The Mother of France & her Daughters

Catherine de Medici waited a long time to become a mother, having her first child after 11 years of marriage to Henri II of France. They went on to have another 9 children with 3 of their sons becoming Kings of France: Francis II, Charles IX and Henri III. Despite being from the powerful Medici clan Catherine didn’t hold much political power during her husband’s reign, partly because he was besotted with his mistress Diane de Poitiers. Things changed dramatically on his death in 1559, with Catherine utilising her role as mother of the king to assert political power and dominance.  Throughout all her sons’ respective reigns she defended her political motherhood identity. But what about Catherine’s daughters?

Catherine de Medici and her family.

Catherine had 5 daughters: Elisabeth, Claude, Marguerite, Victoire and Joan. Tragically the youngest two (who were twins) died early, with only Elisabeth, Claude and Marguerite surviving to adulthood. During the sixteenth century a royal woman’s primary role was to make a great dynastic marriage and have heirs. As Anne of France had written in Lessons for my Daughter years before “conduct yourself graciously, in perfect humility, especially to your lord and husband to whom, after God, you owe perfect love and complete obedience”. Catherine herself had listened to this lesson being loyal to Henri despite his lack of regard for her. Important dynastic marriages were made for Elisabeth and Claude in 1559, with Elisabeth marrying Philip II of Spain and Claude marrying Charles III, Duke of Lorraine.

Philip had only recently been widowed, his second wife Mary I of England having died in 1558, and he was much older than his new bride Elisabeth. Despite the age gap with her husband and new environment she fully embraced Spain and her role as Queen, and when she saw Catherine a few years later it was said Catherine commented “How Spanish you have become, my daughter”. This marriage gave Catherine a direct link to the powerful Philip, with Elisabeth an intermediary. Philip was troubled by Catherine’s appeasement of French Protestants, and Elisabeth informed her mother she faced a choice: either ally with Philip or he would ally with the French Catholic faction against the crown. Insider knowledge and a direct familial relationship gave Catherine a much better understanding of one of the most powerful men in Europe. 

Elisabeth and her husband Philip

Elisabeth had two daughters who would survive infancy, Isabella and Catalina, before dying tragically young at the age of 23. Due to the death of her stepson Don Carlos (with whom she had originally been betrothed) the same year there were rumours they had been in a relationship with Philip having them both murdered. There is absolutely zero evidence for this, and the reason she didn’t marry Don Carlos was due to his mental instability. Catherine wanted to keep Philip within reach, and offered Marguerite as a possible next wife but Philip rejected this offer.

Claude’s husband Charles had been living in the French court a for a number of years before their marriage, as the crown tried to manipulate Charles into loyalty to the crown. Upon returning to Lorraine to rule independently, Charles and Claude oversaw Lorraine at its apogee with the area being firmly neutral between its unstable neighbours for the majority of his reign. The couple had 9 children, but sadly as with so many women of this period Claude died in childbirth, at the age of 27.

Claude and her husband Charles

Marguerite in comparison lived a long life, and was the last surviving Valois. She wrote a fascinating memoir which is a great resource for us to see her relationship with Catherine from her perspective, although it was written years after the events recorded. Marguerite originally described Catherine as “a mother who doted on all her children, and was always ready to sacrifice her own repose, nay, even her life, for their happiness”, although she says that Henri was her mother’s favourite child. Henri would cause recurrent issues in Catherine and Marguerite’s relationship which caused Marguerite a lot of emotional pain.

Marguerite and her husband Henri

One of the biggest ruptures in their relationship though surrounded Marguerite’s marriage, which was arranged to the Protestant Henri of Navarre. This was in the midst of the Wars of Religion between Catholics and Protestants so it was incredibly controversial. Marguerite herself had reservations about the match but recorded in her memoirs that she said to Catherine, “I had no will but her own; however, I should wish she would be pleased to remember that I was a Catholic, and that I should dislike to marry any one of a contrary persuasion”. The marriage went ahead and the couple married on the 18th August 1572. Rather than peacefully unifying the two religious groups it became the site of one of the bloodiest events in French history, the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in which thousands of Protestants were killed. The trigger was assassinations of leading Protestants arranged by Charles and Catherine. Marguerite describes the event in her memoir…

“The Huguenots were suspicious of me because I was a Catholic, and the Catholics because I was married to the King of Navarre, who was a Huguenot. This being the case, no one spoke a syllable of the matter to me. At night, when I went into the bedchamber of the Queen my mother, I placed myself on a coffer, next my sister Lorraine [Claude], who, I could not but remark, appeared greatly cast down. The Queen my mother was in conversation with someone, but, as soon as she espied me, she bade me go to bed. As I was taking leave, my sister seized me by the hand and stopped me, at the same time shedding a flood of tears: “For the love of God,” cried she, “do not stir out of this chamber!” I was greatly alarmed at this exclamation; perceiving which, the Queen my mother called my sister to her, and chid her very severely. My sister replied it was sending me away to be sacrificed; for, if any discovery should be made, I should be the first victim of their revenge. The Queen my mother made answer that, if it pleased God, I should receive no hurt, but it was necessary I should go, to prevent the suspicion that might arise from my staying. I perceived there was something on foot which I was not to know, but what it was I could not make out from anything they said. The Queen again bade me go to bed in a peremptory tone. My sister wished me a good night, her tears flowing apace, but she did not dare to say a word more; and I left the bedchamber more dead than alive.”

This passage shows Catherine putting politics over her daughter’s wellbeing and understandably it harmed their relationship. By the time of Catherine’s death in 1589, Henri and Marguerite were at odds again with Marguerite living in exile. It’s unclear how they left things, but Marguerite’s exile, which lasted around 20 years, did give her time to reflect on their relationship as she wrote her memoir. The Valois family were pretty dysfunctional, although let’s be honest which royal family wasn’t? Catherine’s relationship with Elisabeth and Claude was more straightforward than her relationship with her youngest daughter Marguerite. The latter was deeply involved in the politics of the day and decisions made by both mother and daughter caused divisions in their relationship.

What do you make of Catherine and her daughters Elisabeth, Claude and Marguerite? Let me know in the comments below.

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Catherine and her daughters Elisabeth, Claude and Marguerite


Memoirs of Marguerite de Valois Queen of Navarre, written by herself Being Historic Memoirs of the Courts of France and Navarre

Lessons for my Daughter by Anne of France

A Bewitched Duchy: Lorraine and Its Dukes, 1477-1736 by E. William Monter

Catherine de Medici by R.J. Knecht

Games of Queens by Sarah Gristwood

‘The monstrous empire of a cruell woman’ – To what extent did sixteenth century views of women, in France, England and Scotland, define royal women’s ability to wield political power? (My undergraduate dissertation!)

Wikipedia: Catherine de Medici, Elisabeth de Valois, Claude de Valois, Marguerite de Valois, St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre,

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