- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 26, 2005


By Leonie Frieda

Fourth Estate/HarperCollins,

$29.95, 464 pages, illus.

It was not all her fault. One need only look at events leading up to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which thousands of French Protestants were killed by Catholic mobs, to understand that in those turbulent times, no one person could fairly be held responsible for violence on such a scale. But history is not always fair and for the last 400 years, Catherine de Medici, above all others, has carried the burden of blame.

Now, historian Leonie Frieda has written a book that she hopes will change all that. “Catherine de Medici: Renaissance Queen” is, on one level, an exercise in rehabilitation, as the biographer seeks to show that her subject was a better person and more able leader than what her nicknames — “The Maggot Queen from Italy’s Tomb,” “The Black Queen,” and “Madame La Serpente” — might suggest. To build her case, the biographer, ably and thoroughly, presents the details of Catherine’s often burdened life.

Catherine de Medici was born the only child of Lorenzo II de Medici in 1519 and was left an orphan when she was only three weeks old. After being shuttled between convents, she was, after many years of loneliness, married to France’s Henry II with whom she had 10 children. She remained a faithful and loving wife to him for 26 years even as he pursued a public affair with his longstanding mistress, the “mesmerizing” Diane de Poitiers.

Catherine’s humiliation at her husband’s blatant affair and the fact that in the early years of her marriage she had trouble conceiving children, gives the impression that before she fully matured, Catherine was something of a victim — a posture that the biographer uses to garner her subject no small amount of sympathy early on.

After Henry died, Catherine spent the next 30 years guiding her “rotten, sickly and corrupt” sons around all the complicated traps of Renaissance European politics. Three of these sons became kings and she stood by them as France suffered through eight religious wars.

Although the biographer allows as how Catherine must accept some blame for the August 1572 massacre, she asserts that the horrible event can be explained in terms “of a surgical operation that went wrong rather than an act of premeditated genocide.”

After so many years in which the facts have been debated and debated some more, the book could not possibly succeed at securing a complete vindication of Catherine. But that, it turns out, is not what keeps readers reading this lovely book anyway. The most enjoyable aspects of this volume are those that detail life in the Renaissance court.

It is the biographer’s great gift that she is able to provide readers with a felicitous roadmap along which she manages to keep all the Henrys and Charleses straight, while simultaneously keeping track of what all the competing factions — the Guises, the Hapsburgs, the Montmorencys, to name but a few — are up to. Moreover, she is able to marshal her thoughtful and graceful writing into scenes that, time and again, are riveting and dramatic.

Here is how she describes a critical event that predated the massacre by 10 years:

“The Duke of Guise had been visiting his family estates in the Champagne region during early 1562 and on Sunday, 1 March rode with an armed escort to hear Mass. As he passed through the small town of Vassy belonging to his niece Mary Stuart, he heard singing coming from a barn within town walls. A Protestant service was being held which, according to the terms of the new [Edict of January], was clearly illegal. The duke attended Mass in a church not far from the barn. To his mounting wrath the voices of the psalm singers could be clearly heard as they filtered through the church walls. Whoever provoked the subsequent fight is unclear — the duke’s official version gave it out to be a ‘regrettable accident’ — but tempers boiled over into a violent struggle between the Huguenots and Guise’s men, which left seventy-four Protestants dead and over 100 wounded. Among the casualties were women and children. Guise himself received a cut to his face and some of his men were also hurt. The incident became known as the ‘Massacre of Vassy’ and it immediately lit the fuse that sparked off what came to be known as the French wars of religion.”

The biographer divides her book into two parts, the first being devoted to the much put upon and continually pregnant Catherine. By the second half, the more mature monarch who introduced broccoli and artichokes into the court as well as a legion of young beauties called the “flying squadron,” who numbered (according to different sources and various time periods) between 80 and 300 and were brought to the court to help keep the “grand seigneurs” busy “enjoying themselves” rather than “killing each other or plotting to overthrow” one of her sons.

In a short review, it is nearly impossible to capture all of the gorgeous detail and remarkable anecdotes that the biographer offers her readers, but one is too irresistible not to mention. Throughout the book, the more politically successful Elizabeth I is repeatedly cited. One of Catherine’s sons made fun of the monarch’s limp and this mocking gesture “made its way back to the English Queen who, infuriated, henceforth danced with particularly athletic vigor whenever the French ambassador was present.”

But my favorite aside in this genuinely international tableau of a book is the following. After the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the biographer writes, “there was … a clamour of self-righteous protest from Tsar Ivan IV of Russia, who criticised the French for their barbarism. This sounds pretty rich coming from the man who rightfully earned history’s sobriquet ‘The Terrible’ for his savage repression of the boyars in the 1560s.”

In that turbulent age, who knows who would win the prize for being the least brutal. However modern readers come to judge this queen from such a distance, this is clear: There is no mistaking the abiding pleasure of this smart and stylish book.

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