Magazine article The Spectator

The Woman in Black

Magazine article The Spectator

The Woman in Black

Article excerpt

The woman in black CATHERINE DE MEDICI by Leonie Frieda Weidenfeld, £20, pp.440, ISBN 184212725X

Catherine de Medici was, quite literally, the original black widow. After her husband, King Henri II of France, was accidentally killed in a jousting contest in 1559, she always dressed in black, despite the fact that French queens traditionally wore white mourning. Figuratively the term might seem equally apt, for Catherine has customarily been depicted as black-hearted, as well as black-garbed. However, as Leonie Frieda shows in this absorbing biography, Catherine was a well-intentioned woman who resorted to extreme measures only under pressure.

Prior to 1559 Catherine had been a neglected queen consort, overshadowed by her husband's mistress, but the king's fatal accident transformed her into a pivotal figure in 16th-century Europe. Her frail and ineffectual eldest son did not long outlive his father and in 1560 Catherine was proclaimed regent of France on behalf of the new king, ten-year-old Charles IX. From the outset she faced appalling problems. Faction struggles among the nobility undermined royal authority and France's bitter religious divisions complicated matters still further. Catherine's late husband had intended to tackle heresy by exterminating the 'Lutheran scum' who infested his kingdom, but Catherine's approach was more conciliatory. As regent, she repeatedly attempted to implement a policy of religious toleration, but the experiment failed because of the fanaticism of the opposing parties. Catherine was unable to prevent the outbreak of civil war, which lasted, with brief remissions, for nearly 40 years.

In dealing with this desperate situation Catherine could not afford scruples. She soon acquired a reputation for eliminating enemies through poison or black magic, although, as Frieda wryly comments, the only poison she was definitely familiar with was tobacco, whose use she pioneered in France. Many of the allegations made against her can be ascribed to French prejudice against a woman of Italian birth, but Catherine cannot be exonerated from using assassination as an instrument of policy.

The crime that is forever associated with her name is the Massacre of St Bartholomew, which took place in 1572. Frieda's gripping description of this event confirms that it was a ghastly blunder rather than a premeditated bloodbath. Catherine's aim was to eliminate a few key Protestants who were threatening to embroil France in a war with Spain, but the violence escalated uncontrollably. …

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