Guest Post from Leslie Carroll

On day 3 of the Notorious Royal Marriages / Historical Fiction Round Table event, I am delighted to bring you a guest post from the loverly Leslie Carroll.  Take it away Leslie!

The Secret Sex Life of Catherine de Medici

On a brisk October day in 1533, it was lust at first sight when the fourteen-year-old Catherine de Medici first beheld her fiancé, Henri d’Orleans, the second son of King François I of France. Unfortunately, the feeling wasn’t mutual.

Catherine looked about as good as she possibly could: Her gold brocade wedding gown was trimmed in ermine; the purple velvet bodice was richly embroidered with pure gold thread, edged in ermine, and studded with glittering precious gems.

Handmade oil painting reproduction of Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) marrying Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) and Henri II of France (1519-59) 28th October 1533, from the Sala di Clemente VII, a painting by Giorgio Vasari.

 François greeted his future daughter-in-law with grace and dignity, but she only had eyes for Henri—who looked as though he’d rather be anywhere else. Fair-skinned and clear-complected, the prince was tall with an athletic physique, brown hair, dark, almond-shaped eyes, and a straight nose. Most likely, Catherine couldn’t believe her good luck. The fourteen-year-old Henri, however, saw a short, stumpy girl with long dark hair and thick eyebrows, a protruding lower lip, and a receding chin.

Henri did his duty on their wedding night, but thereafter did everything in his power to ignore Catherine. Henri didn’t find her sexually alluring, nor was he even interested in talking to her. She had not been warmly welcomed at court, nor was the atmosphere conducive to conception. Because Henri’s older brother was still unwed, protocol dictated that the newlyweds had to share the boys’ “bachelor” apartments, affording precious little privacy, a perfect excuse for Henri not to sleep with his wife.

In order to ease Catherine’s assimilation, King François had assigned one of his wife’s ladies-in-waiting to be her guide, schooling her in the manners and protocol of the French court. This woman was Catherine’s second cousin, Diane de Poitiers, the thirty-three-year-old widow of the Sénéchal of Normandie, Louis de Brézé. Although she was nineteen years Henri’s senior, Diane was also his secret crush, and held him completely in her thrall. Within a few years, she would be his lover in every way, destroying Catherine’s pathetic hopes that her handsome husband would ever reciprocate the love she bore him.

On August 2, 1536, the eighteen-year-old dauphin felt ill during a game of tennis and grew sicker after drinking a glass of cool water. Eight days later, he was dead.

Henri was now the dauphin and Catherine the dauphine—the first lady in France after the queen—but after three years of marriage, she and her husband remained childless. Catherine’s apparent barrenness was a continual source of anxiety to everyone, but no one felt the stigma more than she did and she greatly feared repudiation. Consequently, she resolved to cultivate the goodwill of everyone at court.

Soon after he returned from a military campaign in northern Italy, Henri consummated his passion for Diane de Poitiers. To Catherine’s humiliation, her husband copied Diane’s habit of dressing and accoutering herself only in black and white. He adopted Diane’s symbol, the crescent moon, as his own, and designed a device formed from their interlocking initials, which was embroidered or embossed on his clothing, his servants’ livery, his horses’ caparisons, and was eventually carved, sculpted, and otherwise emblazoned all over his residences. Everywhere his poor wife looked, there were Hs and Ds, as entwined as the illicit lovers’ limbs were in bed.

Little Diane de France was all the proof the French required to claim that the fault lay entirely with Catherine for her failure to conceive. A secret campaign to repudiate her was being orchestrated by François’s paramour, Anne de Pisseleu d’Heilly, whose real target was the rival mistress at court, Diane de Poitiers. If Henri were to get a new wife who was both alluring and fecund, Diane’s star would plummet.

To Catherine’s astonishment, Diane proved a most unexpected ally. After all, it inured to the Sénéchale’s benefit that her lover’s wife was homely. Both women acknowledged that Catherine’s fate in France could only be secured if she gave birth. So Diane became the royal couple’s sex therapist. After she made love with Henri, she would send him directly upstairs to do the same thing with his wife, urging him “to that couch which no desire draws him.” If it cost her emotionally, she kept it to herself. Instead, Diane counseled Catherine as to which sexual positions would be the most beneficial in facilitating conception.

According to the court physicians, Henri and Catherine each suffered from problems with their reproductive organs. Catherine had an inverted uterus. Henri had been diagnosed with a mild deformity of the positioning of the urethra called hypospadias. According to a number of diplomatic dispatches he also suffered from a common side effect of this condition known as “chordee,” the downward curve of the penis. This trajectory did not preclude the ability to father children, but in order to do so he had to learn the most effective techniques. Two renowned medical experts of the day recommended acrobatic sexual positions, but it seems that for the longest time Henri had no interest in practicing them with his wife.

He was far more athletic and inventive with his mistress, as Catherine found out. All this time she’d considered herself inept in bed and thought that perhaps she hadn’t been doing things right. Horribly jealous of her husband’s passion for Diane and curious to know what it was he saw in her and what they did together, she hired an Italian carpenter to drill two small spy holes in her floor, through which she watched Henri and his mistress making love all over Diane’s room, including her velvet rug, until it was time for her to send him upstairs to do his conjugal duty. According to the court chronicler Pierre de Brantôme, after witnessing the lovers in action, Catherine, who was tragically in love with her husband, tearfully told her friend the duchesse de Montpensier that Henri had “never used her so well.”

Both Diane and the court physician Jean Fernel separately advised Catherine that the royal couple’s peculiar anatomies would be best served if they enjoyed sex à levrette—a levrette being a greyhound bitch. Essentially, he was recommending that they practice what we call the doggie style. One historian has acerbically hypothesized that Henri could only do what was required of him with such frequency if he did not have to look at his wife’s face. And when he was finished, Henri would rejoin Diane downstairs and spend the rest of the night in her arms.

Finally—in the spring of 1543, after a decade of marriage—Catherine became pregnant. On January 19, 1544, she went into labor, and late that afternoon she gave birth to a son, whom the royal couple named François, in honor of the king. After ten agonizing years, Catherine had finally achieved her goal and secured her place at court.

But the dauphine’s postpartum relief was short-lived. During the next dozen years Henri visited her bed regularly enough to keep her almost perpetually pregnant, for which she was no doubt grateful, but his passion for Diane remained as strong as ever.

Realizing that her husband shunned their bed entirely after she announced a new pregnancy, Catherine began to delay the news for as long as possible so that she could continue to enjoy her husband’s body, even if the feeling was not mutual. She bore ten children between 1543 and 1555. Seven of them survived to adulthood, although all but their youngest child, Margot, were sickly runts with weak lungs, perpetually runny noses, and delicate constitutions. Three of the four boys would end up suffering dementia as young adults; two of those crackpots became King of France. Catherine’s final pregnancy ended on June 26, 1556, with the birth of twin girls. It nearly killed her. One of the twins, Jeanne, died during the birthing process and her leg had to be broken in order to remove her from the womb. The other twin, Victoire, only survived a few weeks.

François I died (from symptoms of advanced gonorrhea as well as cancer) on March 31, 1547. Henri and Catherine were now king and queen of France. But Catherine became no more alluring to her husband now that they both wore crowns. The Venetian ambassador summed up Catherine’s reaction to her husband’s grand dalliance with Diane de Poitiers: “Since the beginning of the new reign, the Queen could no longer bear to see such love and favor being bestowed by the duchess, but upon the King’s urgent entreaties she resigned herself to endure the situation with patience. The Queen even frequents the duchess, who, for her part, serves the Queen well, and often it is she who exhorts him to sleep with his wife.”

Many years later, Catherine wrote to an envoy who was trying to help her daughter Margot out of a bad marriage to Henri of Navarre. Referring to her own difficult ménage, Catherine confided, “If I made good cheer for Madame de Valentinois, it was the king that I was really entertaining, and besides, I always let him know that I was acting sorely against the grain; for never did a woman who loved her husband succeed in loving his whore. For one cannot call her otherwise, although the word is a horrid one to us.”

Born a commoner of mercantile stock, Catherine had been determined to prove herself worthy of her royal title as Queen of France. But not until she was a widow did she come into her own as a woman, as a ruler, and as a force of nature. She adored her husband, but their relationship was an entirely lopsided one; compared to his lover Diane de Poitiers, she always came up short. Much has been written about the power, sway, and allure of Henri’s far more attractive paramour. The royal mistress, the star-crossed desired one who could never fully possess him—the sexually confident and magnetic personality—is far more intriguing to the pages of posterity than a drab, dumpy, and desperate wife. And so the enduring love story of Henri II and Diane de Poitiers is the stuff of high romance, with Catherine de Medici invariably cast as the jealous villainess. Yet the circumstances of Catherine and Henri’s royal marriage were not of their making. The homely but highly intelligent heiress was lucky enough to have wed a man she loved on sight, but fate played a cruel joke on both of them. Catherine’s handsome spouse was hers for life, yet never entirely hers, unable to reciprocate her passion because Diane de Poitiers was the guardian of his heart. Henri, too, had been tripped up by duty, destiny, and dynasty; yoked to a woman he hadn’t chosen, he was never able to fully possess the one he so feverishly desired.



  1. How interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Wow, Amy, you really hit it out of the park with the images you chose to illustrate my guest post! It's amazing how the painting of Catherine de Medici (I think she looks very pretty there), juxtaposed with my text describing her homely features, just doesn't jibe.

    Things like that always make me wonder how much the painter flattered the subject (and little has changed over the past several centuries: Photoshop, anyone??) or that people who didn't particularly like Catherine described her as unattractive and that's the image handed down to us in perpetuity,

    What we do know is that Henri II was never physically attracted to Catherine. Their marriage took place long before Henri began his affair with Diane de Poitiers, so his passion for her was not an excuse at first not to find his wife attractive.

    Another thing that doesn't seem to have changed much over the centuries is the very explicit description (intended for public consumption) of the most intimate details of the sex lives of famous people.

  3. So enjoyed this post! I'm always fascinated by anything Medici and for me, this queen is intricately delightful to read about.

    One thing that always blows me away- I just don't get it...being sent to Catherine 'after' having been fulfilled by Diane?? She already didn't turn him on as it did that work for him engaging with her after his fire had already been spent?? Not very productive or conducive, I'm afraid..but I'd have to think that that may have been one way for Diane to retain her position as first for Henri- don't think she was at all helpful with this recommendation. Sorry TMI...

    Fantastic guest post Thanks Leslie!

  4. I'm with Ms. Lucy. It almost seems like a cruel joke on Diane's part to send Henri up to Catherine after he was spent with her. Ick.

    However, I didn't realize that Henri's affair with Diane started AFTER his marriage to Catherine. I always thought it was before, and that Catherine was an intrusion into his idyllic relationship with her.

    Thanks for the correction!

  5. What a great post! I love hearing about Catherine de Medici. Thanks, Amy and Leslie.

  6. Thank you, Amy and Leslie! What a terrific, informative post to read. Really whets my appetite for Leslie's book.

    Excellent job, ladies.

  7. Great Post Leslie!!! I love your down to earth tell it like it is way of writing. Amy the pictures are beautiful you can tell you put a lot of thought into it. All I can say is that Henri must have been one stud muffin, it's amazing they all didn't die of STDs.

  8. I really like that picture with all of the children, it is very cool. I have always been drawn to Catherine de Medici. She is another one of those women who didn't really get the fair end of the stick in her relationship. If I was in her place, I would hold off announcing my pregnancy too!

  9. I have been intrigued by Catherine de Medici ever since watching the French film La Reine Margot. In the film, Catherine is portrayed as evil and scheming. It is interesting to find out the more personal side of her life. It is truly tragic to love someone who does not love you back. Great post Leslie!

  10. I've always felt for Catherine too, the poor thing. Loved her husband, and received nothing in return. Henri could have done with a good slap. Whether you like your wife or not, you are the King and should treat your lady with respect in public at least.

  11. So intriguing! Reading Susan Carroll's fiction makes Catherine out to be an eveil witch, I cannot wait to see what CW Gortner comes up with!
    And that Diane.... wow, I just do not know what to make of her!


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