Catherine de Medici – scourge and sorceress or slighted woman?

The overarching storyline of my novel, The Medici Mirror, centres on Catherine de Medici, the Italian wife of the French King Henri II of France, and her connection to an old, blackened, seemingly magical mirror. This mirror is passed down through the centuries and is uncovered again in the present day alongside, fragment by fragment, the story of its vengeful heritage. Did it belong to Catherine and does it embody the darkness which became so synonymous with her character?

The Black Queen, Madame la Serpente. They are names which at various times throughout history have been applied to Catherine de Medici. Some have painted her as the embodiment of evil, a demonic political schemer, a murderer. But are these overblown descriptions accurate or actually rather simplistic? Was she a more complex creature, a product of her violent, complicated times?

Born in Florence in April 1519, Catherine de Medici’s personal life was fraught with difficulty from the start. She was orphaned soon after her birth and then passed between various members of her family until she was imprisoned in a convent following a civilian uprising against the Medicis in 1530. She was held hostage there for over three years never quite knowing if she was safe. At the age of 14, she was married off by her uncle, Pope Clement VII, to Henri of Orleans, later King Henri II of France. Catherine adored him, but in return was essentially ignored in favour of the older, more beautiful, Diane de Poitiers, who was Henri’s mistress for practically the whole of his adult life. While Catherine clearly hated Diane and her hold over the King’s affections, Catherine wasn’t powerful enough to challenge Henri’s mistress and so had to tolerate the older woman and constantly hide and disguise her true feelings. If that wasn’t enough, Catherine’s position was further undermined by her inability to conceive a child for the first ten years of her marriage. During this time she lived under the almost constant threat of repudiation. After all, a barren Queen was anything but indispensable to the monarchy. And yet, through a combination of politics, pragmatism and resourcefulness, Catherine maintained her position.

Given this set of personal circumstances, perhaps it is not a surprise that Catherine was a woman of many sides, of seeming contradictions. She was educated and enlightened, a Renaissance champion, a patron of the arts and architecture. She was also religious, a Catholic. And yet simultaneously she was deeply superstitious. She believed in the power of the stars and sought consolation from astrologers, soothsayers and mystics. In her early life she became interested in ancient magic – many have thought that this developed out of her supposed ‘infertility’ and that in her desperation she resorted to pagan remedies to try to cure it. She is said to have drunk gallons of mules’ urine, supposed to ward against sterility, as well as mare’s milk, rabbit’s blood and sheep’s urine. She had hideous poultices put upon her body, numerous concoctions made by alchemists.

After ten years, and still with no sign of a child, it has been said that Catherine actually started to believe that she was sexually inadequate – that she wasn’t making love to her husband in the right way. And so the stout hearted woman had holes drilled in the floor of her bedchamber so that she could stare down through them and, in the hope of learning something herself, watch her husband and his mistress making love in the room below. My novel opens with this scene, which is thought to have taken place at the chateau of Fontainebleau. Eventually Catherine did conceive but whether conception was aided by either the voyeurism or the pagan remedies is anyone’s guess!

Later in life, it is clear that Catherine’s fairly innocent magical dabblings developed into something somewhat darker. Part of her entourage were the Ruggieri brothers, Cosimo and Tommaso, renowned astrologers but who also practised the black arts and meddled in the occult. At Catherine’s chateau at Chaumont, various sources recount that a black magic ceremony was performed with a mirror in a darkened room to see how long Catherine’s sons would remain on the throne. It is also said that other evidence of occult practices was found after Catherine vacated the premises after Henri’s death – pentacles drawn on the floor, altars decorated with skulls, the remains of animal sacrifices.

Dark arts aside, Catherine was also a consummate politician and tried to steer a steady course between the opposing parties of her day. She seems to have preferred the paths of reason and conciliation, but if diplomacy failed, she did not shy away from ruthlessly dealing with her enemies, especially in defence of her family. It has been said that later in her life she had her infamous Italian perfumier, Maitre Rene, create poisoned gloves to despatch those who stood against her. Some have maintained that she had an apothecary of deadly poisons – 237 secret compartments hidden behind the wooden panelled walls of the room adjacent to her bedroom and private chapel in the chateau of Blois. Others have argued, less sensationally, that it is far more likely that books and objets d’art were kept there. What is clear, even though the stories of Catherine’s murdering exploits have no doubt been exaggerated, is that she did not hesitate at times to get rid of her enemies.

To my mind, the common thread connecting all these diverse and seemingly contradictory elements of Catherine’s life and character was her unswerving desire to survive, in the face of singular hardships and trauma, and to ensure the survival of her dynasty. Pagan magic, darker spells, poison, plotting and intrigue, were all utilised and adopted to maintain her life and her line. She was strong, powerful, magical, ruthless, yet she was also a woman subject to her emotions – jealousy, fear, longing and resentment. And so there was a rich seam of irresistible references which drew me to her as a character. Perhaps she was a scourge, a sorceress and a slighted woman, but beyond all of those things she was a survivor, a true product of her life and times. And she became one of the strongest, most powerful and fascinating women of the sixteenth century.