Biographies & Memoirs




Her role was not to have one unless it were to sue for the King’s favour


Catherine was only fifteen when Clement’s unexpected death entirely destroyed her political raison d’être. Knowing she was regarded as a poor excuse for a princess by the caste-conscious French, lacking any foreign dynastic support and without powerful French connections of her own, she must have felt vulnerability bordering on fear. If she had been beautiful, perhaps she could have evoked the love of the common people, but her heavy cheeks and bulging eyes were stubborn features that could not be coaxed away by paint. Her Italian fashions and other hints of her origins served only to remind people of past military failures in Italy and a lost opportunity of allying France with a superior bride. Besides, when the French were not busy imitating the Italians in art and culture or occupying their country, they despised them as money-grabbing opportunists who would slip a knife between a man’s shoulder blades as soon as his back was turned. It is unlikely that the Venetian ambassador exaggerated excessively when he wrote that the marriage ‘displeases the entire nation’. Catherine, above all a practical girl, knew that she could change neither her birth nor her face but she could use her formidable will-power and intelligence to overcome her present misfortunes. Recognising her unpopularity, she decided to cultivate the most important people at Court. The first and most obvious conquest must be the King himself. Fortunately, Catherine seems from the start to have evoked protective feelings in her father-in-law.

Ever quick to see what pleased people, she had no trouble identifying the monarch’s weaknesses. The King put pleasure before almost anything else. One of his ministers remarked that ‘Alexander [the Great] attended to women when there was no more business to attend to; His Majesty attends to business when there are no more women to attend to.’ Driven by strong appetites, Francis could not live without beauty, whether it be artistic, architectural, female or literary. He could most frequently be found in the company of a striking group of courtly ladies called ‘La Petite Bande’. Membership of the King’s clique required good looks, wit, courage on horseback and a stomach for bawdy jokes. Entry, though strictly vetted by the King’s mistress, Anne d’Heilly, Duchess d’Étampes, proved no problem and she welcomed Catherine in. Since her looks could not gain her a place, the young duchess became a member valued above all for her spirit. She sensed how to amuse the King whatever his mood; quick, clever and physically tough, she did all she could to keep up with him. Catherine enjoyed ‘honest exercise like the dance at which she showed great skill and majesty’ and could quickly pick up the latest steps from Italy that Francis admired so much.1

Catherine also loved to hunt and proved ready to take any fence or hedge to stay alongside His Majesty. She took her falls gracefully and bravely, always game for further challenges. Among several innovations that have been attributed to her, Catherine is credited with having brought the side-saddle to France. Hitherto Frenchwomen had been stuck on a cumbersome apparatus that resembled a sideways armchair (called the sambue) perched on the horse’s back, which permitted only the most decorous amble. The side-saddle allowed women both to keep pace with men on horseback and to show off their legs. Catherine’s own calves were well shaped and she enjoyed any opportunity to display one of her few physical strong points. With the side-saddle, the Duchess of Orléans had also brought another innovation, a primitive form of drawers, or pantaloons. Hitherto the lack of undergarments as we know them today meant that a well-placed gallant offering to help a lady down off her mount might also glimpse ‘the sights of heaven’, if only for a moment.

The young duchess showed her canniness by allowing herself to be taken up by the Duchess d’Étampes who was actually part of the royal princess’s household, and it pleased the King that the favourite received his daughter-in-law’s endorsement. Catherine spent as much time as she could with Francis – listening, learning and watching. Despite his many shortcomings he was every inch a king. The soldier and courtier turned historian and raconteur, Pierre, Abbé de Brantôme, said of Catherine at this time, ‘Her role was not to have one unless it were to sue for the King’s favour.’ Her conversation, more learned than most girls of her age, amused Francis who appreciated her bold wit and quick intelligence. Listening to and appearing entertained by the bawdy talk of the King’s entourage also proved that Catherine had an abundance of patience.

A glimpse of how homesick the young duchess must have been is shown in a letter written some time in 1534 to Maria Salviati (the mother of Cosimo de Medici later to become Duke Cosimo I) who had been one of Catherine’s surrogate mothers. The handwriting is clear but childish: ‘I am surprised because I have written to you a number of letters and have never had any answer which surprises me even more.’ She then goes on to ask for progress on a number of commissions: ‘Have you done all that I asked when I left – if so please send them through somebody trustworthy and the inventory of what they cost.’ Conscious of living up to Francis’s fashion standards, she ordered ‘large white sleeves all covered in embroidery work in black silk and gold and send me the bill for the work’.2

Catherine also appealed to the King’s sister, Marguerite – now Queen of Navarre – for her friendship and guidance.fn1 One of the cleverest and most amusing women at Court, she also supported the reform religion. Marguerite enjoyed great influence with her brother and took the little Duchess of Orléans under her wing.fn2 Henry’s own sisters, Marguerite and Madeleine, became close companions as the Court made its way from one château to another, usually around the axis of the Loire river. The King particularly enjoyed visiting the building works at his royal palaces and discussing their progress and problems. One of the greatest builders of his day, he employed master craftsmen mainly from Italy, and was an innovative, lavish and talented patron, his building embodyingthe French Renaissance as ‘Italianate models met with French taste’. Francis started the modernisation of the Louvre and commissioned the building of the Château of Madrid in the Bois de Boulogne. Unfinished at his death, the work was later completed by Catherine, who used the place occasionally. The King also made additions to Blois, Saint Germain-en-Laye and Villers-Cotterâts, though the rebuilding of the Château of Fontainebleau is probably considered his greatest undertaking. He decided to turn the former hunting lodge into a splendid palace, and it was the only place he called ‘chez moi’. He spent as much time there as he could.

Chambord, one of the most beautiful châteaux north of the Alps, is a haunting masterpiece set in woodland close to Blois near the Loire river. Alfred de Vigny wrote of the palace that Francis created from scratch in 1519, ‘Far from any road, you suddenly come upon a royal or rather a magical château … [stolen] from some country of the sun to conceal it in mistier lands. The palace is hidden away like buried treasure but its blue domes and elegant minarets rounded where they stand might suggest you were in the realms of Baghdad or Kashmir.’3 The major works on the vast château were completed by 1540, though it was little used by Francis or his successors. ‘If Chambord were ever destroyed, no record of the pure early style of the Renaissance would be left anywhere … [its] beauty was restored by its abandonment.’4 If the palace was not much used, it certainly provided an effective showpiece when required, and Catherine well understood the vital prestige that buildings on such a scale could lend to the monarch. She accompanied Francis on his visits to the châteaux and almost certainly absorbed the King’s love for Italian workmanship and witnessed his prodigious spending on collections of sculpture, paintings and rare books to adorn his great palaces, most of which came from her mother country.

Unfortunately, while her charm and vivacity won over her father-in-law and his cronies, the one person to whom Catherine did not seem to grow any closer was her own husband. Although he treated his wife with civility, his indifference to her was obvious for all to see. He probably resented his father’s choice of bride for him, and he had reason enough since she did not attract him sexually, was not of royal birth and had failed to bring the dowry that had been promised. Catherine’s friendship with the King’s favourite, the Duchess d’Étampes, displeased Henry, for there was a growing rivalry between the duchess and the woman who had become his favourite – Diane de Poitiers.

Born in 1500, Diane de Poitiers, widow of the Grand-Sénéschal of Normandy, Louis de Brézé, was the daughter of Jean de Poitiers, Seigneur de Saint-Vallier. His mother, like Catherine’s, was a de La Tour d’Auvergne, making Catherine and Diane second cousins, sharing a great-grandfather. Jean de Poitiers’s maternal uncle married into the Bourbon clan, a royal connection of which he was inordinately proud. Unfortunately de Poitiers’ judgement did not match his breeding and in 1523 he allowed himself to be seduced into complicity with the planned uprising that same year against Francis by the King’s most powerful noble, his kinsman the Constable de Bourbon.fn3 Sentenced to death for his part in the plot, Jean de Poitiers’s reprieve arrived with the King’s messenger just as he placed his head on the executioner’s block. No doubt Francis had contrived this dramatic last-minute intervention to make an enduring impression on the one-time conspirator. At the time of her father’s ill-advised treason Diane had already been married for eight years to Louis de Brézé, forty years her senior and reputedly the ugliest man in France. It was largely thanks to his timely intervention that Jean de Poitiers had his death sentence commuted to life imprisonment and by 1526 he was a free man.

Diane, a creature of natural taste and elegance, had come to Court aged fourteen and been married off to the rich and powerful widower de Brézé the following year. From the start she acquired a deserved reputation for her virtuous and graceful behaviour. A conscientious Catholic, she strictly disapproved of the reform movement. While not the brilliant beauty described by later fawning poets and painters, she was certainly an attractive young woman whose natural elegance and slight aloofness lent her the air of a superior being. Fanatically careful of her looks, Diane never painted her face and her ‘secret elixir of youth’ was, in fact, just large quantities of very cold water on her face and body. An early proponent of personal and feminine hygiene, she even had a book dedicated to her on the subject. Diane went to bed early, took frequent rests and regular gentle outdoor exercise. Her formula for guarding her looks so well against age was simple: she avoided excesses of any sort. This proved less difficult than for some because her pragmatism, essentially cold nature and inherent sense of dignity left her devoid of passion.

By the time she first became close to Henry, many still considered Diane a beauty. Nineteen years his senior, she had placed the young prince under her tutelage since his return from Spain. She formed part of Queen Eleanor’s household and had been asked by Francis himself to try to tame the unpolished and silent boy. Without compromising her spotless reputation, Diane, who had been widowed in 1531, had easily beguiled the awkward young prince. He not only became her willing pupil but also her devoted admirer. Catherine, far too clever not to notice this, observed her rival quietly and with outward serenity – biding her time. Ever cautious, she made sure that she treated both Diane and Madame d’Étampes with the same courtesy. At this stage, however, it is almost certain that Diane and Henry had not become lovers, although events were soon to encourage the ambitious but so far decorous Diane to make Henry hers completely, thus earning her Catherine’s undying enmity.

In 1536 Francis unleashed a war against the Emperor and took his sons with him on the campaign. In August the royal family were at Lyons staying well behind the army lines and the fighting. The King, who had originally expressed a desire to lead the troops in person, nonetheless stayed away from the front. His absence was not entirely unwelcome to some soldiers, who feared that since his defeat at Pavia the King had become the harbinger of bad luck on the battlefield. On 2 August, despite intensely hot and oppressive weather, the Dauphin played a vigorous game of tennis with one of his gentlemen. After the game he felt hot and breathless. Sending his secretary, an Italian count named Sebastian de Montecuculli, for a glass of freezing water to cool himself, he collapsed immediately after drinking it. Not long afterwards the prince developed a high fever and experienced difficulty breathing. He died in the early hours of Thursday, 10 August at Tournon.

The King, then at Valence, had only been told that the Dauphin was unwell and did not seem particularly anxious. The Cardinal of Lorraine had been given the task of telling Francis what had happened.fn4 At first Lorraine, unable to break the dreadful tidings to the King, said only that the Dauphin’s condition had worsened. Francis, not taken in by this, said, ‘I understand perfectly, you dare not tell me that he is dead, but only that he will soon die!’ Lorraine admitted the truth and the King took himself off to a window seat, turned his back and, bent double by the shock, tried to contain his grief. At last he cried out, ‘My God, I know I must accept with patience whatever it be Thy will to send me, but from whom, if not from Thee, ought I to hope for strength and resignation?’ Probably Francis felt guilt at his impatience with the Dauphin when, years before, he had returned from captivity in Spain; since then he had been a distant father who criticised too much and made too few allowances. Lately, though, the young man had shown much improvement and many thought he had the makings of a fine monarch in him.

With the sudden and quite unforeseen death of the heir to the throne, Henry and Catherine automatically became Dauphin and Dauphine, the future King and Queen of France. They were both seventeen years old. Francis called Henry to his side after hearing the news. He wept and grieved with his least favourite son and then gave him a stern lecture, saying, ‘Do all that you can to be like he was, surpass him in virtue so that those who now mourn and regret his passing will have their sorrow eased. I command you to make this your aim with all your heart and soul.’ These were hardly encouraging words from a father who had almost made a practice of ignoring Henry’s existence. While unexpected death was a common occurrence in the sixteenth century, when it struck a royal prince suspicions of foul play could not be ignored and in many cases for good reason. Francis employed seven eminent surgeons to carry out the autopsy on the prince’s corpse, but nothing suspicious could be found. Modern medical opinion has it that the young man probably died of pleurisy.

Francis hunted about for a scapegoat and the late Dauphin’s unfortunate and devoted Page of the Sewer, Montecuculli, found himself incriminated on three counts. First, his nationality made him an automatic suspect as Italians were known for their frequent use of poison to rid themselves of their enemies. Second, the page had originally been in the employ of the Emperor but had left to come to France along with the Italians accompanying Catherine. Most damning of all was the wretched man’s apparent interest in toxicology, as evidenced by a book on the subject found among his possessions. Taken away for ‘questioning’, the terrified Montecuculli, keen to keep the agony as brief as possible under torture, gave a less than reliable confession, which he later retracted. Spilling forth all that he thought the King wanted to hear and more, Montecuculli accused the Emperor’s agents of having hired him to poison the Dauphin and even the King himself. Satisfied with the result, Francis announced the findings of the investigation to ambassadors and representatives of the foreign powers at his Court. Cries of indignation came from the Emperor’s representatives, and letters of protest were exchanged. Nothing further remained to be done but for the poor man to be executed by écartelage, the cruellest death but customary for those convicted of regicide. Before the whole Court, including Catherine, Eleanor and the other ladies, the probably entirely guiltless fellow was lashed by his arms and legs to four horses and torn to shreds as they galloped off in different directions out of the Place de la Grenette in Lyons on 7 October 1536.

Catherine, now the first lady in France after the Queen, almost immediately found her new position under threat. The initial unpleasant shock came with the accusation from the Emperor’s agents who, protesting their master’s innocence, pointed the finger at the royal couple, explaining that they were the only true beneficiaries of the Dauphin’s death. Fortunately the King gave no credence whatever to the Imperialists’ rumours, though the new Dauphine, whose supposed expertise as a poisoner was practically considered an Italian birthright, found the whispering campaign inevitably damaging. In fact, becoming Dauphine held desperate potential hazards for her. The only vital function of the heir to the throne’s wife was childbearing and after three years of marriage Catherine had not showed the slightest sign of becoming pregnant. Now she must produce children or face possible repudiation.

Physical intimacy with her husband became harder than usual for Catherine as Henry now urgently pressed the King to allow him to participate in the campaign against the Emperor. Francis, reluctant to lose his second son so quickly after the death of his eldest, refused. Henry insisted, claiming his right as Dauphin to serve in the field. Eventually the King permitted him to join the army in Provence, which had been invaded by Imperial troops on 13 July. The next day the French commander, Montmorency, received his appointment as Lieutenant-General with sweeping powers over the entire military operation. While Henry’s royal blood meant that he was nominally the supreme commander, it was to Montmorency that he turned for all military decisions. An outstanding defensive tactician, the soldier employed a systematic scorched-earth policy on the Provençal countryside – filling in every well, reducing whole towns to rubble, burning and destroying anything that might be of the slightest use to the enemy – and succeeded in driving out the Imperial troops. Many miserable inhabitants of the despoiled area died of starvation and lack of shelter, but the ends had justified the means in the view of both the King and his commander. The Grand Master’s stock rose greatly with Francis after this success. The campaigning sealed the friendship between Henry and Montmorency for life and the Dauphin wrote to him afterwards, ‘Be sure that whatever happens, I am and shall be for my life as much your friend as anyone in the world.’5 He was to remain true to his word.

In 1537 there came a further blow for Catherine. Henry fathered a child with Filippa Duci, the hitherto virgin sister of one of his Piedmontese grooms, while campaigning in Italy. Henry exulted at the news of the girl’s pregnancy, claiming he had spent only one night with her. This proved conclusively that it must be Catherine, not he, who was physically at fault for their so far childless union. The mother-to-be enjoyed all the care and attention she could want until she gave birth to a daughter in 1538. This baby, subsequently legitimised by Henry, received the name Diane de France, presumably in honour of Diane de Poitiers. The child’s natural mother spent the rest of her days in a convent, generously pensioned off. Diane undertook responsibility for the baby’s upbringing as she had two grown-up daughters of her own and was considered a perfect replacement mother. The honour and attention that the child received caused unfounded rumours to abound that she was in fact Diane’s and Henry’s natural off-spring. By having the baby named after her and taking care of it, the favourite sent a clear signal to all at Court that the Dauphin belonged to her.

Catherine’s endurance faced further tests as Diane de Poitiers became more assiduous in her attentions to her husband. In 1538 a truce was declared between France and the Empire, encouraged by Pope Paul III, who wanted Francis and Charles to unite in a campaign against the ever-threatening Turks. When Henry returned from the war Diane, now thirty-eight years old, found him grown in confidence and no longer the timid boy she had been coaching from truculent adolescence into manhood. She showered the Dauphin with compliments on his military prowess, knowing that the moment had arrived for her to take possession of him completely. Casting aside the platonic ideals with which she had fended him off for so long, she traded her much-guarded virtue for a far more coveted position as mistress to the future king. Aided by Montmorency, who offered the couple the use of his castle at Écouen for their trysts, Diane allowed Henry to become her lover. It is not known exactly when the amitié sage became a full-blown love affair, but a poem of the favourite’s where she writes opaquely of having ‘submitted’ suggests that Henry’s ardour and Diane’s ambition blew away any remaining boundaries between them.

While a screen of respectability was relentlessly held up to the world by the older woman, certain indications of the true state of their relations were there for all to see. Henceforth Henry dressed only in black and white, the mourning colours that Diane had worn exclusively since the death of her husband. He adopted the crescent moon as his emblem, which also belonged to the mythological Diana, goddess of hunting. The motto ‘Until it fills the whole world’, beneath the crescent moon, could have been an allusion to the power that would one day be his as King of France or possibly to take the Imperial mantle from Charles V. Perhaps the most obvious sign of the love affair between them was an ingenious monogram interlacing the H and D of their names. There existed several versions of this, though looking at the one most commonly used it is possible to discern two Cs back to back within an H, throwing a sop to Catherine’s hidden but burning pride. From now on until the end of his life, Henry had the monogram placed everywhere he could. Today it can clearly be seen on the châteaux and buildings that he had constructed or rebuilt during his reign. Catherine’s own resolutely cheerful device of a rainbow with the motto ‘I bring light and serenity’ beneath it rang hollow. If only she had had someone to whom she could bring either.

Stubbornly childless, the Dauphine knew that she would not last long as Henry’s wife if she could not produce a baby. A secret campaign to have Catherine repudiated had been set in motion. The plan was heavily backed by Madame d’Étampes who wished to see her rival Diane’s position destabilised by the arrival of a new bride for Henry. The movement gathered momentum. Brantôme wrote, ‘There were a large number of people who tried to persuade the King and Monsieur le Dauphin to repudiate her, since it was necessary to continue the line of France.’ The Venetian ambassador, Lorenzo Contarini, wrote over a decade later that the King and the Dauphin had definitely decided upon divorce. The Guise family, sensing an opportunity for their own advancement, promoted a union between Henry and Louise of Guise, sister of François and the beautiful younger daughter of Claude, who had been created first duke by the King.

The Guise, a junior branch of the House of Lorraine claiming descent from Charlemagne, had come to France to seek their fortune at the very beginning of the 1500s and to run their family’s estates in northern France. Though naturalised as French subjects, these minor foreign princes provided a constant irritation to many of the nobles as they managed to enjoy both the benefits as French subjects close to the King and their position as princes of Lorraine. They were supremely successful at raising their status by marriage and the first duke (himself wed to a Bourbon) had just married off his daughter Marie to King James V of Scotland.fn5 Catherine now found an unexpected and invaluable ally in Diane. Tame and pliable, she made a perfect foil for the older woman desperate to prevent the arrival of some eligible lovely young bride, who might not view her relationship with Henry with quite the same resignation as Catherine at least seemed to. Thus the favourite threw her weight behind those who supported the Dauphine and brought to bear her enormous influence over Henry. She underscored to him his wife’s many qualities – her gentleness, her good nature, and the fact the she was still young and had many years of possible childbearing ahead of her. Above all, Diane cleverly argued that the talk of divorce bore the mark of Henry’s (in other words her own) enemies, particularly Madame d’Étampes and those who fawned upon her. Any suggestion that either his father or his father’s favourite might be trying to manipulate him always sparked the most furious indignation in the Dauphin and for the moment he let the matter drop.

The final decision rested with the King and knowing that he was, however unwillingly, having to consider a new wife for his son, Catherine gambled everything on a peerless show of feminine submission to the man who liked to call himself ‘the first gentleman of France’. Throwing herself at his feet sobbing, the Dauphine told Francis that she accepted that she must stand aside for a bride who would bear Henry children, begging only to be allowed to remain in France and serve the fortunate lady who would replace her in whatever lowly capacity the King might permit. Her sorrow and humility were so touching that the King found himself her champion against his own better judgement. Unable to stand the sight of any woman in tears, Francis, profoundly moved, declared, ‘My child, it is God’s will that you should be my daughter and the wife of the Dauphin. So be it.’ It was a reprieve. Yet any such reprieve could only be temporary and she now employed all means at her disposal to overcome her barrenness. In her increasingly frantic attempts to become a mother, Catherine’s unbending determination emerged, usually so nicely disguised. She was prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to preserve her place as Henry’s wife and the future Queen of France.

After the King had, for the moment, abandoned the idea of repudiation, Catherine found herself given encouragement by those not normally interested in her. The King had spoken; if he wished her to remain Dauphine, so too did the flatterers. Matteo Dandolo, the Venetian ambassador, wrote, ‘There is no one who would not willingly give their own blood to give her a son.’6 He also noted that even the Dauphin now treated his wife with some affection. Marguerite of Navarre, Francis’s sister, remained a solid supporter and constantly reminded him of Catherine’s merits. She wrote to her, ‘My brother will never allow this repudiation, as evil tongues pretend. But God will give a royal line to Madame la Dauphine when she has reached the age at which women of the House of the Medici are wont to have children. The King and I will rejoice with you then in spite of these wretched backbiters.’7

Her enemies silenced for a moment, Catherine turned first to traditional medicine with little success. Prayers and offerings to the Almighty were constantly on her lips. Diane gave advice, philtres and potions, and sent the Dauphin off to do his duty conscientiously and regularly by sleeping with his wife. He followed Diane’s orders, but with little enthusiasm. The Dauphine pored over old texts by Photius and Isodore le Physicien that contained ancient magic and pagan remedies. Some of these ‘remedies’ were of the kill-or-cure variety. Showing she possessed a stomach as strong as her will, Catherine drank large draughts of mule’s urine, the current wisdom being that it would provide a primitive form of inoculation against sterility. She was given clear instructions, though, not to go near the mule itself. Alchemists provided poultices that were so revolting it seems incredible that the Dauphin could make love to his wife at all. The soft, warm, stinking dressings were made up of ground stag’s antlers and cow dung. To mask the smell a dash of crushed periwinkle was blended in with mare’s milk. The poultices were then placed upon Catherine’s ‘source of life’ and left to do their work, but these ‘fullproof methods’ yielded nothing, except, perhaps, an increased desire on the Dauphin’s part not to get too close to his wife, much less sleep with her. The astrologers were also consulted, and she faithfully followed their every instruction, but still no child appeared.

Finally Catherine became convinced that she was sexually incompetent and committing a fundamental error of some sort. Whatever Diane was doing with her husband she must try to do the same herself. It is said that the stout-hearted young woman ordered that holes be bored through her floor (probably at Fontainebleau) so that she could look down into the bedchamber where her husband and Diane spent their passionate nights together. Catherine’s ladies begged her not to go to these agonising lengths, but she would hear no argument and steeled herself to watch Henry make love to his mistress. When the time came her sorrow at the sight of the lovers’ complete abandon in each other was so great that she actually saw very little; her eyes were filled with tears before she finally turned away. What she had seen, however, suggested to her that she and her husband did something very different when they lay together.8

At last a doctor named Jean Fernel was called. He examined the Dauphin and Dauphine, and found that their reproductive organs both carried slight physical abnormalities. The sensible doctor counselled a method that might overcome the problem although, irritatingly, we can only speculate as to what it was. The couple were told what to do, and Henry performed his duty. Their joy was obvious to all when in the early summer of 1543 Catherine became pregnant. In one of the letters that survive from her during this time, she wrote to Montmorency – who had by now been created Constable of France and had himself given her advice on how to start a family – ‘Mon Compère, as I know well that you desire children for me as much as I do, I wished to write to tell you of my great hopes that I am with child.’9 On 19 January 1544, at Fontainebleau, the Dauphine went into labour and in the late afternoon, to the great relief of all concerned, she gave birth to a son. For the first time since she had arrived in France as Henry’s unwished-for wife ten years earlier, Catherine at last felt secure in her position.

The child was named Francis after the King, who had been present at the delivery. He had assiduously noted the details of the actual birth and even insisted upon examining ‘all that came out with the baby’.10 French and Roman astrologers were consulted, and a most detailed account of the birth was given to the papal nuncio. The savants announced that the infant would grow to be a strong, fit man, that he would take the Church under his protection and would have a large number of brothers and sisters. Unfortunately this last was the only prediction to come true. A brilliant christening was held at Fontainebleau at five o’clock in the evening of 10 February 1544 in the Saint-Saturnin Chapel. Under the blaze of torches held up by 300 of the King’s guard the ‘lights made everything so plainly visible that it seemed as though it were the middle of the day’. There came a procession of the King’s household, consisting of the Chevaliers of the Order of Saint-Michel, Princes of the Blood and senior nobles, and then cardinals, prelates and ambassadors.11 Queen Eleanor and the royal princesses came next, followed by the great ladies of the Court ‘all very sumptuously attired in cloth of gold and silver with an infinitude of precious stones … and in the midst of this crowd was the child being carried to be baptised’. The baby’s godparents were Francis himself, his sister Marguerite of Navarre and the baby’s uncle, Charles Duke of Orléans.

Whatever cure Dr Fernel had prescribed for the Dauphin and his wife, it clearly worked spectacularly, because over the following twelve years Catherine gave birth to a further nine children, six of whom survived childhood. In defiance of her enemies and her ten years of perilous sterility she now produced an almost annual offering to her husband and the nation. The couple’s first daughter was born on 2 April 1545 and named Elisabeth, followed by Claude on 12 November 1547; Louis on 3 February 1549 (died 24 October 1549); Charles-Maximilien on 27 June 1550, later to become Charles IX; Edouard-Alexandre on 19 September 1551, later Henri III; Marguerite on 14 May 1553, known as Margot; Hercules on 18 March 1555; and finally twin girls, Victoire and Jeanne, who were born on 24 June 1556. Jeanne died during the birth itself, nearly killing Catherine in the process, and Victoire lived only for a few weeks.

It is a tribute to Catherine’s magnificent constitution that she survived giving birth nine times in an age where high-born women had the dubious privilege of being attended to by physicians and midwives. The midwives’ eager experienced fingers tearing at the mother’s genital flesh to dilate her vagina sufficiently if a baby were slow in coming was the accepted practice of the day. This ripping and internal rummaging (often pulling out the placenta with the infant) caused blood poisoning, severe bleeding and other damage that all too frequently led to the mother’s death. If she survived the birth, the very treatments recommended by the experts would weaken an already enfeebled constitution. It was generally prescribed that once the child had been delivered the patient should lie in a heated and darkened room. Her only sustenance was given in liquid form and no solids were allowed for some considerable time.12

Catherine’s sturdy constitution was not, however, inherited by her children. With the notable exception of Margot, who enjoyed rude health, her siblings were a sickly lot. Of the seven children who survived infancy, six suffered from weak lungs and most likely tuberculosis. François, Charles-Maximilien and Edouard-Alexandre were also prone to septic sores, infections and, as they grew older, fits of dementia that imply genetically inherited syphilis from their grandfather, Lorenzo II de Medici. In many ways the dreadful health of the royal children, especially the boys, was one of the major factors that forced Catherine to maintain her central role in governing France even when her sons were mature.

At the birth of her first son Catherine immediately went from being barely tolerated to being widely celebrated. She received recognition even from the most stiff-necked French courtiers for finally ensuring the succession to the throne. While she rejoiced at her son’s arrival and the pressures that it banished, she soon discovered that Diane, who had assisted at the birth, proceeded to take charge over the welfare of her firstborn and the children who were to follow. This galling mark of Diane’s continuing ascendancy over Henry was a bitter pill as Catherine watched the mistress usurp her place yet again. Her hope that by giving him a son she would perhaps win her husband back soon died as the same old pattern asserted itself. Indeed, if anything Diane’s role in Henry’s life grew stronger at the arrival of his children. Catherine had no choice but to accept that there were three people in her marriage. Diane had her cousin Jean d’Humières awarded with the governorship of the royal nursery and she proceeded to supervise and instruct, albeit with admirable efficiency, the raising of the babies of France. This did not, however, prevent their mother from sending a constant stream of letters enquiring about the children and handing out her own orders. For example, just before the birth of Claude in 1547 she wrote, ‘Monsieur de Humyères [sic], you have given me great joy by sending news of my children.… I ask that you write as often as possible to me about their health.’13 Catherine had every reason to be concerned.

Since his elder brother’s death, Henry had enjoyed the perquisites that came with his new position as Dauphin. Not only had Diane become his attentive lover, but a party of supporters began to form around the young prince from the late 1530s, hitching their fortunes to the coming man. In 1538 the Dauphin had the great personal satisfaction of seeing his friend Anne de Montmorency invested with the office of Constable of France. This was the most senior rank in the French military hierarchy. The post had been created in the time of the Frankish kings, the word constable deriving from ‘count of the stables.… The Constable in the field ranked over even the Princes of the Blood … and was regarded as one of the major councillors of the king.’ He led the army in the monarch’s absence and received an annual pension of 24,000 livres.14 The position was for life and had been left vacant since the treachery of the previous incumbent, the Constable de Bourbon. A patriotic servant of the Crown, Montmorency also devoted himself to the young Dauphin, who now hoped to wield more influence since his friend’s advancement. Catherine disliked the Constable for his complicity in Diane’s and Henry’s relationship, although she buried her resentment and appeared, as always, cordial and charming. She also understood that this man, unlike so many of the other courtiers whose motives were fuelled by simple ambition, could truthfully claim to be a faithful supporter of Henry’s and a true patriot. One day she would call upon his services herself.

Catherine now had a difficult path to navigate between the two favourites, Diane and Madame d’Étampes, whose rivalry had blown up into open hostility. At first their antipathy was based on little more than a mutual dislike, but their behaviour, beliefs and ambitions clashed in almost every area. The dislike grew into a conflict as d’Étampes, whose cupidity and influence over Francis can only be described as phenomenal, began to fear the day when she would be displaced by Diane. By 1540, as Francis began to weaken from excesses that stemmed from his youth, taunts from d’Étampes about ‘the old lady’, as she called Henry’s mistress, grew louder and more scurrilous. She claimed to have been born on her rival’s wedding day, though she was actually only nine years younger than Diane. Rumours about Henry’s favourite were enlarged, and any differences between them were eagerly seized upon. She took an active interest in the new religion, while Diane detested the reform movement. Careless of her reputation, d’Étampes had other lovers besides the King. One day, returning early from the hunt, it is said that he found his mistress in bed with a young nobleman. Francis, ever the gentleman, is supposed to have feigned ignorance as to the lady’s identity, taking her for one of his mistress’s serving girls, and had the man arrested for molesting the maiden. This incident had no effect on the couple’s relationship, and the King remained as devoted to the duchess as ever.

Such behaviour was anathema to Diane who had remained true to her husband while he lived and when, as a widow, she eventually did become Henry’s lover she cloaked their relationship with endless respectable images of the chaste deity Diana, goddess of the hunt. In short, the younger woman was passionate, fiery, greedy and sensual, while Diane was cool, careful, imperious and remote. They loathed one another. Catherine floated ambiguously between the two, never becoming intimate with either and yet maintaining a civil relationship with both. Francis found himself unable to refuse his mistress anything; she tickled his tired tastes as he enriched her enormous family while scandalously submitting to her every desire.

The positions between the two parties at Court polarised progressively. Madame d’Étampes championed the King’s favourite son, Charles. She planned to make him powerful enough to protect her when the King died. After the Emperor and Francis had met at Nice in 1538 and settled a ten-year truce the King, egged on by his favourite, entered into talks with his erstwhile enemy about a marriage between Charles and the Emperor’s daughter Mary. Francis was led to believe that Milan would be her dowry, which infuriated Henry who considered that the duchy was rightfully his. Montmorency, who had promoted peace between the two rulers, found himself in disgrace and banished from Court when the Emperor proceeded to go back on his earlier promises by installing his son, later Philip II of Spain, as the Duke of Milan in 1540. The relationship between the two royal brothers, which could never have been described as cosy, now became a dangerous feud; each party, led by the two rivals Diane de Poitiers and the Duchess d’Étampes, enjoyed considerable backing by the princes’ respective followers. Henry felt jealous of his father’s evident love for his younger brother; he might also have resented the fact that the prince had not had to endure the appalling years of captivity in Spain. Now he was to witness quite blatant efforts by Charles to carve a strong base for himself as a feudal lord so powerful that he would represent a grave threat to Henry when he became king.

After the Emperor had made a fool of Francis with his promises of marriage and Milan for Prince Charles, the King had no choice but to go to war with his old enemy. The brothers now competed with each other for military glory. In 1542 Charles took Luxembourg with little effort, but when he heard that Henry was preparing to attack Perpignan he hastened to join him and share in any military success. Perpignan proved impossible to take and during Charles’s absence the Imperialists recaptured Luxembourg. France suffered, running out of allies.fn6 Henry begged his father to allow the Constable to return and with his undoubted military skills help France to recover the initiative. But the King denied his son’s request. Nevertheless, despite his father, Henry fought with notable valour and distinction but could do nothing to prevent further Imperial successes. The Emperor’s troops invaded the Champagne region and directly threatened Paris, but as so often happened in his reign, just as Charles V was about to destroy his old enemy his troops deserted for lack of payment. Both parties, now exhausted, negotiated a settlement and the Peace Treaty of Crépy was signed on 18 September 1544.

This treaty could possibly be described as the most foolhardy act of Francis’s reign because it incorporated a marriage between Charles of France and either a daughter of the Emperor, or one of his brother’s daughters. If it were the Emperor’s own daughter then he would bestow the Netherlands upon her as her dowry; if it were his niece then she would receive Milan as her wedding gift. In return Francis agreed to give his son several of France’s most important duchies: Angoulême, Châtelleraut, Bourbon and Orléans. Henry was apoplectic when he heard the details, for though the succession had been assured thanks to the birth of his son, his younger brother would become as powerful as a monarch in his own right and, worse still, receive backing from the Emperor. The House of Valois would be split by its enemies. Doubtless this is precisely what France’s wily old adversary had intended. The country was only just emerging as a national entity, leaving behind the feudal factionalism that had bedevilled her for so long. Henry understood, as did many other outraged members of the nobility, that the Treaty of Crépy contained all the ingredients to revive this dangerous situation. Having been obliged to sign the odious treaty out of ‘fear and reverence for my father’, Henry proceeded to write a secret denunciation of the pact which gave away inalienable Crown properties; three members of his closest coterie – François of Guise, Antoine de Bourbon and Bourbon’s brother, the Comte d’Enghien – witnessed the document.

The triumphant mood of the Duchess d’Étampes is not hard to imagine; her manipulation of the increasingly decrepit King, possible treachery, and skilful undermining of the Dauphin and his party gave her every reason to hope that she might be secure after Francis’s death after all. Although there is no direct evidence against her, it is thought that the duchess was passing secrets to the Emperor and therefore guilty of treason. She left for Brussels with Queen Eleanor and Charles to celebrate the signing of the treaty. The cool relationship between Francis and the Dauphin worsened to a chill. Henry rarely saw his father and absented himself from Court as much as he could. In revenge Francis ostentatiously lavished love, gifts and pride upon his youngest son.

Henry began, not always discreetly, to prepare for the day when he would at last wear the crown himself. One night after dinner he sat with his cronies having drunk a considerable amount of wine. Believing himself to be alone and among friends, the Dauphin noted ‘that when he was King, he should name such and such persons marshals or grand-masters … [adding] that he should recall the Constable’.15 François de Vieilleville (one of the Dauphin’s confidants and later made a Marshal of France), who recalled the event in his memoirs, worried that this talk might be overheard, told Henry that ‘he was selling the skin before the bear was killed’ and hastened to absent himself. His instincts proved correct, as unbeknown to the Dauphin the King’s fool, Briandas, had been sitting in an alcove by a window in the dining room. Briandas rushed to his master. To impress upon him that another man threatened to usurp his position as King he addressed Francis as simply ‘François de Valois’ and proceeded to inform on Henry. Francis despatched armed men to his son’s apartments, but the prince and his friends had received warning of their approach and made a quick escape before the guards’ arrival. The King, infuriated by their flight, vented his temper on the remains of the hastily abandoned dinner. Pages and gentlemen took refuge by jumping out of the window as Francis hurled knives, plates, furniture and tapestries against the walls and at the courtiers and servants, who dived and leapt out of the way. Henry did not reappear at Court for over a month for fear of his father’s wrath and many of his friends were not allowed back at all.

To make matters worse, in the autumn of 1544 the King banished Diane from Court because the Dauphin had replaced one of d’Étampes’s toadies while campaigning against the English in Picardy. Francis, unable to resist either the endless nagging of his favourite or her physical attractions, let his mistress have her way. Diane went to her château at Anet, closely followed by the Dauphin, who spent much of his time there in a grumpy protest against his father. Henry’s favourite did not receive permission to return until the following year. Catherine enjoyed the secret satisfaction of seeing her rival disgraced, while the Dauphin forbade his wife to speak to his father’s mistress.

Free of the older woman’s presence, Catherine blossomed and enjoyed the attention given to her by the King. It was obvious that despite his dimmed powers he saw great qualities in his daughter-in-law and all that she could bring to Henry when she became Queen. He also showed that he understood all too well that much of the praise and attention that so often went to Diane rightfully belonged to Catherine. After so many scenes between the two warring favourites, it must have been a great boon to have a bright and loyal woman beside him who never publicly displayed her pain or anger. At Christmas that year, she was showered with presents by Francis as a mark of special favour, the most notable of which were a ruby and a diamond worth 10,000 écus. Catherine, by now heavily pregnant with her daughter Elisabeth, savoured the luxury of not having to listen to Diane’s endless and dreary counselling on her health or that of her infant son. It was a happy time for her; usually starved of recognition, she basked in the King’s approval and his delight was evident for all to see when she presented him with a granddaughter on 2 April 1545.

As Charles and Henry went off campaigning in the Boulogne area together, trying to evict the English who had captured the town in 1544, a gradual rapprochement could be discerned between the two brothers. Francis, anxious to keep busy in order to avoid dwelling on his dwindling health, accompanied his sons. Henry and his brother had hardly addressed one word to each other since the Peace of Crépy had been signed, but gradually a fraternal spirit began to emerge during the military operations. In the month of August 1545 plague broke out in the vicinity. On 6 September Charles and some of his young nobles came upon a house where all the inhabitants had recently died of the disease. In an excess of youthful confidence he decided to look inside, but was urged not to enter for fear of contamination. Laughing, the young prince proclaimed, ‘Never yet has a son of France died of the plague’, and with that he and his friends went in and started to tear the place apart, pillow-fighting and ripping up mattresses. His faith in royal immunity from the vulgar disease was evidently misplaced. By evening he began to feel sick and three days later he was dead.

During his brief illness the twenty-three-year-old prince suffered a high fever, pain and vomiting. As soon as he heard of his brother’s illness, Henry had rushed to his sickroom but found his entry barred. Three times he had to be physically prevented from going to his brother’s side, and when Charles died Francis and Henry grieved with heartfelt sorrow at his passing. The Peace of Crépy was now obsolete and the menace of a country split by Francis’s foolishness finally removed. The old King crumpled with a melancholy that remained with him for the rest of his days. It now became essential to teach the Dauphin – whom he had kept at arm’s length for so long – the art of statecraft, but Henry witnessed with frustration that his father was still being deeply influenced by Madame d’Étampes and her clique as attempts to shore up their position grew increasingly frantic. Henry merely refused to attend the council meetings, saying he did not wish to be tarnished by the misguided policies of his father when he finally ascended the throne.

On 7 June 1546 a peace was signed in which England agreed to hand back Boulogne after eight years, for 2 million écus with payments made in eight instalments.fn7 With a natural sense of relief at the respite from war, that autumn Catherine and Henry went ontheir first official royal progress together to inspect the defences of the eastern borders of France. In the cold autumn weather the strain of giving birth to two children just fourteen months apart and all the political manoeuvring at Court told on the Dauphine, and she fell seriously ill. Henry halted the progress, and the couple stayed at Saint-Marc in order that his wife might recover. For Catherine it was almost worth being so ill just to have her husband present, caring for her with some tenderness, while she suffered. Her sturdy constitution soon had her on her feet again.

In February 1547 word arrived at the French Court that King Henry VIII of England had died on 27 January. Madame d’Étampes flew into Queen Eleanor’s chamber crying, ‘News! News! We have lost our chief enemy!’ The wretched Queen, thinking it must be her brother the Emperor who had died, was on the point of collapse before she heard that he was quite well, though everyone else would have infinitely preferred the Emperor’s demise to Henry’s.16 It had been a dismal Christmas and New Year due to Francis’s poor health, but to hear that his contemporary and sometime ally had expired left the King ‘more pensive than before’ and ‘he feared that he might soon follow him’. This was not helped by a message he is supposed to have received from Henry VIII given from his deathbed, reminding the French King that he too was mortal.

To increase the air of morbidity yet further, one of the monarch’s young kinsman, the Comte d’Enghien, a Bourbon and part of Henry’s circle of close friends, was killed in a snowball fight at a château near Mantes where the Court was staying. Francis had ordered the fight between two sides, one led by Henry and François of Guise, the other by d’Enghien of whom he was fond. In the horseplay that followed in which no quarter was given by either side, d’Enghien paused for breath and sat down beneath an upstairs window. A contemporary writes of how ‘some ill-advised person threw a linen-chest out of the window, which fell on the Sieur d’Enghien’s head and … he died a few days later’.17 Some suspected foul play, but there is no evidence to support this. Such high-spirited games in those days frequently caused serious injuries and fatalities, but the unfortunate young man’s demise brought Francis further pain and grief. As the shadows lengthened on his reign, the King was possessed by a fitfulness that prompted him to travel from one beloved château to another, ostensibly to hunt, though he often had to be carried in a litter and could only follow the chase at a distance.

At last at Rambouillet the fifty-two-year-old Francis could continue no longer; feverish, he took to his bed. The abscess ‘in his lower parts’ that had been troubling him for many years and was cauterised in 1545, releasing great quantities of pus, had never quite healed satisfactorily. The wound kept reopening, particularly since he had not ceased his womanising. The King was treated with ‘Chinese wood’, and his old ally the infidel Barbarossa had recommended quicksilver pills (untreated mercury), believed at the time to be effective in treating syphilis.18 In fact, modern medical opinion considers it unlikely that Francis suffered from syphilis as he appeared quite lucid up to his death. The most probable cause of his illness was gonorrhoea which, left untreated, would have led to infections of the bladder and urinary tract. At the time of his death he also suffered from serious infections in his stomach, one lung, kidneys and throat. One thing none of the so-called experts disagreed upon was that the King’s ‘insides were rotten’.19 After surviving several health crises over the previous five years, Francis now appeared to accept that he was about to die and sent for the Dauphin, who had left Catherine to care for his father as he went to Anet to visit Diane.

Catherine felt sore of heart to see her protector and benefactor in such a pitiful condition and watched over him tenderly until the Dauphin arrived on 20 March. After Francis had made his confession, heard Mass and taken Communion, he began to speak earnestly to Henry about how many wrongs he had committed during his reign, urging his son to avoid the same pitfalls. He particularly warned the Dauphin against being influenced by a woman, such as he himself had been. The King spent the next few days talking to his son about his past errors and advising him how to act when king. He urged him not to recall Montmorency and above all to beware of the Guise family, ‘whose aim was to strip him and his children to their doublets and his people to their shirts’.20 He asked that the Dauphin take care of Queen Eleanor, admitting that he had been a poor husband to this good woman and then commended the Duchess d’Étampes to his protection, saying, ‘She is a lady … do not submit yourself to the will of others, as I have to her.’21

The favourite, who had been waiting in a room next to the King’s and had been denied access to her lover since 29 March, was heard to shout ‘Let the earth swallow me up!’ and when it failed to oblige her she took off to her château at Limours in some haste. Hearing of a slight improvement the following day she returned, hoping for a miraculous recovery, but there was none and the Dauphin turned her away angrily. François of Guise was pacing about, anxious for the new reign to begin, muttering, ‘Il s’en va le vieux galant’ (The old gentleman is leaving). The King asked for extreme unction and spent his last hours listening to the scriptures. When able, he talked to Henry who, overcome with emotion, asked for his father’s blessing and held him in a tight embrace from which he would not let him go until the Dauphin ‘fell into a swoon’. Some time between two and three o’clock in the afternoon of 31 March 1547 Francis I of France, Le Roi Chevalier, the Renaissance King north of the Alps who had started his reign so gloriously but brought much trouble upon his kingdom in his later years, finally breathed his last. It was considered by all to have been an exemplary death.

Catherine, who had been Francis’s close companion during his declining years and last illness, spent most of his final days in an ante-room, sometimes seated on the floor with her back against the wall, her head in her hands, weeping. Not only was she losing her bulwark against Diane but she also genuinely grieved for the man who had brought her to France thirteen years earlier and had supported her when others would have sent her away. Catherine had learned much from Francis about projecting the grandeur of the monarchy; she had witnessed his courage, optimism and patience; she had seen him deal with Court politics and international relations. The Dauphine had also been inspired by her father-in-law’s passion for the arts and his great building projects. For all Francis’s mistakes, his young apprentice had learned her lessons well and in later years when she alone was left to protect France and the monarchy, she invoked the name and example of Francis I. She was determined to honour the man who had raised her from the daughter of a rich merchant family to become Queen of France.

fn1 Marguerite of France was first married to the Duc d’Alençon. Her second marriage (in 1527) was to Henri d’Albret, King of Navarre. Navarre was a small Pyrenean mountain kingdom on the border between France and Spain.

fn2 Marguerite, Queen of Navarre, enjoyed the spiritual and philosophical debates that had been sparked by Luther and Erasmus. In the early 1530s Jean Calvin, the French theologian and reformer, spent time in Paris until he went to live at Marguerite’s Court at Nérac. Eventually the persecution of reformers forced him to live in Switzerland from where he would mastermind the dissemination of his doctrine that became known as Calvinism.

fn3 Charles de Montpensier, Duke de Bourbon (1490–1527), better known as the Constable de Bourbon, was related to Francis I through both the King’s parents. Some rivalry existed between the two men but Francis depended greatly upon his best military commander’s brilliance and was mindful of the duke’s large number of supporters and fiefdoms, particularly those in the Bourbonnais at the centre of France. The rivalry became an open rift when Francis and his mother tried to snatch the inheritance of Bourbon’s wife and cousin Suzanne (a descendant of Louis XI). Louise even tried to marry Bourbon as she not only wanted his money but found him physically attractive as well. Unable to reason with Francis, the utterly frustrated Bourbon allied himself to Charles V. In 1523 his uprising failed due to indiscretion, poor communication and insufficient external support. Bourbon was killed fighting for the Emperor in 1527 as his troops breached the walls of Rome.

fn4 Cardinal Jean of Lorraine (1498–1550), brother of Claude, first Duke of Guise. Not to be confused with the famous Cardinal Charles of Lorraine (brother of François, second Duke of Guise) who was Jean’s nephew and later played an enormous role during Catherine’s struggle to rule France for her sons.

fn5 James V of Scotland had first married Henry’s sister, Princess Madeleine of France, in 1537; after her death only a few months later he married Marie of Guise in 1538 and their daughter later became the famous Mary, Queen of Scots.

fn6 Perhaps the most curious French allies in this war were the Turks led by the infidel corsair Barbarossa, who had become admiral-in-chief of the Turkish navy. The Turks brought their fleet to help the French take Nice. Unsuccessful, the fleet wintered at Toulon where they availed themselves of the locals when they ran short of slaves to man their galleys. It was not the first, nor the last, time that the Crescent of Islam flew alongside the Most Christian King’s own banner, and the frequent Franco–Turkish alliances scandalised much of Europe over the years.

fn7 Some historians put the figure at 800,000 écus.

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