CATHERINE DE MEDICI
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson on 22nd January 2004
'To be a great prince,' wrote Machiavelli, 'one must sometimes violate the laws of humanity.' Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) has been described as 'the Black Queen' and 'the Maggot from Italy's tomb', but - says her new biographer Leonie Frieda - the truth is very different.
Orphaned in infancy, imprisoned in childhood, heiress to an ancient name and vast fortune, Catherine was brought up in the Florentine court and married off, by her uncle the Pope, to Henry, Duke of Orléans, son of King Francis I of France. Aged only fourteen, she suffered cruelly as Henry loved only his beautiful mistress, Diane de Poitiers.
In 1559, when Henry, by then King of France, died horrifically in a jousting accident, Catherine was thrust into the lethal maelstrom of French power politics. With the country riven by communal strife, the forty-year-old widow and Queen Mother became the most important figure in France for the next thirty years. Having tried to foster religious tolerance, she was forced to adopt extreme methods as she struggled for the survival of her husband's legacy and her children's royal birthright. This led to the infamous St Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 24 August 1572, when thousands of French Protestants were slaughtered.
A contemporary and sometime ally of Elizabeth I of England, Catherine proved a superb political strategist and ruthless conspirator. Though regarded by many as a common interloper, and with no natural power base of her own, she nevertheless single-mindedly ruled France for her sickly and corrupt children, three of whom became kings of France, including one who married Mary, Queen of Scots. Her obsessive love for them was her fatal blind spot and ultimately threatened her magnificent achievements for France.
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