She is still a puzzle, after four centuries of conflicting interpretations. Descended from Lorenzo the Magnificent, grandniece of Pope Leo X, she was a typical Medici, with government in her heritage and subtlety in her blood. Born in Florence (1519) of parents who both died of syphilis before she was a month old, she remained a helpless and movable pawn in the diplomacy of her embattled relatives until her uncle, Pope Clement VII, gave her, aged fourteen, in marriage to the future Henry II of France. For ten years she remained barren while her somber mate devoted himself to Diane de Poitiers. Then children emerged from her almost annually, ten in all. She hoped and schemed to get them thrones. Three of them died in childhood; three became kings of France; two became queens. Nearly all of them tasted tragedy, but herself most of all, who lived through the deaths of her husband and three successive royal sons. Queen or Queen Mother, she bore the vicissitudes of four reigns, and survived them by prudence, self-control, and unscrupulous duplicity.

A contemporary described her as “a beautiful woman when her face is veiled”14—that is, she had a fine figure; and Brantôme assures us that her bosom was “white and full,” her “thigh very beautiful,” and her hands and fingers exquisite.15 But her features were rugged, her eyes too big, her lips too thick, her mouth too large. If she seduced men it was by proxy. Rumor accused her of keeping about her an escadron volant, or flying squadron, of pretty women who might bring men around to her purposes;16 but this was apparently a fiction.17 Wounded by Diane’s dominance in policy as in love, she found revenge, after Henry’s death, by making herself for thirty years the power behind the throne. Her finesse had to atone for the incompetence of her sons; they resented her interference, but their failure as kings compelled it. Cast into the maelstrom of a religious revolution, surrounded by aggressive nobles and intolerant dogmatisms, she fought with the only weapons she had—Medicean money, Italian acumen, Machiavellian diplomacy. Machiavelli had dedicated The Prince to her father; Catherine hardly needed its instruction, for she had seen its principles practiced everywhere in Italy and France. Like Elizabeth of England, she outplayed all the statesmen around her, beat them at lying, “had more wiles than all the Council of the King.”18 She worked hard and ably at administration. “Nothing is done without her knowing it,” said an Italian observer; “scarcely has she time to eat”19—though somehow she achieved obesity. Her personal morals were above her time. She seems to have been faithful to her unfaithful husband and to his memory; after his death she wore mourning to the end of her life. Her greatest successor, Henry IV, judged her leniently:

I ask you, what could a woman do, left by the death of her husband with five little children on her arms, and two families in France who were thinking of grasping the crown—ours [the Bourbons] and the Guises? Was she not compelled to play strange parts to deceive first one and then the other, in order to guard, as she did, her sons, who successively reigned through the wise conduct of that shrewd woman? I am surprised that she never did worse.20

We may accept this as a fair appraisal of Catherine’s behavior before 1570. Surrounded by these rival families and forces, she played them off against each other. “God willing,” she wrote, “I shall not let myself be governed either by one party or the other, having learned only too well that they all love God, the King, and myself less than their profit … and the satisfaction of their ambition.”21 She was too much of a Renaissance Italian to savor the predestinarian severity of the Huguenots; besides, she was asking the Church for a loan to stave off state bankruptcy;22 nevertheless she was ready, for France’s sake, to marry her daughter Marguerite to the Huguenot Henry of Navarre, and her son Henry to the excommunicated Elizabeth. She saw the situation in dynastic and political rather than in religious or economic terms. She had to protect her divided country against the Hapsburg union of Spain and Austria. The Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésiş had left the Spanish power supreme in Flanders and encroaching dangerously upon northeastern France. At any moment the old war of Valois and Hapsburg might flame again, and then France would need Huguenot as well as Catholic blood and arms. External danger demanded internal peace.

In this frame of mind she and her Chancellor L’Hôpital prepared to meet the States-General at Orléans. The “states” were not regions but classes: the nobility, the clergy, and, as the tiers état, the remainder of France—principally the bourgeoisie or middle classes of the towns or boroughs (bourgs), but also, in some modest representation, the peasantry and the incipient proletariat. Chosen by local and class powers rather than by any wide suffrage, the delegates had in theory no legislative authority, but only the right to advise the monarch; however, his need for funds gave the advice some force.

L’Hôpital opened the session (December 13, 1560) with an idealistic appeal for mutual toleration. It was the function of government, he urged, to maintain peace, order, and justice among all citizens impartially, without regard to their religious opinions. It was desirable that all Frenchmen should have the same religion, for this would favor national unity and strength; but if such a general agreement could not be peacefully reached, toleration became advisable. Who, after all, he asked, knows what is heresy and what is truth? “You say your religion is the better; I say mine is; is it any more reasonable that I should adopt your opinion than that you should adopt mine? … Let us end these diabolical names, these partisan tags and factions and seditions—Lutherans, Huguenots, Catholics; let us change our name to Christians!”23

The response was not cordial. A doctor of the Sorbonne—then the faculty of theology in the University of Paris—demanded the death penalty for all heretics, and the papal nuncio advised Catherine to begin by burning all the Huguenot delegates, then all the Huguenots in Orléans.24 The Huguenot delegates proposed to the Queen Mother a variety of reforms: that all pastors should be chosen by their congregations; that bishops should be chosen by the pastors and the nobles of the diocese; that a third of ecclesiastical revenues should go to relief of the poor, and another third to the building of churches, hospitals, and schools; and that the doctrine of the Church should be limited to Scripture.25 This was a bit too advanced for Catherine, who needed Church money desperately. She appeased the Huguenots by freeing the imprisoned Condé and urging Pius IV to allow the removal of religious images from churches, and the administration of the Sacrament in wine as well as bread.26 On January 28, 1561, she released all persons arrested for religious “offenses,” and ordered an end, till further notice, of all prosecutions for religion. On the thirty-first she prorogued the States-General to reassemble in May and meet her needs for funds.

The Huguenots expanded in this sunshine. On March 2 they held at Poitiers their second national synod. Protestant ministers preached freely in the apartments of Condé and Coligny at the court at Fontainebleau. At Castres in south France a municipal election (January 1, 1561) gave all offices to Protestants; soon thereafter all citizens were ordered to attend Protestant services;27 Catholic services were forbidden; religious images were officially condemned to be destroyed.28 At Agen and Montauban the Huguenots took over unused Catholic churches. The old Constable Anne de Montmorency formed with the Duke of Guise and Marshal de Saint-André a “triumvirate” to protect the Catholic interest (April 6, 1561). Riots flared up at Paris, Rouen, Beauvais, and elsewhere. The Queen issued an “Edict of July” (1561) forbidding violence and public Huguenot services. The Huguenots ignored the edict; in various towns they attacked Catholic processions, entered Catholic churches, burned relics, and smashed images.29 At Montpellier, in the autumn of 1561, all the sixty churches and convents were sacked, and many priests were killed; at Montauban the Convent of the Poor Claires was burned down, and the nuns were dispersed with the advice to get themselves husbands.30 At Carcassonne the Catholics slaughtered all available Protestants.31 At Nîmes the Huguenots expelled all priests, appropriated or destroyed all Catholic churches, burned down the cathedral, and trampled the consecrated Host underfoot (February 1562).32Generally, in Languedoc and Guienne, the Huguenots, when they gained the upper hand, seized Catholic churches and property and expelled the Catholic clergy.33 Huguenot ministers, though more exemplary in their personal morals than the Catholic priests, quite equaled them in intolerance;34they excommunicated Huguenots who were married by Catholic priests or who allowed their children to marry Catholics.35 Neither side saw any sense in toleration.

The States-General resumed its sittings on August 1, 1561, this time at Pontoise. It offered funds to the government on condition that its consent should thereafter be prerequisite to any levy of new taxes or any declaration of war. The Third Estate, now chief provider of funds, added a bold request—that the entire property of the Catholic Church in France should be nationalized, that the clergy should be paid by the state, and that out of the surplus of 72,000,000 livres thus obtained 42,000,000 should go to the liquidation of the public debt. The Catholic clergy, frightened, made a hurried peace with Catherine by offering her 16,600,000 livres, to be paid cautiously in ten annual installments. She accepted, and the States-General was dissolved.

Meanwhile L’Hôpital, with Catherine’s consent and over the protest of the Pope, had invited Catholic and Protestant clergymen to meet and seek some formula for pacification. Six cardinals, forty bishops, twelve doctors of the Sorbonne, twelve canonists, ten Protestant ministers from France, one from England, Théodore de Bèze from Geneva, and twenty Protestant laymen met at Poissy, eleven miles west of Paris, for the famous “Colloquy of Poissy” (September 9, 1561). The King, the Queen Mother, the princes of the blood, and the Council of State attended in all their dignity. Bèze, representing the aged Calvin, was received with almost royal honors; he held a Reformed service and preached in Catherine’s palace. He spoke at first moderately and charmed all with his perfect French; but when he remarked that in the Eucharist “the body of Christ is as far removed from the consecrated bread as heaven is from earth,” the Catholic delegates cried out in protest, and turmoil ensued. The bishops urged the banishment of all preachers who questioned the Real Presence,36 and the colloquy broke up with the conflict of dogmas embittered and unappeased.

It was the merry wont of the Huguenots to hold their meetings in a public square confronting a Catholic church, and to disturb the Mass with lusty psalms; the Catholics in turn drowned out the psalmody by ringing the steeple bell. At Paris a Protestant assemblage before the Church of St.-Médard was nullified by a mighty clangor from the campanile; a Protestant who entered the church to protest was killed; in fury the Protestants sacked the building and smashed the statues and the crucifix. In the resultant battle eighty worshipers were wounded (December 27, 1561).

Catherine thought to mollify the Catholics by her “Edict of January” (1562), which required the Huguenots to surrender all ecclesiastical buildings to their former owners and to hold their assemblies only outside the town walls. The Catholic leaders agreed with Bèze that this was in effect an edict of toleration, which recognized Protestantism as a legal religion in France; Parlement leaders told Catherine to her face that they would die rather than register the edict. When Montmorency and Saint-André condemned her policy, Catherine dismissed them from the court; and when Cardinal de Tournon fulminated against her she retired him to his diocese. Catholic preachers denounced her as a Jezebel—the same term that Protestant Knox was then applying to the Catholic Queen of Scots.

On Sunday, March 1, 1562, Francis, Duke of Guise, passing with a band of two hundred armed retainers through the village of Vassy, some forty miles northwest of Dijon, stopped in a church there to hear Mass. The psalm singing of Huguenots meeting in a nearby barn disturbed the service. He sent a messenger to ask them to defer their songs for fifteen minutes, till the Mass should be finished. They found this too inconvenient. While Guise continued his worship some of his retainers exchanged sectarian compliments with the Huguenots; the retainers drew their swords, the Huguenots threw stones; one stone struck Guise as he left the church, and drew ducal blood; his followers dashed into the assemblage of five hundred men, women and children, killed twenty-three, and wounded a hundred.37 The “Massacre of Vassy” roused the Protestants of France to martial fever; the Catholics, especially in Paris, hailed it as a timely chastening of a troublesome minority. Catherine ordered Guise to come to her at Fontainebleau; he refused and went on to Paris; Montmorency and Saint-André joined him on the way with two thousand men. Condé ordered his Protestant levies to assemble in arms at Meaux. The Catholic triumvirate marched in force to Fontainebleau, captured the Queen Mother and the royal family, and compelled them to stay at Melun, twenty-seven miles from Paris; they formed a new Privy Council, chiefly of Guise’s men and excluding L’Hôpital. Condé led his 1,600 warriors to Orléans and called upon all Reformed congregations to send him troops. The first of the “Religious Wars” began (April 1562).

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