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— Lucinda Hahn, Chicago Tribune
"A hugely entertaining book...the stuff of high Renaissance drama."
— Leonie Friede, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
"A sizzling story about love and betrayal in a royal family...a true tale of palace intrigue in the sixteenth century."
— Atlanta Journal-Constitution
"The author, who knows a thing or two about palace intrigue herself, writes with style and panache and serves up marvelous details of pageantry, court fashion, furniture, and gossip worthy of the master of the genre, the duc de Saint-Simon."
— Dominick Dunne
Chapter One:The Royal Wedding
As the sun filtered through the autumn mist shrouding the harbor of Marseilles, three hundred cannons boomed from the ramparts of the chateau d'If and all the bells of the city rang out to announce the arrival of the papal flotilla. It was October 11, 1533. The din must have been deafening, and yet so gratifying to Pope Clement VII to be thus received by the king, Francois I. This journey would be the apogee of the ailing Medici pope's extraordinary career.
It had taken three years for Clement VII to negotiate the marriage of his fourteen-year-old cousin Catherine to fourteen-year-old Prince Henri d'Orleans, a son of the king of France. The pope was well aware that the Medici, no matter how rich and powerful, were considered no better than glorified merchants by Europe's reigning families. The marriage of this Florentine heiress to the second son of Francois I would raise his house far higher than he had ever dreamed possible.
The procession of ships was led by a galleon, the Duchessina, which carried the Holy Sacrament, while the pontiff traveled in the second great galleon, theCapitanesse. Fourteen cardinals, sixty archbishops and bishops, and countless priests followed in other vessels. The bride was not in the pope's party. To allow the pope to make his own entry into Marseilles in state, for the marriage contracts to be finalized, and the preparations completed, Catherine de' Medici had left the Capitanesse shortly before Marseilles to await her summons in the Jardin des Rois. Still, the pope's arrival signaled the beginning of the royal wedding, and dozens of small boats sailed out from the shore, carrying noblemen and musicians to greet and escort the papal flotilla into the ancient Phoenician harbor.
The pope watched the eighteen galleys in his fleet maneuver to dock, each of them draped in his signature red, gold, and purple damask, and manned by hundreds of oarsmen shining bright in crimson satin and orange silk. As Clement VII disembarked, eighty lancers and two companies of infantry stood at attention on the quay and on every bridge. It was a sight worthy of the supreme head of the Christian church.
The pope's party was received on shore by the Grand Master of France, Anne de Montmorency, the senior statesman in the kingdom charged with the court and its residences. He presented Clement VII to several French cardinals and a number of other clerics. The pope then moved into the house prepared for him outside the city to await the next day when he would make his formal entry and complete the final leg of the house of Medici's journey into the French royal family.
On the morning of October 12, the streets were lined with people who had come from every home in the city as well as the surrounding countryside. They were eager to see a pope, but even more eager to see the little bride for whom their lives had been so disrupted. Indeed, the people of Marseilles needed to be dazzled since the choice of their city for this grand event had cost them dear. An official entrance into a city by royalty, or indeed a pope, was one of the greatest public spectacles of the time. This one was no exception; the king had ordered a large swathe of the city demolished to make a wide avenue for the triumphal processions and the ceremonies surrounding this diplomatically important marriage. For the pope's temporary residence, a huge wooden building had been erected next to the old palace of the counts of Provence where the king and his party would lodge. An enclosed "bridge," so large it could be used as an extra reception room, was built to link the dwellings of the monarchs temporal and spiritual.
The pope was preceded in the procession by the Holy Sacrament displayed in a monstrance, mounted on a white palfrey caparisoned in a cloth of gold. As he made his way slowly to the cathedral, Clement VII was carried shoulder-high in his red velvet sedia, or papal litter, covered by a large square awning supported at the corners on poles carried by four noblemen. On either side of the pope strode the king's two younger sons, the bridegroom himself, Prince Henri d'Orleans, and Prince Charles d'Angouleme. They were followed by the Italian cardinals and bishops in purple and red, riding on mules. Behind them walked the chanting choir of the Sistine Chapel and a procession of noblemen, prelates, abbots, curates, and monks.
As he heard the gasps of appreciation from the crowd, Clement settled back on his silken cushions beneath the awning of red, green, and yellow damask, nodding benignly and blessing the gaping crowds. He was tired after his sea voyage, and his ten years on the throne of St. Peter had prematurely aged him. All his life he had struggled to increase the glory of his family; finally, through his intervention, the Medici ruled in Florence once again. The French marriage could not come too soon; Catherine was becoming rather attached to his illegitimate nephew, Ippolito de' Medici -- brilliant, extravagant, and very, very handsome. But Catherine was the pope's most valuable piece on the chessboard of European politics and could not be wasted for a childish attachment with no possible advantage for the family. Ippolito was promptly dispatched into the church and made a cardinal.
As he passed the royal box, Clement VII caught his first sight of his partner in the Medici-Valois union, King Francois I. The pope's litter stopped as he blessed the king and his company, then moved on. While the pope was in awe of the French king's power, Clement VII also knew he held the key to the king's heart's desire: Italy.
Ever since France had lost Milan to the Habsburg Emperor Charles V eight years earlier, Francois I's only thought had been to regain the territory. Patiently, he watched and waited until the moment was right to make his first move. That time came when Henry VIII of England needed a favor from Pope Clement VII and asked the French king for his help. The two monarchs met briefly at Boulogne, where Francois tactfully explained the need for his son's marriage to Catherine de' Medici, cousin of the pope and Henry's enemy. To soften the blow, Francois promised he would pressure the pope to annul Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Desperate to marry Anne Boleyn in church, Henry VIII posed no obstacles to the French proposal.
Pope Clement had his own road to clear to the marriage. By actively endorsing the French match, he risked offending the other great power in Europe, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and France's greatest enemy. For this reason, Clement was obliged to seek the powerful emperor's approval. When the pope asked Charles V's permission to approach the French king, the emperor shrugged and demurred, confident that the royal house of Valois would not accept a mere parvenu Medici girl into its illustrious fold. But the emperor failed to see that, to the king, Catherine represented the coveted duchy of Milan, and that the Valois-Medici marriage would ensure Francois I achieved his goal. The pope's path was clear, and it had led to this glorious day in Marseilles.
The day after the pope's official entry into the city, The Most Christian King of France, Francois I, attended by his second son, Henri d'Orleans, and his youngest, Charles d'Angouleme, and flanked by two cardinals, made his entrance into Marseilles.
The city was newly decorated with a series of triumphal arches extolling the king's great deeds, real or imaginary. Tableaux with allegorical allusions to the principal guest were staged at various stops on the route. The city's prettiest girls, scantily clad in classical fashion, scattered flower petals in front of the procession. Fresh lavender and rosemary were strewn before the excited, prancing horses, their hooves crushing the herbs to release heady aromas as they passed. The best tapestries and carpets were hung in a kaleidoscope of color from the balconies overhanging the royal route. Leaning on them were the most elegant and privileged of the citizens, who tossed flowers and ribbons on those below. The king was escorted by his twenty-seven maids of honor, dubbed by his mother Louise de Savoie his "Petite Bande," a corps of feminine aides-de-camp chosen from the best families for their beauty, vivacity, and superb horsemanship. Francois saw to it that they were always dressed in matching elegance -- furs, cloth of gold and silver, velvets, and scarlet satin -- all paid for by him. Their sole duty was to be in constant attendance upon their monarch. Behind these Amazons rode a vast retinue of several thousand nobles glittering in their finery, doffing feathered hats, their horses richly caparisoned with elaborate aigrettes bobbing on their foreheads. This dazzling display was accompanied by music, bell ringing, jingling of harnesses, wild cheering, and the crowd's exclamations of joy and admiration to see the king and the princes at close quarters.
Observing tradition, Francois I and his sons prostrated themselves at the feet of the pope and kissed each of his slippers. The French king was as much a showman as his wily guest and performed the elaborate gestures with panache. A man of exquisite manners, Francois had allowed the Holy Father to make the first state entrance into the city, though all judged the king's procession the next day the more brilliant.
Feasting continued during the following week, and as the bride had not yet appeared, the pope was the center of attraction. Clement VII reveled in the adulation and was himself overawed by the great honor accorded to his family, despite the surprise and shock of the entire world. "The house of Medici," he said, "has been raised by God's own hand. I know I shall die soon, but I will die happy."
Before the marriage could take place, there were still a number of outstanding negotiations between king and pope that needed to be finalized. No record of their discussions remains other than notes in Francois' own hand alluding to an offensive alliance with Clement VII against his enemy, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. It is probable that the king fulfilled his promise to Henry VIII and discussed the annulment the English king was seeking from his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Since their meeting in Boulogne, Henry had married Anne Boleyn in a civil ceremony. In May 1533, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, declared Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon invalid and therefore void. A week later, Anne Boleyn was crowned queen. Four months later, on September 7, her daughter, Elizabeth, was born. It is also most probable that the king and the pope discussed the spread of heresy in France; the doctrines of Martin Luther and Jean Calvin were fast gaining followers, and heresy was becoming an issue all Europe's rulers had to confront. As for the contract, it was most generous to France. It had to be. The fabulous heiress that Clement VII had produced for the son of the king of France was small, plain, ungainly, and, worst of all, not of royal blood.
Finally, the marriage negotiations were complete and Catherine de' Medici received word that she could make her entrance into Marseilles. For months, Catherine and her uncle's advisors had planned every detail of this event. Now on October 23 she would make her first official entry into a French city.
Catherine was a child of European politics. She understood that, while this was the day she would meet her bridegroom, it was more important that she impress his father the king and his people. Instead of arriving in her enclosed carriage, she chose to allow the people to catch their first glimpse of her, riding elegantly on a Russian palfrey, an "ambling mare" trained to a smooth, gliding gait. (Catherine did not yet ride well and was anxious should the French people see her jolting in the saddle.) She was escorted by her uncle, the Duke of Albany, and her twelve ladies-in-waiting in chariots (many of them so young they were still accompanied by their governesses). Catherine and her ladies shone in scarlet silk with gold-threaded lace, and behind them rode a dazzling procession of seventy brilliantly attired and bejeweled courtiers. Following her parade came Catherine's empty carriage, the first enclosed, four-wheeler ever seen in France.
Just one month younger than Henri d'Orleans, Catherine de' Medici was short and dark; her most beautiful features were her hands and feet. When she dismounted, Francois I, that connoisseur of women, noticed her lovely legs, surprisingly slender and long on an otherwise awkward body. Her face appeared swollen, with protruding blue eyes under heavy brows, a prominent nose, fleshy lower lip, and a receding chin. Anyone who saw Catherine de' Medici on her first day in France could not have thought her remotely attractive, but her intelligent expression and vivacious manner was commented upon. She had certainly not inherited the famous beauty of her mother; and yet, she had a presence, described years later by La Fontaine as "grace, and grace still more beautiful than beauty."
Arriving at the pope's wooden pavilion, Catherine bowed low before her cousin and was received in his arms. Clement was the nearest she had come to having a parent, but she felt little love for him. With her heritage, she had always known her purpose in his political schemes -- and welcomed it. If she could manage it, hers would be an illustrious and secure future within the greatest court in Europe -- and Catherine had inherited the Medici confidence. Her powerful uncle had made her destiny possible, and for this her gratitude to her relative overflowed.
Her next greeting was for the king, before whom she prostrated herself, a mark of the modesty she would assume for the next twenty-six years. Francois raised the girl up and presented her to his wife, his children, and the court. Only then did Catherine de' Medici turn to face the young man whom she would love obsessively -- and fear -- all her life. As she bowed before him, she caught her breath in awe and admiration.
At fourteen, Henri d'Orleans was tall for his age and his passion for sport had already given him the physique of a young man. He was excellent at tilting, fencing, and tennis, so adept that few at court could beat him. He was most attractive, with the fine straight nose and dreamy dark eyes of his grandmother Louise de Savoie. His hair was dark and his complexion very fair. Catherine had been told her bridegroom was handsome, but she had only had eyes for her cousin Ippolito and could not imagine admiring another. She moved toward Henri as if in a trance, eyes shining, lips slightly parted, and formally embraced him, but he remained grave and silent, giving no reaction or sign of emotion. Not knowing the young prince, Catherine could have mistaken his indifference for shyness, but it was clear to the onlookers it would take a miracle for him to fall in love with her. At least Francois I seemed pleased with Catherine -- and certainly with the secret terms of the treaty signed with Clement VII. King and pope had agreed that once their joint armies had reconquered Milan, the newlyweds would be installed to rule that duchy as well as Urbino.
During the celebrations that followed, king and pope exchanged extravagant gifts. Francois gave Clement a tapestry woven of silk and gold and silver thread depicting the Last Supper. The pope gave the king a "unicorn" horn two cubits long (the length of two forearms) mounted on a solid gold pedestal. These horns had become an obsession among the nobility and even among the higher clergy. Unicorn horns were said to sweat in the presence of poisoned liquid or food; it was also believed they could detect heresy. The gift, in reality a narwhal tusk, was symbolic, intended to remind Francois of his duty to detect and expel the poison of heresy from his kingdom.
The French king took advantage of the occasion to rid himself of an unwelcome gift he had received from the Turkish corsair Barbarossa, lieutenant of Suleiman the Magnificent, ruler of the Ottoman Empire. It was customary for great princes to exchange rare or exotic gifts, including animals such as elephants, monkeys, or sometimes deer, but the pirate had recently presented to Francois I a huge, tame Nubian lion with an insatiable appetite. With considerable relief, the French king passed this gift to Ippolito de' Medici, the pope's nephew and Catherine's dashing favorite cousin. Ippolito was delighted, and on his return to Rome, he commissioned a portrait of himself posing with the lion.
Catherine's marriage portion of cities, gold, and a large income was substantial; the marriage bed alone cost 60,000 gold ecus, a formidable sum. In order to pay for her trousseau, the pope pressured Alessandro de' Medici for part of a forced loan he had levied on Florence intended for new fortifications. It was a trousseau worthy of a queen: chests of fine lace; valuable brocades, silks, and velvets; cloth of gold bed hangings; and fashionable black silk sheets to show off the whiteness of the bride's skin. To hold the communion host in her private chapel, the pope gave Catherine a rare crystal casket, its panels engraved with scenes from the life of Christ. Catherine was now the owner of a fortune in jewels, including seven glorious pearls thought at the time to be the most beautiful in Christendom; a gold belt studded with rubies and diamonds; and a parure of diamonds and pearls. Three other fabulous pieces -- perhaps the most famous -- are mentioned in a number of sources: the "Egg of Naples" -- a large pear-shaped pearl encircled by rubies; the "Tip of Milan" -- a hexagonal diamond; and the "Table of Genoa" -- a large, flat-cut diamond. A mystery still surrounds these treasures. In the view of scholars today, their names represented a secret code between the pope and the king, and referred to cities in Italy the young couple would receive once their alliance was victorious. In later inventories of Catherine de' Medici's jewels, the pieces no longer appear under such names.
Finally, on October 27, the marriage contract was signed. The next day the little Medici duchessina, whom the French called a grocer's daughter and worse, became the duchesse d'Orleans, wife of the king of France's second son. For her wedding ceremony, Catherine wore a dress of gold brocade, trimmed with ermine; her tight-fitting bodice was of purple velvet, embroidered with gold thread in the Florentine style, edged with ermine and glittering with precious stones. Her thick, dark hair was elaborately dressed and woven with jewels, and on her head she wore her ducal crown. The radiant bride, wearing the pope's enormous pearls, was led to the altar by the king. Francois was dazzling in a suit of white satin embroidered with silver thread; his great cape, covered in gold-embroidered fleur-de-lys and precious stones, hung from one shoulder. Prior to the wedding, the king had knighted his son, a ritual custom dating from chivalric times. The act of bestowing knighthood still held a mystical aura from its roots in medieval mythology, Christianity, and the chivalrous code of warfare. It certainly would have meant much more to Prince Henri than his enforced marriage. The nuptial Mass was conducted by a cousin of the royal family, the cardinal de Bourbon, and the pope blessed the young couple.
Almost everyone who would dominate Catherine's new life attended the ceremony, and she observed each of them shrewdly. She liked her father-in-law immediately, with his bold, handsome face, ready smile, his height and natural air of kingship. Although he could be very authoritarian, Francois looked at her kindly, and would do so for the rest of his life. His second wife, Queen Eleonore, a good and virtuous lady who had little say at the court, also welcomed Catherine generously. Catherine admired the king's ravishing and beloved sister, Marguerite, queen of Navarre -- yes, she would do well to become her friend. The king's new mistress? He had rejected the gracious Francoise de Foix for the vixenish Anne de Pisseleu, another she would try to woo. And, of course, Anne de Montmorency, Grand Master and future Constable of France, was much in evidence -- she noted that this grand statesman was Henri's mentor. Catherine might have guessed, though she could not yet know, how strongly Montmorency had opposed her marriage.
And she met for the first time the woman into whose care she had been placed: the beautiful Diane de Poitiers, dame d'honneur to Queen Eleonore. Diane had been chosen by the king as Catherine's guide to the court and its intricate ritual because she was the bride's only close relative in France; their mothers had been cousins. Newly widowed, Diane's black and white clothes were in stark contrast to the brilliant colors of the courtiers and their ladies. Diane de Poitiers seemed to tower over Catherine as she greeted her, and her grace and beauty made Catherine appear short and clumsy. She watched as Henri came so naturally to stand at the widow's elbow, noticing that her husband wore black and white plumes on his hat matching those in Diane's hair. Other than making her marriage vows, Catherine had yet to speak a word to her husband.
The festivities were interrupted by an incident that almost marred the proceedings. Emissaries from Henry VIII arrived unannounced in Marseilles, vociferously demanding to know if the pope would withdraw the threat of excommunication from the English king and allow the annulment and Henry's remarriage. All the courts of Europe knew of the king of England's burning desire to sanctify his civil marriage to Anne Boleyn. Catherine, too, would have known of the French king's diplomatic efforts to help Henry. Francois, who had been proceeding gently and tactfully with the pope on Henry's behalf, was outraged at the emissaries' rude interruption. He dismissed them without ceremony, accusing the English envoys of having greatly harmed their master's cause. One year later, Henry VIII would break England's ties with the Holy See, creating the schism that led to the formation of the Church of England.
The interminable ceremonies did nothing to encourage what little romance might have survived the bridal couple's first meeting. Both Henri and Catherine played their parts in the ritual, but were soon forgotten or ignored by their elders, immersed as they were in their power play and drunken enjoyment of the festivities. According to one of the guests, the Milanese ambassador Don Antonio Sacco, Henri remained his dour self throughout the masked ball and the banquet that followed. Catherine, however, was radiant and animated. Then, wrote the ambassador, the king, the queen and her ladies, including Diane de Poitiers, accompanied the bride and groom to the nuptial chamber. Francois was eager to bring the couple to bed and watch them "joust," which he later declared they did valiantly. It seems strange to us today that a king of renowned courtesy should subject two shy fourteen-year-olds to such an ordeal. But it was the custom for witnesses to be present during the first amorous exchanges between a newly married couple, and this applied to all classes. The story comes down to us from Pierre de Bourdeille, seigneur de Brantome, a near contemporary who wrote eleven gossipy volumes of court activities during the reign of Francois I and of Henri II. Brantome notes in his journals that anyone not present in the bedroom would be listening outside to the appreciative noises (or otherwise) made by the bridal couple.
According to some observers, when the royal party left with the bride and groom, the festivities grew wilder. A famous local courtesan stripped naked and lay on a banqueting table among the platters of food, to allow the guests to marvel at her perfection. Not to be outdone, some other young ladies undid their bodices and exposed their own assets. By all accounts, a merry evening followed.
The next day, the pope hurried to the bridal chamber, anxious to examine the sheets. He had great plans for the future of the Medici and a consummated marriage could not easily be repudiated. Clement noted that Henri and Catherine slept late and arose looking content, but that morning, a number of the courtiers lamented the speed with which the negotiations had been conducted and the marriage arranged. There were mutterings that the Medici balls had no place on the royal coat of arms among the fleur-de-lys of France. In the years to come, Catherine would be made to feel the shame of her mesalliance with the house of Valois. It was the one blot on this great honor of which she was so proud: a mere Medici, married into the oldest royal house in Christendom, and yet scorned by this ostensibly well-mannered assembly, the gracious, smiling, bowing courtiers who laughed at her behind her back. On the day after her marriage, Catherine already knew she must face this opposition and she began to wonder to whom she could turn for support and guidance. Her husband had performed his duty, but had hardly looked at her. She thought of the beautiful widow in black and white. Diane de Poitiers was to be her guide, the woman whose colors her husband wore.
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Excerpted from The Serpent and the Moon by Her Royal High Princess Michael of Kent Copyright © 2004 by Her Royal High Princess Michael of Kent. Excerpted by permission.
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Family Trees of Principal Characters
The Author's Descent from Diane de Poitiers and Catherine de' Medici
1. The Royal Wedding
2. The King and the Mistress
3. The Renaissance King
4. Treachery and Treason
5. Defeat and Capture at Pavia
7. The Hostages
8. The Young Knight
9. The Widow
10. Catherine's New World
11. The Dauphin Is Dead — Long Live the Dauphin
12. Emperor of Deceit
13. Three in a Marriage
14. The Death of the Renaissance King
15. King Henri II
16. The King's Mistress
18. A Delicate Domestic Balance
19. Henri II at War
20. A Cruel Fate
Reader's Group Guide The Serpent and the Moon
1 ) What are the main purposes for marriage in the book and throughout much of history? What is the general view of adultery during the reign of Francois I? What about illegitimacy? Why do you think these attitudes and customs were adopted?
2) Louis de Savoie was a major player in her son Francois' court. Describe her character and personality. What are her main motivations? How did her choices steer the course of history?
3) What were Charles de Bourbon's main reasons for treason? Do you think Charles de Bourbon's decisions to go against Francois I and France were justified?
4) Compare the treasonous acts of both Jehan de Saint-Vallier and Charles de Bourbon. Is one better or worse than the other? Does the king view both acts of treason with the same judgments? Does the author?
5) Francois' decision to send his eldest sons into Spanish captivity is both interesting and revealing. Why does he make this decision? What does this and his subsequent behaviors, both personal and political, say about his character as both king and father?
6) What were the main changes that took place in the French court after Francois I death and the beginning of Henri II's reign? What ruling sensibilities did father and son share? How did they most differ?
7) Describe Catherine de Medici's personality. How is she viewed within the court? The author uses the term "hate and wait" in describing her. Is this an accurate portrayal? How does her personality change throughout, especially after Henri's death? What is your overall opinion of Catherine de Medici?
8) Describe the main aspects of the relationship between Henri and Diane de Poitiers. What affect did their obvious affections have within the court? What character traits of each of the "three in a marriage" are most revealed through this precarious situation?
9) Describe the various ways in which Diane de Poitiers assumed a higher status over Catherine the Queen. How is Anet symbolic of this status? Is Diane de Poitiers merely benefiting from the fortunate circumstances of her time or is her success intentional?
10) What is the state of affairs in regards to heresy in France at the time Henri II's reign? How does Diane de Poitier influence the King's decisions in matters of heresy? As with Francois I, there are contradictions between the monarch's appreciation and support for humanism and their actions against accused heretics. Discuss these contradictions. How does the incident of the tailor (page 277) embody these contradictions?
11) What is Diane de Poitiers fate? Were the events that followed Henri's death expected or surprising? What is your overall opinion of Diane de Poitiers?