Catherine de Medicis

Catherine de Medicis was a French queen (1519-1589). After the early death of her husband, she served as regent for her sons. Her policy of tolerance toward Protestants failed to prevent the outbreak of religious wars. She worked hard to defend the French monarchy between the Catholic Duke of Guise and the Protestants. She also contributed to the cultural development of France.

Life of Catherine de Medicis

 Catherine de Medicis was born in Florence, Italy, to a noble family. She was a member of the Medici family. Her father was Lorenzo di Piero de Medici, Duke of Urbino.

Married Life

 In 1533, Catherine married the future King Henry II of France. She was known at the French court as a gentle and intelligent woman. She showed that she loved Henri II, was devoted to him, and thought only of enhancing the royal dignity. At the same time, Catherine emphasized that she was Henri’s official partner.

 Henri had mistresses. However, Catherine emphasized that she was different from them. For example, She claimed that she had the right to advise and represent the king. Some people warned against the danger of allowing a woman to be so close to the center of the royal power.

 Catherine had ten children with Henri II. Three of their sons later ascended to the throne of France in that order:: François II, Charles IX, and Henri III. Catherine was regent when her children ascended to the throne at an early age. 

As a member of the Medici family

 Catherine’s Medici origins also allowed her to play a variety of roles after her marriage to the French court. For example, she was a patron of the arts. As is well known, the Medici family was the patron of the arts in Florence and contributed greatly to the Florentine Renaissance. They even promoted this themselves to the outside world. Therefore, Catherine was also expected to serve as a patron of the arts in France.

 Being from the Medici family also meant that she was a foreigner of Italian origin. Under the xenophobic customs of the time in France, Catherine continued to be slandered as a foreigner of Italian origin.


 In 1559, Henri II died in an accident. The young François II ascended the throne. Catherine became his regent. Moreover, Catherine was engaged in educating the young king and other heirs to the throne, feeling a strong sense of responsibility to raise them to be worthy kings. Catherine herself was devoted to them and tried to give them strict advice.

 However, it was often difficult to tell whether Catherine’s attitude toward her sons was devotion or domination. Catherine’s sons were sometimes criticized as immature youngsters who had not escaped the influence of their overprotective mother. Catherine demanded that her daughters maintain the prestige of the Valois family and play an important role for the Valois dynasty. She expected her daughters to always act as allies of the Valois dynasty, even after they grew up and married.

 Around this time, the ardent Catholic Duke of Guise rose to power and wrested real power from the royalists. In 1560, Protestant princes attempted to abduct François II from the Château d’Amboise in an attempt to wrest real power from the Duke of Guise. However, this failed. They were executed on a large scale. However, Catherine saw it as a problem to weaken the Protestant princes too much in order to prevent the tyranny of the Duke of Guise. So, in 1560, she issued the Edict of Romorantin, bringing about a reconciliation between the two factions.

 In the same year, François II died and Charles IX ascended the throne. Catherine again became regent. Catherine continued her policy of religious toleration and tried to oppose the Duke of Guise. For example, she abolished the death penalty for heresy and allowed preaching in private homes. She granted Calvinists freedom of faith and allowed them to practice worship if outside the city.

 Outbreak of the Religious Wars

 However, in 1562, the Catholic side did not accept Catherine’s policy of tolerance, and a religious war began in France. This civil war then continued intermittently during the 1560s.

 Catherine tried to end this religious war altogether through her marriage policy. She tried to marry her own daughter to (later) Henri IV, one of the leaders of the Protestant princess. She also tried to marry his son, the Duke of Anjou, to Queen Elizabeth I of England. England was also Protestant at the time, and was on friendly terms with the Protestants in France.

The Massacre of Saint Barthélemy

 But Catherine failed in her attempts. In 1572, the Massacre of Saint-Barthélemy took place. The major Protestant nobles who had gathered in Paris for the wedding of Catherine’s daughter and Henri (IV) were murdered at once. The massacres spread throughout France.

 The extent to which Catherine played a leading role in this massacre is a matter of debate. But in her own time, it was widely trumpeted that Catherine was driven by emotion to commit such a heinous act. This was encouraged by the traditional misogynistic discourse in medieval Europe.

 With Henri III

 In 1574, Charles IX died and Henri III ascended the throne. Henri III tried to take real power himself, so Catherine gave way. Nevertheless, Catherine attempted to defend the royal authority not only against the Protestant princes but also against the Duke of Guise.
She negotiated and mediated with both factions.

 In 1576, the Duke of Guise formed the Catholic League and received support from Felipe II of Spain. At this time, King Henri III of France had no heir, and it became increasingly likely that (later) Henri IV, a Protestant, would succeed him. This brought the Guises and Felipe II even closer together. On the other hand, French Protestantism was also linked to foreign Protestantism.

 Catherine died in 1589 in the midst of a struggle for the succession to the throne of France. In the same year, Henri III was assassinated. The religious wars in France became increasingly chaotic.

 Contribution to French Culture

 Catherine was also known as a lover of the arts. As mentioned above, Catherine was from the Medici family in Italy. With her arrival, the influence of the Italian Renaissance became strong at the French court. The Château d’Amboise and the Louvre Palace are good examples.

 Catherine also ordered the construction of the royal palace that would become known as the Tuileries Palace. This palace was long known as the Catherine de Medicis Palace. However, many of the projects funded by Catherine ended up unfinished due to lack of funds or other reasons. The chapel for Henri II and her own children, for example, fell into ruins after Catherine’s death. 

☆ Catherine de Medicis’s travel and sightseeing in France: Tuileries Gardens in Paris

 The Tuileries Gardens in Paris is one of the most popular tourist attractions in France. This is a garden on the west bank of the Seine, about 1 km from the Louvre to the Place de la Concorde.

 Originally, this garden was attached to the above-mentioned Tuileries Palace. After the French Revolution, the Tuileries Palace was used as a palace by Napoleon III and others. However, it was destroyed during the Paris Commune of 1871. After that, the site of the palace and the garden remained.

 The garden is in the French Western style and features a beautiful fountain. There are also statues of Rodin and Giacometti. Today, it is the oldest park in France and a place of relaxation for the citizens. However, it was originally the site of the royal palace and its gardens, and was the center of France. It is a good place to contemplate the former kingdom of France.

 People associated with Catherine de Medicis

Henri IV: Son-in-law of Catherine de Medicis. After the death of Henri III, he ascended to the throne of France as Henri IV after a series of twists and turns. The course of the French Wars of Religion was left entirely in the hands of Henri IV. What was the outcome?

Henri III: Son of Catherine de Medicis. King of France who met a tragic end in the Wars of Religion. How would this turbulent period look from his point of view?

Catherine de Medicis

Recommended or Selected References

佐藤賢一『 ヴァロワ朝』講談社, 2014

『ジャン・オリユー『カトリーヌ・ド・メディシス : ルネサンスと宗教戦争』田中梓訳, 河出書房新社, 1990

Susan Broomhall, The identities of Catherine de’ Medici, Brill, 2021