From Florentine Orphan to French Princess: The Early Years of Catherine de Medici
Estelle Paranque on a Tumultuous Childhood and a High-Stakes Betrothal
The union of Catherine’s parents had been a cause for celebration in the castle of Amboise, one of the most prestigious French castles that belonged to Francis I of France; the marriage of Lorenzo and Madeleine represented the alliance between France and the Papal States that Francis had desired for years.
On September 7, 1518, after months of traveling back to Italy, journeying through Chambery, Bologna, and Villa Poggio, the happy couple solemnly entered the capital of Tuscany, their new home. They were now ready to start their own family and dynasty—a dynasty based on two powerful aristocratic families and the two powerful realms they originated from. Their happy news, however, would not last long.
On a Wednesday morning—April 13, 1519, at eleven o’clock—within the walls of Palazzo Riccardi, the duchess gave birth to a healthy little girl. The mother herself was apparently “healthy and the birth has been a happy one.” Or, at least, this was how it seemed. Sadly, things were about to take a turn for the worse.
Three days later, young Catherine was baptized “Caterina Maria Romola,” and celebrations were arranged in Florence. The next day, her mother Madeleine began to suffer from a bout of fever, described in a letter written by the Bishop of Fano as “very violent.” On April 22, Lorenzo was reassured by the duchess’s physicians that she was doing a little better, but it wasn’t long before she was unable to leave her bed.
After a few days of this terrible illness—during which Madeleine was in agony—she passed away on April 28, 1519, leaving behind her newly born daughter. She was buried at San Lorenzo, a parish of the Medici family.
In deep shock, the people of Florence donned their mourning clothes and publicly grieved for their late duchess, weeping in the streets as they accompanied her corpse to its final resting place. Some were simply inconsolable: it was a true tragedy, both for the de Medici family and for the future of unstable Florence.
Worse news was to come.
On May 3, 1519, Cardinal Medici received word that Lorenzo, Catherine’s father, was dying of wounds obtained when trying to defend Urbino from Francesco Maria, a former Duke of Urbino who had wanted his duchy back. The cardinal was told that he needed to hurry to be by his side as his final hour drew near and, sadly, Lorenzo died the next day.
Although he received a lavish funeral, a chronicler reporting the event noted that the people showed fewer signs of grief for him than they had for his late wife. The duke had many enemies, even in his own city of Florence, and his death triggered domestic troubles as well as difficulties further afield.
Now Catherine was alone in the world. As a child, she was cared for by a succession of relatives, including her grandmother and various aunts and uncles, her fate now in the hands of many people who, at times, only saw her as a pawn to advance their own political agendas after the death of the influential duke. Catherine, in contrast, was a modest girl, described as very humble and obedient. And she was already honing her survival instincts.
The little duchess knew how to watch and wait, to observe affairs closely in order to protect herself from the harsh world that surrounded her. Finally, Francis I, who looked to assert some sort of dominion over Florence (and indeed, other parts of Italy) drew up a treaty with Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de Medici), which involved the transfer of territory and the requirement that young Catherine should be sent to France, keeping her out of the way. The papacy, however, held the final decision on her fate, and kept delaying its judgment.
Then, on December 1, 1521, Pope Leo X—Catherine’s great uncle— died of malaria. He was succeeded by Pope Adrian VI, until September 14, 1523, when another relative of the little orphan was elected to the papal chair, Clement VII (Giulio di Giuliano de Medici)—the unfortunate antagonist of both Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Henry VIII of England. During that difficult time, Catherine was still in the care of her relatives, unsure of the future that awaited her.
Catherine was known as the “duchessina,” despite being previously deprived of her title of Duchess of Urbino by the late Pope Adrian VI due to his ongoing conflict with the Medici family. Her wealth remained considerable, however, enabling her to live like a princess even if her options seemed limited.
As an infant, Catherine found herself center stage in not only Florentine diplomacy but also in European politics. As she grew older, her wealth, beauty, and papal connections meant that she was potentially a great match for any European house.
As a result, she received many marriage proposals, her suitors coming from all over Europe; from Henry VIII’s bastard, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, to James V of Scotland, prestigious suitors offered themselves to the young orphan, who was now under the protection of Pope Clement VII. Being well aware of this, Francis I of France offered his own second son—Henry, Duke of Orléans—to the duchess.
Tall, melancholic, and well built, with dark hair, Henry was certainly a handsome prince; he was praised by his contemporaries for his physical attributes, and he was also said to be a good horse rider and very talented at fencing, hunting, and dancing. In other words, he had all the qualities required of a strong warrior prince.
The negotiations between Pope Clement VII and the French royal family regarding a potential union between Catherine and Henry began in 1531. On June 29, 1531, Gabriel Cardinal de Gramont wrote to Ferdinand, Charles V’s brother: “There is no longer any doubt that the marriage between the pope’s kinswoman and the Duke of Orléans will be concluded soon.”
Not fully ready to commit to Francis I, however, the pope delayed his final decision, allowing him to play a few tactical diplomatic games with Charles V—who also had his eye on the Italian territories and who had caused trouble to the papacy during their conquest, which had started at the end of the fifteenth century. Catherine’s fate hung in the balance, and she anxiously awaited news of her destiny.
Italian wars had been ravaging southern Europe for quite some time when, in 1494, Ferdinand I of Naples died, creating a succession crisis. Charles VIII of France invaded the peninsula with the support of Ludovico Sforza of Milan, facing little resistance. Then, in 1527, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V led an attack against the Papal States and Rome—a conflict that resulted from the alliance made between the pope, France, Milan, Venice, and Florence against Charles V. Further disputes and battles took place between France and Spain, with both rulers trying to earn the pope’s favor and support.
This dispute between Charles V and Francis I evolved into a diplomatic contest, with Catherine de Medici now the prize: not so much for who she was but for what she represented to Clement VII. Charles V soon realized that Francis I was making progress with the potential union between his second son and the young duchess, which would consolidate his conquest in Italy.
While Catherine was not royalty, the marriage contract stipulated that Clement VII would “at his own discretion, furnish his illustrious relative with clothing, ornaments, and jewels.” Indeed, when she ultimately traveled to France it was as a true royal princess of great wealth, including “ropes of pearls, rings, golden belts—one encrusted with rubies—and many other fabulous gems.” On a fractious continent, Catherine would be a prize indeed for the family that would win her.
On Sunday, October 12, 1533, in the French port of Marseille, an expectant crowd gathered to witness a highly unusual event—the arrival of the reigning Pope Clement VII, who was bringing with him his young niece, the orphan Catherine de Medici. She was now betrothed to Henry, the second son of Francis I of France.
Clement and Catherine had traveled from La Spezia in considerable style, with eighteen galleys, three sailing ships, and six brigantines. When fourteen-year-old Catherine, having already been lavished with jewelry from Italian and French courtiers, set foot in France for the very first time, she was already being treated like the royalty she was soon to become.
The French court had prepared for the arrival of the pope and his niece with great care. Musicians had been hired, cheering crowds were gathering near the port, and there was much singing and feasting. The festive spirit was infectious as everyone eagerly awaited what would be the greatest event of the year: the royal marriage between Henry and Catherine. The Orphan of Florence could not wait to become a princess and to resolve her contentious identity at last. The expectation of such an alliance was all she could talk about with her ladies-in-waiting. She luxuriated in the grandeur of her party.
As the ships approached there was a series of thunderous volleys, launched by rank after rank of artillery lined up on the huge fortress known as the Château d’If. This fortress had been built between 1524 and 1531 on the orders of Francis I, who, during a visit in 1516, saw the island as a strategically important location for defending the coastline from sea-based attacks. Notre-Dame de la Garde, the Catholic basilica of Marseilles, relayed the signals, and all the bells of every church in the entire Mediterranean city rang out.
The person entrusted with stage-managing the welcome and safe arrival of Catherine and her uncle was Anne de Montmorency, Constable of France, who arranged for the visitors to spend the night outside Marseilles; more preparations needed to be made for the pope’s solemn entry into the city the next day.
Catherine herself would have to wait a bit longer before officially entering Marseilles; on October 23, she entered “riding a roan horse decked out in gold brocade” accompanied by a procession of “six horses, five caparisoned in scarlet and gold… twelve demoiselles with a royal and papal guard.” Wearing an “outfit of gold and silver silk,” she evidently cut quite the fine figure, and both her appearance and manners were impeccable. In terms of making a good first impression, Catherine’s entrance certainly did not disappoint.
When she arrived at the pontiff ’s temporary palace she “knelt and kissed the pope’s feet,” a gesture that greatly touched Francis I of France, who was standing next to him with his two sons, Henry and Charles. To welcome her to the family, he “lifted the young girl to her feet and kissed her.” Even at this stage in her life, she had that magic touch associated with public performance—and that sprinkling of stardust that goes with it. Certainly, she had already charmed her father-in-law.
Catherine would never forget this event, which transformed her from Florentine orphan to French princess. Years later, in a letter to her cousin Cosimo I de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, she recalled “being overwhelmed with joy” and very grateful for the welcome she received that day.
Yet obstacles lay ahead. As many other noblewomen before her, and even though she had just become a member of the French royal family, Catherine would go on to face many hardships.
Her uncle, Pope Clement VII, died a year after her union to the French prince, meaning that the promises, the alliance, and the concessions made by Francis I had all been in vain. The union to the Orphan of Florence no longer seemed like an astute diplomatic move; in fact, it looked like an utter failure on Francis’s part, and threatened to diminish Catherine’s value, isolating her from the dynasty she had been so delighted to join.
Her fate was now completely in the hands of Francis, and depended entirely on how valuable she could prove herself to be as her own person—without the support and the network of influential relatives.
On the other side of the Channel, misfortune was also striking an influential woman. Anne Boleyn, Queen of England, was struggling in her role as consort, failing to produce a male heir to the crown. Her enemies loved spreading rumors that her days as queen were numbered.
When the news came that Anne Boleyn had been charged for high treason against the king, on suspicion of adultery with various men—including her brother, George Boleyn, Viscount Rochford—Chapuys rejoiced. He delighted in the news that the king was “determined to abandon her,” adding for good measure that “it is still more wonderful to think of the sudden change from yesterday to today.”
Anne’s downfall had indeed been precipitated, her enemies already gathering like vultures around her not-yet-cold body. At five o’clock in the afternoon on May 2, 1536, Anne Boleyn was escorted to the Tower of London. It was the last sunset she would ever see as a free woman. William Kingston, Constable of the Tower of London, would later recall that “when she came to the court gate, entering in, she fell down on her knees before the said lords, beseeching God to help her as she was not guilty” of the charges made against her. But there was nothing anyone could do for her: the court had passed judgment, and she had been found guilty of high treason against Henry VIII on account of adultery—and her so-called incestuous relationship with her own brother.
Excerpted from BLOOD, FIRE & GOLD by Estelle Paranque. Copyright © 2022. Available from Hachette Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.