way into the honeymoon. Henri’s father, King Francis I, apparently stayed in the bedroom until the marriage was fully consummated, and the Pope visited the couple in bed the next morning to bless the previous night’s “proceedings.” Yick.