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 first, and it will focus on her background and youth.
Caterina Maria Romula de’ Medici was born around 11 o’clock in the morning on Wednesday 13 April 1519 as the daughter of Lorenzo II, Duke of Urbino and Madeleine de la Tour D’Auvergne. By the time of her birth, her father was bedridden – possibly suffering from syphilis and/or tuberculosis – and she was carried to his bedside for inspection. Her mother too was very ill, but this information was kept from her father. Her hurried baptism took place on 16 April at the church of San Lorenzo. Her mother died on 28 April – from either the plague or from syphilis given to her by her husband – followed by Lorenzo just six days later on 4 May. Catherine was just three weeks old and already an orphan. In August, young Catherine also fell dangerously ill, and her life hung by a thread for many weeks. The Florentines fondly called Catherine “duchessina.”
Catherine was sent to live with her paternal grandmother, Alfonsina Orsini but she died in 1520 and Catherine was then sent to live Lucrezia Salviati and Clarice Strozzi. She lived a relatively peaceful life even when the de’ Medici fortunes went up and down. This all ended in 1527 when Clarice and Catherine were left to face down a mob. Clarice raged against the mob, but Catherine was taken as a hostage to the Santa Lucia convent where she lived in miserable conditions. She was transferred to the convent of Santa-Maria Annunziata della Murate upon the insistence of the French ambassador who visited the disease-ridden Santa Lucia convent. One of the nuns recalled her arrival at the convent of Santa-Maria Annunziata della Murate, “The magistrates gave her to us, and we received her happily and graciously for the obligation (they received substantial support from the de’Medicis) we have to her family. Notwithstanding that she may have been infected by the plague we received her… One evening at two at night the band took her to the gates of the monastery, and all the nuns without fear gathered around her, protected by God and Our Lady we received no wound. The Duchessina stayed for three years.”
Her stay there was relatively good, and she was surrounded by high-born women and a widowed relation. Clarice Strozzi died in 1528, and Catherine lost the only mother figure she had known. At the end of 1529, the Prince of Orange laid siege to the city of Florence, and the subsequent hardships only fueled the people’s hatred of the de’ Medicis, and Catherine suddenly became the focus of their attention. In July 1530, Silvestro Aldobrandini was sent to fetch Catherine but Catherine – fearing that she would be killed – put up a fight. In preparation, she had shorn her head and wore a nun’s habit. She was forced to brave the crowds riding a donkey. He delivered her back to the Lucia convent where she had begun her imprisonment. The siege was lifted in August, and Catherine visited the Murate sisters. She would remain in contact with them for the rest of her life.
With Pope Clement VII, another de’ Medici, back in power, Catherine moved to Rome to be with her “uncle” – as he called himself. She was installed at the Palazzo Medici (today Palazzo Madama) where she lived under the care of her great aunt, Lucrezia Salviati. We know little of her formal education, except that she learned Greek, Latin and French and loved mathematics. Then came an offer of marriage from France. Francis I of France needed a friendly pope, and he offered his second son, Henry, Duke of Orléans to Catherine as a potential husband. Her dowry would consist of 100,000 gold écus with an extra 30,000 écus in exchange for the revenues from her Florentine inheritance. Francis agreed to give Catherine 10,000 livres per annum, and an additional income would also come from her mother’s inheritance. Catherine was rich, but she was not of royal blood. The Holy Roman Emperor laughed off the rumours, convinced that Francis would never stoop to marrying his son to a “merchant’s daughter.” When the marriage was finally agreed upon, the Emperor was amazed.
Clement enlisted Isabella d’Este to prepare Catherine’s trousseau as befitting her new status. He presented her with lace, gold and silver cloth, brocade, damask and jewellery. He was unable to fund her cash dowry and had to borrow the first sum of 50,000 éccus from her uncle by marriage, Filippo Strozzi. On 1 September 1533, after the noble ladies of Florence gave a lavish farewell banquet for Catherine, she set off towards the coast. At La Spezia, Catherine was welcomed by her uncle The Duke of Albany – who had been married to her mother’s sister Anne (who had died in 1528) – and they finally set sail for Marseille on 9 October, also joined by Pope Clement. She officially entered Marseilles on 23 October, wearing an outfit of gold and silver silk. That day, she met her future husband and his elder brother and father for the first time. She also met Francis’s second wife, Eleanor of Austria. On 27 October, the marriage contract was signed, and Henry kissed Catherine before the assembled company.
The next morning, Catherine was collected from her chamber by Francis for the religious ceremony. She wore ducal robes of golden brocade with a violet corsage of velvet encrusted with gems and edged with ermine. Her hair was dressed with precious stones, and she wore a ducal crown of gold. The nuptial Mass took place in the chapel of the Pope’s palace, and they exchanged rings and vows. Catherine was the Duchess of Orléans. Catherine was led to the nuptial bedchamber by Queen Eleanor and the party they left reportedly descended into an orgy. Francis reportedly stayed inside the bedchamber until he was satisfied that “each had shown valour in the joust.” The following morning, Clement found the young couple still in bed and blessed the newlyweds. At the end of the year, Clement returned home, leaving Catherine in her new homeland.
Catherine spent most of her time with her husband’s sisters Margaret and Madeleine because she shared their household. They travelled back to Paris where Catherine tried to please her new family. On 25 September 1534, Clement died in Rome with Catherine’s dowry only partly paid. The new Pope Paul III refused to honour the dowry obligations, and Francis bitterly declared, “The girl has come to me stark naked.” From this time, Catherine focussed on building relationships with the important people at court – most notably her father-in-law – as she knew there was nothing she could about her humble birth. Catherine befriended the King’s many mistresses and gained easy access to the King. They both loved to hunt, and Catherine was credited with bringing the side-saddle to France. She also asked for guidance from the King’s sister Marguerite – now Queen of Navarre.
However, she could not find a way to get closer to her own husband – he was indifferent to her – and there was a growing rivalry between her and her husband’s favourite Diane de Poitiers. Catherine’s life changed forever when Henry’s elder brother Francis died unexpectedly on 10 August 1536. Catherine and Henry were now Dauphin and Dauphine of France and were to become the next King and Queen.1