Poison and Power: Uncovering the Woman Behind The Legend
“There is an Arabic myth that the day and manner of our death is preordained and nothing we do can change it. I have never placed much belief in infidel credos nor even in my own Church’s promise of an everlasting life. I’ve witnessed too much treachery in the name of religion.
Nonetheless, I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect on this unseen entity who guides our path and to ponder why He has seen fit to test me so. Have I not struggled as much as any other for my blood? Others live fewer years; accomplish a mere fraction of what I have; and yet they sit enthroned with halos about their brows, while I sink like a villain in my own calumny.
As I await the inevitable, I see my sometime enemies and accomplices, each a martyr to their cause. Important as they were in life, through death they have become legend.And I ask myself: What legend will history inscribe for me?”
—Excerpt from The Confessions of Catherine de Medici © C.W. Gortner 2010.
Anyone with an interest in famous women of history will have heard of Catherine de Medici: she’s that evil queen who allegedly poisoned her enemies and orchestrated a massacre. Or so the legend says.
Initially, I was attracted to Catherine because of her legend. I figure, when someone has such a bad reputation there must be more to their story. But as I began to research my book, I realized just how little I truly knew about this extraordinary woman who dominated France in the latter half of the 16th century, a contemporary of Elizabeth I and mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots. Catherine has been the target of a smear campaign that began in her lifetime and culminated with Alexander Dumas’s highly entertaining yet implausible 19th century depiction of her in La Reine Margot. In Dumas’s work, which like so many of his novels was serialized in Parisian papers, the legendary Catherine is on full display—rapaciously reptilian, a woman without a conscience, weaving a web of deception and violence in order to place her most beloved son Henri on the throne, orchestrating a massacre of innocents and poisoning a hunting book that mistakenly falls into her son King Charles’s hands. Dumas exalted the Catherine de Medici that everyone loved to hate and she became enshrined in popular imagination as the black widow of history.
However, I wanted to discover who Catherine de Medici truly was, to delve beyond the lurid accusations and hyperbole for the flesh-and-blood person she may have been. Of Italian birth, Catherine was the last scion of her legitimate Medici blood; she came to France as a teenager to wed a stranger, a prince named Henri who later became king. He loved another woman and humiliated Catherine throughout their marriage because of it; upon his tragic death, she was left a widow with children, confronted by one of the most savage conflicts of the time. She could have chosen any number of paths, including the one of least resistance; she was in her forties and had shored up the Valois succession with four surviving sons. She could have retired from court to one of her many country châteaux and leaving the ambitious noble families at court to tear each other apart over the right to rule in her son’s name. It is to her credit that she did not. Instead, shefought to save France and her bloodline from destruction. During my research, I realized that as with most dark legends, there was far more to her than popular history tells us. And I thought how interesting it would be if Catherine herself could tell the story of her life. If she had the chance to explain herself, what would she say? All stories have two sides; and Catherine’s is no exception. Thus, was The Confessions of Catherine de Medici born.
It took about two years to write my novel and the research itself began several years before that. My interest in Catherine de Medici first began while I was still in college. I wrote a thesis about maligned women of power in the Renaissance and naturally she was top on my list. For the novel itself, I took several trips to France, including one in which I visited the beautiful Loire Valley châteaux where Catherine resided and followed in her footsteps on the long progress she undertook to visit her eldest daughter at the border with Spain (though of course I did my trip by rail and car!) A friend of mine in Paris guided me on marvelous evening walks through the City, showing me specific sites associated with Catherine, including a lone tower near the Pompidou Center, which she built as an observatory. I also read her letters, which were published in the 18th century in several volumes but are very rare to find, as well as many contemporary accounts of her and her court and memoirs written by her intimates, including the fanciful memoirs of her own daughter, Marguerite, known to history as Queen Margot.
Catherine’s surviving letters constitute one of those rare treasure troves for a novelist. Letters offer an invaluable glimpse into the person’s thoughts and personality; and I found some of Catherine’s letters to be particularly poignant. Her unassailable love for her children, her despair over the chaos wrought by war, her pragmatism and discomfort with fanaticism, as well as her lifelong compassion for animals—unusual for her time—all point to a woman who was very different from the archetypal Medici queen with her arsenal of poisons. Her letters helped me to envision the woman behind the legend and understand the challenges she faced both as a person and a queen.
One of the greatest misconceptions about Catherine de Medici is without a doubt the accusation that she nurtured a “passion for power.” Catherine was not raised to rule yet she became regent for two of her sons until they came of age; naturally, she was overzealous at times in her protectiveness and had a tendency to seek compromise when a hard decision might have served her better. But it is unfair to accuse her of some innate ruthless drive to retain her power at any cost. Catherine faced a unique set of circumstances that would have challenged the most skilled of monarchs: she had under-age children and a kingdom being savaged, quite literally, by the nobility. The clash between Protestants and Catholics during the Reformation grew particularly brutal in France; it was Catherine’s great misfortune to be caught up in it. Her alleged passion for power was in truth an attempt to retain control over the destiny of her adopted realm and safeguard her sons’ throne—both of which may have suffered far more, had she not been there. I find it quite sad that to this day, Catherine remains tainted by actions that in essence she did not take of her own volition. She made serious errors in judgment, without a doubt, but she was more motivated by the urgent need to stave off or salvage a crisis than to indulge a cold-blooded urge to eliminate all those who stood in her way.
In the end she is perhaps best summed up by her own words, penned in despair to a confidante at the height of the Religious Wars: “It is a great suffering to be always fearful.”
Thank you so much for spending this time with me. To find out more about The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, as well as special features about me and my work, please visit: http://www.cwgortner.com/.
Thank you Christopher!