Catherine de Medici: Background information when reading The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

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The Confessions of Catherine de Medici

A Novel

by C. W. Gortner

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C. W. Gortner
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  • First Published:
    May 2010, 416 pages
    Paperback:
    May 2011, 432 pages

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Catherine de Medici

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Catherine de Medici was born on April 13, 1519 in Florence, Italy. Her mother, Madeleine de La Tour d'Auvergne, died a few days later either of plague or of syphilis contracted from her husband, Lorenzo II de Medici, Duke of Urbino (a sovereign state in northern Italy), who died from the disease a few weeks later. Madeline and Lorenzo had been married just a year, and Catherine was their only child. Catherine's care fell to her aunt and maternal grandmother, who raised her in the Palazzo Medici.

The House of Medici was a political dynasty that came into prominence in the 14th century. Having acquired great wealth first in the textile trade and later as bankers, the Medici family became the unofficial rulers of the republic of Florence, and later the recognized sovereigns of Tuscany. When the family was overthrown in 1527, Catherine was taken hostage and placed in a series of convents. After Florence surrendered to Charles V in 1530, Pope Clement VII (Cardinal Giulio de' Medici) helped arrange Catherine's marriage to the future King Henry II of France in 1533.

She bore King Henry ten children, Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III among them. After the King's death in 1559 (from wounds sustained in a jousting match) and her son Francis's death the following year, the government fell entirely into Catherine's hands. She ruled as regent for Charles, and wielded considerable influence over him during his reign. In these years she faced political mayhem, bloody rebellions and religious massacres, and as a consequence her actions as ruler are shrouded in mystery and intrigue. She has been held partly responsible for starting the French Wars of Religion (primarily between Catholics and Protestants), and accused of poisoning her enemies and manipulating her children to extend her family's power. Henry IV is reported to have said of her:

"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 of France who were thinking of grasping the crown - our own [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."

She died in January 1589, at the age of 69, probably of pleurisy.

This article was originally published in August 2010, and has been updated for the May 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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