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Catherine de'Medici: Biography, Accomplishments & Facts

Instructor: Victoria Savage
This lesson explores the life and accomplishments of Catherine de' Medici. Born in Italy, she became Queen of France and one of the most powerful women in Europe during her lifetime.

A Time of Change

The beginning of the 16th century saw remarkable changes throughout Europe. The Reformation was beginning with Martin Luther's criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, and it soon spread throughout Europe. Protestants, as they came to be called, sought a truer form of faith than that offered by the political and often corrupt Catholic Church. Many countries throughout Europe met these religious changes with war and bloodshed. A tremendous shift of power was underway, and Europe was soon divided between Catholics and Protestants. Into this turbulent world, Catherine de' Medici was born. Her life's accomplishments would become closely intertwined with France's religious conflicts between Catholics and the French Protestants known as Huguenots.

Early Life

Catherine was born in 1519 to a powerful Italian prince from the Medici family. Her mother died a few days after her birth and her father died a week later. Her Medici relatives, which included two popes, took care of her. At the age of fourteen, Pope Clement arranged her marriage to fourteen-year-old Henry, the younger son of King Francis I of France. However, the King's oldest son died, and Catherine and Henry became rulers upon the death of Francis I. Catherine eventually had ten children, three of whom became kings of France. In 1559, Henry was pierced through the eye during a jousting tournament and died a few days after. Catherine and Henry's oldest son, sixteen-year-old Francis (married to Mary, Queen of Scots) became King Francis II of France. Sadly, Francis died a year later, and Catherine's next son became King Charles IX. Since Charles was only nine years old, Catherine became regent and was granted unlimited power.

Catherine's Reign

France was on the brink of civil war as tensions increased between the Catholics and the Huguenots. Catherine tried to keep the country running smoothly in the face of this constant tension. The challenges Catherine faced were complex and in some ways were difficult for her to understand as a foreigner. She summoned church leaders from both sides to meet in an attempt to solve their differences. However, the meeting failed, and on March 1, 1562, the Duke of Guise attacked worshiping Huguenots, killing 74 and wounding 104. The attack sparked the French Wars of Religion, and for the next 30 years France was in a state of either civil war or armed truce.

At two in the morning on August 24th, Saint Bartholomew's Day, 1572, Catholic troops moved to kill the Huguenot leaders. Looting and fighting broke out across Paris, and over two thousand men, women, and children were killed. This would later become known as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre. Catherine was reported to have ordered the attacks, but this has never been completely proven. Two years later, Catherine faced a new crisis, the death of her son Charles at the age of 24. Catherine's third and favorite son Henry took the throne. Even though Henry was a grown man, he depended on his mother's leadership, and she continued to act as unofficial regent of the country.

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