Apr/May 2005 Book Reviews

Catherine de Medici

Leonie Frieda
Phoenix (2005) 512 pages
ISBN: 0 75382 039 0

reviewed by Ann Skea

A "merchant's daughter," an Italian duchess without a duchy, a "barren wife," an "eclipsed consort": Caterina Maria Romula de Medici was called all of these things, but she was a most powerful and influential woman, Queen of France for eleven years, and Queen Mother, regent and de facto ruler for thirty more. She was one of the "Monstrous Regiment of Women" against whom John Knox fulminated in the sixteenth century. And, because of her involvement in the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre in Paris, she came to be know as "The Maggot from Italy's tomb," "The Black Queen" and "Madame la Serpente."

Leonie Frieda sets out to show that such judgments were mistaken and bigoted, and that Catherine de Medici was, in fact, a remarkably courageous and pragmatic woman whose sole purpose in life was to ensure "the survival of her children, her dynasty and France." Overall, Frieda succeeds in her purpose.

Catherine may have been a merchant's daughter, but what merchants! She came from the rich and powerful Medici family, which traced its ancestors and their banking business back some two hundred years to Giovanni di Bicci de Medici. Her close relatives were some of the most influential secular and religious figures in Italy. And, on her mother's side, she was descended from Louis IX of France.

Catherine may have been a duchess without a duchy, but she did have significant wealth and property. Consequently, marriage negotiations began when she was a child and she had many suitors, including at one time Henry VIII's illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond. Her eventual marriage to Henry, Duke of Orleans, second son of King Francis I of France, was therefore not too surprising.

Leonie Frieda describes Catherine's route to power, her intense love of her husband, the three-cornered relationship which soured her marriage, and her occult premonitions of her husband's bizarre death. Frieda is good, too, at providing curious details to spice the dry historical facts, such as the measures Catherine took in order to become pregnant: prayers, medicine, magical potions which included draughts of mule's urine and stinking poultices and, finally, spying on the sexual antics of Henry and his mistress in order to find out what she might be doing wrong. Clearly, something worked, for Catherine went on to give birth to nine children.

Both Catherine and her husband, Henry (who became King Henry II of France in 1547) had insecure and traumatic childhoods. Neither enjoyed a normal family life, and both were made aware at a very early age of the dangerous power struggles which threatened their lives and those of their families and friends. Both learned early to dissemble, to hide their true thoughts and feelings, to scheme, and to fight in every possible way for survival.

Catherine lived to see her beloved husband and all but one of her children die. She survived eight religious wars and continuous plotting against her and her sons' positions of power. She constantly sought to reconcile the religious differences that were dividing people, states and countries. She was a formidable negotiator, an astute player of international games of diplomacy and, at the same time, she loved hunting, embroidery and the latest Italian fashions.

Leonie Frieda has done meticulous research to back up her claims about Catherine and, not surprisingly, given the number of contenders for power and the turbulent times through which Catherine lived, there are quite a few dry pages which seem just to be lists of plots, people, events and changes. Nevertheless, the French court under Catherine's influence and, especially during the reigns of Catherine's sons, was something to be wondered at for its opulence, its decadence, and the blatant sexuality of the royal siblings, Francis, Henri and Margot.

When Catherine's son Henri was elected King of Poland, Frieda's descriptions of the contrast between his exotic, cross-dressing, sexually ambiguous gallants and the bearded, booted, macho Polish gentlemen—and of his clandestine escape from that country when he finally became King of France—stir the imagination. So, too, does her description of Henri's visit to Venice, where, on his way home to France to claim his throne, he was given a royal reception and his own lavish spending made him "a veritable one-man fillip to the economic life."

She is good, too, in her careful account of the events which led up to the terrible Saint Bartholomew's Day massacre of Huguenots, and of Catherine's unavoidable part in this terror.

All-in-all, this book is a readable account of the life of a remarkable woman living in remarkable times. You may not end up liking Catherine—she was a product of her times, and she had learned hard lessons well—but you have to admit that she was impressive. A gentler, less determined woman could never have supported her family through such public and personal dangers and disasters, or played such an active part in international affairs, as successfully and for as long as Catherine de Medici managed to do.

NB. There are some nice illustrations in this book, but parts of the index are impossible to use.


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