Today marks the 500th anniversary of the day Catherine de' Medici (1519–1589) came into this world. Born on 13th April 1519, Catherine is still remembered as the 'Black Queen' of France, foe of all Protestants, and the Italian daughter of a merchant who dragged France into a series of bloody, religious civil wars. Seen as a vicious, malicious, poisonous queen, Catherine was much more than that. Yet her representation in the arts fail to show anything but her negative qualities and that she was, in fact, a force to be reckoned with.

Catherine de Médicis with the Head of Coligny

Catherine de Médicis with the Head of Coligny early 19th C

Joseph Hornung (1792–1870)

Paintings Collection

Portrayed here in dark clothes, holding the head of Gaspard de Coligny, Catherine has been blamed for the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre that occurred during the night of 23rd to 24th August 1572. A politically motivated bloodshed orchestrated by the Guises and blamed on the royal family, particularly Catherine, aimed at killing one of the Huguenot leaders, Coligny, and ended up as a full massacre of thousands of Protestants. To this day, there is no strong evidence of Catherine's culpability, yet she remains the monster behind it.

In this portrait, she seems to be full of regret, holding a white tissue and looking at what is supposed to be her biggest mistake. It is, however, not the only portrait of her where she is depicted as guilty of the massacre.

In this painting, entitled Charles IX and the French Court on the Morning of Saint Bartholomew's Massacre, she is depicted in black, right behind the king, Charles IX (1550–1574), her second son, and next to what seems to be a cardinal. Everyone else looks shocked, horrified – many are gossiping about what just happened. But not Catherine, and not Charles. They remain the central, stoic figures in this painting, as if they knew what had happened as they were the ones giving the orders.

For years, Catherine endeavoured to find a compromise between Protestants and Catholics. She even agreed to marry her Catholic daughter, Marguerite or Margot, to the Huguenot leader and King of Navarre, Henri (1553–1610, later to become Henri IV of France). Their wedding brought Protestants and Catholics together to the capital city. It was a display of Catherine's and Charles's royal authority and control over the negotiations taking place between them and the Protestant leaders. They had no true motives to order Coligny's death. The Guises, on the other hand, had plenty. The patriarch of the family, François de Guise (1519–1563), had been assassinated on 23rd February 1563 by a Protestant gentleman named Jean de Poltrot de Méré. The Guises blamed Coligny for his assassination.

The court portrayed in this painting looks gloomy and dark – as it has been represented for centuries by other painters, artists, playwrights, and even some historians. The myth around Catherine's responsibility for, and guilt in, the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre still exists.

But Catherine was more than that. Daughter of Lorenzo de' Medici (1492–1519), Duke of Urbino, and of Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne (1498–1519), she had an extraordinary destiny. The orphan of Florence was sent to the French court to marry François I of France's second son, Henri, the future Henri II of France.

Henri II of France (1519–1559), on Horseback

Henri II of France (1519–1559), on Horseback

François Clouet (c.1515–1572)

National Trust, Upton House

François I of France (1494–1547), on Horseback

François I of France (1494–1547), on Horseback

François Clouet (c.1515–1572)

National Trust, Upton House

Henri II of France (1519–1559) was, like many European monarchs of his time, a strong Catholic warrior king who had learnt how to rule from his father's example. François was fond of his daughter-in-law, with whom he spent some time hunting and feasting. Catherine picked up the rules of the court by the side of the old king.

The marriage between Henri and Catherine was not based on love but was a political one. For all her position and status, Catherine found herself in the shadow of her husband's gorgeous mistress – Diane de Poitiers. It did not prevent her, however, to fulfil her duty as wife and queen consort of France and produce 11 children.

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587)

Mary, Queen of Scots (1542–1587)

François Clouet (c.1515–1572) (follower of)

Campion Hall, University of Oxford

Her first born, later to become François II of France (1544–1560), married the seductive Mary Stuart (1542–1587), Queen of Scots. They should have had a lifetime of sovereignty over France, but fate decided otherwise. François died on 5th December 1560 and Mary was sent back to Scotland where she ruled for some years before being forced to abdicate in 1568 and to flee to England. There, she was held prisoner for over 18 years and then executed for treason on 8th February 1587.

Hercule François de Valois-Angoulême, Duc d'Alençon et d'Anjou (1555–1584)

Hercule François de Valois-Angoulême, Duc d'Alençon et d'Anjou (1555–1584) 16th C

François Clouet (c.1515–1572) (circle of)

Rochdale Arts & Heritage Service

Elizabeth I (1533–1603)

Elizabeth I (1533–1603) c.1597

Marcus Gheeraerts the younger (1561/1562–1635/1636)

Trinity College, University of Cambridge

Catherine's last son, (Hercule) François (1555–1584), Duke of Alençon – and later, in 1576, of Anjou – became Elizabeth I of England's longest suitor. The English queen affectionately named him 'the frog'.

Catherine de' Medici (1519–1589), Queen of France

Catherine de' Medici (1519–1589), Queen of France c.1536

Claude Corneille de Lyon (1510–c.1574)

National Trust, Polesden Lacey

Catherine was no conventional beauty. Portrayed here as quite chubby, she looks stern and unfriendly. But in the end, it did not matter as she remains an exemplary queen who was devoted to her family and country, and who knew how to rule in a male-dominated world.

Portrait of a Lady

Portrait of a Lady (said to be Catherine de' Medici, 1519–1589)

François Clouet (c.1515–1572) (follower of)

The Chequers Trust

Until the end of her life, she was mourning the death of her beloved husband, but this was mostly a political stance – she was, in fact, reminding everyone that she was the mother of kings and that she had earned the title of Queen Mother of France. Her life and achievements should be remembered and praised. She remained an astute politician of her time until her death.

Estelle Paranque, historian and author

Further reading
Leonie Frieda, Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France, 4th Estate, 2005
Nancy Goldstone, The Rival Queens: Catherine de' Medici, her Daughter Marguerite de Valois, and the Betrayal that Ignited a Kingdom, W&N, 2015
Kathleen Wellman, Queens and Mistresses of Renaissance France, Yale University Press, 2013
Elena Woodacre and Carey Fleiner (eds.), Royal Mothers and their Ruling Children: Wielding Political Authority from Antiquity to the Early Modern Era, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015
Estelle Paranque, Elizabeth I of England through Valois Eyes: Power, Representation, and Diplomacy in the Reign of the Queen, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019