It takes a lot of guts to be queen. We tend to think of queens who ruled alone—like Cleopatra and Elizabeth I—as being the most powerful. But even queens who ruled at the side of kings had to be smart, strong, and observant. Catherine de' Medici's tumultuous reign is proof of this!
Catherine was part of the powerful Medici clan in Florence, Italy, and her parents arranged her marriage to Henri, Duke of Orléans, who later became King Henry II of France. Henry and Catherine were married at the ripe old age of 14 (which was normal at the time), and at their wedding Catherine was seen wearing the world's first pair of high-heeled shoes! She was a fearless tastemaker even as a teen.
An unhappy union
However, a woman named Diane de Poitiers had already captured the heart of the young king. She'd been his mentor and tutor since he was 12, and although she was 20 years his senior, she was incredibly beautiful, worldly, and captivating. Catherine adored Henry, but watched in dismay as he became more and more enamored of Diane. Just two years after their marriage, Henry took Diane as his official mistress. (Also normal at the time – many kings had non-secret mistresses, and “king's lover” was actually a sought-after position at court!) They remained close for 25 years, during which time a tortured Catherine bore 10 children for Henry.
Catherine was a believer in fortune-telling or “soothsaying,” and consulted with several psychics on a regular basis. Just before a jousting tournament, her advisors confirmed her strong gut feeling that Henry could become gravely injured if he competed. She begged him to sit out, but he wouldn't listen … and she turned out to be right. Henry was pierced through his eye during a joust, suffered horrifically for 12 days, and then died.
Queen, regent, and advisor
Hurt, furious, and now the sole ruler of France, Catherine banished Diane. Soon her 16-year-old son, François II, ascended to the throne, and Catherine arranged the first fireworks display in the history of France to celebrate his coronation. But his reign was painfully short-lived. After a year and a half on the throne, François fell ill and died, breaking Catherine's heart anew. Her next oldest son, Charles, was crowned king at the age of 10 and Catherine was appointed as regent by the Privy Council. (Since he was too young to rule, she was picked to rule in his place.) While Charles came of age, Catherine enjoyed tremendous power.
After Charles died in 1574, Catherine continued to loom large in the French monarchy. She played a key role in the reign of her third son, Henry III, who relied on her political advice throughout most of his reign. She also remained involved in his personal life; Henry struggled to produce an heir, and Catherine lamented this fact. She is said to have thrown lavish cross-dressing parties where men dressed as women and women went topless as men, all in an effort to rekindle Henry's interest in his wife. (This didn't work out as planned, but the parties themselves became legendary!)
Catherine was disliked—sometimes downright hated—by her French subjects. Her husband and three sons ruled France during an incredibly violent and unstable period, when religious civil war ran rampant. The crown also faced financial problems, and Catherine worked hard to keep everything under control. The religious conflicts were caused by unrest between the Catholics and Protestants in France, who saw the Church in fundamentally different ways and grew to hate each other over their differences. Although Catholic herself, Catherine did her best to see both sides and even defended the Protestants at times. But she didn't truly understand their motivation, grew frustrated and angry with them, and eventually resorted to passing questionable laws, approving assassinations of key figures, and other acts of political intrigue to keep France from falling into total chaos. She made tough decisions and acted decisively, always with the well-being of her family in mind. Some historians believe her sons would never have remained in power without her cunning and sharp wits. This single-minded focus on keeping her family on the throne made her wildly unpopular among the French people, who felt she was deaf to their needs.
Catherine's multifaceted legacy
Many know of Catherine's impact on French history, but fewer are aware of her lasting influence on French culture. In addition to leaving her stamp on fashion and society, she changed French cuisine forever. A group of Italian chefs accompanied her to France in 1533, and brought with them a philosophy of cooking and dining that became wildly popular among the wealthy upper-classes. These chefs introduced mushrooms, garlic, and truffles to the French palette, as well as many Italian desserts. They also popularized the use silverware and porcelain dishes, which were almost unknown before Catherine's arrival.
Catherine gave birth to three sons who went on to become kings. She threw outlandishly sexy parties and fabulous feasts. She struggled through a marriage to a man who preferred another woman, and persevered as leader of a country that often hated her. She did what she thought was right and best, and never let anyone get in her way. Catherine de' Medici was a warrior, through and through!