The Woman Behind the Legend: A Guest Post by C.W. Gortner

As part of the HFBRT event for The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, I bring you an excellent guest post written by C.W. Gortner!


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:

Thank you Christopher!



  1. Thank you so much for posting this insightful guest post! I can't wait to read the book!

  2. Gortner's book truly was a great look at Catherine, and the fact that it took two years for him to write was evident due to its thorough content. Thanks for the post!

  3. Wonderful post.
    We are all so lucky that Mr. Gortner chose to research and write a book an Catherine de Medici. It is sad how the legacy and reputation of an historical figure can be skewed so far from the facts. Of course, strong women have seldom gotten an understanding or evenhanded treatment in the histories written by men. I appreciate the care and accuracy he has put into this work. It sounds like it is well worth reading.
    I wish him the best of luck with the release of this book and look forward to his next book. I'll be curious to see who he rescues from history's misconceptions next.

  4. I really enjoy learning about how authors first get interested in their historical subjects and how the research takes them on a journey. Thanks for highlighting one of the great historical novelists.

  5. Thank you. This sounds like a highly interesting work, and it's certainly one that's overdue. Considering that her son-in-law, Henry of Navarre, who came rather close to being a victim of Saint Bartholomew's day, said about Catherine, "Poor woman! What was she supposed to do?" (I quote from memory), there may really be a lot of redeeming facts that historians normally don't care to point out (I remember reading a book on "La reine Margot", by Philippe Erlanger, some years ago, that really didn't do a thing to endear Catherine to me.)

    However, I beg to disagree with the "strong women always get bad press" comment. Richard III and Cesare Borgia were men, yet they had more bad press than any woman, strong or weak, that I can recall -- while praise is heaped on Elizabeth I, who may well deserve a bit of censure, too. In many instances, it seems, bad press is just a case of vae victis, or at the chance of tradition (only the sources that condemn a person may have survived, like in the case of Nero, or Tiberius), or a result of the 19th century's love for scandal...

  6. Thank you for posting my essay, Amy! I'm so glad that your readers are enjoying it and I hope it'll inspire further reaccessment of Catherine's role in history.

  7. I love this post- and yes, Gortner has achieved in bringing us the real Catherine, not the one popular history created (like stuff Hollywood loves). No, this book is almost an hommage to her, I'd say.

    Great post (Hey- and without knowing, I too used the same quote from his book because it was so poignant- it really got to me!)


  8. Admittedly, the only thing I knew of Catherine De Medici was from La Reine Margot--actually from the French film based on it called Queen Margot. That film did depict her in a very unfavorable light. I'm glad that we are getting to see that perhaps there was more depth to her than the evil person that is typically portrayed. Great post!

  9. I get Catherine she did everything she could to save what her husband left behind for her children. What mother would not go to the ends of the earth and back to protect her children, I know I would. Great Guest post Amy Gortner is amazing.

  10. I didn't realize Dumas' Queen Margot was so anti-Catherine... I have it on my shelf and had looked forward to reading it. Thank you for the insights! The book was very well researched and it really shows both in the writing and articles such as this.

  11. This post has left me speechless. I admire Catherine because I believe she did the best she could with what was going on at the time. People in power are always subjected to misconceptions, and slanderous accusations, especially women in the past.

    Awesome essay and I look forward to reading this book.


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