Catharine De' Medici, queen of France, born in Florence in 1519, died at Blois, France, Jan. 5, 1589. She was the only daughter of Lorenzo de' Medici, and in 1533 Pope Clement VII., her uncle, negotiated her marriage with Henry, duke of Orleans, second son of Francis I. Entering the court of France in a somewhat secondary position, she applied herself to conciliate all parties, win all affections, and be everything to all persons, affecting in the mean time to care nothing for affairs of state and to shun the turmoil of business. When she came to France, the duchess d'Etampes and the celebrated Diana of Poitiers, afterward duchess of Va-lentinois, were ostensibly the mistresses of her father-in-law, the king, and of her husband; and to both she assiduously paid her court, though they notoriously hated one another. His elder brother, the dauphin, having died, Henry in 1547 succeeded his father as king of France. Catharine, however, did not alter her policy or interfere, whether in the affairs of state or in his social and domestic arrangements, with her husband, or with his mistress.
In 1559 Henry was accidentally killed at a tournament held at the castle of Tournelles; and his son, Francis II., a delicate stripling, weak both in health and intellect, lately espoused to Mary Stuart, queen of Scots, who was on her mother's side a Guise de Lorraine, succeeded to the throne. During his short reign Catharine did not exercise much influence at court, for the king was completely under the rule of his wife and her maternal uncles, the celebrated Le Balafre, Francis duke of Guise, and the cardinal Lorraine, who were not favorable to the schemes of the queen mother. Catharine, who cared nothing for religion, connected herself with the Huguenot leaders, Conde, Coligni, and the king of Navarre, and a plan was laid for seizing and imprisoning the young sovereigns at Amboise, bringing the Guises to the scaffold, and governing the realm by a council of regency, composed of the Huguenot princes under the guidance of Catharine. The plot, however, was detected; the princes were compelled, in order to avoid the suspicion of complicity in the conspiracy, to witness the slaughter of their partisans; while Catharine immediately deserted them, and joined the party of the Catholic league.
The next plan was to assassinate the duke of Conde in the presence of both Francis and Mary at Orleans, which city they were about to visit in state, on a royal progress; and on Francis positively refusing to give his assent to the murder, one of the Guises is said to have exclaimed, "Now, by the double cross of Lorraine, but we have a poor creature for our king!" Francis II. died soon after, and such was the condition of court morals at the time that his death was attributed to poison, dropped into his ear while sleeping, not without the privity of Catharine, who by the accession of Charles IX., a minor, succeeded as regent (1560) to the actual if not the nominal sovereignty of the realm. She now gave full swing to her atrocious genius. She first plunged all her children into such licentious pleasures and voluptuous dissipations, that they were speedily unfitted for mental activity or exertion. On the occasion of the marriage of her daughter, Marguerite of Valois, with Henry of Navarre, Catharine prevailed on Charles to give the orders for the fatal massacre of St. Bartholomew's, an event which greatly increased her power, of which she boasted to Catholic governments, and which she excused to Protestant ones.
Charles IX. died in 1574, and the belief was that he had been poisoned by his brother Francis, duke of Alencon, with the connivance of his mother. Her son Henry of Valois, then in Poland, of which he had been elected king by the diet, left that country secretly, returned to France, and claimed the throne. During his reign, which ended Aug. 2, 1589, Catharine had until her death a principal but concealed share in the plots and party contests which distracted France. She is supposed to have instigated the death of Henry of Guise and his brother the cardinal, who were assassinated by the king's order. This was the ruin of Henry and of the schemes of Catharine. It united all Catholic France against the king, brought about his death by assassination, and made her an object of aversion to all parties. She died unheeded in the fierce strife of wars which she had stirred up.
See Catharie de' Medici.