464 pages, Harper Perennial, ISBN-13: 978-0060744939
Catherine de Medici has been called many things over the centuries – Madame La Serpente; The Black Queen; The Maggot from Italy's Tomb (!) – but one thing she hasn't been called is boring. In Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France, Leonie Frieda has crafted an engrossing biography of a much maligned Queen. Catherine de Medici came to France at the age of fourteen to marry Henri, Duke of Orleans, later to become as King Henri II. She was not a princess; in fact, she not of royal blood at all. Instead, Catherine was the daughter of wealthy Italian merchants: her father was Lorenzo II de Medici and her mother was named Madeleine de la Tour d' Auvergne. Shortly after her birth, Catherine lost both her parents and became a pawn (and prisoner) of her powerful Medici relatives. Frieda's biography is intended to provide a sympathetic and diverse view of a woman that history has branded a poisoner and murderer. Far from straying from Catherine flaws, the author openly discusses the events that helped cast the Italian-French Queen as a villain. To better understand Catherine's later disastrous actions, one has to follow Catherine's history from her tragic childhood to her fortunate but unfulfilling (to Henri anyway) marriage to Henri II. The author does a superb job at identifying the key events that helped form this courageous and powerhouse Queen.
The gist of the author's argument is that Catherine's greatest fault was loving her children to the extreme. She writes: “No mother has done more to promote her children at whatever cost to herself, themselves, and their times.” Even before conceiving a child, Catherine was going to the extreme for her unborn children. Barren for a decade, Catherine subjected herself to dangerous and bizarre treatments to increase fertility. Perhaps the most extreme action Catherine took to increase her chances of conceiving was watching her husband and his mistress, Diane de Poitier, make love. It is said Catherine ordered holes drilled in her floor where she might watch her husband and his mistress. Since Diane had borne her husband a child, Catherine figured she might pick up clues why her and her husband's lovemaking was not resulting in a pregnancy. Catherine did conceive, in fact; ten children, to be exact. Tragically, Catherine survived all but two: Margot and Henri III.
Frieda argues that the actions Catherine took to defend her children and their legacy resulted in the image of Catherine de Medici that survives today. After the death of her husband and the reign of her first born, Francis II, France became embroiled in a bitter religious war between Catholics and Protestants. Catherine's reluctance to put a forceful end to the Protestant movement vilified her in the eyes of Catholics, yet, Catherine's involvement in the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre turned Protestants against her, as well, and for good reason.
I disagree with certain reviewers who claim Frieda's biography fails to provide a sympathetic view of Catherine. If you are judging by 21st Century standards, the no, this book is in no way sympathetic to Catherine de Medici. After all, what modern mother who plots, murders, and even sacrifices her own children would be considered anything but evil? Catherine did all these things. She ordered assassinations of individuals who put her sons’ legacy in jeopardy. She clearly ordered the murder of Lignerolles, a gentleman who Catherine believed was steering her son Henri towards religious fanaticism and possible homosexuality. She also beat her daughter Margot for daring to engage in romantic liaisons with Henri of Guise. Additionally, immediately after the death of her daughter Elisabeth, who was married to Philip II of Spain, Catherine was busy proposing a second marriage to Philip, this time to her other daughter, Margot. Worst of all, Catherine offered to eliminate her own daughter in order for her husband, Henri of Navarre, to marry Christina of Lorraine. The marriage between the latter would have quelled the religious strife that was tearing the nation apart.
In order to truly appreciate the portrait Frieda is trying to portray of Catherine, you must not judge by modern standards. Catherine's main preoccupation was retaining her children's legacy and achieving peace in a country that was torn between Protestants and Catholics. As the mother of weak, sickly, and foolish Kings, Catherine was determined to plot, murder, and sacrifice to ensure the future of the Valois dynasty, not a commendable 21st Century trait, but the workings of a powerful and admirable 16th Century Queen.