CATHERINE DE’ MEDICI (1519–1589), queen of France, the wife of one French king and the mother of three, was born at Florence in 1519. She was a daughter of Lorenzo II. de’ Medici and a French princess, Madeleine de la Tour d’Auvergne. Having lost both her parents at an early age, Catherine was sent to a convent to be educated; and she was only fourteen when she was married (1533) at Marseilles to the duke of Orléans, afterwards Henry II. It was her uncle, Pope Clement VII., who arranged the marriage with Francis I. Francis, still engaged in his lifelong task of making head against Charles V., was only too glad of the opportunity to strengthen his influence in the Italian peninsula, while Clement, ever needful of help against his too powerful protector, was equally ready to hold out a bait. During the reign of Francis, Catherine exercised no influence in France. She was young, a foreigner, a member of a state that had almost no weight in the great world of politics, had not given any proof of great ability, and was thrown into the shade by more important persons. For ten years after her marriage she had no children. In consequence, a divorce began to be talked of at court; and it seemed not impossible that Francis, alarmed at the possible extinction of the royal house, might listen to such a proposal. But Catherine had the happiness of bringing him grandchildren ere he died. During the reign of her husband, too (1547–1559), Catherine lived a quiet and passive, but observant life. Henry being completely under the influence of his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, she had little authority. In 1552, when the king left the kingdom for the campaign of Metz, she was nominated regent, but with very limited powers. This continued even after the accession of her son Francis II. Francis was under the spell of Mary Stuart, and she, little disposed to meddle with politics on her own account, was managed by her uncles, the cardinal of Lorraine and the duke of Guise. The queen-mother, however, soon grew weary of the domination of the Guises, and entered upon a course of secret opposition. On the 1st of April 1560 she placed in the chancellorship Michel de l’Hôpital (q.v.), who advocated the policy of conciliation.
On the death of Francis (5th of December 1560), Catherine became regent during the minority of her second son, Charles IX., and now found before her a career worthy of the most soaring ambition. She was then forty-one years old, but, although she was the mother of nine children, she was still very vigorous and active. She retained her influence for more than twenty years in the troubled period of the wars of religion. At first she listened to the moderate counsels of l’Hôpital in so far as to avoid siding definitely with either party, but her character and the habits of policy to which she had been accustomed, rendered her incapable of any noble aim. She had only one virtue, and that was her zeal for the interests of her children, especially of her favourite third son, the duke of Anjou. Like so many of the Italians of that time, who were almost destitute of a moral sense, she looked upon statesmanship in particular as a career in which finesse, lying and assassination were the most admirable, because the most effective weapons. By habit a Catholic, but above all things fond of power, she was determined to prevent the Protestants from getting the upper hand, and almost equally resolved not to allow them to be utterly crushed, in order to use them as a counterpoise to the Guises. This trimming policy met with little success: rage and suspicion so possessed men’s minds, that she could no longer control the opposing parties, and one civil war followed another to the end of her life. In 1567, after the “Enterprise of Meaux,” she dismissed l’Hôpital and joined the Catholic party. But, having failed to crush the Protestant rebellion by arms, she resumed in 1570 the policy of peace and negotiation. She conceived the project of marrying her favourite son, the duke of Anjou, to Queen Elizabeth of England, and her daughter Margaret to Henry of Navarre. To this end she became reconciled with the Protestants, and allowed Coligny to return to court and to re-enter the council. Of this step she quickly repented. Charles IX. conceived a great affection for the admiral and showed signs of taking up an independent attitude. Catherine, thinking her influence menaced, sought to regain it, first by the murder of Coligny, and, when that had failed, by the massacre of St Bartholomew (q.v.). The whole of the responsibility for this crime, therefore, rests with Catherine; unlike the populace, she had not even the excuse of fanaticism. This responsibility, however, weighed but lightly on her; while her son was overwhelmed with remorse, she calmly enjoyed her short-lived triumph. After the death of Charles in 1574, and the succession of Anjou under the name of Henry III., Catherine pursued her old policy of compromise and concessions; but as her influence is lost in that of her son, it is unnecessary to dwell upon it. She died on the 5th of January 1589, a short time before the assassination of Henry, and the consequent extinction of the House of Valois. In her taste for art and her love of magnificence and luxury, Catherine was a true Medici; her banquets at Fontainebleau in 1564 were famous for their sumptuousness. In architecture especially she was well versed, and Philibert de l’Orme relates that she discussed with him the plan and decoration of her palace of the Tuileries. Catherine’s policy provoked a crowd of pamphlets, the most celebrated being the Discours merveilleux de la vie, actions et déportemens de la reine Catherine de Médicis, in which Henri Estienne undoubtedly collaborated.
See Lettres de Catherine de Médicis, edited by Hector de la Ferrière (Paris, 1880, seq.), in the Collection de documents inédits sur l’histoire de France; A. von Reumont, Die Jugend Caterinas de’ Medici (1854; French translation by A. Baschet, 1866); H. Bouchot, Catherine de Médicis (Paris, 1899). For a more complete bibliography see Ernest Lavisse, Histoire de France (vol. v., by H. Lemonnier, and vol. vi., by J. H. Mariéjol, 1904–1905). See also Miss E. Sichel’s books, Catherine de’ Medici and the French Reformation (1905), and The Later Years of Catherine de’ Medici (1908).