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Welcome to Episode 218 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare.

Married to Henry Valois, Catherine de Medici held considerable power and influence over the Valois Dynasty of France and was beloved of the Medici Dynasty in Italy. The year William Shakespeare was born, in 1564, Catherine de Medici offered her son, Charles IX, as a husband for Elizabeth I, and would go on to offer her other two sons, Francis and Henry, to Elizabeth I as well in a decades long effort to secure a political alliance through marriage with England. Staunchly opposed to marriage on the whole, Elizabeth I never did accept Catherine’s sons as husbands, but the interactions and rivalry between these two powerful women was a mainstay over England for the formative years in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Here today to help us explore the life of Catherine de Medici is our guest, historian, and author of the her latest book about Catherine de Medici called Blood, Fire, and Gold: The Story of Elizabeth I of England and Catherine de Medici , Dr. Estelle Paranque. 

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Estelle Paranque completed her PhD in Early Modern History at University College London in 2016. Her thesis is entitled “Elizabeth Through Valois Eyes: Power, Representation, and Diplomacy, 1568-1588”. She has turned her PhD into a monograph that was published in November 2018 by Palgrave Macmillan Elizabeth I of England Through Valois Eyes: Power, Representation, and Diplomacy in the Reign of the Queen, 1558-1588

Estelle has always had a passion for history and particularly for queens and diplomacy.

She was elected a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and she is a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She is also a co-convenor of the Tudor and Stuart Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London. She has been teaching at university level for the last nine years and is dedicated to share her passion for history with the next generation.

Her research interests are royal and diplomatic studies. She works on Anglo-French relations during Elizabeth’s reign and on monarchical representations during the early modern period.

She also works on Catherine de Medici and the Valois kings and their consorts.

She is also very interested in public engagement and has participated in the popular historical documentary Secrets d’Histoire on France 2, BBC Radio 4, and numerous podcasts (BBC History, Viral History, Hidden Stories with Helen Carr for HistoryHit). 

She is represented by Rachel Conway at Georgina Capel Associates. For any queries, please contact her agent directly.

Estelle is currently a Lecturer in Early Modern History at New College of the Humanities at Northeastern where she teaches courses on Early Modern Britain, Early Modern Europe, and the Early Modern World.

I’ll be asking Estelle Paranque about:

  • Catherine de Medici’s family was a noble family in Italy, so how did she come to have a ruling place in France? 
  • How did Elizabeth I first meet Catherine de Medici? 
  • Comparatively, the religious climate in France was much more fraught than it was in England. The English saw a strict imposition of Protestantism and strong laws against Catholics while in France, the French Huguenots who followed the teachings of John Calvin were persecuted and slaughtered by the French Catholic government. Estelle, how were Elizabeth I and Catherine de Medici able to get along when they both so strongly opposed the religion of the other? 
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Estelle Paranque recommends:

Author Carol Levine is a guest of That Shakespeare Life. Listen to her episode here.

Catherine de Medici was from a Noble Italian Family

While she was a ruling figure in France, originally Catherine de Medici is from Italy. Estelle explains,

“[Catherine de Medici] is from a noble family from Italy, the Medici, daughter of Lorenzo de Medici, and Madeline (powerful noble family, but in France) the alliance between the Pope will happen because of Catherine’s background. The Italians only see her as Italian, but she’s really half Italian, half french and there is significant xenophobia based on her background. 

She was one of the most powerful italian families but her story and her fate is extraordinary in the sense that she was an orphan quickly, 10 days after being born, father 3 weeks after that, sent to live with grandparents, aunts, and uncles, and her uncles were going to become Popes, and that would change everything for her. 

She rapidly becomes a pawn. Women are always used as pawns in the early modern period, but I don’t mean that in a bad way, but they are used to make alliances. Its’ exactly what happens for this little girl. She’s an orphan. CM is going to receive many proposals, and ultimately the Pope makes a deal with….it means that she was never meant to be Queen. That’s absolutely remarkable. 

She arrived in marseille, be married to HEnry, she falls in love with him but it is not mutual, and the major tragedy of her life, but someho this couple become Dauphine an Dauphin of France, and she becomes the heir to the throne as queen consort of france 1547, when Francis I dies. At that time, you don’t have much power as Queen Consort or influence, he realizes that she is more clever than he gave her credit for being. 

Catherine is not a renaissance beauty, and she’s not the ideal princess, but they loved her humility and she is really the perfect wife, accepting her husband’s role, and she’s a woman who knows from a young age that knows how to play the court games. It’s surprising that she’s so good at it when she, as an orphan, she didn’t grow up with the training in that role. 

Portrait of Catherine de Medici by François Clouet (1510–1572) | Catherine de’ Medici wears the black cap and veil of widow, after 1559.| Painting is dated c. 1560, though that date is questionable. | Public Domain | Source
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Catherine de Medici and Catherine Valois Are Not the Same

You will be forgiven for getting the two women confused, but Catherine de Medici and Catherine Valois are not the same. They are both mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays, they both married Henries, but they are decidedly different people. Catherine of Valois was Queen of England, married to Henry V. Catherine de Medici was Queen of France, married to King Henry II of France.

However, the confusion comes in because Henry II (that Catherine de Medici married) was of the House of Valois in France. So Catherine de Medici married into the House of Valois, but she wasn’t herself a Valois, so she’s not called Catherine of Valois. Clearer now? Yeh, not so much for me either, but you can keep this page bookmarked to refer back to later when you forget. And read Estelle’s book on Catherine de Medici, that helps!

Fresque représentant le mariage d’Henri II et de Catherine de Medicis | Translation by Cassidy: Fresco representing the marriage of Henry II and Catherine de Medici | 1550 by Vasari | Public Domain | Source

Catherine de Medici never Met Elizabeth I

 Despite numerous letters exchanged and direct invitation to meet in person from Catherine to Elizabeth I, the new monarchs were never physically in one another’s presence.

They never did meet, but they exchange a lot of letters to one another. Catherine was very eager to meet Elizabeth I but Elizabeth was never interested. Elizabeth doesn’t like travelling, she doesn’t want to leave her realm. Catherine was constantly wanting to travel outside the country, so it was a clash of personalities. They had very different approaches to early modern travel. Catherine was wanting to meet Elizabeth when she was coming through Dover, and tried to push a meeting by pointing out it was very close, but Elizabeth was adamant. History would have been different if those political characters would have actually met. 

Portrait of Catherine de Medici by Germain Le Mannier (fl. 1537–1560) | Portrait painted between 1547 and 1599 | Susanne Girndt (Red.): Schlösser der Loire. Bassermann, Niedernhausen 1996, ISBN 3-8094-0290-7, S. 75 | Public Domain | Source

Catherine de Medici was a powerful political force

Catherine de Medici was a strong political force in her own right. She may not have reigned long as Queen, but she maintained a powerful position in French government until her death after her marriage to Henry II.

Portrait of Henry II Of France by François Clouet (1510–1572) | This is a retouched picture, which means that it has been digitally altered from its original version. Modifications: light correction. The original can be viewed here: Portrait of King Henry II of France (by Studio of François Clouet) – Royal Collection.jpg. Modifications made by Robert102506. | This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license. | Source

When considering Catherine de Medici’s role in English politics, you have to look no further than the English State Papers.

In her book, The Contending Kingdoms, Susan Doran writes that “the English State Papers…make clear that Queen Elizabeth and her ambassadors took Catherine [de Medici] very seriously… as a major political player” Estelle, why is it surprising that Catherine was taken seriously by the English and particularly Elizabeth I? Is it because England and France were in tense politically, coming relatively recently off the Hundred Years War? 

Cathreine positioned herself as Queen Mother of France, and it’s quite important her eto realize that there is almost a weird relationship between the English ambassadors and catherine de medici because they know she’s not the queen regent, but she’s very influential. 15602-1563, she is acting regent and 1563 until the end of her life (or at least to 1568/69) the King left his mother in power and let her make the decisions. 

With Henry III, he’s an adult and when she is Queen of France… 1574, and he massively respects his mother and her ideas, and her opinions, and though they do have a small fallout because she wishes he would do things differently, they still work together and he listens to her. AT that time, she was one of the political advisors but because she had so much power for close to 14 years, people had massive respect for her. 

1614 portrait of Catherine de Medici painted by Emanuel van Meteren (1535-1612), Simeon Ruytinck (-1621). Engraver: . Photography: D-vorm, Bert en Lilian Mellink | Public Domain | Source

Catherine de Medici Tried to Form a Marriage Alliance with England

Several of Catherine de Medici’s sons were proposed by Catherine as potential husbands for Elizabeth I, but despite some close calls, Elizabeth did not accept any of them as suitors. The marriage negotiations with Elizabeth continued for close to a decade.

Marriage negotiations start in 1564 with Charles IX, because Catherine really wants an alliance with England and she thinks it is ridiculous to have a single woman on the throne. Catherine truly believed that power only came through having sons. She had this idea and tired to push it on Elizabeth repeatedly. Elizabeth thought the opposite, that power should come from yourself. Elizabeth thought that only she could do it, but she wasn’t like other women. Elizabeth enjoyed being someone that didn’t want to confirm to what was expected of women. We have 1564, the Charles alliance, but Elizabeth shuts it down because he’s too young, he was 13 and she was in her 30s. And later Charles tries again later when Charles is older. In 1570, Elizabeth offers Henry, and when Elizabeth saw a portrait of Henry, she was intrigued and entertained that idea, but in that case Henry staunchly opposed marrying a Protestant. The negotiations are lost quickly in 1570-1571, because there’s a third son, Francis, who is the one who  Elizabeth is going to consider. 

After it became clear that a marriage to Robert Dudley was not going to happen in England, Catherine de Medici proposed her youngest son, Francis, Duke of Anjou, as a husband for Elizabeth I, which Elizabeth entertained for a while. Estelle explains why this match failed:

With Francis, she enjoyed his company, and after you’ve spent so much time your whole life saying no, and when you were young people wanted to marry  yo9u but now you’re old and everyone forgets about you. Elizabeth towards the end of her life, it’s her last shot at marriage, 1580-1581, she seriously considered Francis as a match.They are seen together frequently. He was a suitor as a foreigner who visited her, and he came twice. At one point, she made a promise that she would marry him and the next day she said she was wrong, and he threatened to share her letters and show that she had affection for him, and he was outraged, and there was a fall out and he leaves and there’s no marriage.