To celebrate the 500th birthday of the formidable Catherine de’ Medici, we will be posting seven articles over the next seven days about her. This is the sixth, and it will focus on her relationships with her daughters.
Over the years, Catherine gave birth to ten children of which five were daughters. Tragically, the last two daughters were twins. One of the twins, Joan, died during the delivery and the other, Victoire, died a few weeks later. Her three other daughters did survive to adulthood.
Her eldest daughter was Elisabeth, and she was born on 2 April 1545. Young Elisabeth constantly suffered from childhood ailments and had not inherited her mother’s robust health. She was soon part of marriage negotiations and was considered as a bride for King Edward VI of England. In 1558, she was considered for Don Carlos, the eldest son of King Philip II of Spain. Not much later, she actually married Philip himself when he was widowed upon the death of Queen Mary I of England. Catherine was overjoyed at the match, but her joy was overshadowed by the death of her husband. Catherine delayed her daughter’s departure as much as she could, but they finally set out of for Spain on 18 November 1559. Catherine travelled to Châtellerault where she bid farewell to her 13-year-old daughter.
Catherine could not hold back her sobs. Over the years, the two Queens were to maintain an energetic correspondence. Catherine’s letters were often filled with advice and instructions. After Francis’s death, Catherine wrote to her daughter, “Ma fille (my daughter) m’amie (my friend), commend yourself to God, for you have seen me as happy as you are now, never knowing any sorrow but that I was not loved as much as I wished to be by the King your father, who honoured me more than I deserved, but I loved him so much that I was always in fear, as you know; and God has taken him from me and, not content with that, has deprived me of your brother.”
On 16 October 1568, Catherine wrote to Elisabeth’s husband to offer advice during Elisabeth’s pregnancy. She begged him to ensure that Elisabeth “eats but two meals each day and only bread in between meals.” Tragically, Elisabeth had died two weeks earlier after giving birth prematurely. Elisabeth had died, “in a most Christian manner… dressed in the habit of Saint-François, preceded to heaven by the child she carried who had received the holy water of the sacred baptism.” Upon hearing the news of her daughter’s death, Catherine withdrew without a word to her private chapel. She reappeared after a few hours and declared that she would offer her other daughter Margaret in marriage to King Philip. Nevertheless, she was devastated at Elisabeth’s loss.
Claude was born on 12 November 1547, and she too suffered from childhood ailments, like her elder sister. She was just 11 years old when she married Charles, Duke of Lorraine in January 1559 in a splendid ceremony at the Notre-Dame. Charles had been largely brought up at the French Court and Claude probably knew him well. Charles and Claude had a happy marriage, and their close proximity to the French court meant that they were able to visit Catherine often.
Catherine also made many visit in returns and Charles was said to be genuinely fond of his mother-in-law. Claude gave birth to Catherine’s first grandson, named Henry, on 8 November 1563. Catherine was one of his godparents and was overjoyed to see her daughter again. Claude and Charles would go on to have nine children, of which seven would survive to adulthood. Claude died in childbirth in 1575 and Catherine was truly devastated. She took to her bed with a fever. She had always enjoyed her visits to Claude, and now that would never be the same. Claude was described with the words, “In her beauty she resembled her mother, in her knowledge and kindness she resembled her aunt; and the people of Lorraine found her ever kind as long as she lived, as I myself have seen when I went to that country; and after her death they found much to say of her. In fact, by her death, that land was filled with regrets, and M. de Lorraine mourned her so much that, though he was young when widowed of her, he would not marry again, saying he could never find her like, though could he do so he would remarry, not being disinclined. […] In short, she was a true daughter of France, having good mind and ability, which she proved by seconding wisely and ably her husband, M. de Lorraine, in the government of his seigneuries and principalities.”1
The most famous of Catherine’s daughters was born on 14 May 1553. She was the only one of Catherine’s children to inherit her good health. At an early age, she was offered as a bride for her sister’s widower King Philip II of Spain, but nothing came of that. In 1568, she was beaten, punched and had her hair pulled out by Catherine and her brother Charles after a secret affair with Henry of Guise. Catherine then spent an hour trying to make Margaret presentable again. This probably cooled the relationship between Margaret and her mother considerably.
On 11 April 1572, Margaret was betrothed to Henry of Navarre, the future King of Navarre and also in line for the French throne after Margaret’s brothers. He was also a Huguenot while Margaret was a Catholic. In early 1572, Joan – Henry’s mother and Queen regnant of Navarre – arrived in France feeling ill and tired but determined to see the marriage negotiations through. Margaret had put up a good show for the Queen and Joan wrote enthusiastically to her son with one point, “If she embraces our religions, I may say that we are the happiest persons in the world…” Margaret could not have opposed this match with Henry more, but it was going to happen whether she wanted or not. On 11 April 1572, the wedding contract was signed, and Henry headed for France to be reunited with his mother and his new bride. Joan became even sicker, and she died, shortly before her son arrived, on 9 June.
Rumours immediately spread that Catherine had ordered Joan’s death, but she had nothing to gain – the wedding contract had already been signed. They finally married on 18 August, but Margaret persisted until the end, “she offered no resistance, she gave no assent.” Her head was pushed down by her brother as if she were nodding yes – and so she became the Queen of Navarre. Just six days after the wedding the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre – a group of assassinations followed by a wave of violence after the Huguenots who were there for the wedding – took place. Margaret later recalled that she saved the lives of several prominent Huguenots during the massacre by keeping them in her rooms and refusing to admit the assassins.
Her marriage to Henry would remain childless. Her relationship with her mother never did improve – it was as if Catherine resented Margaret for being the healthiest child. Margaret would later write that she trembled whenever she was summoned by her mother. In 1585, Margaret abandoned her husband and was even imprisoned. Upon the death of her brother Henry in 1589, her husband became the King of France and she the Queen. In 1593, Henry proposed an annulment of their marriage because he desperately needed an heir. Margaret retained her titles and was financially taken care of, and perhaps for the first time, she had a good relationship with her husband. He remarried to Marie de’ Medici and had several children by her. Margaret outlived her former husband, her mother, her father and all her siblings. She died on 27 March 1615.2
Joan and Victoire
On 24 June 1556, Catherine gave birth to twin daughters Joan and Victoire. The birth nearly cost Catherine her life. Victoire was born safely but Joan did not want to come and Catherine began to weaken quickly. To save Catherine’s life, baby Joan – dead or dying – had her legs broken to remove her from her mother’s womb. Victoire died just under two months later on 17 August.