Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France

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Poisoner, despot, necromancer — the dark legend of Catherine de Medici is centuries old. In this critically hailed biography, Leonie Frieda reclaims the story of this unjustly maligned queen to reveal a skilled ruler battling extraordinary political and personal odds — from a troubled childhood in Florence to her marriage to Henry, son of King Francis I of France; from her transformation of French culture to her fight to protect her throne and her sons' birthright. Based on thousands of private letters, it is a ...

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Poisoner, despot, necromancer — the dark legend of Catherine de Medici is centuries old. In this critically hailed biography, Leonie Frieda reclaims the story of this unjustly maligned queen to reveal a skilled ruler battling extraordinary political and personal odds — from a troubled childhood in Florence to her marriage to Henry, son of King Francis I of France; from her transformation of French culture to her fight to protect her throne and her sons' birthright. Based on thousands of private letters, it is a remarkable account of one of the most influential women ever to wear a crown.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
For most of us, Catherine de Medici (1519-89) is a name without honor. Historians, novelists and dramatists have portrayed the Florentine royal consort as a poisoner, a political tyrant, and even as a secret Satanist. The truth, according to biographer Leonie Frieda, is far more complex and far more fascinating. Without whitewashing the much-maligned bride of Henry IV, Frieda recaptures her humanity, presenting this pragmatic strategist within the context of her tumultuous and diabolical times.
Washington Times
“”Riveting and dramatic . . . there is no mistaking the abiding pleasure of this book.”
Wall Street Journal
“Vivid and entertaining...a convincing human portrait against the backdrop of a brutal age.”
“A carefully nuanced portrait…[Leonie Frieda] achieves remarkable balance as she freshly interprets Catherine…a revealing biography.”
Publishers Weekly
In 1533, 14-year-old Catherine de Medici arrived in France to marry the future king Henri II; over the next 16 years, she endured the dominance of Henri's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, and the disdain of courtiers for her family's merchant background. The sudden death of Henri launched Catherine into three decades as regent and chief adviser to three sons who ruled in succession. Frieda navigates the twists and turns of the French royal court and family with particular attention to the formation of Catherine's political skills. From her lonely childhood as a tool in the diplomacy of her powerful uncles to her carefully cultivated relationship with her father-in-law and maneuvering through shifting family alliances, the queen learned self-possession, deception and strategy. While Catherine has been maligned for her role in France's wars of religion and in particular the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre, Frieda argues that Catherine attempted to reach compromise in the religious strife of her adopted country. While trying to flesh out Catherine, Frieda occasionally paints others with a too-broad brush. At times, her descriptions of Catherine's actions as emotionally or politically motivated seem arbitrary. But Frieda's portrait of Catherine is multifaceted, and her presentation of the complicated narrative of five tumultuous reigns is compelling. (Jan.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Scholarly but lively biography of the Italian-born queen who ruled France as regent during 30 years of bitter religious warfare. Catherine (1519-89) was only 14 when she married the French Dauphin (crowned Henri II in 1547), but she'd already been very nearly murdered by opponents of her cousin Pope Clement VII. Being scorned by the French nobility as an Italian upstart merely sharpened the political skills of a young woman who wasn't pretty but had learned how to be charming-and how to keep her thoughts to herself. Yet Catherine's centuries-old reputation as a murderous schemer is undeserved, argues first-time biographer Frieda: ruthless, yes, but no more brutal than anyone else embroiled in the struggle between Catholics and Protestants that racked 16th-century France and threatened to destroy the Valois dynasty. Henri's untimely death in 1459 left Catherine with a ten-year-old son on the throne; two more underage sons would inherit the crown while she checked the ambitions of the powerful Guise and Bourbon families. Yes, Frieda acknowledges, Catherine did plan the 1572 assassination of leading French Huguenots that has tarnished her name ever since, but the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre was "intended as a relatively small-scale surgical operation," though the passions of the Catholic masses turned it into a full-scale bloodbath. In fact, Frieda demonstrates, Catherine was a religious moderate who repeatedly offered toleration to the Huguenots until she became convinced they weren't just heretics but traitors. Seven months after Catherine's death, fellow pragmatist Henri de Bourbon abjured Protestantism and ascended the throne and, with the 1598 Edict of Nantes, ended the nation'sfratricidal conflict. If any of her sons had been that adept, Catherine would be remembered as a patron of the arts, enthusiastic huntswoman, and thrower of great parties instead of "the Black Queen" of St. Bartholomew's Day. Persuasive rehabilitation of Catherine, not as a nice woman, but as a shrewd leader who did what she had to. Agent: Georgina Capel
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060744939
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/14/2006
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 118,037
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Leonie Frieda is the author of Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France, which was a bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and was translated into eight languages. She lives in London.

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First Chapter

Catherine de Medici
Renaissance Queen of France

Chapter One

Orphan of Florence

She comes bearing the
calamities of the Greeks


Caterina Maria Romula de Medici was born at around eleven o'clock on the morning of Wednesday, 13 April 1519. Her father, Lorenzo II de Medici, Duke of Urbino, scion of the ruling House of Florence, had married her mother, Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne, the previous year. This royal-blooded French countess and great heiress made a brilliant catch for the Medici, who were considered by many in France to be merely nouveaux riches merchants. Since their magnificent wedding, hosted by the bride's kinsman, King Francis I of France, and the couple's glorious return to Florence, there had been little cause for celebration. Madeleine's pregnancy, which had been announced in June, progressed well but the young duke, whose health had been poor for some time, had fallen ill in the autumn of 1518. Intermittent high fevers and fears over his condition led to him leaving Florence where the newlyweds had been living in princely state. The duke, probably suffering from syphilis and possibly tuberculosis, moved to the cleaner air of the surrounding countryside to await the birth of his child. By the time he returned to the city for his wife's confinement, he was dying.

Immediately after her birth, attendants carried the baby to her bedridden father for inspection. The news that her mother had by now also become very ill was kept from the duke for fear of hastening his decline. The fact that she had borne him a daughter cannot have cheered him much since there would clearly be no further issue from this illustrious couple. In an attempt to brighten the gloomy reality of the baby's sex, a contemporary chronicler applied a sycophantic gloss to the ducal disappointment: he declared that the couple 'have both been as pleased as if it had been a boy'. Due to the illness of both parents, the child's hurriedly organised baptism took place on Saturday, 16 April at the family church of San Lorenzo. With four senior clerics and two noble relations in attendance, the baby received the names Caterina, a Medici family name, Maria, since it was the day of the Holy Virgin, and Romula, after the founder of Fiesole -- although I shall henceforth refer to her throughout as Catherine. On 28 April the duchess breathed her last followed by the duke only six days later on 4 May. The entombment of the couple in the splendid family vault at the church where their baby had so recently been baptised provided a dismal conclusion to their brief marriage.

On the day the duke died his friend the poet Ariosto had arrived to condole with him over the death of the duchess. When he discovered that only an orphan child remained of the marriage that had promised a revival of the Medici fortunes he wrote a short ode: 'Verdeggia un solo ramo', dedicating it to the last hope of this pre-eminent merchant dynasty:

A single branch, buds and lo,
I am distraught with hope and fear,
Whether winter will let it blow,
Or blight it on the growing bier.

Catherine owed her existence to the obsessive Italian territorial ambitions of Francis I of France. Between the fall of the western Roman Empire and its late-nineteenth-century unification, Italy was a patchwork of principalities, duchies, and city-states. Most of these showed a precocious vigour in the arts, technology and trade, making them tempting acquisitions for outsiders. Unlike Florence, they were usually ruled by families descended from famous warriors (known as condottieri); names like the Sforza of Milan and the Gonzaga of Mantua evoke the mercenary soldiers who carved their fortunes from battle. While a small number of states such as Venice, Genoa and Florence were -- for a time at least independent, by the mid-sixteenth century the majority were ruled either directly or indirectly by Spain. From 1490 until 1559, when Spanish supremacy was established, Italy became the bloody arena where the two Continental superpowers played out their bitter struggle to dominate Europe.

Francis I, descended through his great-grandmother from the Visconti of Milan, required a sturdy ally in the peninsula to press his claim for the duchy. Accordingly, he forged an affiance with Pope Leo X, Giovanni de Medici. Unlike popes today, His Holiness was not only Christ's representative on earth, but he also exercised the temporal powers of a monarch as ruler of the Papal States, most of which were in central Italy. The papal tiara was a triple crown that placed the popes above kings and emperors; not only did the papacy hold claim to a huge amount of property throughout the Catholic world (in pre-Reformation England one fifth of the land was held by Rome) but the pope also had the right to legal jurisdiction in Catholic countries and many types of legal cases were referred to the Ecclesiastical Court. To strengthen his agreement with the Medici Pope, Francis decided to arrange the marriage of an orphaned Bourbon heiress, Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne, to Leo's nephew, Lorenzo de Medici. At Leo's instigation Lorenzo had recently snatched the duchy of Urbino from the della Rovere family.* For this enterprise the Pope had provided prodigious financial support with monies gained from the creation of thirty new cardinals. In private, Francis felt snobbishly sceptical about Lorenzo's ability to keep the newly acquired fief of Urbino, commenting that he was after all 'only a tradesman' ...

Catherine de Medici
Renaissance Queen of France
. Copyright © by Leonie Frieda. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Posted January 8, 2014

    A really great read!

    A really great read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 11, 2013

    A Great Read

    I generally stick to British history (Tudor/Stewart) but I just finished reading this and it was great! I have a pretty good background in French history of this time period, but will need to go back and reread the complicated Italian politics of the period.
    Well done!

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  • Posted March 22, 2012

    If you love history, like I do, I highly recommend this book!!

    I love history...and Leonie Frieda was so factual but not boring! The way she wrote this book she draws you into the "middle ages" with her concise, pictorial and historical enlightening book of the Catherine de Medici reign in France. I couldn't put her book down!!!It went everywhere with me. I just loved it!!

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  • Posted May 5, 2010

    Fascinating biography of such a pivotal queen

    Over the last 2 years, I have been fascinated by the British monarchy; however, when I saw this book, I thought I should expand my knowledge. This was well written, well researched book that brought Catherine to life and helped get my interest started with the French monarchy. If you have read enough about the Tudors or Stuarts, you should expand your knowledge to the French.

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  • Posted August 16, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A hard but great Lady during a trying time of France

    Catherine could have been a softer mor conremporary leader if the life and times had allowed it. What is clear is that she had the intellectual capacity to deal with most of what was taking place in her country and hold the threads of government together during the period. She may have eliminated a few malcontents in rather supicious ways but the alternative may have been disasterous. I do not like the way she dealt with Queen Elizabeth over the Queen Mary issue and I especialy do not like her abandonment of Queen Mary during a very trying time but perhaps she felt she had no choice. I do like the book, I do intend to keep it, and I do intend to re-read it. Overall, I am impressed with her results although not in complete agreement with her method. I do recommend this book.

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