Black Widow

04 13 catherine de mediciToday is the birthday of Catherine de’ Medici, who was born in 1519 in Florence. Historically Catherine has had a terrible reputation as a ruthless poisoning witch. For centuries. it was thought that she killed her daughter’s future mother-in-law, Jeanne d’Albret, with poisoned gloves. But it turned out that she died of tuberculosis. But, also connected with her daughter’s wedding was a most dreadful massacre which frankly makes George R R Martin’s ‘Red Wedding’ look like a squabble at a picnic. As it probably wasn’t anything to do with Catherine and was not brilliant, I am side-stepping it today. Catherine was accused of practising magic and of bringing occultists to court. She did bring Nostradamus, but it’s really no worse that Queen Elizabeth I’s relationship with John Dee. She also brought the Ruggeri brothers who were notorious practitioners of black magic. On the other hand she is credited with introducing the French to the fork, ice cream and women’s underwear.

The Medici were a powerful family of bankers who ruled Florence. They had come by their wealth and power by bankrolling the monarchies of Europe. Her great uncle was the Pope, that’s how influential her family was. Two weeks after she was born, her mother died of a fever. A week after that, her father died of siphylis. She was raised by her grandmother and then an aunt. Then she spent time as a beloved and honoured guest of another Pope, Clement VII, who was also a relative.

In 1527, the Medici were overthrown, which left Catherine in a difficult position. She was hidden away in a convent, but for political reasons that I won’t go into, she wound up with a mob outside baying for her blood. They wanted her stripped naked, chained to the city walls and used for target practice. Catherine was then ten years old. When all that blew over, Pope Clement began to look for a husband for her. Catherine was rich but her family were no longer so well connected, so when Clement had the chance to marry her off to the second son of the King of France, he was delighted. So, at fourteen she was married to Henry, (also fourteen) the second son of Francis I.

The consummation of their marriage, on their wedding night, was witnessed by King Francis, which must have been awkward, and they were doubly blessed the following morning with a visit from the Pope Clement. Her marriage would be beset by problems. It didn’t really help that the Pope died, probably of poison, without ever paying her dowry.

The Medici’s weren’t terribly popular in France and were thought of, not without reason, to be a particularly ruthless family. When her father Lorenzo II became Duke of Urbino, someone wrote a book for him, a manual suggesting all the ways he should deal mercilessly with his enemies. The book was called ‘The Prince’ and its author was Niccolò Machiavelli. Italians generally’ were thought of as poisoners and Catherine’s dowry included a unicorn’s horn which was widely regarded as a powerful antidote. It was almost as if they expected trouble. Catherine didn’t really help her case much by bringing her Italian friend and perfumier, Renato Bianco, to court with her. He provided her with perfumed gloves which became quite popular. But he also set up Bianco’s Perfume, Cosmetics and Poison shop near Notre Dame.

Several people close to Catherine died in what were described as ‘mysterious circumstances’, most notably perhaps her husband Henry’s elder brother. He became ill after a tennis match and this left Henry as heir to the French throne. Catherine and Henry had no children for the first ten years of their marriage, which was obviously a problem for the future King of France. Needless to say, the blame fell on Catherine and she tried everything to provide an heir to the throne. She refused to ride a mule, because she believed that contact with an infertile animal might transmit it’s sterility to her. She tried charms and alchemy, she tried drinking the urine of pregnant animals. None of it worked and it didn’t do much for her reputation either. Eventually they found a doctor who realised that Henry’s oddly shaped genitals might be the problem and was able to offer them advice which proved helpful. Catherine eventually gave birth to ten children.

Catherine didn’t hold much power during Henry’s reign as he had a mistress who had a great deal more influence over him than his wife. Henry died after he was stabbed in the eye with a lance during a joust in 1559. Catherine wore black for the rest of her life and adopted the lance as her symbol. Following Henry’s death three of her sons would become Kings of France and then she became very much the power behind the throne. Her Eldest son, who was married to Mary Queen of Scots was crowned in 1559 but died after seventeen months. Her second son, Charles IX became king aged ten and cried at his coronation. She became regent on his behalf. Charles died at twenty-three leaving no male heir and was succeeded by Henry III, her favourite son, in 1574. She had a great deal of influence over him almost until her death in 1589.


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