Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) was born an Italian commoner but became the Queen Consort of France's Henry II. She was a remarkable woman but vilified by many as an evil one.

Known as the Dark or Black Queen, the Maggot from Italy's Tomb and even Madame La Serpente, Catherine fought like a tigress for her cubs and did whatever it took to preserve her children's Valois dynasty legacy. She endured numerous personal tragedies and setbacks which would have crushed weaker individuals.

A contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, Catherine was like the English queen in many ways - highly intelligent, politically astute, and strong having had a difficult and dangerous childhood. Her Medici family was immensely rich and powerful with Popes as relations. Catherine was orphaned as a tiny baby - both parents dying within weeks of her birth. When the family lost power for a while, little Catherine was taken hostage and was almost killed.

Catherine was no beauty. Homely in appearance, she unfortunately inherited the bulging eyes of the Medici but still she had plenty of suitors because of her wealth. She was married to Henry when she was just 14. Pope Clement, who brokered the deal, called the marriage "the greatest match in the world". It may have been but the union was to bring Catherine much sorrow and personal sacrifice.

Her wedding trousseau was spectacular. 3 pounds of gold and 2 pounds of silver went towards the embroidery of glittering gowns. Even her lingerie was made from lace, gold and silver cloth. The jewelry she took to France and added to the French Crown jewel collection was beyond compare. The most famous were huge pear shaped pearls said to be worth "a kingdom". These were later given to her daughter-in-law, Mary Queen of Scots (see my bejeweled mini-biography). After the unfortunate Mary was executed, Elizabeth appropriated them.

The most valuable object she brought with her was the casket of rock crystal (see my past post on the fortune telling gemstone)  by the Italian master gem cutter, Valerio Belli Vincentino. The panels depicted various religious scenes.

Catherine fell passionately in love with her husband, a handsome fellow if somewhat introverted and gloomy. But he did not love her. The only woman he deeply cared for was the beautiful Diane de Poitiers (left). Catherine was terribly hurt but she knew enough to keep her mouth shut.

Diane was first assigned by Henry's father, King Francis to "tame" the 19 year old. She did much more than that. She commanded all his love, shared his confidences - in short became everything a wife should be - for the rest of his life.

Diane was nearly 20 years older than Henry, yet looked much younger. Some of her beauty secrets included plenty of cold water, no late nights and light exercise. However medical historians discovered last year, her very pale skin and extremely fine fragile hair was due to the toxic effects of the elixir (gold chloride, diethyl ether and mercury) she drank as an anti-aging treatment.

Catherine was barren for the first 10 years of her marriage. Already unpopular with the French because she was a commoner, she was almost cast aside. She was fortunate her father-in-law, King Francis I recognized her potential as an able future queen consort and protected her.

Desperate to preserve her position, she tried all sorts of crazy remedies to get pregnant including drinking mule's urine. She even applied foul smelling poultices to her "source of life" which quite honestly would have been a birth control method in itself as Henry wouldn't want to be anywhere near her let alone do his duty. Finally, after a physician pointed out certain slight physical abnormalities and made suggestions, the royal couple started to produce several children - 10 in 12 years. Catherine had a very strong constitution considering how many women died in childbirth in her time.

She was also an athletic woman who loved to hunt and was a good horsewoman. She introduced the side saddle for women - the previous contraption was an unwieldy armchair like affair. It allowed her to sit gracefully on a horse and showed off her lovely legs, one of the few good features she had.  But she wisely also introduced the pantaloons, the forerunner of panties, which preserved feminine modesty when being helped off horses.

When his father died, Henry ascended the throne. Catherine was 28. You'd think with her new position as Queen Consort, he wouldn't ignore her as much. In truth, his mistress kept him on a tight leash. Diane grew greedy and made sure she got titles, real estate and jewelry gifts while keeping his wife in the background. Poor Catherine did not even have much say in how the royal nursery was run.She must have choked when Henry appointed Diane as her lady-in-waiting.

Clever Catherine needed an outlet. Although she was adept at the sciences - astronomy, physics and mathematics, her evil reputation arose because of her fascination with the black arts and necromancy. She apparently had the gift of second sight - witnesses said she would wake screaming and prophesying the death of a loved one. Her much feared parfumier was also adept with poisons. Indeed, during her time, sales of the legendary poison antidote, mithridatum soared.

Physicians with the dying Henry II

In 1559, Catherine was filled with dread at the start of a tournament where Henry was taking part. She had dreamed the night before he lay wounded on the ground with his face covered in blood. 7 years prior to that, an Italian astrologer advised Henry to "avoid all single combat in an enclosed space" when he was 40 because he could be blinded or killed. And so it came to pass*. A splinter from a lance pierced his eye and his brain. The wound got infected. It took him 10 agonizing days to die. As he lay dying he called out repeatedly for Diane but she was never sent for. Nor was she invited to the funeral.

 The widowed Catherine de Medici

Only when Henry was dead did he truly belong to Catherine, and Catherine alone. She wore her widow's black with pride. The day after his death, Catherine forced Diane to return the jewels Henry gave her which probably included the oldest recorded diamond, the legendary Briolette of India (see my past bejeweled biography Eleanor of Aquitane's Jewel). Catherine then banished her. Diane got off pretty lightly because Catherine had bigger problems on her hands.

Briolette of India
 Picture source

When Henry died, he effectively left Catherine a dangerous mess. France was seriously in debt and about to be torn apart by civil war and terrible religious conflicts between the Catholics and Protestants (Huguenots). She basically had to fight fire after fire all through the reigns of her first 3 sons. If some judged her harshly, it's because her sometimes vicious actions were often due to frustration and desperation.
Francis II
Her eldest, the puny, baby-faced Francis II was just a teenager when he ascended the throne. He was weak of mind and body and unfit to rule. He likely never consummated his marriage with the Mary, Queen of Scots. He was constantly sick and died of a infection when he was just 17. Catherine stepped in again as the power behind the throne for her next son, Charles IX ,who was a small boy at the time, and too young to rule.

She really did try to reconcile both sides of the religious divide in the beginning but eventually turned to anger and ruthlessness against the Huguenots.

Charles IX
Her reputation was forever tarnished during her second son's reign with the St Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572. It happened shortly after her daughter was married to the Protestant Henry III of Navarre. Many prominent Huguenots were in Paris for the occasion.

Catherine very likely instigated the attempted assassination of the Protestant political leader, Admiral Coligny. Fearful of Huguenot retaliation, Catherine got her son to issue the order to kill all the prominent Huguenot leaders. Two days later,  mob violence  took over and the conflagration spread through the city and to the rest of France. Between 5,000-30,000 innocent Protestants were killed.

Henry III
Her favorite son, the Duke of Anjou, was next in line as Henry III after his brother Charles died at 23.  She called him "chers yeux" (my precious eyes) and he could do no wrong. Although relatively healthier and brighter than his siblings, he ruled fitfully on his own and strangely flagellated himself regularly. Catherine still counseled him. She traveled across the country on his behalf and met with Protestant leaders in another attempt to unify France.

But her efforts eventually wore Catherine out and her health broke down. She died of pleurisy when she was 69. She outlived all her children except for one son and daughter. The 30 years she spent trying to save the Valois inheritance of her children came to naught. Her last remaining son, the favorite, was assassinated just eight months after her death. The new king, Henry IV or Henri de Bourbon began a new dynasty and became one of France`s most popular kings.

* The well known Nostradamus quatrain supposedly predicting the death of Henry II was written 55 years after the event and 48 years after Nostradamus' death.

Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of FranceLeonie Frieda Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen of France

Original Post by THE BEADING GEM
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