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Death of a King

Cursed be the magician who predicted so evilly and so well

June - July 1559

On the late afternoon of Friday 30th June 1559 a long splinter of wood from a jousting lance pierced the eye and brain of King Henry II of France. The poisonous wound bloated his face, slowly robbing him of sight, speech and reason and after ten days of suffering he died at the Château des Tournelles in Paris. His death was not only tragic, it would prove calamitous.

The jousting had been part of celebrations to mark the signing in April of the Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis, which brought to an end France and Spain's ruinous series of wars over Italy. Many dismayed Frenchmen believed Italy had been given away through the mere stroke of a pen, and no one felt this more keenly than Henry's Florentine wife Catherine de Medici, whose hopes of recovering her lost patrimony vanished with the peace. Yet she took one consolation from the treaty: that her eldest daughter Elisabeth would marry the most eligible parti in Europe, King Philip II of Spain. A further sweetener provided a husband for Henry's spinster sister and Catherine's closest friend, Marguerite, who at the age of thirty-six had been considered practically unmarriageable. She was to wed Philip's ally, Emmanuel-Philibert the Duke of Savoy, a hearty soldier with the unpromising nickname of 'Iron-head'.

No time was lost in arranging the weddings. Determined to show Philip that France remained undiminished despite her Italian sacrifice, Henry - although choked with war debts - had borrowed over one million écus 'to defray the setting out of these triumphs'. A vigorous and robust man, he excelled at the joust and had arranged the five-day contest largely to show off his own skill. Both Henry and Catherine were, not surprisingly, disappointed when Philip - a widower since the recent death of the English Queen, Mary Tudor, the previous year - announced that he would not be coming to Paris himself. Characteristically, the

punctilious monarch offered tradition as his explanation, saying: 'Custom demands that the kings of Spain should not go to fetch their wives but that their wives should be brought to them.' Instead the groom sent a dismal proxy - the severe soldier-statesman Fernando Alvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba.

With the rise of Protestantism in France gravely threatening both the king's authority and the country's unity, Henry had been compelled to make peace with Philip.

Early in June Henry had issued an edict announcing a crusade to rid his realm of 'the Lutheran scum' and whilst nothing much could be done until the departure of his august guests, he ordered the arrest of several prominent Protestants in Paris. Quickly tried and sentenced to burn at the stake for heresy, their seizure caused a considerable outcry, and a stay of execution was given until after the celebrations. The condemned men awaited their fate in the dungeons of Le Châtelet prison in Paris, while nearby in the wide rue Saint -Antoine next to the Château des Tournelles, they could hear the paving stones being pulled up to make way for the jousting lists, and the building of stands for the spectators and triumphal arches emblazoned with the arms of Spain, France and Savoy.

Heralds issued the king's challenge that His Majesty the King of France, his eldest son Francis the Dauphin, the Duke of Guise, and other princes at the French court were to take on all-comers. Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, the English Ambassador, reported that 'The King himself, the Dauphin and the nobles … do daily assay themselves at the tilt which is like to be very grand and sumptuous.' The Parisians loved a spectacle, but their expectations were confounded when Alba and his suite arrived on 15th June. Spanish fashions had always been austere, but their dark and mean-looking clothes left the French wondering whether a deliberate affront had been intended. A few days later all this was forgotten when Henry welcomed his enemy of yesterday to the Louvre Palace. Emmanuel-Philibert of Savoy came escorted by 150 men gorgeously dressed in crimson doublets, matching shoes and black velvet cloaks embroidered with gold lace.

On Thursday, 22nd June, the thirteen-year-old Elisabeth of France married Philip of Spain, aged thirty-two, by proxy at Notre-Dame Cathedral. After the wedding a primitive ritual took place. Elisabeth and Alba climbed into the huge State bed - each with one leg naked. As their bare limbs touched and they rubbed their feet together, the marriage was declared consummated. Six days later, on Wednesday 28th June, the jousts began.

By Friday, the third day of the tournament, the weather turned hot and heavy. The rue Saint-Antoine enjoyed little shade and a large number of peasants had climbed onto the roofs of the houses to watch the king enter the lists. For weeks the ladies and gentlemen of the court had been preparing 'their handsome and costly apparel', some wearing the entire value of their estates on their backs. In an attempt to dazzle at the celebrations Catherine had ordered three hundred lengths of gold and silver cloth from Italy for her gowns; extravagant by nature she delighted in wearing regal confections. One observer noted that it was hard to say whether the sun or the jewels shone more brightly. The King had never seemed happier.

The same cannot be said for his wife. Seated with her son the Dauphin and the lofty figure of her daughter-in-law Mary, Queen of Scots, Catherine was noticeably anxious. The night before she had dreamt that her husband lay stricken on the ground, his face covered in blood. The queen's unshakeable belief in seers and astrologers gave her every reason to be fearful. In 1552, Luc Gauric, the Italian astrologer of the Medici family, had warned Henry that he must take particular care around his fortieth year to 'avoid all single combat in an enclosed space', lest he risked a wound that could blind or even kill him. Henry was now forty years and four months old. Furthermore in 1555 Nostradamus had published this prophecy in Centuries quatrain no: I.XXXV:

'The young lion will overcome the old, in A field of combat in a single fight. He will Pierce his eyes in a golden cage, two Wounds in one, he then dies a cruel death.'

Citing these evil omens, for the old lion could be interpreted as the king and the cage of gold his visor, Catherine had implored her husband not to fight that day. He is even supposed to have remarked to the same man who was accidentally to strike him down: 'I care not if my death be in that manner .… I would even prefer it, to die by the hand of whoever he might be, so long as he was brave and valiant and that I kept my honour.'

Henry's mistress was conspicuously seated surrounded by ladies of the court. The superb Diane de Poitiers, Duchess of Valentinois, had held the heart of the king since he was a teenager. Now almost sixty years old, 'Madame' as she was known by all - including the queen - had lost none of her charms, in his eyes at least, being still 'the lady that I serve'. Cold, remote and elegant, Diane had been widowed in 1531. Since the death of her husband she wore only black and white mourning, knowing how well it became her, particularly beside the dandified courtiers. Catherine, forty years old, plump and dumpy after giving birth to ten children, had long since mastered the 'art of opportune pretending' and, with a few rare exceptions, she had spent the last twenty-six years gracefully not noticing 'Madame's' total enslavement of the husband she pathetically adored.

Henry began the day by jousting well. Wearing Diane's colours of black and white, he saw off challenges from the Dukes of Guise and Nemours. Pleased with the horse given to him by Emmanuel-Philibert of Savoy, Henry graciously shouted up to him: 'It is your horse that has helped me tilt well today!' By now the king was tired, but insisted on riding a further course. Catherine sent word asking him not to continue. Irritated, Henry nevertheless replied curteously: 'It is precisely for you that I fight.' Once more he mounted his horse - prophetically named Malheureux - and prepared to tilt against the valiant young captain of his Scottish guard, Gabriel Count de Montgomery. As he did so, it is said that a boy in the crowd broke the expectant silence with the cry: 'The king will die!'

A few moments later the two men clashed and Montgomery almost knocked Henry from the saddle. It was five o'clock and some spectators rose to leave. The king was good-humoured but wanted his revenge. Although Montgomery had become afraid and begged to be allowed to retire, Henry insisted with the shout: 'It's an order!' Catherine once again asked the king to stop. Ignoring her he demanded his helmet from the Marshal de Vieilleville, who said: 'Sire, I swear before God that for the last three nights I have dreamt that today, this last day of June, will be fatal for you.' Henry could barely have heard these words because he did not wait for the customary trumpet call that signalled the opening of the course. The two riders thundered towards each other. As they met with a crack of splintering wood, Henry, his arms clinging to the horse's neck, 'had great ado (reling to and fro) to kepe himself on horseback'. The queen shrieked and with a loud cry the crowd rose to their feet.

The two most powerful men in France after the king himself - the Duke de Montmorency and the Duke of Guise - rushed forward to stop Henry from falling out of the saddle. Lowering him to the ground they removed his armour. They found the visor half-open and his face soaked in blood with wooden splinters 'of a good bigness' protruding from his eye and temple. The King was 'very weak … almost benumbed … he moved neither hand nor fote, but laye as one amazed'. Seeing this, his young opponent begged his sovereign that his head and his hands be cut off, but 'The good natured king who for his kindness had no equal in his time answered that he was not angry … and that he had nothing to pardon, since he had obeyed his king and carried himself like a brave knight.' The crowd pressed round to catch a glimpse of Henry, who was carried away to the Château des Tournelles. Once there, the gates were locked and he insisted on mounting the grand staircase on his feet, but having his head and shoulders supported. It was a miserable procession. The Dauphin, who predictably had fainted, was carried up after the king, followed by Catherine and the most senior nobles. Collapsing onto his bed, Henry immediately tried to clasp his hands in prayer and strike his chest in contrition for his sins. It was as if he was already preparing for death.

'There was marvellous great lamentation and weeping for him from both men and women'; wrote Throckmorton, and it was feared that the king would not live for many moments longer. The royal surgeons were summoned. Henry's bravery was singular as the doctors tried to remove the splinters. Retching with pain, only once was the unfortunate patient heard to cry out. The usual appalling remedies (by modern standards) were prescribed: he was bled, purged, and given an ounce of barely gruel which he promptly vomited, 'refrigeratives applied', the wound was dressed with egg-white. After this he sank into a state of feverish semi-consciousness and was attended that night by his wife, the Duke of Savoy and the Duke of Guise's brother, the Cardinal of Lorraine. The king had a 'very evil rest' and at three o'clock in the morning the vigil changed. Taken away to lie down, Catherine seemed in a trance of shock.

Savoy had meanwhile summoned Philip II's own surgeon, André Vesalius. The decapitated heads of several criminals who had been executed the day before were brought to the celebrated physician. He and Ambroise Paré (his French counterpart) tried with jagged shards of wood to reproduce the wound on the skulls of the corpses. As they discussed the inconclusive results of their grisly experiments, Henry continued his decline. In brief periods of lucidity he asked for music and dictated a letter to the French ambassador in Rome expressing the hope that the fight so recently begun against the heretics would continue if he recovered. The notable absence of Diane de Poitiers reflected Henry's hopeless condition. 'Madame … has not entered the bedchamber since the day of the wound, for fear of being expelled by the Queen', noted one chronicler. Catherine had shared her entire married life with Diane, but these last moments belonged to her alone. In another part of the château, Diane anxiously waited for news of her lover. Two nights before Henry died an officer came from the queen, demanding the return of the many jewels belonging to the Crown that Henry had given to his greedy mistress. 'What! Is he dead?' she is said to have asked. 'Not yet Madame,' he answered 'but he cannot last long.' Diane replied that as long as there was breath in the king's body she would not lose heart and would obey 'none but he'.

On the evening of 4th July the king's temperature rose sharply. Septicaemia had set in. There was talk of trepanning the wound to relieve the pressure and ease his pain, but removal of the bandages revealed such large quantities of pus that the idea was abandoned. Henry was doomed and nothing further could be done but to await his death. This was the event Catherine had dreaded ever since she had married Henry as a fourteen-year-old girl. She had been a passionately devoted, adoring wife. Always fearful of losing him, she and her ladies had worn mourning whenever he had gone off to war. During his martial expeditions, when not constantly writing asking for news of him, she had been at prayer making extravagant offerings, clasping her many amulets and charms to ensure his safe return. Though she had always feared the doom-laden prophecies, she had not prepared herself for this.

Alternating between prayers and tears, Catherine hurried from her dying husband to the Dauphin who lay in bed rocking to and fro moaning and crying as if unhinged as he knocked his head against the wall. She was finally unable to watch as Henry lost his power of sight and speech. During his last lucid moments, he had told his son to write to Philip of Spain commending his family and his kingdom to his protection. Taking his hands, he said: 'My son, you are going to be without your father but not without his blessing. I pray that you will be more fortunate than I have been.' 'My God! How can I live if my father dies?' cried the Dauphin, and promptly fainted again.

Some say the king called for Catherine on 8th July and after urging the queen to ensure that his sister Marguerite's marriage went ahead, 'he commended to her his kingdom and his children'. The following night the cheerless wedding of Marguerite and the Duke of Savoy duly took place in Elisabeth's room, the mass said hurriedly in case news of the king's death arrived before it was completed. Catherine was too tormented to attend. The following morning at dawn Henry received extreme unction and at one o'clock that afternoon he died. Years later his daughter, Margot, recalled her father's death as 'The vile blow which deprived our House of happiness and our country of peace'.

During the king's last days the most powerful men in the country gathered around their master's bed. They were not, however, united. The Duke de Montmorency, Grand Master and Constable of France, had been Henry's mentor, friend and surrogate father. A military man and a conservative, he was, aside from the Crown and Church, the largest landowner in France, enjoying unquestioned support from his fiefdoms. Although he was a Catholic himself, some of his family had recently become Protestants or Protestant-sympathisers. During the last year of Henry's life, the Constable had joined with Diane, the king's mistress, to keep their rivals, the Guise brothers from power.

The two elder Guise brothers, from a cadet branch of the House of Lorraine (a duchy on France's north-eastern border) could also call upon the assistance of many client vassals. The elder - Duke François - was a popular war hero. A brave and distinguished soldier, he had been a favourite of the late king. His brother Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, a masterly politician and a supreme courtier, was also France's Chief Inquisitor. The pair, both ultra-Catholics and with complimentary talents, made a formidable team. Latterly they had fallen out of favour for not supporting the return of France's Italian possessions in the recent treaty. This in turn had brought them more into sympathy with Catherine. Now they expected a central role in the government of the country, not least because they were the uncles of Mary the fifteen-year-old Queen of Scots, wife of Catherine's feeble eldest son, and since Henry's death, the new Queen of France. To Catherine's intense irritation, Mary had enormous influence over her husband, still a teenager but now King, Francis II, and she in turn relied upon her uncles for guidance in matters large and small.

Since the accident Paris had turned from a crowded festive city to a silent place where the overwhelming majority of people were stunned and sorrowful at losing their king. They also rightly feared the political uncertainties that lay before the kingdom. 'The palace has passed from marriage to a morgue', wrote one observer, and in the streets the common people genuinely mourned their sovereign's passing. The proclamation of King Francis II gave them little reason to feel encouraged.

Montmorency and other senior noblemen of the non-Guisard faction stayed with the corpse of the late king as the surgeons removed his heart and entrails for separate burial, and then embalmed his body. All over the Château des Tournelles altars were set up and rooms and passages were draped in black. Around the now embalmed body of the king came relays of bishops and other churchmen. The clerics, surrounded by tall candles, knelt and sang psalms for the dead as Henry's room became transformed into a richly-decorated chapel with an altar at each end of his bed. On benches covered in silver cloth sat subjects high and low who attended one of six requiem masses held daily for the king's soul. Catherine herself paid reverence to her late husband of nearly twenty-six years. Kneeling before him she bade his body farewell as those remaining at the château began the elaborate forty-day vigil.

During this critical period Constable Montmorency and his party were sidelined as the Guises took over the major offices of state. While Montmorency - whom Francis II loathed - had probably anticipated some loss of power, he could scarcely have imagined the extent to which he would find himself politically marginalised. Indeed the bickering had already begun before the king was dead; the Guises spoke of impeaching the Constable for not ensuring the king's safety during the jousting, while the old man wandered the corridors, inconsolable at the prospect of losing his master, friend and comrade in arms.

Leaving the body of the late king with Montmorency and his allies, the Guises knew they must establish themselves in power before the country had time to react to the tragedy. A serious threat to their hegemony could be anticipated from the First Prince of the Blood, Antoine de Bourbon, and his brothers. The Bourbons, like the Valois, both descended from the Capet dynasty that had ruled France since the year 987. In 1328 Charles IV le Bel died without a male heir and the main branch of the Capetians died out, passing the crown to the Valois, a junior branch of the dynasty. Should Henry and Catherine's four surviving sons die without male issue the Bourbon family were next in line to the throne. Legally, as the only Princes of the Blood apart from these four Valois princes, the Bourbons would dominate any ruling council. Though Antoine de Bourbon was lazy, selfish and weak-willed, the Guises did not want to take unnecessary risks and decided that the new king should be removed to the Louvre, away from their rivals. Accordingly, Francis, and his wife, as well as Catherine's younger children were gathered together to make the short journey across Paris. The bleak figure, clad in black, of the stricken dowager queen then unexpectedly joined the party. She spurned not only the usual white mourning of French queens but the tradition that demanded she remain in seclusion for forty days where her husband had died. Catherine knew that she must now break with custom. Though devastated by her loss she was essential to the Guises' coup d'etat.

During her husband's reign Catherine had skilfully kept from openly siding with either the Guise or the Montmorency factions. Maintaining a sweet disposition and good relations with both, she frequently sought their advice and help, disarming them with her appearance of humility. Though they were unaware of it, she detested both parties in almost equal measure. She would not forget their past wrongs, their toadying to Diane de Poitiers and their immense hold over her late husband. They in turn had generally ignored the queen, badly underestimating her intelligence and hidden pride. Meanwhile, although King Francis II was technically old enough to rule, his obvious weaknesses both physical and mental required a council to administer the country. To protect her son, her small children and herself, Catherine had to join the Guise brothers' cabal.

The Guises did not lack enemies: some were jealous of their wealth and power, some did not share their ultra-catholicism, and some regarded them as foreign usurpers. The brothers needed Catherine to legitimise their position; her presence lent them her implicit sanction. Thus an unspoken compact seems to have been made between the widow and the Guises. The gates of the Château des Tournelles were opened in order to allow the royal carriages to depart for the Louvre and so that the large crowd outside could witness the royal family leaving. Various observers recalled the Duke of Guise carrying one of Catherine's youngest children in his arms presenting a potent image of fatherly protection for the onlookers. Mary was seen to hang back for a moment to let her mother-in-law enter the coach first but Catherine understood her new place and seemed even to relish it, publicly insisting that the new queen take precedence.

For the first time Catherine was to have a role that belonged exclusively to her. She had had to share her husband with Diane de Poitiers. She had to a large extent shared being Queen of France with Diane; she had even been forced to share the upbringing of her young children with the favourite. Yet her widowhood would be hers alone. For the rest of her days she was to guard it with jealousy. Her life would be dedicated to the memory of Henry and their children, for they were his legacy to France. She would be the guardian of the monarchy and his legend, learning to fashion history according to her needs. After a lifetime obscured behind her mask of supple self-effacement, the forty-year old queen mother shrouded in widow's weeds was taking her first cautious steps towards becoming mistress of France.

© Leonie Frieda 2004-2021