Catherine de' Medici was a member of one of the most powerful Italian ruling
families of the Renaissance, the daughter of Lorenzo de' Medici, Duke of Urbino,
and his wife the Bourbon princess Madeleine de la Tour d'Auvergne. She was the
niece of Pope Clement VII. Catherine's parents died when she was quite young,
and she was educated by nuns in Rome and Florence until 1533, when, at the age
of fourteen, she entered into a prearranged marriage with Henry, Duke of Orleans,
the oldest son of the French king. Catherine was concerned about the impression
she would make on the French court, being short of stature, and after consulting
a Florentine cobbler, arrived in France wearing the first high-heeled shoes Europe
had ever seen. Despite her attempts to find favor with the French, however,
Catherine was never a popular queen.
Catherine had no children until ten years after her marriage; in the meantime,
Henry had taken a mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who became an important influence
on him and on his politics for the rest of his life, while Catherine herself
remained in the background. She went on to have nine or ten children, three
future kings of France and two future queens of Spain. Catherine at last asserted
herself when she became regent in 1552, while Henry left the country to continue
France's war against Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.
In 1559, Henry died unexpectedly of a wound sustained in a jousting accident.
Francis then became king, but died after less than two years. His successor,
his brother Charles IX, was only ten, so Catherine again became regent. She was
unpopular in part because she was head of state during a time of intense civil
strife between the two main religious factions in France, Catholics and Huguenots.
Herself a Catholic, Catherine had to defend her own control of the throne, and
that of her sons when they became kings, against the attempts of the Huguenots to
destabilize their power. She introduced the Edict of Toleration in 1562 to try to
smooth over the conflicts, but that same year the first War of Religion began
nonetheless. Catherine would deal with three such wars in a decade. The pressures
of government that confronted her during her rule were perhaps impossible to
mitigate; however, she was not a skilled stateswoman, and made some unfortunate
decisions. For example, she persuaded her son King Charles IX to order the St.
Bartholomew's Day Massacre in 1572, which saw the deaths of nearly all the powerful
Huguenots. This bloody event horrified the whole of Europe.
Despite her shortcomings as a political leader, Catherine was instrumental in
expanding the range of French culture. She instigated the building of a new wing
of the Louvre, and initiated the construction of the Tuileries gardens. She is
also widely known as the patron of the first ballet, performed by Balthasar de
Beaujoyeux for her son King Henry III.