Monday, December 1, 2008

Catherine de Medici - Part III: When in Rome…Don’t Drink the Water

In last week’s post, Catherine de Medici was making a fresh start in the French court. Unfortunately, her happiness would be short lived. On September 25, 1534, her cousin and biggest supporter, Pope Clement VII wrecked everything by dropping dead. The official report was that he died of a “gastric disease,” but rumors quickly spread that he was poisoned. Foul play was certainly probable considering that many Popes before Clement had succumbed to an unenviable death.1 Poisoning became so common that a popular saying of the time was, “He who drinks of the water in the Vatican will die soon." Assassinations were secretly carried out by the “Council of Ten” or “Terrible Ten,” a covert and highly autonomous Venetian police force that answered to no one.

Still, we can only speculate on what caused Clement’s death. Wikipedia reports that Clement died after accidentally eating death cap mushrooms. This is highly unlikely given the fact that the extremely potent death cap mushrooms, (even in small amounts) kill within a matter of days. Clement’s illness lasted over 5 months. More likely, his wine was flavored with a little “eternity powder,” a lethal mixture of henbane, water hemlock or mandragora. Eternity powder was usually administered in small doses over several months resulting in a slow death that looked like…gastric problems.

Catherine de Medici: Stark Naked and Alone
If Catherine shed any tears for her uncle, then she would have had few people to grieve with her. Florence mourned Clement's death by raiding and vandalizing his tomb. People did have reason to be angry. Clement had left behind a legacy of higher taxes and inflated grain prices. Most damaging for Catherine, he also left behind her unpaid dowry. Francis was now stuck with an unpopular, Italian daughter-in-law without a cent to her name, prompting him to make the remark, “the girl has come to me stark naked.”3 Three years after the marriage, Catherine was also failing at her sole purpose as wife to Henri II – she had yet to become pregnant. It was roughly during this time that Henri began his affair with the infamous Diane de Poitiers (shown here) more on her later...

A Damsel in Distress
So let’s recap. Catherine is stuck in France with no money, no blue blood, and no little Henri’s running around. Her husband has taken a mistress and her uncle has died. (But she does have great shoes.) How could Francis secure the Valois line if Catherine did not become pregnant? The logical solution would be for him to replace his daughter-in-law with a more fertile and politically advantageous bride. The Guise brothers began campaigning for Louise of Guise as the replacement wife. Years earlier in England, Henry VIII had kicked Queen Catherine of Aragon to the curb and swapped her for Anne Boleyn. What was to stop Francis from doing the same to Catherine?

Catherine knew her situation was doomed so she went to Francis begging him to at least let her serve the new queen as a lady-in-waiting. Luckily, Francis was a big softy for a damsel in distress. He said, “It is God’s will that you should be my daughter and the wife of the Dauphin. So be it.”4

Amen. So Catherine stayed put and set herself the task of becoming pregnant.

A Bitter Pill to Swallow
First, Catherine applied poultices of ground up stag antler and cow dung…a guaranteed remedy for infertility. When that didn’t work, she tried drinking large quantities of mule’s urine. (belch) Catherine even drilled holes in her chamber’s floor so that she could spy on her husband and his enigmatic mistress, Diane de Poitiers. Unfortunately, the peep show taught Catherine little in regards to fertility and much more than she needed to know about her husband’s passion for his mistress. After ten years of trying everything imaginable…time was running out.

The Fertility Doctors comes a Knockin’
Finally, the 16th century version of a fertility doctor, named Doctor Fernel was brought in and he diagnosed a slight irregularity in the couple’s reproductive organs. He prescribed a cure to which Henri and Catherine followed. I wish I could tell you more about this cure, but history doesn’t know what voodoo magic he used. All we know is that it worked fabulously. After 10 years of cow dung and sex education, Catherine gave birth to Francis II on January 19, 1544. Over the following years, she would give birth to 9 more children. Not too shabby for a mere "merchant's daughter."

Peace at last...Hardly
Although Catherine secured the succession, peace was still out of her reach. A royal cat fight was brewing between the two leading mistresses of the French court – Diane de Poitiers (mistress of the heir to the throne, Henri II) and the Duchess D’Etampes (mistress of King Francis I). Who will be the last strumpet standing??? I wouldn't put my gold coins on the aging king's mistress. All it takes is one kick of the bucket...and M. D'Etampes is out on her arse. Stay tuned for next post to see who comes out on top.

A full list of sources will be given at the end of Catherine de Medici's story


(1) Pope Alexander VI was poisoned in 1503 after drinking poisoned wine which had been intended for the Cardinal de Corneto. The Venetian ambassador reported that it was the"the ugliest, most monstrous and horrible dead body that was ever seen, without any form or likeness of humanity” - de Rossa, p.151.
(2) The inscription on Clement's tomb read, 'To Clement the Seventh, Pontifex Maximus, whose invincible valour was only exceeded by his clemency.' The vandals changed the inscription to read, 'To Inclement, Pontifex Minimus whose conquered valour was only exceeded by his avarice.'
(3) p. 48. Frieda
(4) p. 58. Frieda


Lucy said...

I just absolutely love this! You've got me totally hooked. Again, thanks so much for this most interesting, entertaining and well-written piece.

Sara said...

This is so interesting- thanks for the story so far, and I look forward to hearing the rest of the story!

Lorraine said...

I left a comment the other day but, it didn't stay...anyhoo, you have an extraordinary blog...I'm wondering where do you do your resarch? Have you ever wondered whose truth is being told? Wouldn't it wonderful to be able to read in Akashik Records? lol

Bearded Lady said...

Lucy - you are so sweet to take time out of your day to comment each week. It is appreciated.

Sara - thanks for the encouragement.

Lorraine- That's an interesting point. I think historians do get inside people’s subconscious which is why no one ever knows the truth. Writers try to be objective, but if you don’t offer your reader SOME opinion then you are left with a very dry depiction of events and people. Catherine de Medici is actually one of the easier queens to research. She left behind many letters that offer a rare glimpse into her true nature. I also try to read both the critics and supporters when researching. I am going to include a list of books that are for and against Catherine at the end of her story.

I don’t want to give the impression that Catherine was a saint or a victim of her circumstances. She committed her share of crimes against humanity that can never be excused. But I am trying to give a sympathetic background to her story so that her actions can be understood in the time period in which she operated.

Thanks to everyone for sticking with this long drawn out story...

Lucy said...

It's a pleasure for me to read when it's so interesting. Your blog is well appreciated. Keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

love the story, cant wait to read about Catherine's black magic or the part of her banquets or Ruggieri or Nostradamus....

Cleo Schmidt-Kastner (née Certeza) said...

I am sooo hooked! I was first interested with the Tudors and now the Medicis! I can't wait to read more on Catherine and her interesting life. Will you write anything about the Borgias? :)

Bearded Lady said...


I did cover Lucrezia:

I am planning to do a post on her infamous father soon. Or maybe one of her diabolical brothers...

MarkoPolo said...

Extremely well written and researched, each one of these stories is an excellent read. Google search on de Medicis gained you a new fan.

Melanie said...

Hey great article! I was wondering if you had any sources of Catherine Di Medici's letters. I'm having trouble finding them for a piece of my own that I'm doing about her. You seem like you do your homework pretty darn well, so you also seemed like a good person to ask. :)