Marie de Medici (1575 - 1642) was like her Medici predecessor, the notorious and murderous Catherine de Medici, in that they both came from the fabulously wealthy Italian banking family and both became Regent Queens of France. A stubborn and meddlesome woman, she nonetheless had some artistic aspirations. Her total lack of political acumen and her endless intriguing led to her downfall.
She was the second wife of Henry IV of France, the first monarch of the Bourbon dynasty. Henry was one of the most popular French Kings in history having effectively ended France's terrible religious wars between the Catholics and Protestants. He was a tolerant ruler and a courageous military leader. He cared for his subjects, but his personal life was a mess.
|Marie as a young girl|
The marriage to Marie was doomed from the start due to his infidelity. Henry was a serial adulterer beginning with his first wife, Marguerite Valois. That first marriage was childless and was thus annulled as Henry needed a legitimate heir. He was already in his late forties and time was matching on.
Henry had an insatiable sexual appetite. He wasn't too choosy about women either - courtesan or common street prostitute never mattered to him. One of his most prominent mistresses was Catherine Henriette de Balzac d'Entragues, an ambitious courtesan who wanted to marry Henry. He almost married his previous favorite, Gabrielle d'Estrées who died in childbirth, so Catherine thought why not she?
Catherine was beautiful, witty, charming and utterly mercenary from head to toe. Before he could bed her, she asked him to fork over a huge pile of money and a written promise to marry her should she bear him a son within a stated period. So eager for this pleasure, he unwisely gave what she wanted. But she miscarried the child and therefore lost her chance to be queen.
All this time, he was also pursuing a marriage with Marie de Medici whose chief attraction was her fabulous wealthy family. Henry owed a great deal to her uncle and he wanted the debt forgiven. He also thought, at least from her portraits, that she was the most attractive of the princesses available on the marriage market at the time.
Imagine his shock when the rather plain 26-year-old Marie arrived in France. He had been perhaps misled by younger portraits of her. As one duchess gently put it, "she is inclined to be a little heavy". Henry was less complimentary when he grumbled to a friend, "I have been deceived! She is not beautiful!"
But Henry did his dynastic duty and got his bride pregnant on their honeymoon. Soon after, he also managed to get Catherine with child too. Catherine insisted on being presented to the new Queen whose imperfect French was enough to know who Catherine really was. Henry confirmed matters by telling her with zero finesse, "This is my mistress who wishes to be your servant."
Not that the embittered Catherine had any desire to be truly Marie's servant. She made fun of Marie by mimicking her Italian accent, her poor French and her awkward gait. She called Marie, "his fat Florentine banker" referring to her mercantile ancestors. Marie was grievously hurt to see Henry treat Catherine with much more affection.
|Henry IV and Marie de Medici and their children|
Marie thought that once she bore her firstborn son, the dauphin, the future King Louis XIII, she would then triumph over Catherine and " would begin to be a queen". But a few weeks after the royal birth, Catherine also gave birth to a son. Henry made a greater fuss over his illegitimate son. He added salt to the wound by declaring this son more good looking and not fat and dark like Louis and the Medicis. Catherine also went around boasting that her child was the legitimate heir.
Marie was so angry with the "King's whore" as she called Catherine, that she made one major attempt to show up her rival. She gave Henry letters Catherine wrote to a courtier where she made fun of the King. But Catherine was able to lie her way out by claiming the letters were a forgery. She then told him she would forgive him this aggravation if he gave her money! So Henry became annoyed with Marie for having started all this and making him lose more money in the process.
Any hope of a happy marriage was dashed forever. According to the British Ambassador at the time, Marie withdrew, locked herself in her bedroom and cried. He said, "She refused to open the door to the King when he knocked." Although they did go on to have 5 more children, the rest of the marriage was marked with violent quarrels and recriminations.
You'd think Henry would have dismissed Catherine for some peace and quiet but he never did. He just couldn't let Catherine go. Clueless, he actually said, "I receive from my wife neither companionship nor gaiety nor consolation, she either cannot or will not show me kindness or pleasant conversation, neither will she accommodate herself to my moods and disposition. Instead, she shows such a cold and disdainful expression when I come in and go to kiss and embrace her and laugh a little with her, that I am forced to leave her in vexation and go look for my relaxation elsewhere." If he was thinking at all, it was clearly not with his brain.
It didn't help matters that Henry expected Marie to raise his illegitimate children alongside their own. The constant parental bickering deeply affected Marie's children who also had to compete for their father's attention. It was no wonder Louis was a difficult and temperamental child.
After ten years of marriage, Marie was finally crowned Queen of France. Henry bought the Beau Sancy diamond, a 35 carat double rose cut diamond for her. It has been suggested that Henry willingly paid for this diamond because Marie was so incensed she missed getting its larger cousin, the Sancy diamond, which was sold to King James I of England. Anything to appease her. The diamond sat at the top of the crown she wore for the coronation.
|Beau Sancy diamond|
|Coronation of Marie de Medici|
Henry IV was stabbed to death by a Catholic fanatic the very day after the coronation. One of the first things Marie did after the assassination was to banish Catherine from the court.
She became Regent for Louis, then 9 years old. During her time as Regent, she undertook many artistic endeavors. She was responsible for the construction and furnishing of the lovely Palais du Luxembourg - one of her greatest achievements. She referred to it as her Palais Médicis.
Alas she was a weak Regent, lacking any political acumen whatsoever. She was so incompetent, the French nobility finally revolted. She was forced to buy them off. She then appointed Armand Jean du Pleissis, the future Cardinal Richelieu in her council - a wise move as he was a capable man. Richelieu was not really like the villainous character we see portrayed in movies such as the Three Musketeers. In reality his position and career was entirely dependent on royal favor.
Marie eventually became estranged from her eldest son who had her exiled when he gained his majority as King. Being banished didn't stop her from meddling. She later supported her younger son, Gaston d'Orleans' revolt against Louis which was quickly put down. Richelieu, now Louis' Chief Minister, arranged for Marie to be reconciled with Louis and she was allowed back into her son's royal council.
But then she took exception to her son seeking guidance from Richelieu and not herself. In one stormy scene, she demanded that Louis choose between Richelieu and her. Louis did not give an immediate answer.
She was forced to sell all her jewels including the Beau Sancy because she was heavily in debt. She escaped from France and continued to plot against Richelieu for the rest of her life. She died in Cologne aged 67.
In an amazing twist of fate, Marie's granddaughter, Mary Stuart, (daughter of Charles I of England and his French wife, Marie's daughter Henriette-Marie), later received the Beau Sancy diamond as a wedding gift long after her grandmother lost it.
Before You Go :
- Jean-Baptiste Tavernier and the Hope Diamond
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- Harry Winston and the Hope Diamond
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