On April 13, 1519, Italian noblewoman and Queen of France Catherine de’ Medici was born. Catherine played a key role in the reign of her sons, and is blamed for the excessive persecutions of the Hugenots in particular for the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of 1572, in which thousands of Huguenots were killed in Paris and throughout France.
Catherine de’ Medici was born into a very influential family. Her father was made Duke of Urbino by his uncle Pope Leo X and her mother was from one of the most prominent and ancient French noble families. Unfortunately, her parents passed away early, wherefore she grew up with further family members. However, the family’s power decreased in 1527 and Pope Clement had to crown Charles Holy Roman Emperor. Charles’ troops laid siege to Florence and Catherine was supposed to be killed or exposed naked and chained to the city walls. The city surrendered in 1530 and Clement had Catherine move to Rome. When Francis I of France offered that his second son, Henry, Duke of Orléans, would marry Catherine and Clement highly supported the wedding. It took place in 1533, but the 14-year old’s saw only little of each other during their first year of marriage. Also it is assumed, that Prince Henry showed only little interest in his wife at all and for a quite long time they failed to produce any children. Unfortunately, Henry’s mistress gave birth to a daughter, which proved that he was fertile. He openly acknowledged her and added much pressure on Catherine. After quite a while, divorce was even discussed and Catherine now tried anything to get pregnant and in 1544, she finally gave birth to a son. The couples marriage did not improve after having several children, but Catherine was still respected as Henry’s consort. After the death of King Francis I, she became the queen consort of France and was crowned in the basilica of Saint-Denis.
However, Catherine’s political power was very limited and Henry gave the Château of Chenonceau, which Catherine had wanted for herself, to Diane de Poitiers, who took her place at the center of power, dispensing patronage and accepting favours. After a sport accident, King Henry first lost his sight and speech and passed away on 10 July, 1559. Francis II became king at the age of fifteen and Catherine was not strictly entitled to a role in Francis’s government, because he was deemed old enough to rule for himself. Still, it is assumed that she played a major role in his decision making. When her son died in 1560, Catherine was appointed govenor of France and the nine year old Charles IX became King, who cried during his coronation. On 1 March 1562, in an incident known as the Massacre of Vassy, the Duke of Guise and his men attacked worshipping Huguenots in a barn at Vassy, killing 74 and wounding 104. Guise, who called the massacre “a regrettable accident”, was cheered as a hero in the streets of Paris while the Huguenots called for revenge. The massacre lit the fuse that sparked the French Wars of Religion. For the next thirty years, France found itself in a state of either civil war or armed truce. Louis de Bourbon, Prince of Condé raised a large army, formed an alliance with England and started seizing town after town in France. After further conflicts with her allies as well as her enemies, Catherine now rallied Hugenot and Catholic forces to retake Le Havre from England.
When Charles IX was declared of age, he still showed only little interest in government and Catherine decided to enforce the Edict of Amboise and revive loyalty to the crown. Philip II sent the Duke of Alba to tell Catherine to scrap the Edict of Amboise and to find punitive solutions to the problem of heresy. In 1566, Charles IX of France and Catherine de Medicis unsuccessfully proposed to the Ottoman Court a plan to resettle French Huguenots and French and German Lutherans in Ottoman-controlled Moldavia. In 1570, Charles IX married the daughter of Maximilian II, Holy Roman Emperor. Catherine was also eager for a match between one of her two youngest sons and Elizabeth I of England. After Elisabeth died in childbirth in 1568, Catherine had touted her youngest daughter Margaret as a bride for Philip II of Spain. Now she sought a marriage between Margaret and Henry III of Navarre, with the aim of uniting Valois and Bourbon interests. Margaret, however, was secretly involved with Henry of Guise, the son of the late Duke of Guise and she faced great problems when Catherine found out about it.
When Admiral Coligny was shot and wounded through his window, Catherine, who was said to have received the news without emotion, made a tearful visit to Coligny and promised to punish his attacker. Many historians have blamed Catherine for the attack. Two days later, the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre took place. It stained Catherine’s reputation ever since, since there is no reason to believe she was not party to the decision when on 23 August Charles IX ordered, “Then kill them all! Kill them all!“. Catherine and her advisers expected a Huguenot uprising to avenge the attack on Coligny. They chose therefore to strike first and wipe out the Huguenot leaders while they were still in Paris after the wedding of Henry and Catherine’s daughter Margaret. The massacre lasted for almost one week and spread across France where it persisted into the fall.
At yovisto academic video search, you may be interested in a video lectureby Barbara Diefendorf on ‘The Saint Barthomomew’s Day Massacre‘ held at the University of Boston.
References and Further Reading:
-  Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France
-  Portraits of Catherine de’ Medici
-  Catherine de Medici at BBC
-  The Virgin Queen – Elizabeth I., SciHi Blog
-  Catherine de Medici at Wikidata