I'd arrived early to wander the site before my interview as I didn't want to be gaping at the architecture during my Q&A, but time had run away from me and despite my best efforts, there I was, rushing to collect myself at the very last minute.
I slipped my pack off, knelt and began digging through my things for my voice recorder. I generally prefer my notebook, but I didn't trust myself to take handwritten notes while interviewing a Queen of France. The damned thing was naturally nestled at the very bottom of my bag and I must have been very focused on digging it out because I failed to register the dramatic shift in my surroundings until I'd rearranged my belongings.
I slipped the recorder into my pocket and spun round a few times. The mechanics of falling through time elude me, but it's nothing like what you see in the movies. There is no flash of light or physical sensation and it isn't a complete shift. I can see my rental car on the other side of the gate, but everything on this side of the barrier is pure sixteenth century.
The sound of footsteps and rustling skirts proceeded the arrival of a grandly attired woman with bulging eyes. There was no mistaking Catherine de' Medici, but as I turned towards her, I hesitated. Is one supposed to curtsy to dead monarch? Was it appropriate to say a simple hello and shake hands? Should I apologize for my comparatively plain racerback maxi and sandals?A smile played at the corner of her mouth and she gestured an invitation to tour the garden. I'd no idea what sort of impression I made, but she hadn't refused the interview and I determined that was a good sign. I fell into step beside her and while I was never entirely at ease in her presence, I admit that found the rest of that afternoon quite illuminating.
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For you, what does it mean to be a Medici?
To be a Medici (or Médicis as they spell it in France, my adopted kingdom) is a point of pride. It means being the descendent of the great Cosmo and of the Italian Renaissance. It means being part of a family that did not inherit its wealth or power but built all that from banking and commerce. If that made us “common” in the eyes of the ancient great noble and royal houses of Europe, well, so be it. We ignored such tittering and married into many of those same families.
How did growing up in your family prepare you for your marriage and life in France?
It didn’t. My mother, Madeleine de La Tour d’Auvergne, Comtesse de Boulogne, may have been a French princess of royal blood, but my father’s family was not royal. Nor did I have the opportunity to know my parents, let alone be shaped by them. Both were dead within a month of my birth. I was taken under the wing of my grandmother. Because of my mother’s connection to the French crown, King Francis I claimed the right to raise me, but Pope Leo told the French King to pound salt. I am not sure that was the best result for me because eventually Francis I became my father-in-law and was more of a father to me than any other man in my life. When I was about 11 I was brought to Rome by my Uncle Pope Clement VII, not because he cared for me, but because he saw me – as Lorenzo de Medici’s legitimate heiress – as a useful pawn. He never gave me much attention and I never cared for him.
When I went to France at age 14 my new “father” King Francis showed me great kindness. This, more than anything before it, helped ease my transition into life as a member of the French royal family. When I married Prince Henri, who was not Dauphin at the time, my father-in-law assigned me the royal device of a rainbow and the motto “she brings light and serenity.” So you can see from that that the King cared for me. The French themselves, however, including courtiers, had many cruel things to say. Yes, I brought their country a valuable alliance with Pope Clement, but they still considered me lowly—of the merchant class—and foreign. Then things got worse: the whole reason for my marriage vanished when Pope Clement died and his replacement was well-disposed to France. Even my dear father-in-law was nonplussed. I overheard him telling someone, “the girl has been given to me stark naked.” That hurt, but when there was a movement to have my marriage repudiated King Francis did not permit it.
Did your marriage alter your personal identity at all?
My marriage WAS my identity. To be a wife, is that not the role, the identity, of every woman? And then to be a mother—a duty that became more important once my husband became Dauphin upon the unexpected death of his brother in 1536. Yet early in my marriage I felt that I was a failure as both wife and mother. I worried constantly that I would be set aside because for ten long years I bore no children, and I had the love of neither my husband nor my subjects. My marriage did change me yes—it made me doubt myself at first but then the adversity of it made me hard, and fierce and determined, characteristics that later served me, my sons, and France well.
How did your marriage challenge you?
I fell in love with my husband Henri the first moment I saw him. When he went off on military campaigns I would adopt the garb of mourning and insist my ladies do likewise. But for all this Henri did not care for me in a romantic way. His heart belonged to Diane de Poitier. And he elevated Diane so that all knew it. He made her Duchesse de Valentinois, the highest dignity any lady at the French Court could receive who was not a princess, and allowed her to walk among the princesses of the blood at my own coronation! Early in his reign Henri spent a large part of every day with Diane and gave her the political influence I was never permitted. And worse than this he gave her the love of his body in ways he never gave it to me. At the Place of Saint-Germain my bedroom was immediately above Diane’s. I had two holes made in the floor of my room and watched them together in bed—my husband and his whore. How I remember sobbing in the arms of my friends afterwards and telling them that Henri had not once in our married life used me so well. Still I was courteous to Diane while Henri lived, for his sake and for my own. What man loves his wife better when she harangues him or does as he would not wish?
How do you remember Henri II?
After all these years I still miss Henri. Although the traditional color of mourning for a French queen is white, I chose black and I wear it still. I changed my device from the rainbow given me by King Francis to a mound of quicklime with rain falling on it. And I changed my motto to: “although the flame is extinguished, this testifies that the fire still lives.” I will never be over Henri.
How did your role and status change when he died?
Setting aside for a moment the grief of losing my husband, being the Queen Mother rather than the Queen of France gave me more power. Perhaps not at first, because my son King Francis II was of-age, needed no regent, and he had many seeking to influence him. But once my ten-year-old Charles wore the crown of France it was, at last, my turn to rule.
Did you enjoy being thrust into the spotlight?
I am not about attention; pretty women get looked at for doing nothing. I am interested in POWER. Did I enjoy power, of course! Only an idiot would not enjoy power.
Francis II inherited his father’s throne, what ambitions did you have for your first born?
What ambition does any queen have for her son? I wanted him to have a long, successful reign. I wanted my husband’s royal line preserved and cemented on the throne of France. Alas, that was not to be, but it was not due to a lack of effort on my part. Even my enemies (sometimes grudgingly) conceded how hard I worked to preserve the Valois line! That peasant Henri of Navarre said of me (only after my death of course), “what could the poor woman do, with five children in her arms, after the death of her husband, and with two families in France—ours and the Guise—attempting to encroach on the Crown? Was she not force to play strange parts to deceive the one and the other and yet, das she did, to protect her children, who reigned in succession by the wisdom of a woman so able?”
You sent his widow, Mary Stuart, home after your son died. Why?
Did I “send” her? I think not!
There have always been these unaccountable rumors that I disliked Mary, or was even jealous of her. Nonsense! When my Henri died and Francis became King, I showed every deference to Mary. When I handed over the Crown jewels (without complaint) I even slipped in a few of my own pieces for her. Of course I was interested in limiting her influence over my son the king—the role of chief advisor to him rightfully belonged with me. Francis was young and needed my experience if he was to rule well and avoid being torn to bits by rival noble houses after his father’s death. But I can honestly say there was no fault or failing in my treatment of Mary while she was Queen of France.
But here is the truth of the matter—a daughter-in-law is not a daughter, she is not a permanent member of a family. And once Francis died Mary was competition with my youngest daughter, Magot, for the hands of all the best prospective royal grooms. She was also a political distraction at the Court of France, and an expense to the Royal treasury. Still, let me be clear, Mary had the legal right to remain in France under the terms of her marriage contract. That was true even if I found her continued presence vexatious. Fortunately for me, and for my next son to take the throne, Mary was actually rather anxious to return to Scotland and reclaim her throne from the regents who ruled in her absence.
Charles IX was ten years old when he inherited his brother’s throne. What hopes did you have for his rule?
Like his brother François before him, I hoped for a long and prosperous reign for Charles. Again those hopes were dashed that by fate. In his death, which was very painful for me, at least I had the solace of my favorite son Henri—“my Alexander” as I often called him—returning to my side from near-exile as King of Poland and taking the throne of France. Oh how I loved ruling beside Henri III!
How do you characterize Marguerite? Do you think she inherited any of your characteristics?
Ah Marguerite . . . if only she had been a boy. She had the best constitution of any of my children, good health largely wasted as she was a girl. People say I did not love her but this is not true. I loved all my children, but they were not merely children, they were ROYALS—and that rank comes with duty to the crown. Margot had a duty to be useful to the House of Valois, and I made decisions for her in line with that duty. But my actions were not necessarily incompatible with a good life for her. Women marry to their family’s advantage *shrug* that is what we do. And then we make the most of it.
What did Margot inherit from me? She inherited a gift of second-sight (though mine was stronger and more reliable). And, looking back I can see now, as perhaps I could not at the time, that her intelligence and her political savvy were reminiscent of my own. Of course when she was young that made her more not less aggravating to me, as we were not working towards the same goals.
How did you feel about her relationship with the charismatic Duc de Guise?
It had to be stopped—or at least any foolish talk/thoughts of a marriage did. I knew that from the moment that my darling son Henri brought me rumors of her entanglement with Guise. Margot was flattered into thinking herself in love with the young Duc, but whatever she believed about the Duc’s attachment to her, I saw it as the charade it was—nothing more than power grab and a presumptuous attempt to marry into the Royal family.
In fairness to my foolish daughter, she did not have the advantage of the experience I did. Over the years I’d learned firsthand how power-hungry the Guise family was. After my husband died, when the Guises moved to push the Montmorency out of the government, I did not mind because I never liked the Montmorency. But subsequently the Guises—really the entire House of Lorraine in all its branches—had far too much power over King Francis II, and made every attempt to shut me out. I vowed then that I would never see another Valois King dominated by a member of the House of Lorraine!
I needed, France needed, an equilibrium between the great nobles of the realm or the country would be torn to bits. Already the Guises had done all they could to foment war. Was it not the elder Duc de Guise (Francis) who shattered the Crown’s first agreement with our Protestant subjects (within 6 weeks of its signing no less) by committing the Massacre of Vassy and thus causing the first War of Religion? I certainly was not sorry when he was assassinated, though telling the Venetian ambassador that, “If Monsieur de Guise had perished sooner, peace would have been achieved more quickly” might have been overdoing it. And despite the old Duc’s death the Guises kept fouling up my efforts at peace—always wanting to wipe out the Protestants rather than work with them.
So no, Guise was not an appropriate husband for my daughter. And really, even if Guise had loved Margot, what foolish woman would take a Duc when she could have a King?
How did her marriage to Henri of Navarre further your ambitions for her, Charles, and France?France had already struggled through THREE costly (both in terms of lives and in terms of damage to the economy) Wars of Religion. Again we had peace, and I wanted that peace to hold so that I could concentrate on other things (like taking Admiral Coligny down a peg and reducing his influence over Charles before the King was talked into a ridiculous war with Spain). Henri of Navarre was next in line for the throne after my own sons, and he and his mother were significant leaders in the Protestant camp. The marriage between the Prince of Navarre and my daughter was meant to provide a seal upon the Paix de Saint-Germain, forging an unbreakable bond between the Catholic and Protestant branches of our family. And to be honest as the marriage was negotiated I even had hopes that the Prince of Navarre might be brought into the Catholic fold—more than one man has made himself over for an attractive, persuasive, wife.
To those who think it was all a plot—a ruse from the beginning to lure the King of Navarre and thousands of Protestants to Paris for a massacre—I say no. I am not a religious zealot like the Guises. I am and always was a pragmatist. Whatever happened after Margot’s wedding, I did not have wholesale death in mind as it took place. For heaven’s sake, we had medals struck, medals distributed at the wedding dinner, bearing a lamb resting against a cross encircled by the phrase “I announce peace to you.” If only the Admiral had been shot dead instead of wounded...
How far would you go to secure the power and legacy of your family?
Further than many people, but not as far as the black legends surrounding my name say. I am first and foremost a mother and a practical ruler. Would I assassinate? Absolutely, all great families have assassins on their payroll. Will I finish a situation once other forces have started it? Yes. But I honestly prefer less death not more, and less disruption to the business of the crown. Unfortunately sometimes things do not work out that way, and I am not above taking credit for events that raise me or my sons in the opinions of the majority of our subjects.
What do you hope your children take from your example? Do you think any of them has what it takes to wield power as you have?
They do not have to have my strength or my cunning because I am with them, always ready to guide and aid them. I hope that I have instilled in them loyalty to family. Otherwise everything I have done to protect and promote the Valois line will be for nothing.
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Date of Birth: April 13, 1519
Physical Appearance: Catherine, with her bulging eyes, was by no measure an attractive woman. The fact she herself considered her hands to be her best and most beautiful feature suggests she knew as much.
Education and Job Skills: Life was her teacher. As for skills, many: chief among them political (and religious) pragmatism and sometimes ruthlessness. Catherine had a will of iron and a willingness to do what was necessary (or what she thought was necessary) even when it was unsavory.
Family: All her significant family attachments really came after her marriage. She adored her husband. She bore ten children, seven of whom lived to adulthood, only 2 of whom outlived her.
Allies: Catherine did not so much have allies as lieutenants. While she formed ties with others to benefit her goals and her sons’ governance of France, Catherine did not tend to view those whose interests corresponded with her own or those she cooperated with as equals.
Enemies: A complete list would be l-o-n-g. Let’s just say that when it came to influence over King Charles IX (relevant to my novel Médicis Daughter) her stand-out enemy was the Protestant leader Admiral Gaspard Coligny (Seigneur de Châtillon).
Hobbies: The sciences, including particularly astrology (which WAS considered science during her lifetime). For more on Catherine’s involvement with astrology check out my blog at Wonders and Marvels entitled, "Star Struck: Catherine de Médicis and the Science of Supersitiont"
Most Cherished Possession: No idea, but Catherine was particularly fond of her Château at Montceaux which her husband Henri gave her and where he visited her without his mistress Diane de Poitier.
Strengths: Fortitude, pragmatism, a willingness to do the dirty-work. Loyalty to her children and to her husband’s royal Valois line.
Weaknesses: Catherine’s largest failing was not so much her penchant for poisoning or her beliefs in astrology and predictions of the future. Rather I believe it was her inability to accept that anyone could do anything as well or better than she could. As a result, Catherine never allowed her kingly sons—even once they were adults—the power and control that ought by rights to have been fully theirs.
Fictional Appearances: Catherine de Médicis is one of the chief characters in Médicis Daughter (Thomas Dunne/December 2015)
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Sophie Perinot writes historical fiction. Her debut novel, The Sister Queens, (2012 NAL/Penguin) was set in 13th century France and England. The Sister Queens weaves the captivating story of medieval sisters, Marguerite and Eleanor of Provence, who both became queens – their lifelong friendship, their rivalry, and their reigns.
Perinot's latest novel, Medicis Daughter , (2015 Thomas Dunne/St. Martin) is set three-hundred years later--at intrigue-riven 16th century French Valois court. Medicis Daughter spins the tale of beautiful princess Marguerite who walks the knife edge between the demands of her serpentine mother, Catherine de Medicis, and those of her own conscience.
Ms. Perinot has both a BA in History and a law degree. She left the law to pursue artistic interests, including writing. An avid reader, especially of classic literature, and life-long student of history, it seemed only natural that Sophie should write historical fiction. As someone who studied French abroad and a devotee of Alexandre Dumas, French history was a logical starting point. An active member of the Historical Novel Society, she has attended all of the group’s North American Conferences and served as a panelist multiple times.
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