Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France

Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France

by Leonie Frieda


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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780060744939
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date: 03/14/2006
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 295,807
Product dimensions: 5.31(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.05(d)

About the Author

Leonie Frieda is the author of a bestselling biography of Catherine de Medici and The Deadly Sisterhood: A Story of Women, Power and Intrigue in the Italian Renaissance. She lives in London.

Sarah Le Fevre lives in London, where she trained at the Poor School and is a practicing barrister. She divides her working life between these professions, indulges her passions for the Arsenal football club and Bikram yoga, and occasionally escapes for clean air and green fields to the West Country.

Read an Excerpt

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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Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore and I had to read this book for a research project. This boo was ok, lots of description in Catherine's life. There is stuff people didn't know about in the book than there is in the internet. The book was a good source for my project. It answered the questions that needed to be answered for my project. Not only did it provide good description of her life and her relationship with her husband, but good pictures. The thing I would not like about this book is that its too long. If you like long books I would recommend this for you but if you hate long books, DONT GET THIS BOOK AT ALL! You can for some facts like short facts. Though it does have enough information for a project or anyone wanting to know about Catherine de Medici. Good job to the author, don't know how she did it but she did a good job in writing a biography on Catherine de Medici. She got her facts straight about her. I would recommend this book for students and teachers or anyone willing to read a really long long long long long book (for me) about the one and only the Queen of France Catherine de Medici ! THE END THANK YOU
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a sophomore in high school and I used this book as a source for my research project and was very impressed with the amount of information that was provided. Not only did it answer a majority of my questions, but the information provided was in stunning detail. This book contains not only the life of the greatest Queen of France, but also a bit of backstory and history of some other characters such as her husband, King Henry II, and the House of Guise. One of the reasons why I thoroughly enjoyed this book was not only for its detail and how Catherine's story is brought to life because of it, but also that it contains paintings of family members and the important people in Catherine's life such as the 3rd Duke of Guise, sketches of her estate, Mary Queen of Scots, her children and many more. Another reason I like this book is for its classic and elegant cover of the queen herself. This book was amazing to read and I highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in learning about Catherine de Medici.
kaida46 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I admit I am fascinated by this woman ever since I read Jean Plaidy's series of historical fiction books about her life when I was in high school. Seems to be historically accurate from what I know, but I am by no means an expert. I still want to know more about her childhood, which did not seem to be covered in much detail here though. The book focuses on her life after leaving Italy.
susanbevans on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I have been drawn to Catherine de Medici's story for some time. After reading Susan Carroll's fictional account of her in her Cheney Sisters books, I became even more interested in her. Catherine was a fascinating sixteenth century woman. She was the Italian-born Queen of France, wife of Henri II. Catherine Maria Romola di Lorenzo de Medici was born in Italy in 1519. She endured a lonely childhood, isolated in convents most of the time, exiled from her rightful place in her own country. Like many women of her time, she became a tool in the diplomacy of her two powerful uncles, who basically sold her off to marry the future king of France. Catherine de Medici was married to Henri II when she was just 14 years old. She endured the dominance of Henri's mistress, Dian de Poitiers, with patience and grace, for 16 years. She adored her husband, even though he obviously preferred the company of his much older mistress. She was able to maneuver her way through shifting family alliances, and learned self-possession, deception, and strategy. The twists and turns of life at the French court led her to form brilliant political skills which held her in stead for the rest of her life. Catherine de Medici had 10 children: three became French kings, one became Queen of Spain (as wife of Philip II). Her youngest son was a serious candidate to wed England's Queen Elizabeth. The sudden death of Henri in 1552 at a jousting event, launched Catherine into three decades as regent and chief advisor to three sons who ruled France in succession. Her sons were weak kings, and she became the power behind the throne for many years. She was the all powerful Queen-Mother, the ruler of France in all but name. During this time, Catherine gained a reputation as the ultimate schemer, a woman without scruples or bounds. She presided over eight Wars of Religion: civil wars between Protestants fighting for their right to worship freely, and Catholics trying to keep the country from splitting apart. The author discusses Catherine's many diplomatic efforts to resolve the difficulties peacefully. But treacherous behavior among hardcore Huguenots eventually hardened her attitude, culminating in the disastrous Massacre of St Bartholomew of 1572, which killed as many as 30,000 men, women, and children all over France. Although her hands will be forever stained by the religious wars that sent France into frenzies during her watch, the author contends that Catherine attempted to reach compromise in the religious strife of her adopted country whenever possible. Poisoner, despot, necromancer -- the dark legend of Catherine de Medici is centuries old. Catherine is widely seen as a talented, scheming and ruthless power-behind-the-throne figure, doing almost anything to promote and protect her children which included two Kings of France. In this biography, the author 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 Henri, son of King Francis I of France; from her transformation of French culture to her fight to protect her throne and her sons' birthright. This biography is a persuasive rehabilitation of Catherine, not as a nice woman, but as a shrewd leader who did what she had to.
mgaulding on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This was an important book in my understanding of French history. Or rather, it filled in a missing gap.
LynnB on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a lively, readable biography of Catherine de Medici. Catherine was queen of France following her marriage to Henri II. When he died, she had five small children (five others having died in childbirth or early childhood). She struggled to keep the throne for her children, becoming an expert in political manoeurvings and intrigue. Catherine has been criticized by many as evil and power-hungry. She has also been praised for her courage and cunning. I think she did an amazing job as Queen Mother. She was blinded to her children's faults like so many mothers, and she was unable to deal effectively with religous conflicts, waffling between accommodation and conflict. Yet she was also extremely astute and focussed on the needs of her family, and her country. Like politicians of today, she had both strengths and weaknesses.Leoni Frieda maintains a good sense of perspective and neutrality. Her research is well documented and provides a lot of information not only about Catherine, but about the times she lived in.
beadinggem on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Fascinating account of the life of Catherine de Medici of France who goes down in history as The Dark Queen. This balanced biography looks at her life and her motives - to save a nation being torn apart by religious wars and thus the inheritance of her weakly sons.Catherine de Medici tried to reconcile the two religious sides in the beginning, but to no avail. She did indeed order poisonings and assassinations including the ones of highborn French protestants resulting in the terrible St Bartholomew's Day massacre (1572) of innocent men, women and children. Not until the French revolution, would such a heinous wholesale slaughter be equalled. Catherine de Medici earned her reputation as the Dark Queen.
AlexTheHunn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a very readable, fairly scholarly evaluation of Catherine De Medici. The book is well documented with plenty of notes and an extensive bibliography. Leonie manages to maintain an objective stance; she does not fall into hero worship or disparagement.
StephanieFRiley More than 1 year ago
A really great read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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!
artsyanne More than 1 year ago
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!!
BaylorGirl More than 1 year ago
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.
EugeneTX More than 1 year ago
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.