CATHERINE DE' MEDICI (1519-1589), the wife of one French king, and the mother of three, was born at Florence in 1519. She was a daughter of Lorenzo de' Medici, that ruler of Florence for whom Machiavelli wrote the Prince. Having lost both her parents at an early age, Catherine was sent to a convent to be educated ; and she was only fourteen when she was married (1533) to the duke of Orleans, afterwards Henry II. It was her uncle, Pope Clement VII., who arranged the marriage with Francis I. Francis, still engaged in his life-long task of making head against Charles V., was only too glad of the opportunity to strengthen his influence in the Italian Peninsula, while Clement, ever needful of help against his too powerful protector, was equally ready to hold out a bait. During the reign of Francis, Catherine exercised no influence in France. She was young, a foreigner, a member of a state that had almost no weight in the great world of politics, had not given any proof of great ability, and was thrown into the shade by more important persons. For ten years after her marriage she had no children. In consequence, a divorce began to be talked of at court ; and it seemed not impossible that Francis, alarmed at the possible extinction of the royal house, might listen to such a proposal. On hearing of it, Catherine, with her fine Italian taet, found her way into the presence of the king, threw herself at his feet, and expressed her readiness to submit to the royal pleasure, either to remain the wife of his son, or in case another wife should be chosen, to be one of her humblest attendants. This appeal won the heart of Francis, the divorce was no more heard of, and Catherine had the happiness of bringing him grandchildren ere he died. During the reign of her husband, too (1549-1559), Catherine lived a quiet and passive, but observant life. Henry being completely under the influence of his mistress, Diana of Poitiers, she had little authority. This continued even after the accession of her son Francis II. Francis was under the spell of Mary Stuart, and she, little disposed to meddle with politics on her own account, was managed by her uncles, the cardinal of Lorraine and the duke of Guise.
On the death of Francis, Catherine became regent during the minority of her second son, Charles IX., and now found before her a career worthy of the most soaring ambition. The new king was only ten years old. France was falling into a most critical condition. The opposition between the Reformation and the old religion was now beginning to assume a pronounced and openly hostile character, and the struggle was much intensified by the fact that most of the nobles who supported the Reformation represented also the old cause of feudal resistance to the centralizing tendencies of the court. The House of Guise were at the head of the Catholic party ; Coligny and the Prince of Conde were the leaders of the Huguenots. Michel 1'116pital, who, by the neutrality of his position and the disinterestedness of his character, was the fittest to advise Catherine, recommended the national policy of taking no side in the contest, - by the enforcement of toleration, of civil reform, and of justice to all parties, to raise the Government above the region of controversy, and prevent civil war. Catherine took the advice in so far as to avoid siding decidedly with either party, but her character, and the habits of policy to which she had been accustomed, rendered her incapable of any noble aim. She had only one virtue, and that was her zeal for the interests of her children, especially of her favourite third son, the duke of Anjou. Like so many of the Italians of that time, who were almost destitute of a moral sense, she looked upon statesmanship in particular as a career in which finesse, lying, and assassination were the most admirable, because the most effective weapons. By habit a Catholic, but above all things fond of power, she was determined to prevent the Protestants from getting the upper hand, and almost equally resolved not to allow them to be utterly crushed, in order to use them as a counterpoise to the Guises. Thus she is, more than any one else, responsible for the thirty years of civil war that was thenceforward to devastate France. For a time her plan succeeded well enough. At the battle of Dreux (1562) the Huguenots were defeated by the duke of Guise ; and at the siege of Orleans, the duke himself, now her most formidable rival, fell by the hands of an assassin. She had undoubtedly become the most important personage in France, but rage and suspicion so possessed men's minds, that she could no longer control the opposing parties, and one civil war followed another ta the end of her life. But it is with the massacre of Bartholomew (21th August 1572) that her name will be especially associated in history. While the affection of the young king for Coligny inspired him with groundless confidence, Catherine decoyed the Protestant leaders to Paris by the prospect of a marriage between Henry of Navarre and her daughter Marguerite. Anxious for her own influence over Charles IX., and true to her favourite plan of perpetuating the feud between the Huguenot leaders and the House of Guise, she wrought upon the king's miud till he consented to the death of Coligny, while the unprincipled hate of the Guises and the fanaticism of the mob did the rest. In short, Catherine supplied all the preliminary conditions of the massacre, and then let loose the infuriated passions that were to consummate it. After the death of Charles in 1574, and the succession of Anjou under the name of Henry III., Catherine pursued her old policy ; but as her influence is lost in that of her son, it is unnecessary to dwell upon it. She died in 1589, a short time before the assassination of Henry, and the consequent extinction of the House of Valois, (See Martin's Histoire de France, vol. ix. ; Michelet ; Ranke's Geschichte Frankreichs, vol. i.)