Catherine de Medici by Leonie Frieda
I spotted this biography on the recommendations display at Akateeminen Kirjakauppa. It's sad but true, but lovely covers are terribly seductive. Luckily I picked it up, and eventually ordered it from Amazon UK. Not only had it received excellent reviews from readers, but it was also praised by historians Alistair Horne and Anne Somerset. Despite only knowing that she was the mother-in-law of Mary Queen of Scots, I took it up enthusiastically.
From start to finish, Leonie Frieda's account of Catherine de Medici's life is beautifully recollected. She introduces the reader to her story by focusing on the watershed event that changed Catherine's life: the death of her husband King Henri II of France in a joustling accident. She then leaps back in time to Florence, where the journey begins. Recalling the turbulent Medici history, Catherine, born in 1519, grew up imprisoned, and an orphan. She was married off by the Pope to the Dauphin Henri aged 14 and after the death of Francis I in 1547 became Henri's consort. Until then she had little influence with her husband and was childless for several years; he was for the entirety of his adulthood under the spell of his mistress Diane de Poitiers.
After Henri's death, Catherine's life took on an entirely new role. Catherine became a dominant regent as Queen Mother to her sons, Kings Francis II (r. 1559-1560) and Charles IX (r. 1560-1574). It was over this period from which her notoriety in history has sprung. Frieda approaches these periods with caution, comes to revisionist conclusions that are much more sympathetic than previous historians. France was bitterly divided by the Reformation into Catholics and Protestants. In her own words, it was a period of irreconcilable "passion, hatred and vengeance". Indeed it literally witnessed frequent slaughter, intrigue and assassination, throughout which Catherine struggled incessantly to ensure the survival of the Valois dynasty. It was her regency that witnessed three brutal religious wars, and the gruesome St Bartholomew's Day Massacre that resulted in merciless nation-wide slaughter amongst the populace, for which Catherine de Medici has been condemned in history. Frieda nonetheless is cautious not to condemn her outright or to dismiss her as a Machiavellian conniver like previous historians. While not making excuses on her behalf, she seeks to describe Catherine's personal history with a degree of objectivity that permits an exploration and explanation of her character and hence, her actions.
Frieda is successfully convincing in her analysis of the life of Catherine de Medici. While I hold that she approaches her life from a new angle, she is not entirely objective. But, to her credit, her Frieda's ability to empathise with her heroine is the reason why she has managed to unlock Catherine for us so spectacularly. Historians often forget that the figures they research were real human beings with just as much capacity for emotion and error as we. Catherine's tumultuous life was beyond formidable, and Frieda has certainly given her the credit she deserves.