The Lives and Legacies of Catherine & Maria de Medici

 

If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.

Benjamin Franklin

If there is one thing that is, was and always will be constant between today and the time of the Medici, is that wealth is power and power is politics. However, talent in one does not mean talent in the other. What changed throughout the time of the Medici was exactly this. As extremely able bankers, the Medici sought power after three generations of successful, love fueled marriages. The marriage of Lorenzo the Magnificent to Clarice Orsini was the first of its kind and the turning point in Medici history. Besides the fact of Lorenzo’s extraordinary contributions to Florence and his family’s social position, the marriage was politically motivated. For the first time, the Medici family sought its power through marriage. This marriage signified the beginning of a political future for the Medici family as the Orsinis from Rome were wealthy and had blood in the Catholic Church. This change in direction would affect not only the Medici family, but eventually change the course of European history. Two results of this change were two French Queens, Catherine de Medici and Maria de Medici; both with rather interesting stories and a legacy that would transcend their time.

Catherine de Medici was born in 1519, great granddaughter to Lorenzo the Magnificent. Protected by Pope Clement VII, Lorenzo Duke of Urbino and Maddalena de la Tour d’Auvergne orphaned daughter Catherine, grew up to become a very powerful lady, Queen Consort of Henry II, son of King Francis I of France. However her early life was nothing of that of a typical queen. An orphan at a young age, Catherine lived in Florence when the Medici were not the most popular family in the city. In fact, after the invasion of Italy by the German barbaric tribes, many Florentines wanted to kill off the remaining Medici; which led Catherine into living in a convent most of her youth, hiding from the turmoil that was Florence. In addition to this, after her parents’ death she was passed from the care of Alfonsina to Clarice Orsini. This childhood formed Catherine a very resolute and cold character that would attribute to her legacy as Queen of France. After the restoration of order in Italy and Florence, Catherine stayed in Rome in the hands of Maria Salviati. But it was in Rome where under Pope Clement VII, she would marry by proxy, Henry of Valois the Duke of Orleans. The Duke of Orleans, was the second son of King Francis I of France. Her time thereafter in France was rather interesting. Unhappy with her husband and without the sympathy of the French people, Catherine was a one woman army. Miles away from home and any type of family, it is here that her childhood and character would distinguish her as a very strong woman. Catherine was a woman of sport; she loved hunting and very skilled with a bow (Catherine de Medici, Frieda). She complimented her sport equally with her knowledge in science and math as well being a more than generous patron to the arts. Catherine was not the most beautiful of women but wasn’t ugly. Her features were not abnormally displeasing and she was not absolutely stunning but what was always seen was her sinister appearance. In 1536, the heir to the throne died, Francis II, leaving Catherine’s husband, the next in line. As a mother, after nearly nine years of nothing and threat of divorce, Catherine bore ten children including three later French Kings; Francis II, Charles IX and Henri III. In 1547 however, the King of France died, Francis I, putting her husband in power over France. The next few years proved extremely trying for Catherine. Besides the death of her husband in 1558, she also had to deal with her husband’s mistress, Diana di Poitiers. However, after the death of her husband she became Queen Consort of France, a regent, because her son Charles’ young age. The years following her Queenship earned her the nickname, “Madame Serpent.” As one can probably guess, this was due to her political behavior as queen. Defending not only her, who was not French but nonetheless Queen of France but also her young son during a time of religious conflict.

The religious conflict in France would later be known as the French Wars of Religion that lasted from 1562 to 1598 between French Protestants and Catholics. This religious conflict translated directly into the politics of France, of which Catherine clearly had to deal with on a daily basis. While Charles IX was still king, Queen Catherine had arranged the marriage of her daughter Marguerite de Valois, to the Protestant Henry III of Navarre.  The wedding took place in Catholic Paris despite the Pope’s rejection of the marriage. A few days after the marriage, on St. Bartholomew’s Day, 1572, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, a Huguenot leader and admiral, was murdered. The Admiral’s death spurred the killing of dozens of Huguenot nobles still in Parts after the wedding, and the rounding up and massacre of hundreds of other Huguenots in Paris and then throughout France.  The St. Bartholomew’s Day and subsequent massacres are regarded in history to be the work of Catherine. Historians point her motives to be that of obvious political power and stability. The resulting deaths and conversions of St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre solidified Catherine’s son’s throne and diminished the political threat caused by the French Protestants. Protestant Henry III of Navarre became Catholic Henry VI of France, and when the half Medici Marguerite died, he married the full Medici Maria de Medici. Catherine later died in 1589 and was buried in Castle de Blois, where another Medici would one day reside (Catherine De’ Medici, Havemeyer & Malone).

Catherine’s tough youth and life was not only plagued with years of war and conflict but also self-reliance and struggle. Although one of the more prominent figures of the 16th Century, her legacy will go on as the same manner in which it was created, out of violence and hardship.

A later Medici daughter Maria was born in 1573 at the Florentine Palazzo Pitti, daughter of Francesco de Medici the Grand Duke of Tuscany and Joanna Archduchess of Austria. Maria also became Queen Consort of France by marrying the first French Bourbon King Henry IV by proxy, also known as the Protestant King of Navarre and then later, Henry IV Catholic King of France. Of her childhood, there was nothing very out of the ordinary for Maria other than the early deaths of both her parents. Similar to Catherine, she was orphaned at a young age and put into the care of other relatives. However, unlike Catherine she did not take to them as well. Her father, like many powerful men and Medici husbands had a mistress in which both her and her mother despised during her youth. Maria lived in Florence for the first 25 years of her life until she was sent off to marry Henry IV of France at the age of 18. Nicknamed “the foolish,” she as well was not particularly liked by the French people. However, unlike Catherine who was cultured and had a strong nature, she was uncultured and frankly unintelligent. Her figure was short and stubby with blond hair. She unfortunately had the characteristic bulging Medici eyes and with age she slowly became fat and inelegant, not a typical French Queen. Having another Queen from the Medici family made Florentines ecstatic, unlike their French counterparts. The French counterparts had reason to hate her though. She was known for spending outrageous amounts of taxpayer money for vanity and the famous artist she provided thousands in patronage to, Rubens.  During her time in France she became a puppet of two of her closest confidants. She was not the wisest of women and remained oblivious to Leonora Galigai and Concino Concini who were out for power but luckily never resulted in anything major (Brittanica). 1610 came with the assassination of Maria’s husband, leaving the throne to her son Louis XIII, who would then have to wait because he was only 9 years old. After the death of Henry, the queen became snappy, irritating and unappreciative. After getting even with Henry’s mistresses and various courtiers, and advised “unscrupulous Italian” Concino Concini and later the famous Cardinal Richelieu (Brittanica). Maria managed to overcome Henry’s death and overstay her regency to 1617. When son Louis XIII took over, Concini was assassinated, Richelieu became even more powerful as chief minister, and the half Habsburg half Medici Maria was exiled to Castle de Blois due to her political ties with the Hapsburgs and Spain. After two years in the Castle she allegedly escaped by rope with the help of her artist, Rubens. Later, with the help of Cardinal Richelieu she then reconciled with her son. Despising Cardinal Richelieu however, for being so close to her son she attempted a coup to remove him in 1630, but failed.  Her failure led to her exile for good to the Netherlands in 1631 as Bourbon France took on Habsburg Spain. However it was not here that Maria would leave her mark. Maria left her mark on history and her legacy in those that would come after her. Among Maria’s descendants would become the most famous Louis XIV, “Louis the Great,” “the Sun King,” who also became the longest reigning king in French history. In addition to Louis XIV, she would give birth to Elizabeth, later the Queen of Spain, Christine, later the Duchess of Savoy, Henry, later the Duke of Orleans, Gaston later the Duke of Orleans, and lastly Henrietta the later Queen of England. Her legacy unlike Catherine’s ended on a much higher note as her children would start long lineages of royalty all across Europe, coining Maria’s nickname as the “Grandmother of Europe” (Saward, 311).

The two Medici queens had many similarities and many differences. One can quickly see that both of their childhoods were one of sadness and hardship. They were both arranged to marry a man they had never met, that lived thousands of miles away. They both were shipped off, away from the little family they had left. It is quite possible that it is exactly their upbringing and youth that shaped them into the negatively connoted queens they are regarded as today. Both were not seen as fit queens and hated by the French people. Unfortunately as well, both queens were not regarded as the most aesthetically pleasing women either. In addition both of their husbands passed before them leaving them in power of one of the most powerful countries in Europe.

The queens’ differences are interestingly many. Although studied in a mostly negative light they both seemed to do a decent job of keeping France afloat and staying in power. However, Catherine was much more instructed, with both her mind and body she was a much better queen, especially under her circumstances. As a woman highly known for her wits and hunting abilities she presents a much more independent woman that simply fought back for not only herself but her sons. Maria on the other hand was not intelligent and actually let herself be manipulated by her confidants. She had no admirable skills that are ever mentioned and let her husband off with his mistresses. Although their upbringings may have been, with a few exceptions, very similar their time in Paris was not. They were two different French queens but very similar Medici women. In a way they were opposite ends of the spectrum in regards to their political life. Catherine was extremely involved, knew the court well and how to impose her will and push her agenda whereas Maria seemed to barely hold onto power. Then when her son came of age she was quickly sent away and basically kept away from any position of power. Their relationships with their sons were also very polar opposite. Catherine is depicted in literature and films such as 1994’s Queen Margot directed by Patrice Chéreau; where she is shown to be very affectionate to her sons and very family oriented. Whereas Maria was the absolute opposite in this respect, her son exiled her twice after her incompetence on the throne.

Nonetheless, one can see the utter differences and peculiar similarities between these two queens in their early years and their time as French royalty. However the main difference lies in their legacies. Although a better queen all around, it was the state of affairs she had to deal with that ultimately led to her violent and infamous legacy. Known by some to the extent of being a “Poisoner, besotted mother, despot, necromancer, engineer of a massacre: the stain on the name of Catherine de Medici is centuries old,” clearly demonstrated the more gruesome depictions of the Queen (Catherine de Medici, Frieda). Then on the other hand, Maria, the more incompetent queen who ruled rather poorly, ended up with the greater legacy thanks to not necessarily her intent but more so how her children wed after she passed. As much as the French may have despised the Medici queens and how poorly they represented Florence, but thanks to them Florentine blood would forever run throughout the bloodlines and history of regal Europe.

So what started as a move by Piero the Gouty and Lucrezia Tornabuoni to marry their famous son Lorenzo the Magnificent to a wealthy Clarice Orsini as an arranged consolidation of power, then served as a catalyst in the Medici family marriages. This trend of arranged marriages was not only spurred by the Medici success but also their ambition for power and prosperity. Their ambition succeeded, with a bloodline that can be traced to even modern day royalty, these two unanticipated Medici women’s legacies, made it possible.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Works Cited

Frieda, Leonie. Catherine De Medici: Renaissance Queen of France. New York: Fourth Estate,    2003. Print.

Havemeyer, Janie, and Peter Malone. Catherine De’ Medici: “the Black Queen” Foster City, CA: Goosebottom, 2011. Print.

Saward, Susan. The Golden Age of Marie De’ Medici. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI Research, 1982. Print.

Queen Margot. Dir. Patrice Chéreau. Perf. Isabella Adjani, Daniel Auteuil, Virna Lisi, Jean-Hugues Anglade. Miramax Films, 1994. DVD.

“Catherine De Medici.” Catherine De Medici. History Learning UK, n.d. Web. 24 Nov. 2013.                  <http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/catherine_de_medici.htm&gt;.

“Marie De Medicis (Queen of France).” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 25 Nov. 2013.      <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/365073/Marie-de-Medicis&gt;.

 

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