Catherine de Medici played an important part in the history of Sixteenth Century France. Catherine de Medici has been held partly responsible for starting the French Wars of Religion. But has her contribution been exaggerated? It is all but impossible to blame one person for a war let alone what turned into a series of wars. There are many other factors involved such as factional rivalry and religious intolerance which cannot be blamed on Catherine. However, there are problems which can be attributed to her.

Her background

Catherine was born in Florence in 1519. Her Italian background was always held against her by those in the French court. She married the future Henry II in 1533 and had ten children. She was the mother of Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III. While her husband was king she stayed in the background as there was no reason for her to grasp the limelight as her husband epitomised the strong king and the nobility appeared to be tamed under his strong leadership of the country. Catherine seemed to be happy in her role of mother. On Henry’s sudden death she had to come to the forefront as her eldest son, Francis, did not have the aura that his father had. Francis was a sick and weakly boy. The marriage of Francis to Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots) further undermined Catherine’s influence at court. The obvious physical weakness of Francis stimulated an attempt by the nobles to regain their power that had been curtailed under Francis I and Henry II. It was this move by the nobility that Catherine attempted to stop.

As Regent to Charles IX, Catherine succeeded in ousting the powerful Guise family from the royal court. Her appointment of Anthony of Bourbon as Lieutenant-General of France was a move to buy him off in his attempt to become Regent himself. Was this appointment a wise move ? It could only worsen the rivalry between the leading noble families in France. The Guise family lost out as a result of this appointment and as they were considered the most powerful Catholic family in France, they could use religion as a tool to further their claims to royal appointments as over 90% of France was Catholic. The Guise family could simply appeal for the support of the French people. In the 1560’s support for the Calvinists was limited to a few areas of France and these were away from Paris, the centre of government.

By removing the Duke of Guise from court, Catherine had made a powerful enemy who could play on defending the nation’s faith as a away to gain support from the people. He could also try to get aid from Catholic countries such as Spain, Bavaria and the Papal States. The removal of the Guise family from court was a huge blow to their prestige in France, and the family’s humiliation was made worse by the fact that their removal had been done by a woman. In a society where women were seen as being subservient to men, this was a painful blow to the family.

Catherine put the interests of her children above all else. As three of them were to become kings of France, it could be argued that she was putting the interests of the realm above all else and that it was the noble families who were destabilising France. However, her handling of the nobility only gained her short term results. Catherine had little if any knowledge of statesmanship but by putting herself at the forefront of the political arena on the death of Henry II, it seems unlikely that she could have adapted to the political scenario that existed in France with speed. 

Did Catherine  fail to understand the religious problem in France ? There were few who could claim to be a Politique and it is possible that if more had been and both sides had been less intransigent then the wars would never have started. However, a politician has to use what exists at that time and there was no evidence to suggest that either side on the religious divide was willing to compromise. In that sense, was Catherine being unrealistic in her drive to get a solution to the religious issue ? It would appear that she failed to understand the depth of feeling on both sides and had she done so she might have concluded that compromise, at best, was very difficult to achieve and, at worst, impossible.

However, a compromise was worth Catherine’s efforts. Why ? If either side was militarily victorious it would almost certainly turn on her and her children. Would the Huguenot Bourbon family, if successful , tolerate a catholic monarchy ? Would a victorious Guise family tolerate a woman who appointed a Huguenot as  Lieutenant-General of France ? Or discussed issues with Beza ? Catherine needed compromise as each family was so powerful.

Her involvement in the start of the second war was an accident. In June 1565, Catherine met her daughter, Queen Elizabeth of Spain at Bayonne. Also present there was the Duke of Alba. He was a staunch Catholic and military leader and Huguenot leaders in France assumed that, they were planning a Spanish invasion to destroy the Huguenots. There is no evidence to uphold this but such was the political climate in France that it was believed especially as Alba then moved from France to the Spanish Netherlands to put down rebellious Calvinists using Spanish soldiers and the region was very near the French border and a cross-border invasion would have been much easier than the Spanish having to navigate a passage through the Pyrenees in the south. 

Rather than wait to be attacked, the Huguenots attempted to capture the king at Meaux — but they failed. In response, the Catholics took up arms and the war started. The actions of the Huguenots at Meaux shocked Catherine de Medici especially as her son was the intended target and her sole aim was to protect him. She dropped her policy of toleration and moved to the hard-line Catholics. In 1568 as regent, Catherine issued an edict withdrawing all freedom of worship for Huguenots and ordered all Huguenot ministers to leave the country. Who was at fault here? The Huguenots for acting on unsubstantiated rumour or Catherine de Medici for acting in a way that she assumed was protecting her so ? As Regent, her main purpose was to protect the position or the monarch. Catherine also ordered the arrest of Coligny and Condé. This was a sensible move on her part as these two were the two main military leaders in the Huguenot ranks. However, it lead to the third war.

The third war exposed the crown’s chronic financial weakness and a prolonged war was too great. Catherine tried to negotiate a settlement but any conciliatory moves towards the Huguenots was met with anger by the leading catholic families. Catherine de Medici seemed to have got herself into a position by 1570 that whatever she did was greeted with suspicion by the fighting factions and that a compromise towards one side would provoke the other and vice versa.

Catherine de Medici moved back to a policy of moderation after 1570. Was this a realistic move ? A peaceful settlement would greatly benefit France so it is difficult to criticise her for this move but was it a feasible policy ? Catherine then produced what was considered a masterful move to weaken the power of the Guise family. She planned to marry her daughter to Philip II on Spain. This would give Catherine influence in the court of Madrid at a time when Spain was considered a major military power and the Guise family could not voice a complaint over this as Philip was known to be a staunch catholic.

 However, Philip refused the marriage proposal. Catherine then did something it is difficult to explain – she married her off to Henry of Navarre, son of the Huguenot Anthony of Bourbon. Such a move could only provoke the Catholics of France and it appeared as if Catherine de Medici was simply arranging family links to suit her purposes. The marriage to Philip if it had come off would only have angered less than 10% of the population. The marriage of a catholic member of the royal family to a Huguenot angered a substantial number and for this reason alone it is difficult to follow Catherine de Medici’s logic.

In 1571, Charles IX came under the influence of Coligny. The king called him ‘mon pere’ (‘my father’). Coligny got Charles to think in terms of aiding the Calvinists in Holland. Catherine was furious at her loss of influence over her own son and it was made worse when Charles, persuaded by Coligny, sent an army to aid the anti-Spanish Louis of Nassau in the Spanish Netherlands. The French army was defeated and Catherine  was fearful that France would be dragged into a war with Spain simply as a result of Coligny’s hold over her son. Catherine decided on a simple solution.

On August 1572, the nobles of France gathered at the wedding of Margaret and Henry of Navarre. At this happening, Coligny was shot and wounded. If Charles IX ordered an inquiry Catherine’s involvement would become plain for all to see. Catherine decided on a massacre of all Huguenot leaders and she persuaded her son that they, the Huguenots, were planning a general takeover of France and that they had abused their friendship of the king. The Saint Bartholomew’s Massacre followed. This was celebrated throughout catholic Europe. Almost certainly Catherine wanted a limited operation but about 6000 Huguenots were murdered in a plan that got out of hand. The consequence of this massacre was to put Catherine de Medici at the mercy of the Guise family who knew of her role in it. In fact, the Duke of Guise supervised the murder of Coligny himself. Catherine de Medici lost all her influence. “Her role shriveled into one of pathetic manoeuvring between the noble factions which really governed France.” (Williams)

Her sudden move to extremism alienated both the Politiques and the Huguenots. Catherine was identified with the Catholics at their most extreme and intolerant. The crown was seen to be all but impotent and the Huguenots and Politiques set-up what was essentially a state-within-a-state in the south. This was called Languedoc. The region was lead by Henry of Montmorency-Damville. “Damville was the de facto ruler of all France south of the Loire.” (Lockyer)  This was a damning indictment of the crown’s weakness. However, many in Languedoc looked to Catherine’s youngest son, the Duke of Alençon to lead them. Alencon hated his brothers as they stood in the way of his desire for the throne. Alencon attempted a coup d’etat which failed and Catherine arrested both Alençon and Henry of Navarre.

On the death of Charles IX, the Duke of Anjou returned from Poland and became Henry III in February 1575. Catherine urged Henry III to organise his court and then moved away from politics as she expected her son to easily cope with problems. But both Navarre and Alencon escaped from prison and went to Languedoc where Damville protected both. Both men blamed the Guise family for the problems of France as opposed to the monarchy and they organised a military force. The fifth war was uneventful and both Henry III and Catherine realised that the crown would have to come to terms with the Huguenots. Alencon was now Duke of Anjou — a title his brother had given up. He negotiated the Peace of Monsieur in May 1579. This produced a huge catholic backlash and lead to the creation of the Catholic League or Holy Christian Union lead by Henry of Guise. They saw their task as defending the catholic faith at all costs.

1577 to 1584 was an era of tenuous and fragile peace which could have been broken at any time. In 1588 Henry III dismissed those ministers who had been appointed by him on the advice of Catherine and in 1589 Catherine died of pneumonia.

‘Her death made no more stir than the death of a goat.” 

Pierre de L’Estoile, a contemporary.