Catherine de' Medici, daughter of Lorenzo II de' Medici and of Madeleine de La Tour d'Auvergne, was an Italian noblewoman who was queen of France from 1547 until 1559, by marriage to King Henry II. As the mother of kings Francis II, Charles IX and Henry III, she had extensive, if at times varying, influence in the political life of France.
The House of Medici was an Italian banking family, political dynasty and later royal house that first began to gather prominence under Cosimo de' Medici in the Republic of Florence during the first half of the 15th century.
France, officially the French Republic, is a unitary sovereign state and transcontinental country consisting of territory in western Europe and several overseas regions and territories.
Madeleine de La Tour d'Auvergne was a younger daughter of Jean III de La Tour, Count of Auvergne and Lauraguais, and Jeanne de Bourbon-Vendôme.
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From 1560 to 1563, she ruled France as regent for her son Charles IX, King of France.
A regent is a person appointed to govern a state because the monarch is a minor, is absent or is incapacitated.
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In 1533, at the age of fourteen, Catherine married Henry, second son of King Francis I and Queen Claude of France.
Claude of France was a queen consort of France by marriage to Francis I. She was also ruling Duchess of Brittany from 1514.
Throughout his reign, Henry excluded Catherine from participating in state affairs and instead showered favours on his chief mistress, Diane de Poitiers, who wielded much influence over him.
Diane de Poitiers was a French noblewoman and a prominent courtier at the courts of king Francis I and his son, King Henry II of France.
Henry's death thrust Catherine into the political arena as mother of the frail fifteen-year-old King Francis II. When he died in 1560, she became regent on behalf of her ten-year-old son King Charles IX and was granted sweeping powers.
After Charles died in 1574, Catherine played a key role in the reign of her third son, Henry III. He dispensed with her advice only in the last months of her life.
Catherine's three sons reigned in an age of almost constant civil and religious war in France.
The problems facing the monarchy were complex and daunting but Catherine was able to keep the monarchy and the state institutions functioning even at a minimum level.
At first, Catherine compromised and made concessions to the rebelling Calvinist Protestants, or Huguenots, as they became known.
Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological tradition and forms of Christian practice of John Calvin and other Reformation-era theologians.
Huguenots are an ethnoreligious group of French Protestants who follow the Reformed tradition.
She failed, however, to grasp the theological issues that drove their movement.
Later she resorted, in frustration and anger, to hard-line policies against them.
In return, she came to be blamed for the excessive persecutions carried out under her sons' rule, in particular for the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of 1572, in which thousands of Huguenots were killed in Paris and throughout France.
The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre in 1572 was a targeted group of assassinations and a wave of Catholic mob violence, directed against the Huguenots during the French Wars of Religion.
Some historians have excused Catherine from blame for the worst decisions of the crown, though evidence for her ruthlessness can be found in her letters.
In practice, her authority was always limited by the effects of the civil wars.
Her policies, therefore, may be seen as desperate measures to keep the Valois monarchy on the throne at all costs, and her patronage of the arts as an attempt to glorify a monarchy whose prestige was in steep decline.
Without Catherine, it is unlikely that her sons would have remained in power.
The years in which they reigned have been called "the age of Catherine de' Medici".
According to Mark Strage, one of her biographers, Catherine was the most powerful woman in sixteenth-century Europe.